Improving CRM through a Framework of Questions


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Why are you implementing CRM? That’s a question – but is it the perfect question? Is there one perfect question? As much as we want to believe there is (and some do) the truth is that no single question is a magic bullet when it comes to helping a company design an improvement, or solve some sort of problem. Finding a better question to ask is similar to finding a better employee. Many modern thinkers in management theory would argue that greater than 85% of the problems and variability faced by companies are the result of an inadequate system, not inadequate people. Putting a superstar in a dysfunctional system will only lead to frustration and turnover. Thus, they would argue, you need to fix the system!

An organization is nothing more than a system; residing within a larger system and made up of interdependent sub-systems, processes, methods and steps. If systems thinking can solve the biggest management problems, shouldn’t we consider using systems thinking when asking questions? I believe the answer is an obvious yes, but so many companies have yet to break free from hierarchical structures, so frameworks (systems) are pretty foreign to them. But, it’s time to take a longer look at how you might improve your improvement efforts with a simple framework of questions.

The Comfort Zone

CRM is an initiative, not a software program, and you must be making the investment in CRM for a reason, right? You must be trying to improve something; otherwise, your throwing your money away! If I were to simply ask my opening question, I would never really know (and neither would you) what that reason is. How can you improve your CRM initiative if you don’t ask yourself the right questions, or allow a consultant like me to ask them for you? Building a framework of questions is certainly harder work, and takes a lot of practice to use. But as you’ll see, it’s really not that difficult to understand.

One of the first things I try to remember is that people are more comfortable talking about activities than they are the purpose of those activities and measures of success. I’ve fallen into this trap many times where I’ve found myself asking, “OK, you’ve bought the software, now what do you want me to do with it, or to it?” If we can’t identify the outcomes they are seeking and how we will be held accountable for success or failure, we probably won’t be invited back to help with future improvement projects – whether we are an employee or a consultant.

A framework for asking questions is a system because purpose, methods and measures of success are parts of an interdependent whole. Asking questions in isolation will not yield the results which are really being sought. As my previous post suggested, it may be more efficient to ask one or two questions (or let your customer guide the conversation), but is it effective? We need to make sure we are doing the right things (asking the right questions) before we worry about doing them efficiently. Actually, a framework is a pretty efficient way to make sure you are effective!

Seven Questions to get you started

The late Peter R. Scholtes wrote an excellent book called The Leader’s Handbook and in it he has a chapter entitled Leading by Asking Good Questions. Most of the following is adapted from his discussion on how leaders should ask questions. It should come as no surprise that the underlying theme of the book was related to managing systems, not people (he was pretty adamant about that!). He starts by suggesting that there are 7 basic questions (not really a framework) that will help you immediately gather better evidence about a problem or improvement initiative.

  1. Why? I opened this post with a why question and I suggested it wasn’t enough – and it isn’t. You have to keep asking it until you get to the root cause of the problem you are trying to solve. I think that logically we can all agree that the problem isn’t a lack of software. The root cause may be deeper for some companies than for others. You may have heard of the “5 Why’s” before. It suggests that if you ask why 5 times, you will get to the systemic cause of the problem. If you stop asking too soon (and it could take more than 5) the solution you implement to solve the problem may only address a symptom. For instance, let’s suppose you’re asking a new VP of Sales why he or she is interested in replacing their existing CRM application.
    Level of the Problem

    Level of the Improvement

    So, why was the last VP of Sales replaced?
    Because the last VP of Sales couldn’t generate enough sales to achieve the performance goals set by CEO. Replace the VP of Sales (every few years or so)
    Why do you want to replace the software then?
    Because I don’t like it.
    Why don’t you like the software
    I feel I can manage and motivate my people better with the software I used at my last job Replace the CRM software
    If it was the software that caused the problem, why do you think the VP of Sales was replaced?
    Well, the former VP didn’t understand how to motivate the sales people
    There was no clear value proposition for customers which impacted their ability to close Develop a better understanding of what customers value
    I’m not sure, isn’t that the marketing department’s job? I don’t think they have a budget for deep market research, or don’t know how to do it themselves.
    The CEO just expects the sales people to sell harder. – Identify shortcomings and develop capabilities within the marketing organization

    – coordinate with the sales organization.

    – ensure the technology supports the new capabilities

    – utilize new technology budget in the marketing department

  2. What is the Purpose? Whenever someone suggests something new, make sure you ask the what the purpose of the change is
  3. What will it take to accomplish this? After uncovering the purpose, continue asking what it will take until you identify all of the activities required.
  4. Why will your customers care about this? Will your external customer care, or notice? If not, why are you doing this? Is it a pet project for an internal customer?
  5. What is your premise? If you believe you can motivate your sales team to sell more using carrots and sticks, what is the basis of this belief? Expect to get the 5 why’s here J
  6. What data do you have? In other words, how do you know the above? If they don’t have data, ask what data they might get to support their position.
  7. Where did your data come from? I heard it on the Internet is probably not a solid answer

Strategies behind the Questions

Since your 5 why’s exercise may lead you to believe that improvement could come from something other than replacement, it’s worth taking a moment to understand what you are really trying to do, and asking the right questions in the right context and at the right time. Scholtes suggests four strategies you might employ for any particular project.



