Can you get the CRM you want without customizing, getting a vertical solution or going DIY?

Lauren Carlson used her Software Advice blog to ask an interesting question: when picking a CRM application, should you go vertical, customize or integrate? I think she’s hit upon something important here: if you plan on gaining a competitive advantage from CRM, you can’t use only the functionality that comes standard in the box (or over the cloud, or whatever). You need to have something attuned to your business and your customers.

Lauren spells it out well, but I think that gradually the options she’s outlined are shrinking.

I worked at a place that built its own, and while it eventually worked, it was a catastrophic waste of assets. We had smart people, but they should have been working on core products, not trying to re-invent the CRM wheel unless they could build something so new and unique that it offset their lost time in a very short period of time. It did not.

It reminds me of another job in which I was tasked with describing all the attributes of a blogging platform so out IT people could build one. First, I said, “why don’t we just use WordPress?” Then, after an incoherent response to my question, I wrote a document that described WordPress, and IT reproduced it. To everyone involved except the management, this was a waste of time, and valuable time at that: it represented the time of the engineering team, which could have been devoted to adding truly unique features to our products.

These days, with so many options available, you should avoid the build-it-yourself option. You have better things to do with your money and your time – especially your time.

That leaves two options: a vertically-oriented solution, or an integrated “horizontal” solution. These are two valid options, and there are a ton of really unique CRM solutions targeted at specific vertical markets. There are about 800 CRM applications out there, and the vast majority of them are targeted at vertical markets – real estate, construction, non-profits, sporting goods, you name it. However, I suggest you do plenty of study to understand exactly how well your business is aligned to the vertical market the vendor is seeking to serve. If you’re making hay by significantly tweaking the model used for selling into your vertical market, or if you work with multiple unique verticals, you need to make sure a vertically-oriented solution can flex to fit all your needs.

If a vertical solution isn’t going to cut it, you’re down to a horizontally-oriented solution – and if you’ve reached this point on the journey because you have unique business needs and processes, you need to focus on flexibility. Integrating is great, but it comes with a price tag unless you do your homework and understand which CRM applications can be made to work with your processes without breaking the bank.

A lot of horizontally-oriented CRM vendors have made a lot of money selling cookie-cutter CRM to companies that either had simple requirements or which didn’t fully understand what they needed. For the first group, you have success on their terms – simple, straightforward and rigid processes that are handled easily. The second group usually results in a lot of shelfware and CRM users who are further hardened against adoption when the next solution arrives.

A lot of this was discussed in “An Introduction to CRM,” which I wrote last year. If you’re already using CRM, don’t dismiss this white paper because it seems like it’s for beginners; it’s not. It’s for anyone assessing their needs for CRM; we often fail to form requirements in the context of our organization, and that’s why CRM so often fails. What seems good to IT and the VP of sales my fall flat if there’s not an in-depth understanding of how the business works and how the CRM application maps to those processes.

All three of the directions Lauren outlined are valid, but perhaps not all three for every company. If you sit down and really understand how you work, that list may dwindle to manageably small number very quickly.