Best Practices to Rally CRM User Adoption


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User adoption is a perennial challenge with CRM software deployments. Slow or low user adoption is a top cited contributing factor to CRM engagements that fail to achieve their objectives, or just fail outright.

In my experience, too many executives see the signs of slow adoption, but naively believe that the users will ultimately come around. In fact, the opposite is more likely. The longer it takes to achieve acceptance, the more probable the CRM software will fail to become sustainable.

I’d like to say that there are 2 or 3 things to do in order to achieve CRM adoption. But it’s just not that simple.

Here are 12 CRM best practices designed to mitigate CRM user adoption challenges.

  1. Begin with strategy. I recommend beginning with a CRM strategy that paints a clear vision, acts as a roadmap and starts with the three building blocks of i) alignment in how the new CRM software specifically supports the company’s business strategy, ii) SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound) objectives, and iii) assessment (with remediation steps) of the company culture and capabilities needed to achieve the desired business outcomes. Failure to begin with a solid strategy often results in technology not significantly contributing to the company’s priorities, and thereby failing to gain adoption and become sustainable. Or similarly, the absence of a clear strategy creates doubts in the minds of users who have previously seen many projects get cancelled due to changing priorities or competing interests. When CRM is directly aligned with the organization’s most important (customer and revenue) objectives, it sends a clear signal that the project is vital.

  2. Leverage a solid plan. The strategy then becomes your blueprint and delivery plan. The Plan should include, but not be limited to, clear objectives sequenced in a prioritized order, specific tactics to achieve specific objectives, and forecasted results stack ranked by payback in order to achieve the biggest payback objectives first, demonstrate early wins and create an environment for sustained success. The Plan should also include task and resource assignments, dependencies and constraints, durations and elapsed time, work breakdown structures and other elements associated with good plans. You can’t accomplish everything at once so the strategy and plan should be architected in phases, and in a way that initial tasks deliver their own payback while at the same time contribute to longer-term objectives. It’s generally advisable that strategic plans start small, iterate and be agile in order to support the inevitable learning and adjustments that occur along the journey. Solid plans are a telltale to users that the project is important, has been thoughtfully architected and is leaving little to chance.

  3. Assemble the right team. The project team is the front line for identifying and remedying sluggish user adoption, so assembling the right project team is a clear precursor to implementation success. However, making sure you have the right people on the bus, and everyone sitting in the right seats, is often a challenging exercise in organizations with scarce resources and limited internal software expertise. It’s also been my experience that the people best suited for the project team will have the least availability. That’s not a coincidence. As my dad used to say, “If you want something done, give it to a busy man.” Which full-time and part-time people should be involved in the deployment depends largely on the specific technologies and the specific goals for those technologies.

  4. Early and broad user participation. Getting users involved in the CRM software sometime shortly before go-live, or as they often see it, springing new software on them at the last minute, is a recipe for resistance. The best practice here is to identify users from each stakeholder group or constituency (this may be by role, region or business unit) and get them involved during the CRM software selection, pre-implementation analysis or no later than the deployment design phase. Because CRM is a journey, a related best practice is to form a rotating user panel that periodically meets in order to measure progress, make assessments and prioritize recommendations such as design improvements, process enhancements or what new features released by the vendor should be adopted. These users become the spokespeople to other users, which goes a very long way in the user communities recognizing this is their system, and not “management’s system” or “an IT project.”

  5. Voice of the customer. In this context, your customers are your users. A Voice of the Customer (VOC) program is a powerful tool in soliciting and gathering feedback from stakeholders, constituents and the broader community. VOC tools may include email or online surveys, web self-service, application analytics, system log analyzers, chat, Quality Monitoring, EFM (Enterprise Feedback Management), text mining or case management insights. A related best practice is to integrate VOC data with CRM user profiles for tabulation by roles and priorities.

  6. Process improvements. CRM software deployments coupled with business process improvement (BPI) initiatives contribute to higher user adoption and payback. The combined effects of technology with BPI include easier to use systems, faster transaction cycles, reduced revenue leakage, fewer errors, greater employee productivity, lower operating costs and a bigger payback on the technology investment.

