The CRM implementation process: a six step plan for success


A successful CRM implementation process is one of the hardest tasks that modern businesses face.

Finding and implementing a CRM which provides people in the organization with the information they need at the right time is difficult. The challenges in CRM implementation are considerable and most organizations don’t start the process with enough planning.

So, what makes a successful CRM implementation?

The bad news is that the challenges in CRM implementation are many, you need to get a lot right and each organization is different.

The good news is that there are tried and tested principles and CRM implementation best practices which, if followed, should help you side-step any catastrophic problems. And that we've covered them in this comprehensive guide to CRM implementation! Now, let's move onto the CRM planning process and make your implementation a success. 

In this guide, we'll cover:

  • Bringing together a CRM implementation team
  • Creating a change management plan
  • Forecasting a CRM implementation budget
  • Rolling out your new system - migrating data, 
  • Going live and how to plan for it
  • Evaluating the success of your CRM implementation project

1. Create a CRM implementation team

At a basic level, you should include:

  • Project manager: the leader during your CRM planning
  • Application analyst: responsible for data migration and cleansing
  • Application developer: in charge of system customization
  • QA test engineer: heads up testing efforts
  • Representatives from all key user groups:
    • Sales team
    • Sales managers
    • Marketing team
    • Marketing managers
    • Project managers
    • Customer service representatives

Going beyond this, it’s important to consider what each member’s strategic role in your CRM implementation project will be. Broadly speaking, you need advocates, specialists, and workhorses to make your implementation team a successful one.

The advocates are normally senior in the organization and can articulate why the change is happening, there is almost always resistance, so these advocates should be able to sell the idea to the workforce.

Use this CRM implementation guide to create your implementation team and roll out new software successfully

 If you don’t win over your key user groups, things can turn ugly. I’ve seen situations where teams have sabotaged a CRM implementation process by deliberately being obstructive.  Asking lots of questions, raising tickets, talking about what the system can’t do and not using the system properly. If the process goes down this path, it can be fatal. Advocates are therefore essential as the first step in convincing people in the organization that the new CRM will make their lives better.

The CRM planning process is normally carried out by specialists in the team. These people have a good understanding of the CRM being implemented and work at the start to make sure that the system is set up correctly and that the data migrates. If there is no in-house specialist consider hiring one for the project. The vendor can be helpful, but ideally you want someone inside your organization for the roll-out period.

Finally, workhorses are necessary, and they come in a few different guises. There are workhorses who make sure the guidance of the specialist is followed (testing, migration) and there are workhorses who line manage new users post Implementation to make sure they are using the system effectively.

Your implementation team is there to help your business realize the goals it set when you first decided to select a CRM. According to a recent CRM report, over 60% of businesses implement a CRM to increase efficiency and gain greater functionality in their business; it's part of your implementation team's job to ensure you achieve this goal. Pick people who are going to help you make that happen.

2. Create a change management plan

A change management plan should underpin the new software implementation process. Again this process will be different for every organization, but some well-worn steps help to smooth the transition:

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your CRM implementation team

Going on from the first point you need to work out which advocates, specialists and workhorses you have in-house to make the change a reality.

Write out exactly what you need, the gaps you have in expertise and how you plan to fill those gaps. Companies are often deficient at all three levels, but the most overlooked team member is the advocate – don’t underestimate the buy-in you need from team members. You could look at hiring a CRM implementation consultant if you’re really short - but their expertise and experience doesn’t come very cheap.  

When assessing the team also consider the capabilities of the current users to move to a new system, are they tech savvy? Are they adaptable? Is the current system firmly embedded in company culture?

Plan how you'll manage the change bought about by CRM implementation

This involves breaking down the project into manageable stages and creating key milestones, including:

  • User training and engagement
  • Data migration
  • Testing 
  • Go-live

You should also look at how you will track the project. I have seen Google Docs used effectively and I’ve also seen teams do this on large sheets of flip board paper. Whatever the model is be consistent and have regular check-ins.

Communicate the change to stakeholders

This is an essential step. Ultimately, you should aim to

  • Give staff clarity on why you are implementing a new CRM
  • Give staff an opportunity to provide thoughts and feedback, and 
  • Give staff time to adjust to the change

Clarity should be achievable (although often this is delivered abysmally). You should aim to make sure that every member of staff has a clear view of what is happening, why it is happening and how it affect will their work life.

The opportunity to provide feedback is more difficult. You want to make people feel heard, but if you already have a set idea, then the illusion of having input can be more detrimental than helpful. A great tactic I’ve seen is offering staff an opportunity to join a steering committee and then asking the person in that committee to collate the points of the staff team. This filter often stops the flood of comments, and one person is easier to work with that a whole staff body.

Making sure that the roll out happens over a sensible period is important. It makes staff feel respected if they understand the process longer in advance, gives them a chance to process what is happening and ask questions. If the CRM implementation process is rolled out too soon it can cause panic.

3. Forecast a CRM implementation budget

The cost of getting this wrong can be very high. From paying too much for software to wasted staff hours to adding bespoke features you can easily overspend.

Project managers often don’t consider the full extent of implementation costs. In many cases, once the full cost is considered it brings into focus the question, “is it cost effective to roll this out?”

