With November’s Dreamforce having whipped up the Salesforce world into a frenzy, and a soaking-wet one at that, I’m returning to the world of everyday consulting and management more convinced than ever that success and failure when implementing this platform rides on everything that happens in the real world, and not within the platform itself.  Salesforce is a many-headed hydra, that can be increasingly integrated into the everyday lives of its users and nonprofit business processes.  It is maturing and evolving and adding new capabilities every year.

In a blog earlier this year, a professional acquaintance called me out on an ambiguous stance I offered regarding Salesforce licensing for nonprofits.  At the time I replied that nonprofits operate under a number of time, capacity and monetary constraints that for-profit counterparts do not.  The decisions made based on these constraints can directly affect how technology is implemented and used, sometimes to the detriment to the organization.

One of the fears I hear from almost every client is the fear of failure.  This is often expressed as a momentary joke, or simply directly told to me that “failure is not an option” when I meet folks for the first time.  I wonder how to respond in these moments because realistically, a great many technology and software implementations do fail though the reasons for this can vary wildly.  I often murmur something ambiguously reassuring in response that probably sounds a lot like Marge Simpson’s “Mmm.

From my experience, there are a few reasons for failure – all of which are rooted in change and constraints.  Change is hard. It requires organizations and people to step up and examine needs and priorities, and often revisit time-honored traditions and practices.  Sometimes the outcome of an implementation is that the organization constrains itself.  This is by no means a complete list, but a few items I’ve noticed over time.

Know Thyself –  A client recently told me that it was their expectation that I’d be able to tell them what are the metrics most important to their organization and how to store and report on them in Salesforce.  I responded with the truth: I can only give you the best practice for using Salesforce for your stated goals and metrics, but I cannot tell you the things that are most important to you about understanding your constituency.  I’ve seen Salesforce implementations reveal hidden fault lines at many organizations – often in the first discovery meeting where people begin talking about, what they believe to be, issues in one place for the first time ever.  Before even starting to implement, spend some time internally understanding the hard and soft outcomes you expect. Then decide whether or not these expectations are realistic given the staff time, monetary and management resources available to you.

Start Small, Think Big – This is a call out to properly-managed change.  Because “starting small” means something different to every organization.  There are literally thousands of resources on change management and implementation strategy available to nonprofits.  But (re)implementing with greater success begins even before the final tool or platform is selected. Buy-in and support from management and staff alike, strategic selection, rapt prioritization and (ultimately) phased implementation are all components to this path.  I’ve been honored to present in-depth on the processes leading up to a software implementation in many places and recently realized that it can all be boiled down to a single sentence: Have a plan with ongoing support from your co-workers and leaders as well as sufficient foresight to be flexible in your approach because as technology changes, so must you.  To frame this in the world of Salesforce: If there are many things you want to do, but find your organization unable to pay for or manage them, then perhaps scaling back rather than plodding forward is the best course of action.  Best practices may also mean that it’s you, and not the platform, that sometimes needs to change.

Funding and “Sexy Technology” Projects – I believe this needs to change for the entire nonprofit sector.  Nonprofits are being increasingly driven to show results for their work, but support for the tools and technologies that can help them show these results just doesn’t match the demand for results.  This fall, Idealware published a Funder’s Guide to Technology that states this conundrum best: “Many foundations are reluctant to support technology projects. As a result, many nonprofits are reluctant to directly ask for that support.”  Yet technology is vital to being able to articulate results and nonprofits are often asked to “make do” with existing or outmoded technology resources. Or be grateful for the free/discounted support offered to them rather than be given the monetary resources to truly innovate.  Innovation sometimes means failure, which nobody wants to fund but everybody needs to learn. Funding hard and soft technology doesn’t look sexy but describing failure in innovation is never pretty, even if it produced more learned outcomes.  This contradiction can directly affect a Salesforce implementation in ways such as: inability to acquire proper licensing, a patchwork of staff capacity to manage the platform and its data, employing hacks rather than best practices as well as lost documentation and institutional knowledge regarding the implementation when a critical (and often sole) resource departs.

