Someone asked me recently how long they should pilot their CRM software before they rolled it out to the rest of the organisation. Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to first identify when it does (and doesn’t) make sense to run a CRM pilot. There are two circumstances where I’m in favour of running CRM pilots:

  • Where you need to validate that you have the design right – particularly for larger organisations, no matter how thorough your requirements gathering, there’s a risk that you miss or misunderstand something. A pilot in these circumstances is a good way of validating the design of your system before deployment to a broader audience.
  • When you need to prove the concept – if you are unsure whether CRM technology can add value, a pilot can be a sensible and cost effective way to test whether there is likely to be a return on investment for a broader roll out.

It should be noted that both these approaches require the deployment of a fully developed system designed to achieve defined operational objectives. In other words, even for a small number of users, there can be a significant level of investment in running a pilot.

Which brings me to the point of what a pilot isn’t. I’ve seen a number of CRM vendors suggest to their clients that they just use the software ‘out of the box’ and see how they get on. I guess this is a variation on the puppy dog close (‘why don’t you take this cute little puppy home for a few days and decide if you want to keep her?’). While this approach may be a sensible way of evaluating software, it’s a pointless activity from a pilot perspective because unless the software is set up to achieve an objective, no real value can be realised.

In addition to being a close representation of the full system, the pilot will need careful nurturing. If the selected pilot users don’t buy into the process then you’re not going to get any useful feed back, and this in turn can derail the whole project. This means that pilot users need to be carefully selected, ideally picking the more zealous users to spearhead this phase of the deployment. It also means that a large amount of supporting resource needs to be in place to ensure that users embrace the system and that consistent usage patterns are quickly established.

Going back to the original question – how long a pilot should run for, this will depend greatly on the type of pilot. A validation of design, can be relatively brief (assuming adoption occurs quickly), but a proof of concept will generally take a lot longer for the impact to manifest itself. This tends to stress the patience of many organisations, so proof of concepts tend to be a rarer phenomenon.

Which is a pity, because they can be great way to overcome the inertia that many organisations experience when considering major investments in CRM technology. A modest initial investment, and a little patience, can go a long towards unlocking CRM’s potential.

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