Monthly Archives: August 2013

Selecting a CRM partner – 7 ways to screw up

Choosing a CRM Implementation partner isn’t quite the same as choosing a wife or a husband but it might, in the short term feel like a decision that’s as important. We made some fundamental mistakes here and it cost us big time, not just in terms of money, but also in time, confidence in the system, and strategic momentum… All things that matter and all things in short supply when you start a project like this.

The reasons we screwed this up come down to:

  1. Focusing too much on personality not process;
  2. Not doing our homework in terms of the depth of experience of the partner;
  3. Relying on a soft set of requirements (exactly what we tell our customers not to do!);
  4. Accepting a lack of documentation;
  5. Allowing an ‘agile’ approach to mean ‘we’ll make it up as we go’;
  6. Not screaming loudly enough or early enough when the wheels came off;
  7. Not testing with enough rigour.

The lessons I learned on this are:

Trust no-one… Don’t engage your partner until you’ve spoken to at least 2 of their customers in depth and face to face. Make them tell you what went badly as well as what went well and ask them to help you by giving you advice on how to manage the partner.

Find your partner by referral… You know loads of people and one of them will have been through this. If you go to a partner through someone you know there are two wins. One that the partner won’t want to let your contact down so will engage with you properly and two you’ll have done your first reference check before you even start.

Demand answers… Ask them how many customers they have like you and wait for the answer before you proceed. Answers like ‘plenty’, ‘lots’, or ‘ah sure every customer is different’ should have your bullshit radar ringing like a fire alarm.

Meet the team before you commit… Chances are the folks you meet at sales time won’t be the people you talk to late of Saturday night when you’ve just rolled an update. Insist on meeting that person and looking into their eyes to see if you can see fear… Hopefully you’ll see scars of experience that tell you they’ve been there before.

Insist on process… These companies are professional services companies who, let’s be honest, get screwed by the software providers who tantalise them with skinny commissions and rewards for doing the job they should do themselves. As a result they have to be efficient and the only way to do this is through process and that means documentation. Have a look at it before you commit. Small things are important here. If you ask for their processes and it takes a week to get it be worried, even it’s fantastic when it arrives. They’ve just written it for you and will bin it as soon as they get your purchase order!

Watch how they take notes… When you get into the project there will be a day (maybe 3) when you sit in a stuffy room with your consultant and walk through your requirements in detail. If they don’t take copious (and I mean copious) notes raise a red flag immediately. I guarantee you they’ll forget everything you discussed with them…. Let’s face it, you would!

Hope they insist on sign off… Part of their process should be that you have to sign things off at various stages of the project. This always feels alike a pain in the ass but if you don’t do it you’ll end up fighting with the partner later on, either because what they have delivered is poor (well you have signed it off in testing…. Did you not test it?) or not what you want (well we delivered what we wrote in the functional spec). You have to be fair to the partner at the end of the day so spend the time and only sign off when you’re happy.

We’ve got a great partner with us these days and it shows. Nothing comes cheap in this space (even for me and I am miserable when it comes to spending money) but if you get it right it’s worth the investment.

Next up… resourcing the project on the inside (this could be the most important bit!)

MS Dynamics – the good, the bad and the ugly.

So no software is perfect and everything these days is in a state that could be best described as perpetual beta. Dynamics online is no different. I think though that more and more people will opt for this platform on the basis of cost so it’s with knowing what’s good and bad. Here’s my list!

The good

There are lots of good features in Dynamics so this is really a list of the highlights:

Case management – This was a core feature in our requirements list and by and large the system has delivered what we need. Dynamics has allowed us to track all customer cases through the system and this is giving us compelling stats that we can use to resource and drive the business.

Integration with Outlook – you’d expect Dynamics to be tightly integrated with other Microsoft products and when it comes to Outlook it doesn’t disappoint. Integration is really straightforward, especially when you are on the Office 365 platform removing all the awkward configuration issues you get with other email systems. Once you are in, the user experience is pretty good and lots of our team (but not me obviously because I am a geek!) use the Outlook client for using the system soup to nuts.

Dashboards and views. Dynamics provides dashboards and views on pretty much all the information it holds and these can be created and shared with people in the team depending on their access. This gives you up to the minute information that’s relevant to what you need without having to resort to Excel.

Online marketing support. The click dimensions feature really is very good and has helped us change the way we do our marketing in a fairly fundamental way. Watch out for a blog on this topic from Learning Pool’s very own guru very soon!

End to end view of the customer – this was what we wanted right at the start and we’re very close to it after 8 months. I think this has improved our customer care capability already but hopefully there’s a lot more to come as the system gets bedded in.

