It’s quite typical that a web development project and CRM implementation may be considered together. However, there are considerations when taking this approach which many businesses aren’t necessarily aware of.
It's human nature to want to do a big project. Businesses are motivated by this, employees respond to it and we all want to be part of the success. The problem is, the bigger you make a project, the more complex it becomes, the more likely it is to overrun, to be over budget and, to ultimately fail. For this very reason, the mantra we work to is:
How can we make things simpler?
We advise trying not to tackle everything at once. Instead, projects should be planned and worked through in specific stages. Maybe this sounds logical, but it is actually a very difficult and brave decision for some companies to make. To help you to decide whether to tackle your CMS or CRM first, we’ve outlined what you should consider.
The structure of your team
How your team is structured plays a big role in how your project could be tackled. Many companies have a CRM that's run by one team and a website that's run by another. In this scenario, where there are two separate teams running two different things, there is no reason a CRM implementation and a web project can’t run in parallel as they are barely dependent on each other. However, without a CRM specialist, you may struggle to understand your current setup and as such, the requirements of your project.
The role of your CRM
Understanding the role your CRM plays within the wider business is a top priority. For example, some businesses in specific industries such as social housing, membership or financial services, are often centred around their CRM. It's not just a case of their CRM being a single data capture for inbound enquiries, instead, it’s a much more complex and embedded tool for the wider business.
In these cases, when you look at one, whether it’s the website or the CRM, you automatically end up looking at the other, which is why the projects often tend to go hand-in-hand. When tackling this, it can become a business objective to look at the whole user experience rather than just focusing on the CRM or website.
Do you need an external consultant?
A CRM implementation and website project involves many stakeholders, mainly yourself the client, the CMS implementor, the CRM implementor and in some cases, an independent consultant. Due to the different parties involved, it’s beneficial to consider everything a business hopes to achieve from the project upfront. However, when you sit internally within an organisation, it can be difficult to assess what business processes need to be improved. In these cases, using an external, independent consultant can help you consider the bigger picture and really get to the why behind your project.
Some clients try to reduce the number of parties working on their project; however, we have seen time and time again that it is very difficult to find a single organisation that is genuinely an expert in multiple disciplines. Arguably, we have the skill set at NetConstruct to do a CRM implementation, but we don't pretend to be experts in CRM. That puts us in a position where we can advise, but we don't do. This is why working with an external consultant can really help.
External consultants can add objectivity
They understand the pitfalls and they can consider the issues from an overall perspective, considering how to integrate your CRM and website rather than someone being an expert in one and someone being an expert in the other. There are consultancies that specialise in this space, even by sector, who can remain neutral and represent the needs of all parties. A consultant is in a position to impartially assess business needs and can work with the CRM implementor to consider these in the solution. This essentially helps in creating an outline of your project that all stakeholders are aligned too. Then, with the support of the consultant, you can work on sourcing your specialist who will tackle the project implementation.
You may choose to work with an external consultant on your project to help you source the right CRM or CMS provider. There is a really good argument for not making a decision on your technology until you've done a deep dive into your business. Taking a consultative approach to choosing your platforms, based purely on what you're trying to achieve allows you to select the best technology to fit your needs. This is advantageous. Prematurely committing to technology, only to find yourself shoehorned and unable to move away from it, creates a scenario which can be very difficult further down the line.
Benefit from their experience
Be open to the advice and ideas the consultant has that, perhaps, your business has not yet considered. Defining the expectations of your consultant and what they will guide you on can be agreed when outlining your arrangement with them. When making decisions, you can benefit from their wider knowledge and past experiences. When you work on something complicated over a long period of time with large amounts of money, time and reputation at stake, there will be bumps along the road. Having an experienced consultant on-hand to help smooth these bumps out could be key to a successful project.
The discovery phase
A discovery phase really is invaluable, bringing the relevant people together to set the project off on the right path. We would advise conducting a discovery session within your business, ideally involving the CRM provider and the web agency you're intending to work with if known.
