By Stuart Siegel. If you can "Ask Jeeves" to instantly provide the most trivial information, why does it take so long to generate a weekly sales and marketing report? The answer is that it shouldn't if you have the three Ps: the right processes, people, and programs. You need all three.
Sales and customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you track customer information, but only if you have the business processes to support it. Even if you spend a fortune on consultants to map your processes, then buy top-shelf hardware and software, you will have wasted a lot of money if you don't adequately train your staff.
As a veteran real estate technology consultant for Kenneth Leventhal & Co. and Ernst & Young, I have selected and implemented software for home builders nationwide. I've devised a 10-step path to guide you through the three Ps to a successful software project. The first three steps will help you take stock of your information, how your employees organize it, and how your business runs. The fourth will help you make sure your staff is ready for the project. In the last six steps, you will evaluate vendors in light of your business processes, and focus on the best one.
While this article focuses specifically on CRM applications, the following steps could be tailored to the selection of any type of software.
1.Inventory your data. List all the databases and spreadsheets your company uses, regardless of whether they are shared between departments. In my experience, most builders have different databases or spreadsheets for sales, closings, buyers, and options. This can be quite inefficient. I once worked with a builder whose six departments each had to key buyers' information and option selections into their system. The data inventory showed the man-hours wasted on data entry and its impact on cycle time.
Data duplication can also cause expensive mistakes. If your departments use separate systems to track option selections, when a buyer selects an option such as a spa tub for the master bathroom, the design center may pass the information to accounting but forget to send it to construction. Later, when the buyer notes that the spa tub is missing, adding it will require an expensive retrofit.
2. Flesh out your fields. Compile a list of the fields your staff captures and reports. Do this by reviewing the output reports and input screens of the databases you identified in step one. Then set up a simple spreadsheet with the following fields: prospect tracking, buyer profile, lot/ home/options selection, contract generation, buyer change orders, and construction scheduling. Since most CRM applications use these categories, you need to think about how the information you track would fit into them.
This spreadsheet will become the "requirements" matrix that you give to CRM vendors. It will tell them what information they need to track.
3. Define your processes. Create high-level flow charts of your key business processes. At a minimum, document the following: prospect to sale, contract sale to release, release to buyer walk-through, option selections (structural and design center), and buyer change orders. The illustration "Contract Sale to Release" shows a sample flow chart.
4. Prepare your people. Software usually does what it is programmed to do; most so-called tech problems are created by users' lack of understanding, which is caused by the builder's failure to provide ongoing training and support.
But training may not be the whole answer. Hard as it sounds, you may have to transfer people or let them go. For instance, one of my clients was experiencing tremendous turnover in his back office. The accounts payable clerk had been promoted to staff accountant based on her length of employment, even though she didn't have the skill set for the job.
When working with the auditors to straighten out the company's books, we discovered that the clerk had made some business decisions that were not consistent with generally accepted accounting principles. We worked with the builder to define the job requirements and find someone qualified to fill it. Turnover quickly dropped. (The clerk was moved to the marketing department.)
5. Get the show on the road. Now that you've taken stock of your business, it's time to contact CRM vendors. ("The CRM Competition") Each will be happy to discuss its products, praising the functionality and ignoring deficiencies. Of course, you want an accurate picture of what the software will and won't do.
The best way to get the full picture is to have vendors demonstrate their products in phases. The audience for the first phase should be a task force of your top people from each functional area: sales, marketing, design, construction, accounting, and so forth. Invite each vendor to give a high-level overview of its product. Limit the presentations to an hour.
Vendors should use this time to learn about your company. They should leave with the following information: Do all employees have a computer? Who tracks prospect and buyer information? What is the process for selecting designer options?
6. Narrow the field. The task force should trim the vendor list down to two or three prospects. The decision to invite a vendor back should be based on the look and feel of its system. While most vendors describe their systems as perfect, you should look for ease of use, including how simple it is to manipulate information and generate meaningful reports. Even an untrained eye can spot which systems score best on these points.
7. Nuts and bolts. Give the remaining vendors a copy of the requirements matrix you drew up earlier. They should indicate whether their product addresses each requirement. If a vendor doesn't normally include something (like the ability to transfer a buyer from one lot to another without rekeying information), ask if it could do so. The missing feature may require a modification to the software, which will cost you. Or the vendor may promise the item in a future release. In the latter case, ask for the release date, and make sure the software contract binds the vendor to that date.
The completed matrices will tell the task force which features each vendor's system does and doesn't include. If any vendor doesn't satisfy your requirements, eliminate that company.
8. Round two. Invite the survivors for a second round of demos. These should last two to three hours and should go into a lot more detail than the first round. The audience should also be larger, including the people who will operate and support the software on a day-to-day basis. Give everyone a chance to review and comment on each vendor's product. (Nothing is worse than a small group forcing a decision on an entire organization.)
You want to know that each product can answer simple questions, such as how many security systems you sold during the month of April in response to a promotion. To get this information, have each department prepare specific questions. For example, sales should ask vendors to demonstrate their ability to generate weekly sales and closing reports. Accounting will want to know how to record cash deposits.
This is also the time to voice concerns or reservations. For example, sales may be responsible for generating consolidated sales reports for multiple communities as well as consolidating multiple divisions. Most of the leading products will aggregate multiple communities into a division but won't combine multiple divisions into a corporate office. Most vendors will offer the solution of downloading division data to an Excel spreadsheet for the purposes of consolidation at a corporate level.
If necessary, ask the vendors back for more than one demonstration; most will be obliging if that's what it takes to close the deal.
9. Make a decision. With the demonstrations complete, the task force needs to sift through the information it has collected and make a decision. It should look at each vendor's pricing, the features the software has and doesn't have, and user feedback from the demonstrations.
10. Wrap it up. The task force should check the vendor's references, review the terms and conditions of the software contract, and negotiate any contract changes.
The task force should also discuss how the software will affect key business processes and whether you have the right people to support it. This discussion needs to happen before you commit to a purchase. But if you were diligent about taking stock of your company, you should have been thinking about these issues all along.
--Stuart Siegel is a technology consultant with Rothstein, Kass & Co., a consulting and CPA firm in Los Angeles.
Self-examination: Understanding your business processes and creating a flow chart of them are prerequisites to choosing the right software. The illustration below shows how this might look. It needs to include the responsible departments and the reports that need to be generated at each step.
Contract Sale to Release
Sell lot and home (plan/elevation)
|Select structural options||Select designer options and finishes||Generate gross margin report and get mgmt. approval||Start package--generate and issue purchase orders|
|Sales office||Sales office, architecture||Design center, architecture||Accounting, marketing||Estimating, purchasing, construction|
|3 days||14 days||60 days||1 day||1 day|
|Lot inventory||Draft contract, addendums||Final contract, addendums||Gross margin||Purchase orders|
The CRM Competition
Check out the products of these leading CRM vendors.
2000 W. 41st St.
Baltimore, MD 21211
8410 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Chicago, IL 60631
Computers For Tracks
2910 East La Palma Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92806-2616
9016 Nesbit Rd.
Montgomery Village, MD 20886
One Technology Way
Denver, CO 80237
5055 Keller Springs Rd.
Addison, TX 75001
NewStar Sales Profiler
380 Madison Ave., 21st Floor
New York, NY 10017
325 E. Elliot Rd., #24
Chandler, AZ 85225
1 Meridian Crossings, Suite 810
Minneapolis, MN 55423