I’ve worked with a lot of clients who have, or have had, home-grown CRM systems. In other words, they’ve decided to develop something themselves rather than buy one of the many commercial CRM offerings.

The rationale has often been that they had a very specific set of needs and wanted a system tailored to exactly how they did business.

This may have made sense going back in time to an era where CRM technology wasn’t terribly flexible, but does it make sense with the current generation of systems that can be relatively easily moulded to a wide range of operational needs?

Despite the fact that I still see some still go this route – though considerably less than in the past – I struggle to see much in the way of an argument for taking the ‘grow your own’ option these days.

In case I was missing some compelling arguments, I put the topic up for comment on the LinkedIn CRM Experts forum.

Based on the feedback and my own experiences, I can sort of see three potential reasons for going the ‘develop your own’ CRM system route:

Cost – If you have a large number of users and the requirements are relatively straightforward, I imagine that there may be a cost justification for employing a developer or developers. Let’s say you had 500 users and were paying say £80 per user per month. This would equate close on half a million in subscription costs per year, which I guess buys you quite a lot of development time. There would also be a saving on the cost of configuring an out of the box commercial system to support your specific processes, so there could be a financial justification for some businesses.

You have spare developer resource – It may seem a slightly odd justification, but it’s a situation I’ve seen from time to time, where a company has excess developer resources, or perhaps know someone who is a developer who they’d like to work with, and, rather than waste the time or opportunity, they get given the task of creating the in-house CRM system.

Your need something commercial CRM can’t do – A little bit of a stretch these days as the current generation of CRM technologies is so flexible and fully featured, but there may be situations where a business and its needs are so unique that only a custom development will do, or perhaps there’s a capability that simply isn’t generally available that might give you an edge, or there’s a key core process that doesn’t quite work with a commercial offering, but that you could really streamline it with something built from scratch.

So those are three arguments that I can think of for contemplating a self-build project. Here are some of the potential reasons not to:

Cost – While I noted above that in some cases there may be a cost justification for in-house, in the vast majority of cases, particularly for smaller user numbers, the financial case for self-build simply won’t stack up. The costs of running an internal development function often dwarf the costs of purchasing or subscribing to software, particularly given the range of low cost or even free CRM options.

Functional breadth – You may be able replicate the core functionality of a commercial CRM, but it’s the functional breadth where things often fall down. Features such as email integration, mobile capabilities, API’s, add-ons, out of the box integrations to other apps, reporting and analytics, and security, are difficult for internal development teams to justify when you’re developing for one customer rather than thousands.

Flexibility – A self-build may do the job it was built to do, but is generally going to be complex to adapt to new or changing requirements.

Professionals expect professional systems – As organisations compete for human talent, whether it’s the best salespeople, marketers, customer service people, managers or IT staff, the best people expect the best tools, and when they ask the question at the interview ‘what CRM system do you use?’ answer with something along the lines of ‘it’s something Bob in IT knocked up in Access’ at your peril.

Long term support – This is the big concern for me. What happens if the developer leaves? This is a big problem for inhouse built systems. They’re not something that can be left ‘as is’ for ever. They need to be constantly updated, if for no other reason than to remain compatible with the existing infrastructure such as operating systems, browsers, email, and Office.

I see a lot of examples where the developer leaves and no one’s in the position to take over the code base, and they end up with a potentially mission critical system that’s unsupported and unsupportable. In extreme cases I’ve seen the whole IT infrastructure ten years out of date because everyone’s afraid of upgrading anything in case the CRM system breaks, or systems that completely fail and can’t be revived.

Opportunity cost – The time and effort spent on developing and managing your own CRM system is likely to be much better spent on developing your core business.

So, in summary, I’m not a fan of the build your own approach. I can sort of see some potential justifications, but the only one that really makes great sense to me is if a self-build can do something commercial CRM can’t, and while I’m not entirely ruling that possibility out, I’m struggling to think what that would be. My feeling is that the ubiquity of cheap, cloud-based, highly flexible CRM software makes self-build a thing of the past.

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