Does CRM Deliver apps or a Tool Kit?

While tool vendors promise complete solutions, they sometimes deliver no more than a tool kit to create a complete solution. And customers want both the convenience of a ready-to-use app and the comfort of full customizations, which require powerful customization tools. What can and should you expect from a CRM tool? Most newcomers to CRM think of it as a set of ready-made apps that handle sales, or marketing, or service. It's a pretty accurate characterization of the lower-end offerings, which require almost no work to make them usable, only what I call personalization, that is, customization that stops short of requiring any programming. Personalization includes:

  • Populating drop-down lists and other sets of value to match specific requirements. For instance, a support issue could have default statuses of open and closed, but the customer may want to have values of new, in process, and closed.
  • Renaming fields to match local usage. For instance, a "customer" may be known as a "client" or an "organization".
  • Hiding certain fields that will not be used. For instance, the tool may be able to record the industry segment of the customers but you may decide it's not a piece of data you want to maintain.
  • Hooking up the tool to other basic systems, for instance, allowing it to receive and send e-mail.
  • Making minor adjustments to the look and feel of the display such as adding the company logo (usually in a pre-determined area) or dropping a style sheet on the web pages.
  • Entering data such as knowledge base documents.
  • Creating user accounts and authorizations.

All tools allow some level of personalization. Lower-end tools allow the least scope for personalization but on the other hand they often offer wonderful implementation tools, GUI-based tools that a non-technical user, say a business manager, can master easily and quickly. Lower-end tools also have the distinction that they can almost always be used right out of the box, before any personalization occurs, if you are willing to go with the default values. One level up from personalization is customization, which I will distinguish from personalization as requiring a technically knowledgeable individual to perform and usually involving some programming. Customization has a much larger scope than personalization, including such elements as:

  • Drastically changing the layout and look of the screens.
  • Adding, modifying, and deleting fields to change the data model. This goes further than merely hiding fields, which can typically be handled without programming, at least in the more modern tools. Note that many tools allow adding certain fields that capture details very easily and without programming, so the line is somewhat hard to draw between personalization and customization on this point.
  • Altering the workflow of the tool such as manipulating the way issues are passed from one owner to the next, authorizations gathered, etc. This is beyond the scope of the simpler tools (in which one may be able to manipulate statuses, but not the underlying workflow). Some tools offer powerful workflow editors to accomplish this. Others will require a more brute-force approach.

The lower-end tools often restrict severely the amount of customization that is possible. If you want to get rid of a piece of functionality, or you want to extend the tool in any way, you simply won't be able to do it. Lower-end tools are usually fairly rigid apps, but they can also be used right after installation, without any additional work. On the other hand, high-end tools can be little more than tool kits that allow you to build custom apps, but don't really offer much to the end-user right out of the box. It is a disconcerting feature of some tools that they simply cannot be used at all without a lengthy customization period. To be fair, this situation is much rarer than it was several years ago, but it's something to watch out for during product evaluation. All vendors demo apps, but it's up to you to determine whether the apps come ready made or are the product of their tool kits. The better tools combine the best of both worlds: a complete, usable, well thought-out app that can be used as-is or after only minor personalization work, and a tool kit to extend and adapt it to specific needs. That way, you can select apps that do most of what you need and only have to change them in specific, limited areas. Yet another aspect of customization is integration: making the CRM tool work with other tools such as the e-mail server, other business apps, the phone system, etc. Integration is always custom work and can range from the simplistic (adding a button to call up another app) to the very complex (seamlessly merging the sales system with the payment system). We'll come back to the fact that it's critical to assess your specific needs before taking the plunge since complex integrations are terribly expensive. Although simple integrations can be done with almost any tool, more complex projects are greatly facilitated by the existence of an app coding interface (API), that is, a predefined set of routines to hook into the CRM tool. This is yet another area worth looking for when shopping for a CRM tool even though it will not deliver any immediate benefits.