[IMGCAP(1)]Like the Obama administration, accounting firms may want to focus these days on building more infrastructure.

Sometimes that means strengthening their client relationship management and business development processes. From my experience with multiple CRM deployments and listening to pitfalls and success stories of other professional service firms, here is an internal checklist of things to consider in the lifecycle of a CRM system.

Making the Case, Picking a System
Based on your firm’s growth continuum, invest as early as possible in a CRM solution. If you are experiencing rapid growth, like some other midsized accounting firms, it’s probably a good idea to re-evaluate the firm’s marketing goals to see how your existing technology aligns with and contributes to them.

As firms grow and expand offices, it is a challenge to stay connected and on top of the latest events, communications and activity developments between their internal and external contacts. The solution we use at our firm for tracking relationships and business developments is LexisNexis InterAction.

Listen to the people. There are employees at all staff levels and functions who will play a role. Rather than propose a system with only marketing and IT goals in mind, listen to what your potential user base is seeking to augment that they don’t have today. Getting in on water fountain chatter can provide valuable insight. This will be important in choosing a system that not only supports marketing efforts, but firm-wide efforts, too. It will set you up for a less challenging adoption process if management and employees find it contributes to their business processes as well.

Map out what the new CRM system is intended for. If you can paint a short- and long-term picture of opportunity and growth for partners, they will see its value. It will also help you find which CRM system can not only meet expectations now, but be flexible enough to grow with the firm.

Ensure that IT is on board. While there are times CRM initiatives are spearheaded by IT, they most often come from marketing. With that being said, make sure the appropriate IT personnel are involved in the evaluation process so when it comes time to build and sustain the system, IT is cooperative and by your side.

Setting the Stage for a Successful CRM Launch
Pick a CRM implementer. Half the battle is choosing the system; the other half is spent selecting who will help you build and implement it. Definitely weigh the pros and cons between hiring a third-party consultant and using implementation services provided by your CRM vendor. Check references and don’t be afraid to post questions on forums or blogs about the experiences of other firms that have gone through a similar process.

Get everyone involved from the start. Before you officially unveil your new system to the firm, get them invested by running an internal campaign or contest. One idea is to have them help pick out the CRM system name. You can also start a CRM user-wide project to clean data before it goes into the new system. Make it fun. Combine the data-cleaning process with suggestions to the staff of ways in which the new CRM system will help maintain the cleanliness of their data.

Understand your audience. Since administrative assistants are key users, invite them to a meeting to find out how days are structured and with what tasks. Help them by implementing new business processes (using the CRM system, of course) to make their lives easier. They will definitely appreciate the opportunity to have a voice.

Identify your user groups. Assigning a pilot test group prior to launching the system firm-wide is important. This helps you de-bug the system and gauge interest in all the things your team has worked so hard to implement. When you configure and build the system, what seemed good at the time may not play out so well in the real world. It’s also good to understand who will be using the system and for what purpose.

Your pilot test group should be small enough for you to be hands-on and manage expectations. Pick people who are favorable to the project as well as your harshest critics who don’t see the value. Winning over this group will ease adoption resistance. Word of mouth will become more important than ever.

After launching InterAction to our firm’s pilot group with great success, positive word of mouth spread and partners were clamoring to get InterAction so they could start using it. This was quite a rare reaction for a CPA firm! Partners usually want to wait until the last possible moment, as they fear having their contacts meddled with.

Inform and prepare users for the launch. Managing expectations is important during this time. Promising the sun, moon and stars might get you some unhappy users. On the flip side, promising a few new bells and whistles can make management resent the investment. Hold informative meetings or lunches with users to let them know what to expect from the system in the initial phases and what you envision it will do in the future. Showing a “sneak preview” of the actual system sparks interest and lets people know that their initial opinions and wishes did not fall on deaf ears.

Prepare metrics, tools and analytics to assess the success of the system and launch. During system launch, there is little time to develop metrics. Spend time early on to plan how you will ensure that the firm’s investment is successful, how you will meet your milestones and goals, and how you will engage users long term. For example, if one of the key identifiers of early success is how smooth the system integrates with Microsoft Outlook, this may be something you track during the launch.

Plan your rollout strategy. Work with IT to schedule the rollout and build a marketing campaign and training program to keep adoption high. Making sure the system is implemented and launched in a seamless and positive fashion can make or break a project. Give users a heads-up of the launch timeline and what they can expect to ensure a painless transition. During this time, prepare your data stewards (should you need them) or data managers to deal with the influx of data they will have to manage.

Go Time!
After smoothing out any kinks found with your pilot group, launch the system firm-wide in groups to better manage the process or avoid the bumps on the road. For example, you may first release the system to the savvy computer users who have diligently cleaned their data. The next group may be less reliable in terms of data cleansing. By launching in groups, you give the late adaptors time to prepare.

Stick with the basics. During the first year with a CRM system, remember it is something completely new and foreign to most users. Give them time and confidence to learn it and figure out how it benefits their business processes.

Tailor your training sessions to different user groups. Cater to different user groups throughout the firm. Partners and administrative assistants will definitely value different pieces of a CRM system.

Pay close attention to how people receive the system. It’s easy to get caught up in managing the data and coordinating with IT to make sure most users are having a positive experience. However, walking the floors and engaging in casual chatter with everyone can provide further insight as to what people really think about the system. Use this time to directly address any hiccups, tweak the system and manage expectations.

Infinity and Beyond…
Keep it fresh. After the “honeymoon phase” of a CRM launch is over, firms are most vulnerable to losing their new investment. Think of creative ways to keep interest and adoption high.

Have monthly “lunch and learn” sessions with administrative assistants to keep them engaged with fresh knowledge.

Introduce a new series of training programs that go beyond the basics and educate partners and other users on more areas of the system that bring value. From this you will see which partners want to step up their “business development” game.

Confirm that your data is reliable. If everyone did their homework in the beginning and scrubbed their data prior to putting it into your CRM system, your data should be reliable, right? Not always. You may have done your best to manage the clean-up when you launched your system, but bad data and lax data-change management processes can corrupt one of the firm’s biggest assets. One idea is to create a direct mail piece to all of your database contacts to verify that you have their information correct. Your clients and contacts will appreciate the opportunity to check what’s on file. An added value for clients is to show them first-hand that their fees are going to improve the firm’s infrastructure so you can provide enhanced customer service.

Think of ways to populate the system with meaningful data. Whether it’s industry segmentation or areas of expertise, start adding valuable intelligence to the contact information already in the system.

Keep key management at your firm abreast of how the system is performing and what the success stories have been.

Build a library of useful reports. Producing tangible tools that help partners make valuable decisions is important to provide reasons why they should continue to populate the database with intelligence.

Continue with marketing and IT support. In the beginning, the marketing department may be excited about launching a new resource and IT will be right there with them. Everyone expects they will not be left to fend for themselves after the initial training session. Continue to keep that promise every year! Users will feel invested and can contribute suggestions on how to keep it fresh.

Add new modules. Expanding the system and keeping it alive is key. Sometimes the way to do this is to purchase a new module for your CRM system. Revisit the original firm goals you weren’t able to accomplish during the initial launch or still want to address.

Purchasing and deploying a CRM system is a big investment of time, money and effort for any firm. By leveraging what you have and establishing proactive short- and long-term planning, your CRM system will be successful and give the ROI on which you’ve been betting.

Jean Frohman is marketing manager with Citrin Cooperman & Company, LLC, a midsized accounting and consulting firm headquartered in New York City.

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