Just Do It!

The 7 Step Method

Strategy 1: Plan-Do-Study-Act

Anyone familiar with Lean will know exactly what this is. It is a cycle used for continuous improvement of standardized processes. It is an integral part of systems thinking, so it might be unfamiliar to the hierarchical, Taylorist, command and control, product-centric, management by numbers and/or carrot and stick thinkers out there. But, I digress. If you are seeking to improve a system or process that already exists, it is recommended that you begin with a Study (the original term for Check).

Questions to Ask

During “Study”
  1. What are you trying to accomplish?
  2. What have you selected this process to examine?
  3. How well is this process working?
  4. What do we hear from customers?
    1. What do they need that they are not getting (see Jobs-to-be-Done later)?
    2. What are they getting that they do not need?
  1. What data can you show me about this process?
    1. Waste?
    2. Errors?
    3. Rework?
    4. Breakdowns?
    5. Cycle Times?
    6. Variation?
During “Plan”
  1. What problems are you seeking to solve? What gaps? What improvements?
  2. How will you measure progress?
  3. How will you measure success?
  4. What solutions or new functions do you expect to begin?
  5. How are they related to the problems, needs or gaps?
  6. Why are these interventions seen to be better than other possible interventions?
  7. What could go wrong when introducing this new approach? How can these potential problems be minimized?
During “Do”
  1. What is your plan for:
    1. Testing or piloting this innovation?
    2. Introducing it on a large scale?
    3. Monitoring is progress and success?
  2. How easy easy will it be to follow your implementation plan?
During “Check”
  1. What are you monitoring?
  2. Why are you monitoring these indicators?
  3. How are you using the data?
  4. How are you monitoring the use of your plan?
  5. What revisions have you needed to make in your plan?
During “Act”
  1. What adjustments have you made to your original intervention?
  2. What have you done to standardize the new method? (See standardization questions)

Strategy 2: Standardization

Standardization is another critical component to an improvement initiative and one that is worth investigating further. It’s certainly beyond the scope of this already lengthy blog post. This is perfectly appropriate for a Lean CRM system. While this hasn’t caught on in the mainstream yet, early adopters are gaining significant competitive advantage with it.

Questions to Ask

Before the standardization effort
  1. What have you chosen to standardize this process rather than some other process?
  2. How is the customer affected by the lack of standardization in this process?
  3. What characteristics of this process are important to control?
While identifying the best known method
  1. How will you determine the best known method?
  2. Who will be involved?
  3. What parts of the process may require gathering and analyzing data in order to determine the best known method?
  4. How will you gather data?
  5. How will you analyze the data?
  6. What is your plan for implementing the best known method?
  7. How will you test or pilot the best known method?
  8. What key process characteristics need to be monitored in this new best known method?
  9. How will these indicators be monitored?
While implementing the best known method
  1. Who will need to be trained?
    1. Who will conduct the training?
    2. Who will train the trainers?
    3. How will the training be scheduled and logistics be managed?
  2. How will the BKM be documented and displayed?
  3. How will the users of the new method be signaled to start using it?
After the implementation
  1. What results have you achieved?
  2. What do customers say?
    1. Internal Customers
    2. External Customers
  3. What data do you have showing the performance of the key process indicators?
  4. What problems remain in the process?
  5. What are your next steps?

Strategy 3: Do It!

For those impatient souls out there, and most of us are, there is even strategy for you! Just because you are impatient doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be asking good questions. These questions might come in handy when you’re introduced to, say, a CRM technology initiative after the fact. This seems to be a fairly common scenario for guys like me. It’s really simple:

  • Identify potential and realistic problems
  • Do It!
  • Monitor the results

Questions to Ask

Before “Doing it”
  1. What could realistically go wrong?
  2. How might that be prevented?
  3. What should we monitor to see if the problem is occurring?
  4. How might we be prepared to react if it goes wrong?
During “Do it”
  1. What are you doing?
  2. Why are you doing it?
  3. How do you know this is the right thing to do?
  4. What precautions are you taking?
After “Doing it”
  1. Are we getting what we wanted?
  2. Are we avoiding what we didn’t want?
  3. Do we need to make any adjustments?

Strategy 4: Then 7 Step Method

This is a more comprehensive problem-solving strategy to use when you have no idea what the solution needs to be. I cannot do it justice here, and I recommend you dive into it in more detail if this sort of thing interests you. In the CRM world, wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to implement this strategy as a consultative process from discovery (pre-sale) to the complete implementation of a CRM initiative? If you have one that is better, I’d really like to hear about it. This is generic, not CRM specific, but then solutions should never be part of your questioning strategy so generic works! Here are the steps:

  1. Define the project
  2. Look at the patterns
  3. Identify the causes
  4. Plan and implement the remedy
  5. Monitor the outcomes
  6. Standardize the new way
  7. Decide what to do next

I’ve also include the questions here, but there is more to this. In additional, there is a comprehensive decision flow for selecting the right strategy.

