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Over- vs. Under-Engineering: Getting the Most Out of Your CRM

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Many advisors are good asset gatherers, money managers or serve their clients well, but they often falter when trying to make the connection between their technology, their human capital, and efficiently growing their businesses. Following is a typical scenario for an advisory firm, and one way to help make that connection.

The Scenario
With the increased volume of client calls and concerns to address, an advisory firm’s staff is getting worn out trying to fit more hours into their days. The advisor appreciates the extra effort everyone is making, but forcing more hours than usual into the same clients isn’t going to be a viable long-term solution. They need to work smarter, not harder. The team knows the firm’s CRM system is capable of much more than they’re currently using it for, and that a few changes could simplify many tasks, but if they didn’t have the time before to sit down and figure it out, they sure don’t now.

Process Definition in Action
At ActiFi, we recently visited an advisory firm which wanted to gain efficiency and consistency in its client service by embedding its processes onto the firm’s CRM system. Since step one in achieving that goal is defining their client service processes, we decided to conduct a little exercise. 

We gave everyone a sheet of paper and a pen, and asked them to write the words, “Defined Process,” along with their definitions of the words. Then we asked them to select a client-facing process that they all could agree was pretty well-defined. After some back-and-forth discussion, the group selected “client onboarding.”

We asked them to describe at a high level what that process would consist of, and then to draw a picture of the steps involved. When they looked at each other’s drawings and saw how many different perspectives there were, they realized that they really were working from different understandings of both their clients’ experience and each other’s roles in the process. Even their definitions of the words, “Defined” and “Process,” though similar, were different enough that the team realized they were approaching the concept from many different angles. At this point, it was clear to all that their next step was to agree on a shared mental model of the defined Client Onboarding process, and more important, to draw the picture that tied it all together.

In our interactive, hands-on Process Workshop exercise, we put different-colored paper shapes representing various tasks and activities up on the wall. People got up and moved them around, adding and renaming pieces as needed.

Then, with guidance from ActiFi consultants, the team organized their tasks and activities into various levels of detail, defining triggers, timeframes and dependencies. This is the part where it gets fun.

There was a lot of debate as to which steps in the process should actually be considered a task, as opposed to an explanation clarifying a task, or maybe even a whole new process of its own. How do you actually break down tasks to the appropriate level of granularity? How do you get visionaries and bean-counters to agree on what level of detail is really needed?

The debate continued until all were satisfied that we had a well-rounded and thorough



representation of everything that happened when a new client signed on with the firm. Then this initial definition was followed by a series of iterations and validations, as we took what we gathered on these pieces of colored paper and turned it into a diagram representing the process. Now that there was actually a shared picture, we were able to break down each step into the kind of detail that allowed us to translate the process into a set of implementable software requirements ready for encoding into the firm’s CRM system.

Finding a Healthy Balance
When it comes to process definition, we’ve seen some extremes.

On one end of the spectrum, a firm can become obsessed with process for process’s sake, and forget why they got a Customer Relationship Management system in the first place: to enable them to better serve their customers! Defining client service processes requires thorough thinking, but there’s a difference between thorough and obsessive. When every single item your staff can possibly think of becomes a task, so people practically have to check a checkbox to show that they checked the checkbox, triggering an e-mail alert for their supervisor to approve that it got checked (okay, not really, but you get the idea)…you have nothing more than systematized micro-management! 

Employees’ inboxes and task lists become overflowing with both time-sensitive and redundant tasks and alerts, so it’s hard to tell which is which, and even the most efficient and industrious of them eventually give up and go back to their old faithful Post-It note systems. Not only did the rollout fail, but future attempts to revive it are likely to be met with skepticism, making it difficult to gain a return on your CRM investment.

On the other extreme, a firm can take such a high-level approach that no additional efficiency or visibility is even created. Activity and data is recorded inconsistently at best, because:

  • only some of the staff even use it;
  • of those who do use it, everyone does it differently; and
  • there are no specific reports being generated to show where gaps are occurring. 

When employees’ task lists are full of general activities like “get referrals” and “prepare forms,” they have no way of knowing which ones to start with, or when they’re done. Ask whom for referrals? Prepare which forms, for what purpose? 

Employees get used to overlooking the tasks that can’t really ever be checked off as completed, learn to ignore CRM reminders and revert to their own systems, and again, the CRM workflow is all but ignored.

What’s the Answer?
As with everything worthwhile, there’s not one easy answer that will work for every unique combination of skills and personalities in every firm. However, an answer can be found that works for you if you know what you’re looking for—a healthy balance of guidelines, accountability and time-saving shortcuts that enable you and your team to accomplish your business objectives according to your shared values and principles. 

If you haven’t yet defined these values and principles, it’s a good place to start. Evaluating decisions through a shared mental model or “grid” helps eliminate personal agendas and subjectivity and enable a factual, objective view into your processes as they really are, allowing you to see how well-lined-up your theory is with your practice. This will give you a clearer view of your strengths and differentiators, as well as where your gaps and bottlenecks are. Then you can determine which changes could make the most substantial differences in both your employees’ and clients’ experience.

With the end goal always in mind, the question of “What are we really trying to accomplish here?” should help alleviate differences of opinion on how much detail is needed. If you’re trying to create a self-contained interactive user manual that any new employee in any position can follow with little or no instruction from other busy staff members, you’ll need to agree on (and budget for) a deeper level of definition than the firm that “just” wants to make sure each client meeting is prepared for, presented and followed up in the same way, by every advisor, every time. Unless you’re a sole proprietor (and sometimes even then), you know this is no small feat either!


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