Implementing a CRM strategy that gets results inevitably involves winning over the hearts and minds of employees; and arguably the most difficult step of a customer-based initiative is managing culture change. After all, integrating silos of data, sharing data across departments, and achieving a 360-degree view of customers pose more than just technological challenges -- they include human resource challenges as well. The problem is most people naturally resist change; and if the cultural hurdle isn't addressed properly, it can undermine even the best-conceived CRM plan.

Recently we interviewed an executive from the CRM front lines. The vice president of marketing, Europe, for a major U.S. pharmaceutical company spoke to us under the condition of anonymity, saying "Culture change is the greatest challenge we're faced with today." His company is currently piloting a leading CRM provider's software suite in several national markets. While the system is drastically improving the company's knowledge of individual customers, the translation into action is in some cases hitting a roadblock.

Why? An embedded culture, resistant to change. For example, says the VP, in certain countries the sales force is accustomed to calling the shots. Data analysis "is telling us we need to focus our personal selling efforts on different customers -- customers we might not usually pursue," he says. "But meanwhile, the sales team insists its gut instincts are better. They say, 'This is the way we've always done things,' and so they're resisting our direction."

Contributing to the resistance is the realization that the new CRM system provides a means of benchmarking individual performance. For the first time, "We are able to visualize performance in the field, accurately," says the VP. "We realize some sales people are more capable than others and with the data we have we're trying to see if (the resistance) is a cultural or a personal variation." So far, he says, "The data seems to indicate it tends to be more personal than cultural, and this has to be addressed -- and they don't like that."

Stay on the soapbox
Overcoming resistance, he argues, requires a consistent focus on overall goals tempered with a degree of patience. "With anything new, you have to realize there will be resistance," he says. "But I believe the results speak for themselves, and the organization will respond soon enough." One surefire way to get folks on board is to show hard results. "We stress whenever we can how much more effective the sales effort can become when we work with the data rather than fight it," he adds. For example, early returns in certain countries have shown a sales lift of 10 percent or greater, "So we have to do our best to get the word out that this (CRM) works and if you work with us, you'll succeed."

A strong executive vision backed by clear results can be a key contributor to instilling the benefits of CRM into a workforce; but such measures can't stand alone. Successful CRM involves adopting a strategy that enlists employees at all levels into the change process. Effective training is one method of bringing employees on board. The recent e-learning boom marked by major vendors' rush to join the growing space testifies to this fact. Appointing influential "change agents" -- key individuals responsible for implementing the CRM culture and enrolling the larger workforce -- is also critical. Backed by smart technology decisions, these steps can help build the customer-focused culture necessary for a customer-centric company to thrive.

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