Opportunity management – this is a core function and works well (with a few creases mentioned below). Having oversight of our opportunity pipeline has enabled us to think about things in a different way and this has made us more efficient. It does of course bring its own challenges such as getting the team to keep things up to date but that’d be true of any system.

Integration potential with SharePoint – this really comes alive with the Office 365 platform and although we haven’t stretched this as far as we’d like yet, the initial signs are positive. The historic problems here has been the set up required to make two systems like this shake hands but with the Microsoft Online deal these days, this is just a point and click configuration away.

Bulk editing – if you are a fast growing company like Learning Pool you’ll constantly be re-categorising information about prospects and customers so you’ll need a way to update records quickly. The advanced find feature lets you do this really easily.

The bad

Service level compliance.  Dynamics does case management pretty well but bizarrely it doesn’t track compliance to service levels very well at all. We’ve ended up buying a plug from the marketplace to do this so I guess you could argue that there is a solution but my take is that this should be handled beautifully in the core product.

Contract management, the contract feature in dynamics assumes that every contract is a legal entity and therefore cannot be changed. Think about that for your own business and you’ll realise how limiting this is when, for example a contact changes or the contract duration is extended by even a couple of days. After trying to make do with this we’ve had to replace this with a customised entity – an expensive task that had a negative impact on our use of the system (although we look to have fixed it now).

Opportunity detail. The opportunity entity gives you a fair amount of flexibility but we’ve found that we’ve had to customise and extend this entity a lot to make it work for us. Given that what we are trying to do isn’t that unusual and that this is such a key feature from sales support tool you’d think Microsoft would get this right.

Hosting. While I admit it was unfair for me to ask a very senior man from Microsoft whether he was hosting my CRM in his garden shed I did have a point at the time and the chaos caused by the system being down is hurtful. These days we expect hosted services to be ubiquitously available. While dynamics online hosting isn’t terrible, it isn’t bullet proof either.

Mobile apps – there are a couple of third party (free and paid for) that you can get hold of but they are just OK and, in my experience not worth the money. This is a real missing piece in Dynamics and Microsoft don’t look to be too bothered about filling the gap any time soon. Interestingly we’ve been able to manage Ok without this feature and so it’s very much a nice to have for us long term.

The ugly

Data migration. I haven’t put this in the bad section because I suspect that our experience comes down to implementation more than software but we’ve really struggled with data migration. Although dynamics makes some noble attempts at duplicate detection and so on, our experience has been that this was a really painful thing.

Email routing – So this is a pure SAAS product right? So you don’t need to install any server software right?


Dynamics has a thing for email routing that you can use when you are applying workflow to emails (Helpdesk for example). This mail router has to be installed on a windows server somewhere which is just weird. And a pain for a company like ours where we don’t have any windows servers! I hindsight we probably would have chosen not to use the email router at all actually but unfortunately we didn’t know that at the time.

Customer portal. I’ve mentioned before but this thing is just unusable. It also needs its own server by the way which is another reason not to go near it.

Hope that’s a useful list – next up I’ll look at the importance of getting a great partner to help you implement your CRM.

Salesforce versus Dynamics… the death match!

We reviewed Salesforce and MS Dynamics in November last year. Clearly we chose one provider over the other but I’ll save that information for later. For now I thought I’d share the decision making process we went through to get to a “winner”. The key things for us were as follows:

User experience – Salesforce wins

Salesforce is the winner here and the user interface for Salesforce is really slick and easy to use. It’s also really quick which is a big thing although there is a different interface (not just different configuration) for service users (service cloud) compared to sales users (sales cloud) which we found to be a bit weird.

The Dynamics interface is fine but a bit uninspiring and misses some of the UX ‘tricks’ that Salesforce has got. The release that Microsoft did late last year didn’t do a lot to improve things despite the hype.

Feature richness – Salesforce wins

So basically both systems do the core CRM thing really well as you’d expect from the market leaders. Case management, sales process management, activity logging are all catered for really well. When you step out of that things get a bit more complex though with a few highlights:

Social communication is dealt with through Chatter in Salesforce and Yammer in Dynamics – both essentially paid for add-ons although Salesforce will give it away… maybe (more on that later);

Online marketing – unbelievably Dynamics is rubbish at this out of the box although a plugin called Click Dimensions is available and our marketing guys really liked this, albeit at an extra cost;

Customer support (Chat) – again this is a plugin you have to pay for in both systems.

