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Navigating Tech Transformations: Building Trust During a Higher Education CRM Conversion

Graduates tossing caps

In this comprehensive post, we've gathered insights from two seasoned experts in the field, Julie Knight, Ph.D. Head of Analytics & Reporting at Shaff Fundraising Group, and K Shelton, Director of Analytics and Business Intelligence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. They will share their extensive experiences and provide invaluable strategies for addressing the critical issue of building trust during CRM conversions.

In the context of CRM conversions, establishing trust among cross-functional teams poses a significant challenge. A successful CRM conversion can transform an organization's operations and efficiency, but it's also a complex process that can lead to numerous trust-related issues among team members.

How can organizations build trust among cross-functional teams during CRM conversions?

1. Key Challenges in CRM Conversions

Julie Knight Ph.D.: Dr. Julie Knight, Head of Analytics & Reporting at Shaff Fundraising Group, identifies three primary challenges teams typically face during CRM conversions:

  • Time Constraints: Acknowledging these time constraints early on is a crucial step in setting expectations at all organizational levels. She says, "Acknowledging the limited resources and the reprioritization early on is a great level-setting step for leaders at all levels within the organization." Advancement Services teams do not usually hire additional technical experts temporarily for a conversion, which means the existing staff have more work to do and have to reprioritize existing projects, sometimes until further notice. Time is often one of the scarcest resources during a CRM conversion, and the pressure to deliver results within a specific timeframe can strain team dynamics.

  • Unrealistic Expectations: A CRM conversion is a time-intensive process, often taking 12-24 months to complete. This is a long time to work across systems, reprioritizing other projects, and managing partner expectations. Managing expectations is paramount, as unrealistic hopes can lead to frustration and erode trust among team members.

  • End-User Involvement: There's no one-size-fits-all approach to end-user involvement; it varies depending on the organization's unique needs. "Knowing when and how to involve the end user is integral to building and maintaining trust."

K Shelton: K Shelton, Director of Analytics and Business Intelligence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, emphasizes the following challenges:

  • Performance Misconceptions: K highlights the misconception that high performance means knowing all the answers and not making mistakes. This misconception can hinder trust-building efforts. In high-pressure situations like CRM conversions, team members may feel compelled to present themselves as infallible, fearing that admitting uncertainty or mistakes will diminish their credibility.

  • Personal Well-Being: K notes that personal well-being can become a secondary concern during CRM conversions, potentially impacting trust. As the conversion process demands intensify, team members may experience stress and burnout, affecting their performance and confidence.

  • Trust's Impact on Adoption: Trust can significantly influence system adoption. Users may hesitate to adopt the new CRM system if trust-related issues persist. When confidence in the system and the team implementing it is low, individuals may resist using the new CRM, leading to challenges in achieving full adoption.

  • Virtual and In-Person Contributors: Combining virtual and in-person contributors can add complexity to trust-building efforts. Understanding and addressing the nuances of this hybrid collaboration is essential. CRM conversions in today's increasingly remote work environment often involve team members from diverse geographic locations and time zones. Bridging the gap between virtual and in-person contributors requires special attention to communication and collaboration strategies.

2. Trust-Related Issues in CRM Conversions

Dr. Knight: Identifies data accuracy as a central trust-related issue during CRM conversions.

Dr. Knight shares, "A searchable data dictionary can save significant time and build trust." Furthermore, successfully integrating the new CRM with existing platforms is critical. Team members rely on data from various sources, and any disruption or incompatibility can quickly erode trust. A seamless flow of data and information across systems is necessary to maintain user trust.

Data accuracy is a cornerstone of trust in CRM systems, particularly in organizations where accurate donor information drives fundraising efforts. When data inconsistencies or inaccuracies arise during a CRM conversion, it can have ripple effects throughout the organization. Donor relationships hinge on accurate data, and doubts about the information's reliability can lead to hesitancy in using the new CRM system.

K Shelton highlights that mistrust in the CRM system is a common experience for various user groups, including data managers and analysts. When data is perceived as inaccurate or functionality is broken, understanding the root cause is crucial to maintaining trust in the system. Due to the complexity of integrations and logic supporting the CRM, the explanation may not always be readily available, or multiple contributing factors may make the issue explanation more challenging to understand. K shares, "I have also observed deficiencies in communication, training, involvement, collaboration, and testing contribute to mistrust in the CRM, which can lead to adoption resistance."