A CRM will work and interact with a website in a certain way but it's not always clear to the business how it works. If you engage a CRM specialist, they will not understand or know your business. Yes, they may have worked with similar types of businesses which is a huge help, but they do not understand the intricacies of your business - your data, your customers, your processes and your proposition. Equally, it is very unlikely that somebody within your organisation fully understands which CMS platform you should be choosing. A discovery phase can help tie these factors together. It is as much about the client learning CRM as it is the CRM vendor learning the client.
During this, it’s also worth engaging your chosen web agency to understand exactly what's feasible. A web agency should be brought in at this stage as the website will essentially become a piece of middleware between your business systems and your users.
CRM or CMS first?
More often than not, the CRM choice comes first. Businesses tend to live with their CRM for longer than their website and, typically, it is more intrinsically tied to a business than a website. Although you can work on both at the same time, your project will span at least a year, maybe even longer, due to the discovery phase and identifying the right CRM technology and/or CMS technology for your business. It is a long process and as such, some businesses will choose to tackle a CRM or CMS first. There are a few things you can do to ensure this decision is well-considered.
Define your number one priority
Assess what you need to achieve internally, what the objectives of the project are, and really consider why you are looking to do this project. This helps businesses make an informed decision on which route to follow. When you consider your business objectives, if you realise the top priority is intrinsically linked to the customer-facing element of the website, tackle the CMS first. Get your new website live and then look at addressing the CRM. A good web agency, and one that has experience in these situations, will be able to build the website in such a way that you don't have to tear out tons of development work to connect the new CRM at a later date.
However, it may be that the biggest issue is CRM related, such as managing data. The front-facing website could survive for another year and it wouldn't negatively impact business objectives. In this case, tackle the CRM first, get the new one in place, then build your new website. Unless there's something critical which involves both platforms being worked on at the same time, and you have plenty of internal resource and the support of a great consultant, it's going to be extremely challenging and the project will take twice as long to complete.
Identify your issue
Identifying the root of the issue is one step closer to prioritising which needs to come first – the CRM or the CMS. For those with an existing CRM, it's usually a priority of the business for the web agency to integrate with this CRM because the current website doesn't. In some cases, there are reasons why it's not already integrated, perhaps it’s a legacy CRM which doesn't have the ability to integrate or the documentation isn’t available for a developer to work out how to integrate it. We recommend checking your API documentation which will tell you if it’s actually possible to integrate with your CRM.
Following further investigation, it’s not uncommon for a website problem to actually be a CRM problem. Sometimes, it could mean that businesses realise their CRM isn’t fit for purpose and needs replacing. Similarly, if you've replaced your CRM for one that does everything you could ask for, it will likely shine a harsh light on your website if that isn't performing.
There's an assumption that when you rebuild your website, there will be a surge of engagement from users. But to achieve that engagement, there is significant dependency on the CRM. Until a connection exists, it's not always achievable. That's why so many businesses end up tackling both projects at the same time.
Consider your return on investment
Tackling your website after a CRM implementation is typically easier than doing both together. Admittedly, there will still be corrections to implement and a level of support required from your CRM partner, but it is much easier to integrate with a stable platform, than one that is changing.
While this could potentially make your website project more complex, it’s most important to consider how soon you will you start to see a return on your investment. If you tackle both your CRM and website together, the overall project will take as long as the slowest piece of the puzzle - this is generally the CRM. But you won’t see any business benefit or the value for money until something is live. Breaking things down into smaller steps to gain business benefit earlier is always better. The overall price tag might look higher, but long term, you'll end up with a better product, you’ll save money and you’ll get an earlier return on investment - all of which benefit your business.
Choosing your CMS platform
Many businesses pick a CMS because it integrates with a certain CRM. However, it is almost always guaranteed that they will never slot together as easily as you might anticipate. To fully understand why, consider this analogy:
You are fully confident that your CMS speaks English. But then it turns out that your CRM implementation involves a custom implementation of English consisting of the entire works of Shakespeare as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino with King Lear swapped out for Winston Churchill. All of a sudden, your CMS, which understands English, will not easily communicate with what is put in front of it.
