How to get CEO support for CRM

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In fall 2001, networking component manufacturer Riverstone Networks polled its customers, asking what was on their customer service wish list. The response was overwhelming: Most said they wanted to be able to access all their account information in one place.

Though Riverstone, which sells its routers and switches in more than 50 countries, had a strong commitment to customer service, it had no formal CRM program in place, making that mandate difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. To do so, the company would need $2 million worth of new software.

Still, by December, Riverstone was able to implement a CRM system and give its customers what they wanted. David Riley, Riverstone Networks’ director of information systems and technology, was able to secure funding and install Oracle 11i for one reason: The project had the backing of both his CEO and CFO, something that’s crucial to any new software installation, according to a recent report from research firm Reservoir Partners.

"The thing we heard from companies that have successful CRM implementations is that upper management got involved so everyone was working toward the same goal and pulling in the same direction," said Chris Selland, Reservoir Partners’ founder.

Internal sales pitch

Selling your CEO on a CRM project is a lot like selling something to a new sales prospect. Unless you go in with specifics—cost, benefits and possible outcome—it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. Riley said he did just that when he pitched his CEO on the CRM implementation his customers wanted.

The first step, which took place well before his pitch meeting, Riley said, was to outline the company’s business processes, see what systems were already in place to handle those processes and identify gaps in the coverage.

"I cannot stress enough how important it is to meet with each department [in the company] and make sure the module meets all of their requirements," Riley said. "Once you’re in synch, it makes things go much easier. You know ahead of time if you have to change anything."

Once Riley knew what each of the departments needed, he did more number crunching. This time, he projected the cost and duration of implementation.

When he pitched his CEO and CFO, he created a formal presentation that outlined all three components—why the company needed the software, what it would cost in real dollars and staffing, and what immediate and long-term benefits it would have.

The last point—long-term benefits—is something you should be very careful about, said Joe Davis, group VP-general manager of CRM for PeopleSoft, a provider of enterprise application software.

"If a CFO believes that turning on [a CRM program] is going to give him incredible visibility into the pipeline immediately, he’s going to be very disappointed if the visibility builds up slowly over time," Davis said.

Winning the CEO

Unfortunately, selling the C-level can be a difficult task.

Some upper-level managers erroneously think a software installation falls under the IT department’s guidance and want nothing to do with it.

This can be very dangerous because a CRM program benefits the entire company. Plus, industry executives said, executive-level buy-in has a cascade effect: Once upper management is excited about a project and communicates that excitement to the rest of the company, it’s more likely a CRM project will succeed.

Aside from the fact that a CEO’s blessing is often viewed as a mandate, getting the CEO involved before embarking on an installation can help keep customer service strategies aligned with the corporate strategy.

"Oftentimes, you have people running lines of business who meet with peers and read industry journals and as a result say, ‘This is what we need,’ when in reality, their corporate strategy calls for something completely different," Reservoir’s Selland said.

The CEO should help solidify a plan of action, from which department will be the first to roll CRM out to how much money should be allocated for training.

"We outlined the processes with our CEO and CFO, and the installation turned out to be pretty much of a slam-dunk," said Riverstone’s Riley.

"We had our program running in two months and we met the schedule and the budget."

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