When I was a kid, I yearned for a Swiss Army knife.
You know the ones; red, all sorts of attachments coming in various shapes and sizes, some with six attachments, other with sixty.
When I actually got one, it was an anticlimax.
The reality of a Swiss Army knife is it's a tool that doesn't do anything particularly well. Sure, if you're stuck in the desert or the jungle, it might be useful. But other than that, the idea of the knife was better than the practical reality.
To me, the Swiss Army is a metaphor for the discussion I often have with advisors about CRMs. Of all of the things that plague advisory firms these days, from legislation to the media, to compliance and the challenges of today's digitally connected world, you can guarantee when the topic of CRMs come up, most advisers are some way from where they want to be.
This isn’t new
Even way back in the early 2000's, when I worked on NAB’s massive AdviserCentral roll out within MLC, rolling out advice tech has always been something that failed more often than it succeeded.
It's also a touchy subject. I've spoken to more than a few CRM providers and, they have a challenging task. As with any software, you can’t keep everyone happy. No sooner have you released a new feature, someone wants another one, or the old one back, or they want to do something the system was never designed for. It’s a never-ending challenge and some are working very hard to try and mount this challenge.
It doesn’t change the fact that we’re in a situation where few advice professionals are totally happy with their tech.
Why? Why do CRMs pose such a problem? Why can't most advice businesses seem to be able to get CRMs to do what they want them to do?
The first sin
One of the most useful experiences as a consultant had nothing to do with advice firms. It was getting involved the launch of an incubator program to help corporate escapologists build online lifestyle businesses.
It exposed me to the way Silicon Valley has perfected the art of growing big businesses fast and from very small beginnings. I wrote a book about it through the lens of advisory business models - finnovation - and it was the spark of the program - The Leveraged Advice which I run today.
One of the cardinal rules of this business building ethos is to build products that solve real problems, and be lead by what the end users wants when designing your product.
Often, advice businesses are not the prime target customer of many CRM providers. Some providers will argue otherwise, but the truth is the people who pay the bills for financial planning software are quote often not the users at all, but the Licensees and aggregators who license them to provide advice.
This is an issue that pervades our industries on many levels. The mismatch between an expectation that others will pay for certain things (software, practice management support, personal development), accompanied by the desire to build a unique business model holds so many back. Is it right to expect both moving forward, or is there a choice to be made? However, that’s a huge issue, probably best parked for now.
The reality is in many cases the CRM that you are provided by your licensee is a standardised, personalised or cut-down version of a bigger tool which, if you had the whole of, would be more comprehensive and (perhaps) more useful. Not always, but often.
But it’s not geared up for your business. It's geared up for managing multiple, sometimes hundreds of businesses across a large group.
The second sin
There are a thousand different ways to run an advice business, yet many common rules that govern things that work vs don’t work.
The challenge is a lot of advisers want to do things their way. A thousand variations on a theme, some of them brilliant, others yielding little commercial benefit from the variation.
A good friend of mine recently called it "The Experts Detour". It’s a long way around for no real reason other than "drivers preference". He described it as the downside of being part of an industry where everyone is expected to be an expert, needing to show that they know what they’re doing better than others and have confidence that their insights are best.
Unfortunately, this confidence in one area can sometimes bleed out into others, such as software, running your own business, or marketing for example. The assumption can be that because it’s "financial planning" software or a "financial planning" business" or you’re marketing "financial planning", the expertise carries. It's as flawed as assuming that being able to write a book means you know how to market it so it becomes a bestseller.
Most (but not all) advice CRMs are built around the idea that a business should operate in finite certain ways. It's in trying to fit a CRM to suit the small, individual foibles of your specific business model that challenges soon mount.
The alternate problem, which is worse, is you get a tool trying literally be everything to everyone, which provides a plethora of features. Usually, this means it includes very little anyone would describe as best-of-breed.
Why can’t we all just get together?
There are other tools emerging to challenge existing closed-system models.
The democratisation of plugins, webhooks, APIs and the focus on open source linkage is increasingly allowing people to bring in their own best-of-breed systems and have them work together.
Zapier is one crude but effective way of sending data from one system to another without needing to know how to code. Integromat is another, more powerful way.
Part of Salesforce’s popularity is because of how it leads in this space, even though cost can be an issue. Because you have to pay for a separate email marking tool, SOA production tool, workflow module and whatever else is needed - it can add up fast. Hubspot is another tool chasing this goal and making good headway.
The issue is this kind of linkage seems still in its adolescence, and dependent on the willingness of software provides to a) open their solutions up free data exchange, and b) invest time in building these linkages, which is time away from other things.
The Granddaddy of them all
These are big issues to consider, but they’re not the biggest issue.
In our industry, in particular, we have this additional problem that muddies the water further, because what we call a CRM isn’t really a CRM at all.
It’s somewhat self-inflicted. Even back during the AdviserCentral rollout we knew that most firms didn’t just want a CRM. They wanted a tool that did it all.
And we all know what happens when you try to please everyone, right?
What we call the CRM industry is actually not a true customer relationship management tool.
Most CRMs as we call it came from the beginnings as financial planning tools. In other words, tools that could do financial modelling, produce documentation, and basically do the heavy lifting of the management of client portfolios from a strategic view point.