Questions to Ask

Define the project
  1. What is the problem or “gap”?
  2. Why is it important this this be addressed?
  3. How does the problem affect customers?
  4. How will progress be measured?
Look at the patterns
  1. What graphics do you have to illustrate the problem (flow chart, etc.)
  2. How was the problem localized to show what it was, where it occurred, when it occurred and who it involved?
  3. How was the focus of the project narrowed?
Identify the causes
  1. What potential causes were identified?
  2. How were these causes verified? (see plan and do of PDCA)
Plan and implement the remedy
  1. What solutions were considered?
  2. How were solutions evaluated?
  3. How did the solutions address the causes of the problem?
  4. How carefully were the solutions planned?
  5. How was the solution piloted (see Check of PDCA)?
Monitor the outcomes
  • What before/after data were compared?
    • In the pilot
    • In the full implementation plan
  • How completely was the implementation plan followed?
Standardize the new way
  1. How were improvements institutionalized throughout the system (your organization or process)?
  2. Are there graphic displays and documentation of the new method? (see standardization and “Act” of PDCA)
Decide what to do next
  1. What will be worked on next?
  2. What was learned as a result of working on this improvement project?
  3. How will these lessons be integrated into future improvement efforts?

Frameworks of Questions

Now that we’ve gotten beyond the situations and strategies, we can talk about moving away from basic, linear lists of questions and into dynamic ways to engage in a dialog. These frameworks can be used within the strategies so you can adapt better to the starting point of a conversation, or even jump to a different framework if need be. The following four frameworks can be used under different scenarios. They are structured identically, although the categories (nodes) change slightly across the four frameworks. Each of the categories has interdependencies with the others, and this is what gives you a powerful method to systemize your inquiry process:

  • Start the discussion at any category
  • Move to any category that makes sense
  • Combine categories into single, powerful questions
  • Jump to a category in another framework if you need to

For New Customers or New Projects

For Investigating an Existing Process or System

When a New Team is Proposed (or Project)

When Solving a Problem

A Closer Look at New Customers

In the consulting world we are often working with new customers, so we’ll use this framework for the purpose of demonstration. We have four categories, or cornerstones, of the framework…

  1. Purpose – What is the purpose of this initiative? What are you trying to accomplish?
  2. Measure – How will you measure your progress? How will you know when you are successful?

  1. Method – What system, process or method are you using to accomplish your purpose?
    1. You may very well introduce a capabilities framework (or maturity model) here if you are dealing with more sophisticated customer management issues. A capabilities assessment would provide the structure of deeper categories of investigation, and this framework would help you gather evidence for each.
  2. Customer Need – How do you define your market? How will you segment it? Who are your customers in this context? What are their needs?
    1. Jobs-to-be-Done – The latest in customer needs thinking is built upon the JTBD premise. In essence, your investigation focuses not on your products and services, but on the jobs your customers are trying to get done. In this way, you can more clearly see when changing conditions might require you to change your product/service or develop a completely new one.
    2. Outcome-driven Innovation – ODI is systems thinking for innovation. At its core it uses the scientific method for quantifying customer needs as metrics in their own right. It has it’s own framework for questions for good reason, but supports this higher level framework. When you are asked for data, you will have it. When you are asked where you got it, you can share your framework. When asked how it impacts your external customer, you can point out that the customer told you through the data. Very powerful stuff.

It’s important to remember that each of these categories works interdependently with the others. The responses you collect for a category will have impact and meaning to the other categories. The responses you collect across categories will give you better context and will direct you to the next questions you ask. Combining categories will let you construct 15 possible frames of questions. Each pair can actually create completely different questions as well, so it gets deeper than that the category combination. Also, each pair can be grouped in any order, and I’ve taken advantage of that below. In the example below, let’s say “Purpose” relates to defining the market better (everything else will be generic). In the real world, a company may have numerous customer needs identified, many methods or activities and a slew of measures. That’s going to result in a comprehensive interview…sorry.






You’ve asked me about xyz CRM, but can you share with me what you are you trying to accomplish with it?



What capabilities might you develop in order to better define your market?



What might you measure to track your progress toward better market definition?



How will your understanding of [Customer need 1] help you to define a viable market for you?



How will you measure the successful development of capabilities required to better define your market going forward?



What capabilities will assist you with a better understanding of customer needs as they relate to better market definition?



How will you measure customer needs in order to find the best segmentation within your market definition?

How will you measure progress in defining your market based on customer needs?



What capabilities will you be developing to achieve a better definition and segmentation of your market and how will you measure their success as it relates to [series of customer needs]



What will your team need to do in order to better define your market?

What capabilities will you need to develop?

Where do your capabilities fit relative to your competition?



What method of measure will you be using?

How will you measure the results of the activities being executed in this initiative?



What method or frameworks will you use to capture customer needs?

How does your understanding of customers’ needs shape the activities you are planning?



Which approach to establishing key progress indicator will tell you when you’ve identified customer needs adequately?



What data are you capturing and how are you measuring it?



How do your track the change in your customers’ needs over time?

Your customers have a purpose, and so should the way you ask questions. Thinking in terms of a system will get you more consistent results, and allow you to open doors to more opportunity

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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