Thursday, February 19, 2009

Notifying Users of Events in CRM

A common requirement for a CRM systems is to notify various users of circumstances or events in the CRM system. For example, if a salesperson gives a substantial discount to a customer, the head of sales may want to know about it or if a support issue has been outstanding for a number of days, the head of the support center may want to escalate the issue.

Dynamics CRM provides a number of ways to do this. Three common ones are:
  • Creating an activity / sending an email via workflow
  • Populating a view for a user to periodically review
  • User generated reports (or reports periodically sent to a user via email) and dynamic Excel reports
With the CRM Accelerators, we also have another way to notify users, through an RSS feed ( Essentially the RSS feed is linked to a CRM view and passes the contents of the view directly to an Outlook folder.

The choice of method depends on a number of factors, some of which I'll highlight below.

Volume of Notifications
If a lot of events are going to trigger a notification, some methods are better than others. For example, the sales manager may want to know the new accounts or contacts that have been created in the system in the past week. Depending on user activity this has the potential to run into hundreds.

Obviously an email or task for each account creation would be a bad idea. No one wants their inbox or reminder window cluttered with hundreds of messages simply passing on the fact that CRM has a new account. The problem could be mitigated with Outlook rules in the case of email and with a registry hack in the case of Outlook activities ( but it would be better to deal with the issue at the source from a manageability perspective. In this case the other notification 'channels' provide a better option. A view could be created for the manager to review as he desires or a report could be generated for him to review as desired or that could be sent weekly showing the results for the past seven days.

The RSS feed may not be a good option given the nature of RSS feeds. RSS adds entries but cannot delete entries. Therefore, in the example above, as time goes on, the contacts created more than a week ago will not disappear from the list.

While views and reports are great for distilling large amounts of information in a digestible format, there is no guarantee a user will log on and view either in a timely manner. Sometimes information needs to be communicated to a user as quickly as possible. 

A common example for this are for service level agreements (SLAs). If a company guarantees that a customer service representative will call a customer back about their issue within 24 hours of it being raised, it can be costly if there is not a way to let someone know that a specific issue has been outstanding for almost a day.

Any notification method that requires a user to 'pull' the information i.e. perform a series of actions to access the information at a time of their choosing, is no good in time-critical situations and a 'push' method is needed. In this case, email and RSS are great choices as they feed the information to the right user almost immediately. Activities synchronizing down to Outlook could also be used but we are generally trained to action emails before tasks and appointments.

Richness of content
CRM systems contain a lot of information. Sometimes you need to sift through literally thousands of pieces of information to see the big picture (see for an example of extracting intelligent information from large data sources). A common CRM example of this is in reviewing products in high or low demand or in seeing if specific product lines cause more support issues than others. Not only can a company have thousands of products, the CRM system may also be storing thousands of sales opportunities and thousands of support cases.

Most CRM notification methods are quite poor at this. CRM views cannot show aggregate data i.e. counts or sums of records, and therefore neither can RSS feeds. They are also limited in their ability to convert data into graphical formats. Emails and activities generally communicate information about just one record in CRM and are also therefore limited in their capacity to communicate rich information to a user.

The best option here are reports. Both SRS reports and Excel exports provide the ability to aggregate large amounts of CRM data into useful and insightful information to guide the business. For details on using Excel for reporting go here:

Simplicity of Generation and Maintenance
This often overlooked consideration for CRM customization is equally important when considering the notification channels that the system is going to employ. Sometimes a user is not sure what they want to know about but they want to be able to put it in place quickly when it becomes clear. Similarly sometimes notifications are a 'work in progress' and need frequent adjustment.

An example of this is workplace monitoring. Often managers, empowered with a new CRM system, feel the urge to monitor their employees every step of the way. Soon they realise they are receiving a lot of information for little gain and want to reduce the monitoring.

If it is clear from the outset that a notification or a particular set of notifications are overkill or going to need frequent adjustment it is ethical to ensure the ease with which this can be done is considered. A consultant should be paid for adding value to a business, not for solving problems of their own creation.

In this case empowering the user to define and adjust their own notifications is the best option, if practical. Therefore, views and RSS are a great choice.
Notifications are a common component to a CRM system. Rather than employing a 'one size fits all' approach, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the options available to you and your customers will thank you for it. Better yet, educate your customers on the options and let them be part of the process on how the system will talk to them. The relationship between the user and CRM is at least as important as the relationships CRM is there to manage.

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