  7. System design. Introducing a CRM system that does more than most users can imagine will overwhelm most users. Therefore, designing the system user interface and navigation is the first and possibly most important design you’ll ever make. The goal is to make the application simple and intuitive, and that can be done by focusing on prioritized user behaviors. For example, creating a default page that clearly shows what each user should do first and next will aid ease of use and time management. These dashboard displays vary by role, but often include dashboard panels that display Top Forecasted Opportunities, Other (bottom of the funnel) Sale Opportunities and Today’s Activities. Once you have organized what users need most in an easy to consume interface, it’s then important to remove menus and pages that are irrelevant. Organizing menus and navigation paths by role makes it much easier to turn on, turn off and manage these displays going forward.

  8. User training. Cloud CRM has changed CRM software evolution by accelerating the delivery of new features and capabilities from every few years to every few quarters. More frequent innovation brings more capabilities, but also requires more frequent training in order to take advantage of these capabilities. Most CRM implementations under-estimate the hours needed for training and deliver less than impressive training classes. Too often, training is delivered by trainers that know the software but don’t really understand what’s most important to the users. This problem is exacerbated when trainers focus on software capabilities in a vacuum, as opposed to focusing on how specific software features can enable the objectives and processes that users feel are most important. Also, when users believe they can become net beneficiaries of the application, that is, they can get more out of the CRM system than they put in, they will embrace the system. Training classes must deliver the messaging (with plenty of supporting examples) which clearly shows how each user can become a net beneficiary.

    User training is a critical success factor in adoption and utilization. Five user training best practices include i) a user approved training curriculum that focuses on sales processes enabled by software (as opposed to delivering instruction on software capabilities that are not aligned to the staff’s objectives), ii) live training supplemented with leave behind collaterals, iii) web-based training for on-demand or after-the-fact review, iv) a user steering committee that reviews new software releases in order to gauge which new capabilities are relevant and deserve training, and v) a recurring training cadence aligned with new software releases.

  9. Consider change management. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, people’s productivity decreases up to 75% during unmanaged change. Change management is an approach to systemically shift individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state while mitigating productivity loss during the transition and creating the environment to accelerate long-term productivity improvements. The implementation of a new system will move many people away from the status quo and their comfort zone. Most enterprise software implementations incur many cautious or resistant users and a few users who are adamantly opposed to change. This later group may be initially difficult to recognize as they generally cast doubt in private forums outside of management visibility. If uncontrolled, the hidden agendas and failure to embrace the needed change will significantly challenge the project, and at the minimum cause time and budget overruns. To proactively head off this common occurrence, I recommend an early assessment of change readiness and a Change Management Plan which includes executive sponsorship activities, a solid business case which everybody can understand and a change control program. I also recommend management consider creative (generally non-financial) incentives and a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) personalized education for users who on the fence or who are not on board. Early detection, a solid plan and timely follow-through with the right responses are the three key factors to minimize resistance to change and unenthusiastic user adoption.

    A related best practice in promoting new technologies is to create a communication plan that delivers staged messaging along a four step continuum from Awareness, to Interest, to Understanding, to Engagement. Branding technology deployments with unique identities can also be a powerful method of demonstrating importance, generating interest among user communities, creating a vehicle for staff to proudly associate and creating an enviable solution.

  10. Measure adoption. Resistance to change will be masked by users who login to new systems and exhibit motions without results. Therefore, a best practice is to measure user adoption by measuring utilization and productivity; not just access to the software. Rather than just gaging adoption form logins or rote consumption, it is far more important to view adoption in terms of utilization, productivity, automation and outcomes. We want to know if users are using the technology as prescribed, or if they are accomplishing slated objectives in different ways, or if they are failing to accomplish the intended objectives. These types of metrics can be automated with custom dashboards or reports that link user roles with log files and audit trails.