To avoid nasty surprises, use the following steps to draw up a budget and try and

1. Account for everything

Don’t just count the obvious costs. Plan for everything, including reduced productivity during the go-live period. Adding up the costs of the following (and perhaps adding a 10% buffer for safety) should give you a good baseline number to work with

  • Consultancy fees
  • Training 
  • Other vendor implementation services (e.g project management, data migration, customization)
  • Staff overtime
  • Travel (e.g to vendor training center)
  • Phone costs
  • Reduced productivity
  • Data backup and storage

2. Review the payoff

Have a clear view of the benefits of new software and try to quantify this. If it will “make things easier” you should drill down into this and try to put a number on it. This puts a lot of people off because when you start adding up the costs, the ROI doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

3. Conduct a risk assessment

Take a look at what can go wrong. These risks can be different but once you know what they are you can manage them. One company may have a technical risk, i.e. they need to layer on extra features to an existing CRM which is a big upfront cost and may not work whereas another company may be making a drastic change and they need differentiated training for 1500 workers – a totally different challenge. The risk assessment will help you develop a realistic budget.

4. Begin rolling out your CRM

This is the 'scariest' part of CRM implementation! A successful CRM roll-out is a broad topic in itself – the main question to consider is whether it is fit for purpose. As you consider messaging, training, speed, data migration and try to assess the impact, this should be filtered through that question. Most organizations under-plan or plan in the wrong areas.

For example, most organizations know that training is important so deliver some generic staff training days to get the key points across. It is much more effective to train the line managers of the most substantial users in more depth so they can pass on the knowledge as the CRM rolls out to their teams. Another tactic that works well is giving line managers training on how to get ideas across to different types of learners and then working out how each user learns best.

CRM data migration

CRM data migration is most effective when you have a clear plan.

A migration brief should cover what you need to migrate and how it will be used in the new CRM. Once you have the high-level brief you can begin to work out how to do this. Downloading and uploading using Excel or csv are still the most popular tactics but often fall short of getting to the final result. Manipulating the data once it has been uploaded can be challenging, as often the new CRM is using the data in a very different way. Most CRMs will have apps to provide support - but the level of customization may mean the process is manual.

Before migrating, it is a good idea to cleanse your data of any out-of-date information (defunct contact addresses, old employee information etc). Think of it as a sort of ‘spring cleaning’ exercise - you want to declutter and start afresh.

CRM user training

This can be delivered in different ways. The most successful training tends to be a mix of face-to-face, online, practice and having managers who can support their team. In my experience getting teams out of the office for a day is very important. Not only does it give trainees the mental space it sends out the right message - that the training is important!

System testing

System testing is best left to the IT staff on your implementation team as they will know what they’re doing. Consult with them and schedule in time pre go-live for:

  • System testing
  • Functional testing
  • Stress testing
  • Performance testing
  • Usability testing
  • Acceptance testing
  • Integration testing

5. Plan and initiate your CRM go-live

Go-live periods are a product of great training and migration. If you get the set up right this will ease the process but there are some tactics which can speed up this phase.

Firstly, plan. You’ll need to plan the following to make sure your go-live goes as smoothly as possible

  • Staff scheduling including required overtime or temporary staff
  • Identifying metrics for project evaluation
  • Creating a communication strategy for system downtime
  • Network speed and reliability checks
  • Data backup processes
  • Post go-live testing

Many companies try to go-live in one day. To de-risk this it is worth phasing the process over a number of stages with the workforce gradually coming on-line. This gives you the opportunity to spot bugs and look at how a small subset of employees are responding. A second tactic is have an easy to use ticketing system where users can log issues and errors - you should obsess over these early points and look for issues that are causing real problems - then fix them.

Monitoring system success post go-live

Have in place a review of the likely problems and strategies for working on each one. Here are

Problem Possible solution
Users don't understand the new system Additional training by superusers
Users aren’t using the system and reverting to the old system Closure of old system, retraining, interviews to understand reluctance
CRM won't integrate with ecommerce platform Scheduled downtime to fix integration problems

An example error/solution matrix for issues arising during CRM implementation


You need to quickly understand if it is a competency or willingness issue and then put a plan in place. Prepare for both.

6. Evaluate the success of your CRM implementation

You need to build a dashboard which pulls out the key data, have targets and track relentlessly against this data. Be very thorough about the key metrics and deciding what success looks like.  Below are a couple of key metrics which are often used:

  • System activity: reviews the number of discrete actions completed by a user on the system. This is useful as a high-level check to see that users are logging in and actually using the system. It is surprising how often the users will either not update the system properly or even worse still use the old CRM.
  • Record updates: If the CRM requires records to be updated, like clients or people on the system (instead of just new activity), this is a telling check to see if users are engaging with the CRM because many users neglect this part of managing their data. If they’re doing this it shows some level of engagement.
  • Quality of inputs: If inputs are happening an audit to assess the quality of these inputs is the next step. Consider the inputs which have the largest possible variable in quality. A good example of this on a sales CRM is a reason for losing a job, reps often skip over this so if they are adding good data this is a good sign.
  • Business metrics: looking at broader business metrics is always difficult because it is hard to attribute them to one variable i.e.your shiny new CRM. If a sales team has increased revenue by 40% since the new CRM was implemented it is a good sign, obviously the causation needs to be assessed but these performance metrics should prompt deeper assessment. It can be even better if you can tie the performance to the CRM e.g. revenue has increased by 40% but we can also see that call to appointment conversion is up 30%, e-mail reply rates are up 22% and sales meetings booked is up 30%. Then we can be more confident the new CRM is adding value.

Good luck with the CRM implementation! Remember: it's hard work but it will pay off if you've planned your project correctly.

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Doug Haines

About the author…

Doug Haines has worked on a variety of CRM implementation projects and now writes on a wide range of topics. He is a regular contributor to Discover CRM

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Doug Haines

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