Anything else that's been tacked on - whether it be workflow, outbound email marketing, SMS functionality - has flowed on from that and the truth is, in comparison to what's out there, it isn't that great.
For example; let’s say you want a marketing platform. Something that will:
While some financial planning CRMs can do certain things, compared to Active Campaign, Infusionsoft, Ontraport or Hubspot, they're a pale imitation.
When it comes to workflow, whilst some of the tools you can use in CRMs around threads and task allocation are good, they don't cut the mustard when you compare it with industrial grade project management tools like Teamwork (which we personally use), Wrike/Mondays ( which many in our program use), Asana and some of the newer engines that are coming along.
When you look at some of the way they manage files, or documents, again they don't cut the mustard compares to compliant Cloud Service storage like Box.com (which is, as far as I know, the main compliant online storage that advisors can use.
And even what should be staple of these tools, the production of plans, I hear more problems from users of CRMs around getting templates coded, getting feeds to work, and generally producing compliant documents quickly than any other gripe
The expectations vs input problem
In fairness, there’s also a user interface problem. That's tech-parlay for "it’s partly your fault".
If you’re going to drop a commercial-grade, highly specialised all-of-business platform into your firm, it’s not enough just to turn it on and expect it to be intuitive.
Whilst your iPad may be easy to use, commercial systems usually require not just training and bedding in time, but also the presence of at least one person who is going to be own and become the resident expert.
Of those who’ve made a success of implementing their core CRM, they've usually invested in training, downtime and managed their own expectations that it can take months to achieve full benefit.
How to make the decision
Here's the thing, how do you make a decision as to what's right for you?
It's very easy when you're not happy with a certain tool to get stuck in a cycle of constantly looking out for an alternative.
But when there is not perfect solution, what then?
In our business we have a way to help clients get clear about what they actually need. It's not new. We didn't invent it, but it's a great way of
This is key, because let's be honest, when you're talking to providers or browsing their sales page, they're going to hit you with feature after feature. While it sounds great, it doesn't necessarily make the choice any easier.
Here's how it works:
Step 1: Make a list of important features before you start researching
Before you've got anywhere near any tools, be it software, workflow, marketing, make a list. What are the most important eight things you need from your tool?
Is it integration?
The ability to template workflow?
Maybe the ability to control the data fields?
Perhaps you really need feeds from a certain provider?
Step 2: Decide what matters most
Review the eight and decide what’s most important.
You have a hundred points to split between all eight categories.
If integration is 50% of the value of what’s needed, assign 50 points to it.
Go down your list spending points and tweaking the balance until you've got a total of a hundred.
Step 3: Weight-score your options
Now you've got the opportunity to create a weighted score
When a software tool you're assessing comes on your radar, go back to that sheet and assess against those criteria.
How good's the integration on a mark out of ten?
How good is the ability to be flexible with the data fields, again mark out of ten?
Then multiply your score by the % modified. So if it's 10/10 for integration, and your weighting is 50%, your mark is five.
Complete this exercise for all eight criteria.
Step 4: Add and compare
Your end result will be a total score, not just based on functionality in isolation, but based on what matters to your business. That way you can look across multiple tools and know clearly which is objectively better for your business.
By the way, this also works well for everything from recruiting staff, deciding on licensees, ordering dinner with your spouse or choosing movies. It's a clarifier, and it takes some of the guesswork out of making a decision.
"Which CRM?" is a tough topic.
I’d love to able to say there is one (ideally more!) tool that can truly make running your firms much a breeze, but the way I see it (and I may not be popular with some for saying this) the quality of CRMs in our industry isn’t there yet. Some are getting there faster than others, but they're in the same fast-evolving marketplace that we all are.
Most aren’t intuitive or are designed with the intention to be intuitive (though some show signs of moving that way).
They often promise features that are less than ideally functional.
They can require a significant investment of time, money, training, and resources, to get them to a point where they're able to deliver.
And they’re expensive compared to comparable non-specialised tools outside our industries.
I see more people disappointed by their CRM situation than made happy.
I believe we're maybe 2-3 years away from that changing - sooner, I hope. I look forward being able to say to clients, "Yes! Here’s the tool that you can put at the centre of your business that will enable you to get on with working with clients"
In the meantime, I figure two strategic choices.
Strategy 1: All-in as-is
Look at what you've got or what’s available. Choose one tool, however imperfect it may seem. Invest, and simply make a call that no matter how many challenges you may face, how difficult it may be to get things going, as long as there are examples out there of people who have made it work, you're just going to use it, get the training and make it work for you too.
Strategy 2: Plug ’n’ Play
The other option is to pick and mix your tools, until such time as there is a more viable "single source of truth" alternative. Use the best of what you've got, relying on Zapier, API integrations or webhooks to have the connectivity you need. Be smart about where your data needs to be and where it does not need to be. Be agile and camp out on your tech, instead of laying foundations.
Personally, we've gone with strategy 2 for the short-term, but longer term we’ll move to the first.
Until then it’s a case of asking "What do I need and what's available?", and being comfortable that the perfect platform for running your business is an evolution, not a single buying decision.