What is that thing in the CRM punchbowl?

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    Not too long ago, a prospect asked us to review his sales and lead generation programs because lead flow had dropped significantly. This concerned him because he had just finished a significant new product launch with a well- known interactive marketing agency. We agreed to sniff around.

    Every reptilian instinct in my body wanted to find a way to bad mouth the agency's work. But the creative, positioning and execution was brilliant. We couldn't find fault in the agency's work.

    We dug deeper and asked to look at the company's new CRM - the foundation of the entire product launch and the basis for all of its prospecting efforts. It fueled the company's direct mail, e-mail newsletters, catalog mailings and sales outreach.

    We quickly spotted the problem. The turd in the proverbial CRM punchbowl was data quality. The client had spared no expense building world class creative, but left the task of data hygiene to marketing interns who would rather mop the floors than scrub data.

    In the postmortem, we learned the interns received various Excel files containing old data, questionable lists, incomplete lists and exports from a variety of personal contact management applications. Then, with bubble gum and bailing wire, the master list was normalized, checked for data-format requirements and imported without further quality checks into the brand new CRM system.

    In hindsight, the client was incredibly candid. No one wanted to "own" the data hygiene, he told us. It wasn't sexy and it cost a lot of money to do right.

    To prevent data-quality disasters, here are several tips for sales executives to get the biggest bang for their CRM dollar:

    Data quality is not a one-time event - Cleaning is an ongoing set of activities. For example, after an e-mail blast, a single individual should be responsible for removing or updating un-deliverables. Salespeople also should be responsible for keeping data clean. They own the accounts and it is in their best interest to champion the data. Additional quality checks, such as automated checks for duplicate records, can also nip problems in the bud.

    Duplicates cost you - A single company record should be tied to a set of addresses and contacts. Failure to tie together information about an account to a single company record dilutes the effectiveness of the data - especially in key account selling.

    The human component - While automation of data clean-up is useful, humans are essential to the process. Computers miss things that are usually obvious to a human, such as a division's relationship to a corporate entity.

    Protect your data from good intentions - With CRM, it is far too easy for individuals without an understanding of data hygiene practices to import data from external sources. Import rules should be stringent and followed by everyone. After automated checks are complete, a manual review process should always be applied to external data before it is imported.

    Strike a balance - It is easy to be compulsive about data quality, but it is not practical. Your data changes every day; making sure it is always accurate is financially prohibitive. That is why it is important to strive for "good enough."

    Good data is the foundation of effective CRM. In B-to-B sales, it is next to impossible to build strong marketing unless you know the names of the people most likely to buy from you. Maintaining a clean CRM punchbowl requires more than a summer intern.
    Ben Bradley is managing director of Macon Raine (http://www.maconraine.com/) a management consulting, marketing, and lead generation firm.