Ease of implementation – Salesforce wins

I think its fair to say that Salesforce is a lot more polished and therefore implementation looks to be a lot easier than with Dynamics which is very much a framework that needs to be customised and adapted. The Salesforce partner we met promised an initial implementation within 2 weeks and their references said they could achieve that – impressive no doubt and not something that Dynamics can compete with.

Implementing Dynamics is always going to be harder and therefore more expensive. The requirement for training is also more of an issue in Dynamics I think.

Ability to customise – Salesforce wins

Both platforms come with substantial customisation capability. Salesforce is written in a native scripting language with an SDK and Dynamics is written in .NET so can also be customised. That said, both companies are pushing customers to use plugins and extensions through their App Exchange (Salesforce) and Marketplace (Dynamics).  The App exchange is packed full of plugins and extensions to fulfil a range of requirements. The Microsoft equivalent is less packed and therefore less useful at this stage – you’d think Microsoft would just pay some companies to build apps for this to take the bad look of it but apparently not!

Ability to extend and integrate – Tie

One of our key requirements was to integrate with our email solution which at the time was Gmail. Although both providers claimed that this was ‘no bother’ at the time my experience has been that in fact, neither of them do this, or at least not very well. If you have Outlook users this is a real pain point and my advice is to be very careful – for us, we ended up moving to Office 365 (over a snowy weekend in January.. perhaps another blog) to overcome this showstopper issue.

The move to Office 365 did though open up some interesting possibilities for us in terms of integrating with Sharepoint for document management and so on.

Customer portal – Tie

So these are both CRM systems right? So you’d think the interface with the customer would be fantastic and a key selling point right?


Both systems are spectacularly poor at this for different reasons:

In Salesforce land this is an additional extra and comes at a premium cost. I couldn’t actually get a firm price from Salesforce on this but the numbers quoted were mind boggling. The functionality offered was also pretty uninspiring to be honest.

Microsoft’s version of this is truly one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen. Although it is ‘free’ it’s also completely unusable so you’ve really got 2 options – you can either pay through the nose for a partner who’ll licence one (because you can’t buy it in the marketplace because it doesn’t exist) or you can ‘roll your own’ and take the cost of developing and maintaining this yourself.

Seriously guys… one of you should sort this out!

Mobile – Salesforce wins

As a remote and growing team we decided early on that having a good mobile solution was a key requirement. We probably softened our stance on this during the process when we thought through the actual use case for apps for our remote team. Ultimately though this decision was easy – Salesforce do this very very well and Microsoft do it very very badly!

Despite a lot of fluff and bluster in the last 6 months, Microsoft are no further on with this right now.

Cost – Microsoft wins

So both solutions cost a fortune and this is a really big strategic business decision for a company like ours with around 40 -60 users. Both offer subscription pricing on a per seat basis and the list price is around £1,000 per year for Salesforce and Dynamics costs around £350 per year. For Learning Pool this meant a spend of either £50K or £17,500 per year.

Regrettably it’s not nearly as straightforward as all that because:

Salesforce will offer significant discounts depending on the number of licences you buy, the time of the year you buy them and the length of time you’ll commit contractually;

Microsoft is more straightforward on subscription licencing but you get stung on things like Click Dimensions (an additional subscription that isn’t per head but needs to be worked into your calculation), Yammer licences (which are optional) and so on;

Depending on the time of year (or time of day as I’ll come onto) Salesforce may or may not charge you extra for things like Chatter (social communication) or Mobile apps which makes it difficult to pin down the actual cost of ownership in any way;

It seems from what I’ve seen that both companies hit you for extra storage space because the initial allocation is so small… go figure…;

Sales approach – Microsoft wins

The sales approach is different for both companies. Salesforce sell direct but introduce a partner as part of the process while Microsoft sell straight through the partner from the get go. 

We found the Microsoft approach more straightforward. Although the consultancy quote was a lot higher we at least had certainty on the price of the software and there were no hidden surprises really. Also Microsoft wanted a straightforward 12 month subscription which was attractive.

The Salesforce approach to sales was tremendously annoying. I think we spoke to about 10 people during the process and each of them was more confusing (and sometimes confused) than the last. While Salesforce do this whole thing about how ‘we don’t sell software’ the truth is the complete opposite and so the pricing conversation is all about discounts and free stuff. Salesforce use every trick in the book including the pathetic “big reveal” on price and tell you over and over again that they’ve never given discount like this to anyone before… total bullshit! The most irritating thing we found was that each quote looked completely different to the last. Sometimes Chatter was free, sometimes not, sometimes you paid for mobile, sometimes you were getting a ‘great deal’ on this so in the end it was very difficult to determine what the total cost of ownership was going to be. Pretty scary, especially when they want you to commit for 3 years!