Salesforce is agnostic to change. It requires rules and processes, and it’s just flexible enough that it can become a sinkhole.  For small organizations, this sinkhole often begins to open up when an ambitious implementation overreaches the capacity for the organization to manage the platform and afford all the bells and whistles it wants.  For larger organizations, it is quite the opposite. Often entrenched ways of doing business, poorly managed change and lack of clarity around the goals and metrics of implementing Salesforce, means that the sinkhole of monetary investment to make Salesforce compensate for these factors gets larger and larger.

I’m a little bit known for being the consultant who will say, “Salesforce is my lifeblood, however, it may not be yours.”  Despite the power and promise of the platform.  Because at the end of the day, what I want to see are nonprofits successfully using technology with the internal and external resources to support its longevity as well as the self-awareness and cogency to facilitate continual change management to engage their staff and constituents in its use.  Switching to Salesforce will not solve problems. In fact, I’ve been part of several projects where problems surfaced because change for change’s sake isn’t healthy for people or organizations and change without management can be painful and demanding.

At the end of the day, only you and your organization can articulate the needs and priorities of your Salesforce implementation. Good consultants listen, translate, guide and suggest but generally eschew from telling your organization its own priorities (unless, of course, that’s what they’ve been hired to do).  If your vision is clear, your organization is ready and in support of change, the project is supported and you understand your own desired outcomes and metrics… the more successful a Salesforce implementation can be.  The platform can’t produce these changes in your organization, but it can inspire them.

Tracy Kronzak

Tracy Kronzak

8 responses to “Why CRM Implementations Fail and How to Avoid It

  1. This is a great post, Tracy! I’d add that “start small, think big” is relevant in almost every implementation, where you’re a non-profit or for-profit. The idea that an implementation can become a sink hole is relevant to both small and large organizations, as a seemingly large budget and plenty of time until your go-live date can give organizations a false sense of confidence in thinking that they can build everything under the sun, resulting in resources and focus being spread thin. Then you’re faced with bits and pieces of an implementation that are not optimal.

    In our post, Top Salesforce Implementation Mistakes, we recommend that organizations weight complexity vs. value – focus on the simple and crucial things that will benefit the largest amount of people. Once you’ve gotten over this hurdle, jump to your next focus item.

  2. Thank you Joe – I really enjoyed yours as well: the tactics it outlines are critical to keeping a project on track. It also boils down to expectations, which may be the topic of my follow-up to this. And, the delivery of value in an implementation directly connects to being less rigid and more agile in an organizational approach so that the factors outlined can be properly included.

  3. I’m now on my fifth job as the lead technologist (CIO, VP IT, IT Director roles with a bit of consulting thrown in), and I like to think that the main talent/skill that I bring to my profession is what I call “fiasco avoidance”. A fiasco is any project that results in drastic cost overruns and/or under-utilization, mismatch of results to desired goals. When you consider the things that factor into a successful technology rollout, the installation of the hardware and software, while important, doesn’t even account for 5%. Far more important are things like broad organizational buy-in and comprehension of the project goals; executive and Board sponsorship; Wide input into features and configuration with a balance of technical and end-user input; Training; Good consultants that meet the organizational needs (be that outsourcing or collaborative); follow-up training and tracking of the project goal accomplishment long after the software is deployed. The biggest threat to these big projects is a lack of planning and oversight. Far too often, we’re trying to implement a game-changing, strategic product like Salesforce by sneaking it in through the back door and hoping everyone will jump on board. That’s not an optimal approach, and one that would beep pretty loudly on my fiasco-radar screen.

  4. Exactly, Peter! It’s good to hear from you as well… More and more, my first message to clients is, “So much of the success of this project happens outside the platform, you need to be prepared to make changes internally, manage processes, evaluate yourselves, and understand that this isn’t the same as simply upgrading hardware.”

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