  11. Disciplined project management. A PMO should provide the governance, oversight and controls which monitor, measure and report on the project’s most important business performance objectives as well as the critical success factors which at the minimum will include scope, time, budget and quality (and probably risk, more on that below). It’s been my experience, successful project management includes identifying and managing the recognized pressures for change, a clear shared vision, stakeholder objectives, executive sponsorship, early and broad participation, measurable goals, supporting structure & process, results measurements (with variance analysis and remediation plans where necessary) – and reporting tools for real-time visibility to the four project management cornerstones of scope, time, cost and outcomes (quality).

  12. Risk management. Every CRM project carries with it a certain amount of risk. Risk management is the process of identifying, measuring, and prioritizing those risks, implementing strategies to manage them, and creating plans to prevent, mitigate or respond to high likelihood and/or high impact risks which threaten project objectives. While it is impossible to anticipate all problems that may occur during a CRM software implementation, risk management is one of the best ways to reduce the likelihood that big problems will occur. It means dealing with a concern before it becomes a crisis and increasing the probability that the project will be completed on-time and on budget.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Chuck Schaeffer
Chuck is the North America Go-to-Market Leader for IBM's CRM and ERP consulting practice. He is also enjoys contributing to his blog at


  1. I’d like to add a thirteenth recommendation which is around integrating a sales intelligence solution with your CRM. A good SI provides a strong carrot for sales reps by both reducing data entry and maintenance and improving the insights available from the CRM. Solutions providers such as InsideView, Avention, and D&B (D&B360) deliver a broad set of insights including sales triggers, family trees, industry overviews, additional contacts, bios, business descriptions, etc. This content assists with lead qualification, prioritization, and messaging. It also helps reps sell deeper into an organization by identifying additional contacts and locations.

    If planned at the outset, accounts, contacts, and leads can be pre-matched against the SI vendor’s database helping to ensure early adoption. Furthermore, auto match functionality reduces data entry while extending the scope of firmographics and biographic intelligence for new prospects.

    Furthermore, firmographic enrichment provides the industry, size, and linkage data which ensures leads are properly routed and qualified. Thus, channel conflict is avoided and hot leads are not dismissed because a branch based lead is viewed as being a low yield opportunity.

  2. You bring up a very good point. Adding customer intelligence using any of the tools you referenced can reduce data entry of new account information, avoid having to track down account information in a slew of online locations and help the sales person craft a sales strategy more quickly. All of these benefits increase the WIIFM and the value of the CRM system to the user, which of course improves adoption. Thanks for the comment Michael.

  3. I agree – the longer it takes a project – CRM, or otherwise – to achieve acceptance, the more problems will occur. Not to be glib, but the reverse of this sentence is also true: the more problems that occur, the longer it takes a project to achieve acceptance. it’s clearly a circular problem. But one challenge is defining ‘acceptance.’ All of us like to talk about it, but measuring it and explaining it is another matter. This leads to wide disparities in assessing outcomes. One person’s ‘project success’ is another person’s ‘deeply flawed rollout.’

    I don’t have an answer for this problem, other than highlighting the need to come up with a crisp meaning for the term ‘acceptance.’ It connotes liking something. But that’s not necessarily true. And even if it were, if a person using a new software tool reported liking it, but he or she were not productive or efficient using it, would it be fair to consider that a successful result?

    In my project experience, there are two more critical components for improving implementation outcomes that might round out your solid list:

    1) mapping existing social network connections. In other words, figuring out who shares information with whom, in order to find out what. Many implementers make the mistake of assuming that ‘fully integrated’ apps and workflows will obviate the conversations that are already taking place. But I have seen what happens when informal structures are ignored when attempting to plug in new ones. I’ve learned the hard way that not every person buys into my visions of efficiency. And, as I was told in no uncertain terms, not everyone has to – as an IT manager, my success depended on my ability to sell it.

    2) involving people who use the system in designing how it works – not just for improvements. I’ve been down the rocky road on this, too. “Well, it looks like this new system is just being shoved down our throats. . .” Once that mindset becomes established, efforts to solicit “user input” ring hollow, at best.

  4. Good points Andrew. I think measuring acceptance challenges many as they are looking for a threshold to meet in order to claim completion or success. However, CRM is a journey. Measurable performance benchmarks are important, but it’s the trend that counts. Thanks for suggesting two additional best practices.


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