Roadmap – Microsoft wins

Both companies make a lot of claims about upcoming features but I think the reality is;

Salesforce are pretty comfortable at the moment. They know they have dominance in the market and that their product works. Their roadmap is more evolutionary because they’ve done their innovating already. They’ll innovate with acquisitions but these new features come at a price;

Microsoft know they have ground to make up and they are working hard to do this, especially around integrating with the rest of the Office 365 platform and working across browsers and devices.

Both companies roll out a lot of updates as part of the service.

And the winner is? – Microsoft

If it had been Christmas morning and money was no object we would have gone for Salesforce every time. But back in the real world we were scared of the lack of certainty around pricing and the likely huge hidden costs we’d heard about and had experienced. We also knew that software implementations are always harder than the sales guys will admit and that we’d overrun on consultancy costs so we needed to keep some budget for that eventuality. For those reasons we decided that Dynamics would do enough of what we wanted in the medium term and so we went with that.

Next up… the good the bad and the ugly of MS Dynamics.



Implementing a CRM… its easy right?

You know you’re not a start-up anymore when you spend most of your time managing systems and process!

At Learning Pool we’ve always said we’re a start-up and we try to build that ethos into the decisions we make for all the right reasons – agility, quick turnaround, bravery and appetite for risk taking. Famously a few years ago when someone suggested we were becoming a mature business I quickly retorted that no matter how old the company got, it’d never be mature as long as I was around!

PlanningSo the last couple of months have been a bit of a journey because for perhaps the first time we’ve started to really pay close and serious attention to processes and the infrastructure that supports them. The entrepreneur in me is screaming a wee bit as a result of this but even I can see that its already paying dividends in terms of giving us the information we need to make better decisions and I like to think that our customers are starting to see the benefits too in terms of reduced turnaround times, better quality and improved communication.

The lessons though, have been fairly stark and enough to get me back blogging to be honest. The biggest project we’ve undertaken has been to replace our CRM system and oh my has it been a journey! As with many journeys this one started with a few key questions:

What do you want from this investment?

For us this was about getting a 360o view of our customers so that we can continuously improve the services we offer. We also wanted something that could reduce some of the roadblocks for our remote team and join up the whole business from SEO, marketing, sales, fulfillment, technology, customer care, community management, invoicing and contracts.

Open source or proprietary?

As big proponents of open source technology this was a logical place for us to start. We looked in depth at lots of open source solutions in general and VTiger in particular and eventually ruled these out on the basis that although having access to the code base meant we could tinker and improve, the opportunity cost of doing this would hurt our business elsewhere and so we decided early on to go for a proprietary system which I think was the right call. At some stage you have to decide what you don’t do as a business and there are plenty of businesses out there who toil over this stuff for hours so you shouldn’t do it too.

On premises or hosted

This decision took about 30 seconds… on premises is a relic of the last century and hosted solutions work, scale and are affordable.. we went hosted!

Premium or mid range

This one was a bigger call! The issue we found in the CRM market was that the premium providers are ridiculously expensive but the mid range solutions falter really quickly when it comes to the kind of feature richness you need if you have any more than about 5 people.  Systems like Zoho were quite attractive but ultimately this market (at this moment) is about 2 providers – Salesforce and Dynamics from Microsoft. I think the reasons these providers stand out is because of 1) the sophistication of their products, 2) the ability to integrate with other stuff, 3) the roadmap of enhancements and 4) the marketplace and ability to extend functionality from the base product.

After a bit of discussion we decided to go with one of the premium products.

Self implemented or implemented with a partner

So this one goes something like this…. you pick a software stack and cost it up. You then get back on your chair after the heart attack you’ve just had and then realise that this software isn’t actually going to work very well without plugging a ton of time into it to make it work for your business. At this point you switch off your laptop and go to the pub… next day however the issue is still there are you are left with a number of options:
1 – Go alone and run the risk of making a mess of the implementation or of it taking months to get it right
2 – implement with a partner and reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of making an implementation mess. You’ll also double your year 1 costs (at least) and if you’re lucky you’ll get up and running pretty quick.

We went for the less risky option 2.

Good partner or cowboy?

This one wasn’t so much of a decision as a lesson learned. The partner market is really interesting because you have a bunch of quite small companies effectively selling software on the back of giant American organisations. I’m glad that’s not the business we’re in but notwithstanding that, its hard to separate the wood from the chaff on this. I’ll write another blog about how to navigate through this minefield but for now, remember that there are cowboys out there and you really need to stay away from them.

Next up…. Salesforce versus Dynamics – let battle commence!