This is why the CMS will undoubtedly need to be adapted to understand exactly what it is being fed. Here are some of the pointers you should be considering when selecting your CMS platform.
What do you want from your CMS?
One of your main priorities is likely ensuring that the new platform, whichever it is, integrates smoothly with your CRM. But there are other factors which can affect platform choice, such as what you want to do with your CRM. At its simplest, integration could be a form being completed on a website and that data going through to the CRM. Or, it could be hundreds of different things which are much more complicated. To understand the level of integration you may need, it’s important to consider what you want your CMS to do and how you want to use that data.
Finding a CMS that's easy to integrate with a CRM is often as far as you need to go, because inevitably, if the CRM is critical to your business, you will customise the CMS to the needs of your users. But, the ability to customise both ends to meet in the middle is more important. No matter what different vendors tell you, they will never be Lego pieces that just slot together.
The types of CMS platforms
The type of platform required is very specific to your business needs and objectives. Some businesses decide that they definitely do not want to go Open Source, and others only want Open Source. However, it often ends up being a trade-off between using a traditional CMS that gives you a decent starting point out of the box or a lightweight, modern and fast CMS that requires you to do some of the work yourself.
There may well be “wrong” choices for a CMS, but often there are multiple degrees of the “right” choice. You should approach the CMS decision with an open mind, engage in constructive dialogue, and – especially where integration is involved – weigh the technical usability of the CMS higher than a desire to work with the popular or familiar choice. A new user interface is cheap to learn, but a wrong technical choice can prove costly.
We choose to work with open CMS platforms that were built with integration in mind, with our platforms of choice being Kentico Xperience, Kentico Kontent and Umbraco.
Kentico Xperience is a more robust all-in-one solution for enterprise websites and it has been built with integration in mind. For example, the platform has a built-in System Integration Bus, alongside a mature, role-based membership approach, eCommerce features, personalisation and many other functionalities.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive, feature-rich solution, Kentico Xperience and other similar platforms are the way to go. However, a word of caution, these solutions do come with upfront licence fees typically running to tens of thousands of pounds. Ensure you’re getting the full value you require from your licence fee before proceeding.
Another platform type to consider is headless CMS, such as Kentico Kontent. Headless CMS’ are designed to be part of a micro-services architecture where each component in your solution plays a specialised role. This approach significantly reduces the “bloat” of a CMS that has lots of features you may never use. Often, this leads to more superior technical solutions, but this may well come at a higher development cost.
Another key advantage of this using headless is that the CMS does not need to be integrated directly with the CRM. This means your website developers will have more control over every interaction between the website and the CRM. It also provides further options for using your content over multiple channels, for example, a website and a mobile app.
While this approach gives the highest control and best chance of a technically superior solution, the bespoke development associated may make it more challenging to move to another provider. Pay extra attention to your business continuity needs when considering headless.
Umbraco represents an open source approach to your website development. In this case, there are no licence fees to be paid and developers enjoy the open canvas that a lightweight framework provides for them. These solutions are typically less feature-rich than a licensed product and rely on community developers to provide “out-of-the-box features” which can work very well in many instances. However, community-based plug-ins can also have many disadvantages related to quality, compatibility and support leading many agencies to stay clear of heavily utilising them in favour of developing their own solutions. This can often offset the savings made on licence fees, so be careful to understand whether the advantage of a free licence really is beneficial.
Choosing your CRM platform
The CRM landscape is much more fragmented than the CMS one. As businesses become more open to technology, we see less selecting a product based on ideology alone. The industry has since matured, and decisions are based on what that product needs to do.
The flexibility that exists in CRMs such as Salesforce and Dynamics make them far easier to customise to business needs, but customisation always comes at a cost. A number of smaller CRM platforms, such as Zoho, also do a good job of being customisable. We’re also seeing less appetite for industry specific CRMs but occasionally, we still come across them from time-to-time. Generally, these were implemented some years ago and many are no longer actively maintained and developed by the provider.
When it comes to selecting your CRM platform, it heavily depends on the size of the business. For example, larger membership organisations tend to gravitate towards platforms such as Dynamics, because they've heard of other membership organisations using it and it has an industry reputation. In some cases, the price tag can actually make businesses feel reassured that they’ll receive a reputable solution.
