Nine tips for a successful CRM project

It is 15 months since NCVO went live with a new CRM system (aka a database – ‘CRM’ stands for customer relationship management).

I occasionally get approached by NCVO members going through CRM projects with an invitation to ‘have a chat’; CRM projects are notoriously difficult and we all like to learn from each other and reassure ourselves that everyone has the same challenges.

In my last post I explained why we invested in a new CRM. In this post I will share some of my experiences, tips and reflections.

1. Think about it as a change project, not a tech project

I am not a technical person. It is definitely important to get the tech stuff right. We did that by employing an experienced project manager and going through a careful tender process to appoint a good agency. But from the outset we weren’t talking much about tech, we were talking about change.

Shifting culture, changing behaviours, ensuring buy-in and (post launch) celebrating successes were constant themes for the project board. It was framed from the outset as a major change project, and only secondarily as a technology project.

As such it is critical to get buy-in from your trustee board. Not only will they most likely be involved in agreeing the expenditure, they will need to understand the opportunities (see my last post) and the challenges beyond the tech.

2. Get someone neutral to lead it, so everyone buys in

If this is a change project, then who is best placed to lead it? Almost every team was involved in the project.  IT and marketing teams were of course heavily involved, but they were not seen as driving it. That meant that it was seen as something that would meet the needs of the entire organisation, and that everyone needed to support.

The project sponsor was Justin Davis-Smith, a new director of NCVO following the merger with Volunteering England where he had been CEO. The project manager sat within my team, which already worked across the organisation. And I played a major role, which worked well with my other priority – a new digital strategy.

3. Get as much staff time onto the project as possible (fight really hard for it)

A colleague tells me that something like 60% of CRM projects fail in all sectors. Another colleague said to me that all organisations must have a failed CRM project before they can have a successful one. That’s true for NCVO, and it’s true of many organisations I’ve talked to.

Why is this? My gut says that unless you’ve failed once you’re unlikely to bite the bullet and free up the amount of resource that you really need to do a CRM project properly. At NCVO we hired an experienced project manager, had a project board which included three out of five of the senior leadership team, meeting monthly, and freed up the time of staff from nearly every team to join a project team. They have now become our super user group and are critical to the success of CRM today.

4. Consider carefully how you want to approach project management (think about agile approaches)

All of our organisations are constantly evolving in response to a fast changing world. What flows from that is a need to think carefully about approaches to project management. IT projects will often use PRINCE2 methodologies – indeed we included this as a requirement when recruiting our project manager.

I spend more time with ‘digital’ people who are increasingly adopting agile approaches. How you chunk up the project, how quickly you want to get something that works, how you approach budgeting and prioritising are all important questions to think through from the outset as you may not all be on the same page.

We fixed a price with our supplier for a spec that included all areas that we wanted (even though we were careful with the scope). We went live with everything at once, 15 months after we started the project. With hindsight I think a more iterative approach would have been better for us, particularly as our legacy system was not widely used so there was no pressure to build everything at once. And still on this theme…

5. Get something into the hands of your staff as early as possible

One of the benefits of an agile approach is quick and continuous feedback from users, ensuring that you build something that works and that meets their needs. One of my biggest lessons was how difficult people found it to understand what they wanted in the abstract, and then how easy it was for them to understand the potential of CRM as soon as they saw it.

But by that time we wanted to push on and launch so we didn’t really want to hear lots of ideas for how to make it better. I think we spent too long gathering requirements on paper and got something into the hands of our users far too late in the project. That wasn’t intentional but it happened.

6. Start talking about your processes before the project starts for real

CRMs help with processes and workflows. But to build one you really need to know what your processes are. They might not be as efficient as they could be, but do you at least have them written down? (We didn’t, by and large). If you don’t it will add a lot of time to your CRM project, so get started now.

7. Be careful about cutting resource when the project ‘ends’ (it never ends)

A CRM Project is a massive undertaking, which is no doubt why it’s tempting to think of it having an end date, after which resources (staff and financial) can be reduced or reallocated to something else. The problem is that most of our organisations are constantly evolving.

NCVO has been through one merger and taken on projects from another organisation since our CRM went live. We are yet to migrate our new colleagues from their previous CRMs to NCVO systems. We have a list of improvements we want to make online which require integration with CRM. And we’ve had to trouble shoot a major upgrade and several updates to the CRM since go-live.

In short, just as your website is never finished, your CRM project is never really finished either. Planning adequate resource for after you go-live will be critical to making sure that you retain buy-in and enthusiasm across the organisation, as well as making sure that things continue to work as they must.

8. Choose the right system

Which system should you use? I can’t answer that of course. The right system depends very much on the size and complexity of the organisation, current systems and knowledge, and the core activities carried out.

But in case you’re wondering, we use Microsoft Dynamics. This recent report from CharityComms found that 20% of the 55 charities responding to their survey use Dynamics like us, but more popular are Blackbaud systems (49%), Salesforce (31%) and CiviCRM (22%).

9. Be kind to yourself

CRM projects are difficult and we all struggle with them!


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Megan Griffith Gray, Director of Strategy and Transformation Megan is director of strategy and transformation at NCVO and is responsible for the organisation’s strategy, planning and reporting. She also leads the digital, marketing and technology functions.

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