The zombie CRM apocalypse and ways to avoid it

by Richard Boardman on April 6, 2015

In October last year I passed the ten year milestone as an independent CRM consultant, and at some point in 2015, all being well, I’ll pass the twenty year mark of working in the CRM industry.

I mention this because back in the early days tales of CRM project failures abounded. Perhaps this reflected the relative inflexibility of the technology at that time, or the inexperience of the implementers.

In more recent times there’s considerably less talk of ‘failure’, but that doesn’t mean all is well. It seems to me there’s a significant, but largely unarticulated issue of ‘zombie’ CRM.

Zombie systems, are those that while technically operative, contribute little or nothing to the organisations that implemented them. They may be used, but not in a sufficiently consistent or structured way as to add value.

Here are some of the common reasons that systems become zombified (and what to do about them):

Unclear objectives and supporting processes – CRM technology can be used in a lot of different ways to achieve a lot of different objectives. Too often these objectives and how the system will be used to achieve them aren’t clearly defined. As a result the system achieves very little.

Solution – take the time to identify up front what the business objectives are and define in detail how the supporting processes will work in the system

Friction with the implementation partner – friction between the CRM buyer and the implementation partner is surprisingly common. While this rarely results in a full breakdown during the implementation phase, it often manifests itself in a reluctance to engage with the implementer once the system goes live, which means the system doesn’t get vital the support it needs.

Solution – take your time and take great care in selecting implementation partners. Look for a company that you can work with for the long term

User adoption – no matter how good the system you develop, if the users don’t use it as was intended it won’t produce results.

Solution – place as much, if not more, emphasis and resourcing on the user adoption stage of a project as the pre-live stage. Too many organisations go live and use the opportunity to rest. Live is when the work really starts.

Lack of management support – too many senior managers distance themselves from the CRM system. They often don’t use, or perhaps really understand the system, and are the last to know they may have a zombie on their hands.

Solution – the management team need to be users of the system or at the very least the outputs from the system. They need to understand the central role that technology can play, and resource it accordingly.

Not managing for the long term – once a system is live and the user adoption is in place, there’s a raft of maintenance activities that need to implemented. Neglect these and a system can rapidly become obsolete.

Solution – pay careful attention to areas such as maintaining data quality, on-boarding new users, checking usage patterns, and adapting the system to meet changing needs. Ensure there’s ongoing investment in the system and people to support it.

The zombification of CRM systems might not be talked about much, but it’s a real and present danger. The five points highlighted above are just some of the potential causes, but they’re not the only ones. The key thing is that would-be implementers of CRM technology need to be aware that just because we’re no longer talking about CRM failure, doesn’t remove the need for caution. There are some things worse than failing, and zombies are rather more common-place than people realise.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Paterson April 7, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Good summary, Richard.

Another issue that we find (and we keep reminding our customers about) is that CRM systems need regular spring cleaning – cleaning out all those extra fields that somebody has added for a special project and that are now cluttering up the interface and slowing people down. Also, when the system was put in with great fanfare everybody was motivated and trained but now, a year later, who is doing the re-motivating and training the people who have joined since?

And you’ve mentioned our favourite hobby horse – if senior management don’t use the CRM, and are seen not to, that attitude will rot downwards.


Anton Wilson April 7, 2015 at 11:02 pm

I would very much agree, Richard.

In my work as a contract BA, I very often go into projects when a previous implementation attempt has been made (this is when the client has discovered the limitations of the Partner’s approach), and either the project has failed or the system is not being used, or only a small piece of it is providing value.

To overstate it only very slightly, this is near-on universal. We’re still not doing requirements analysis very well, and we’re still not doing adoption very well.

To be frank, I think this will not change, as it is a deeply cultural symptom of the rush we are in, and our economic focus on short-term gains.


Anton Wilson April 7, 2015 at 11:15 pm

To finish that thought:

We should not have to be learning these lessons over, and over, and over again – but we are, because nobody is really playing the long game any more.


Jeanette Duester April 21, 2015 at 8:48 am

This is a pretty interesting article.

Looks like 50% of success is how well organizations processes are. Wouldn’t that mean there is a great deal of a market by not only selling software, but also consulting the costumer how to deal with it? Maybe the future way of customer service for SaaS provider.

Thanks for the great article. It’s inspiring me.


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