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Maximise your CRM investment with these three product development principles

Seb Aspland, our Subject Specialist for Technology and CTO at PSSG, discusses three important principles to ensure your CRM boosts business.

Customer relationship management (CRM) is the fuel that propels your business to success. So it’s no surprise that many businesses invest significant sums, time and effort into setting up and developing CRM systems. 

But what if, like many businesses, you’ve been doing it wrong? What if your CRM is hindering, not helping, your business? How would you know and what should you do about it? 

I’ve spent decades working in software and product development and I’ve seen many CRM system projects fail for the same core reasons. As a result, I’ve developed three guiding principles for your CRM success. Follow this advice and your business will achieve a solid return on your CRM investment.

1 – UYN – understand your needs

If you’re one of the many businesses whose CRM implementation has ended in failure, don’t beat yourself up. Only 26% of digitally-savvy businesses manage to implement digital transformation successfully. While you might not think of a CRM as a digital transformation, it’s certainly in that realm. Which means it needs careful thought to ensure you can run your business in the way you want.

I believe that a CRM is something your business should have from a very early stage. The whole point of a CRM isn’t, as many people think, for the reporting. That’s a side benefit. 

Really, a CRM is there to enable an individual salesperson to move faster without needing to think about what they’re going to do next.

This process could be managed on spreadsheets. But how many contacts will it take before you start losing track? About 50? Your business will reach that number of contacts pretty early on making CRM software a must-have in my view.

Of course, you might not want to hit a one-person sales team with a Salesforce sledgehammer, so which CRM you choose will vary considerably depending on your setup. But whatever system you opt for, you need to take time to think about what you want to achieve rather than jumping into any old software. 

So before you even touch your chosen CRM system – or if you’ve implemented a CRM and it hasn’t gone according to plan – ask yourself these questions: 

  1. Have you taken the time and energy to think through what you want your CRM to deliver and how?
  2. What are different ways of setting your system up?
  3. What are the pros and the cons of each approach?

Leap before you look and you’ll end up getting into a weird state where you’ve started making changes which might or might not work. Which is a waste of time, effort and resource in place of the improved productivity you were aiming for.

Whatever you decide you want to achieve, I strongly advise reducing complexity. That’s why my next principle is invaluable. 

2 – KIS – keep it simple

Whether you choose to use Salesforce or another product, you need to understand your software. The big rule of any system is that if you have bad data going in, even with the world’s most brilliant data scientists, you’ll get rubbish out. So, I would always say that with any system, know how it works and understand any automated kick-off processes or any other built-in functionality. Then leave it alone.

Let’s use Salesforce as an example. The fundamental aspect of their software is the lead model. It turns a marketing lead into something a sales person can convert into a sale usually by going through a really short one or two-step process. 

Once you’ve uploaded your data and pressed the convert button, Salesforce automatically turns the lead into three separate records: 

  1. An account – the history of each company and everything that’s ever happened with it.
  2. A contact – the associated people and their contact details.
  3. An opportunity – that triggered by that initial lead for your sales team to follow up.

It is possible to skip this process and create an account yourself. But do this and you’ll have a new obligation to manually create a perfect account each time. Or, if you decide to change Salesforce in other ways, with custom fields and workflows for example, you’re heading towards complexity. I’ve seen businesses introduce complex, 15-step workflows when what they really wanted was to make it effortless for their sales team to track sales and customers.

Your CRM system’s software developers have probably spent 10 years writing that programme. In its original, out-of-the-box state, the software is designed to make customer relationship management easy. Change it and you don’t know what could go wrong. Nobody knows. So, unless you’re going to spend the time and energy to do it right, leave it alone!

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with any humans before. But humans are very good at messing stuff up. The second you add a person into the process, you end up with unintended consequences.

Two of the main unplanned outcomes I see are: 

  1. Loss of speed – create a really complicated process and I guarantee you’ll create a dependency on a person who’ll need to maintain it. The more dependencies you create, the more people are involved and the slower everything goes. 
  2. Unhelpful processes – too many changes and too much complexity can mean your CRM doesn’t reflect what’s happening in your business. 

You can try to correct these problems by unpicking the complexity. Or, as happens in many businesses, you’ll become stuck because the software is too complex and stacked like a house of cards. Make one minor change and the whole system could come crashing down. 

At this point, many businesses end up starting their CRM journey again, because the system has become unmaintainable. Some businesses will do this three, five, six times. All because they haven’t kept it simple.

But what happens if you really need your CRM to do something a little different? That’s where my third principle comes in.

3 – YAGNI – you ain’t gonna need it

Whether you’re introducing a CRM for the first time or you’ve over complicated an existing CRM system, this idea is extremely important. 

The key to a successful CRM is to only add the elements you really need.

A good place to start is to make sure you understand your process in real life. Then reflect that in the system and, where you can, simplify it. If there are five processes that you don’t really need, don’t bother adding them. Because, as a basic principle of software development teaches, you ain’t gonna need it. 

Instead of trying to track absolutely everything in your CRM, you should ensure your software reflects as simple a version of real life as possible.

Treat your CRM like you would treat an ongoing software product and improve it bit by bit. Use a spreadsheet to list all the fields and processes you’ve added and a brief description of what each does. This doesn’t take very long, it helps you clarify your thinking and makes it easier to unpick any changes if needed.

Try making minor adjustments to the system by adding the smallest number of fields possible to achieve your goal. Or by introducing the shortest, quickest and most simple process you can, then seeing where it breaks. 

Build your system in this way and you’ll ensure your workflows are as short as possible. Rather than giving your sales team a complex process to understand and solve, you’ll help them focus on what they need to do next. And by ensuring your system shows them exactly what’s going on, it will be really clear where their energy should be focused. 

The second you expand the number of columns in your workflow, you’ll end up with a load of hidden information. Work that should have been closed out months ago, but no one’s bothered to do it because it’s not disrupting their flow of work. 

Over-flex your solution and you’ll soon run into problems. You’ll end up with an overly complex product, which becomes hard to change and hides where the real problems are. By creating the most simple CRM you can, any problems will surface pretty quickly so you can then fix them, step by simple step. 

Know your red flags

How do you know when your CRM isn’t serving you as best it could? It’s pretty simple really. 

Your CRM is doing its job if it:

  • Makes sure everyone has the information they need.
  • Helps everyone know exactly what they need to do now.
  • Ensures people know where their focus should be.
  • Makes everyone who’s using it feel great.

Your CRM is not working if:

  • You’ve created a lot of noise that people need to start ignoring.
  • You’ve introduced additional cognitive load.
  • Your team doesn’t know what’s going on or what to do next.
  • Your sales team hates the system and would find it easier to use a spreadsheet.

Any of these issues should act as a warning flag that your CRM is more complex than it needs to be. 

Yes, you need processes and software to ensure a scalable business. But a formal process is never the end-goal. Your CRM is there to help your team increase sales and customer satisfaction so your business makes more money. If at any point your process inhibits that, you’ve gone wrong and it’s time to pull back.


Picture of Seb Aspland

Seb Aspland

Seb helps to build, structure, manage and improve technology teams across our portfolio. Having started his own web development company, Seb has built a wealth of experience both as a developer and running product teams. He is currently CTO of one of our portfolio companies, PSSG.
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