Portal in a box
It is not uncommon now for a CRM provider to ship a “web portal in a box” solution. These make an excellent starting point if you have no existing web integration and need to have something up and running quick and cheap. However, it is important to bear in mind that any customisation you do to your CRM will then also involve customisation to the portal. Costs for doing this can often outstrip the costs of starting from scratch, depending on the circumstances. The portal will not have been built with your users in mind, so even though it may be “theme-able” it may not suit your objectives and require further custom development.
We would recommend against committing too early to a portal solution. Once you are well progressed with your CRM implementation you will be better placed to gain a full understanding of the suitability and impact of such a solution.
Consider a pilot project
There's no reason why you couldn't pilot a project within your business. When a business has an existing integration with a CRM, but you know they are looking to replace it, the agency can try to separate out that integration. There is no harm in running parallel systems in a programme, handling the transition over a period of time, prototyping different factors and even throwing away parts no longer needed.
This is something we saw work particularly well for our client, Family Mosaic (now Peabody). This business engaged us to build a website with a very heavy integration into their CRM, but they were also busy replacing their CRM at the same time.
We knew this was likely to crop up halfway through our development phase, so were able to build the website in a CRM agnostic way. At one stage, Family Mosaic were running two CRM systems side by side, while we simultaneously fed the same data into both. This created a situation where they weren’t under immense pressure to turn on the new CRM, reducing their risk profile in doing so.
CRM and website projects are not without their challenges, it all comes down to effective project and account management. The Channel Tunnel illustrates this analogy well, with one team tunnelling from one end, and another team tunnelling from the other. Without close communication, there is a high risk of the teams missing each other. That's what integration is like. There are dozens of different interfaces which need constant adjustments either side to meet user requirements. If you don't have that consistent dialogue, it won’t meet in the middle.
We recommend allowing your chosen web agency to engage directly with your CRM provider. Encouraging this relationship allows parties to talk, one technical expert to another, speaking the same language to explain exactly what is needed to achieve client objectives. If communication has to go from a technical developer through the account manager to the client contact to another account manager on the CRM side and finally to a technical expert, dialogue quickly becomes convoluted. By bringing those technical experts together, you can solve a multitude of problems.
You may feel like this problem can be solved by appointing a provider that does both CMS and CRM, however this approach is not without its pitfalls. It is very seldom you will find an organisation that is genuinely specialist in the multiple different disciplines required for the website and CRM end of the project. Furthermore, the communication problem will still exist within a single organisation. We feel it is invaluable that those critical dialogues are visible to you as the customer. These are the conversations that bring to light your biggest business challenges throughout your implementation.
We like to actively engage with CRM third parties, inviting them to join us on technical workshops as part of the ongoing project. This ensures they are involved whenever necessary and have full visibility of what we want to achieve in terms of the integration. This is vital considering they are experts in their own product and can provide insight to ensure the integration goes smoothly.
Allowing time for your technical experts to communicate properly is often seen as very expensive. Especially given it can be difficult to coordinate agency teams who are not only working on different parts of a project, but potentially other projects too. However, it is well worth the investment. Without it, while building that tunnel, your ‘diggers’ will miss each other. This could create more issues such as parts needing to be reworked, technical partners falling out, and your project being delayed. All of which will end up costing more money, making investment in that technical dialogue upfront much more cost effective.
Both your CRM and website need to be seen as a living, breathing extension of your business. Neither are platforms which you can install and leave. Whichever project you implement first, don't assume you can just do the one and not have to think about the other. Whether you tackle the CRM first or the website first, the technical people on either side will need to be involved in some way. It’s advisable to ensure you've got a support package in place so your vendor or agency will be able to support you as you go through other CRM or CMS changes. Hopefully this guide will help you make the first, well-advised steps into your website project or CRM implementation, but, if you need any further guidance on the subject, be sure to get in touch with the team at NetConstruct. We have over 20 years’ experience working with clients, such as London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), and their CRM partners to develop and build the optimum web solutions.