The severe change that comes with CRM conversions triggers various organizational reactions. From fear to excitement, the staff reactions will vary. However, when users report feeling constantly surprised in response to project updates, this indicates something beyond fear of change. The feeling of surprise can stem from unclear communication, unrealistic expectations, or lack of involvement.

3. Strategies for Establishing Trust

Dr. Knight: To foster trust among cross-functional teams, Dr. Knight recommends a multifaceted approach:

  • Celebrations: Consider incorporating CRM conversion kickoff and completion celebrations, similar to campaign open and close celebrations.

  • Tracking Dashboard: Implement a tracking dashboard to monitor progress toward conversion goals.

  • Identifying Engaged Staff: Use the dashboard to identify actively engaged staff members and approach them to take on roles as department representatives.

K Shelton: K adds their perspective on trust-building strategies, "First, ensure the system and processes will meet the unique needs of the user base, and ensure there is representation from all divisions participating throughout the lifecycle of the project."

4. Divisional Accountability and Buy-In

Dr. Knight:

  1. Clear Presentation: The first opportunity involves effectively presenting the new CRM system to the division. This presentation explains how different user groups, such as gift officers and prospect researchers, will benefit. It's crucial to highlight the selection process for the CRM and make comparisons with the current system. Using real-life examples or stories can help illustrate the new CRM's improvements. Understanding what data will or won't integrate is essential to manage expectations early.

  2. Recognition and Engagement: The second opportunity focuses on recognizing and appreciating individuals within the division who are actively contributing to the CRM transition. This recognition can include those involved in setting up, testing, or providing feedback. Acknowledging their efforts helps maintain engagement and motivation among users.

K Shelton highlights the following:

  • Ensure User Representation: K stresses the importance of ensuring that the CRM system and processes meet the unique needs of the user base. Divisional accountability requires a comprehensive understanding of the needs and expectations of various organizational divisions and departments.

  • Leverage Trusted Individuals: K recommends leveraging individuals already trusted within the organization to convey project messages effectively. Do not underestimate the power of building relationships in your strategy.

Consider leveraging trusted individuals within the organization to extend the reach of project messaging.

Trusted messengers can help facilitate buy-in by translating complex technical information into relatable terms for their respective divisions.

5. Warning Signs and Proactive Solutions

Dr. Knight: identifies a few warning signs of eroding trust during CRM conversions:

  • Questioning expertise: When team members start questioning the accuracy or suitability of decisions, it's a warning sign.

  • Us vs. them dynamics: Division within teams can hinder trust-building efforts.

  • Communication breakdown: When information flow falters, trust can erode quickly.

  • Lack of training and system use: If team members aren't adequately trained or don't use the system, it can signal a lack of trust in its effectiveness.

She expands on various proactive solutions:

  • Acknowledge team expertise: Leaders should recognize and validate the team's knowledge, fostering confidence.

  • Discuss resource constraints: Openly addressing limitations can alleviate concerns and uncertainties.

  • Boost confidence with leadership support: Having a vote of confidence makes the end users feel more comfortable and makes the experts feel like they have support from leaders.

  • Use pulse surveys for instant feedback: Quick surveys can provide immediate insights into team understanding and comfort with project progress.

K Shelton: "In my experience, warning signs trust may be eroding include decreased engagement of subject matter experts, inability to have productive disagreements, and the perception that people are not doing their job, the project is behind schedule, or the product does not meet expectations."

  • Reflect: Reflect on what has been said and done to contribute to the erosion of trust.

  • Revise: Revise your communication to be realistic about the timeline, staff capacity, level of effort, functionality, and unknown and identified issues.

  • Relationships: Invest time in relationship building, exercise intensive listening, and make visible changes to demonstrate follow-through.

6. Empowering Cross-Departmental Team Contributions in CRM Conversions

Dr. Knight: In CRM conversions, leadership is crucial, but team members from different departments can also play significant roles. One effective way is to designate a representative within each department who takes ownership of specific tasks. This individual is responsible for gathering essential information, including questions, organizing training schedules, and acting as the department's main point of contact. This approach dramatically streamlines the knowledge transfer process, making it more efficient for the Advancement Services team and end users.

Three common structures for these roles exist:

  1. Voluntary Roles: Enthusiastic staff members voluntarily lead their department in this role.

  2. Non-Voluntary Assignments: These responsibilities are assigned to existing staff members, becoming part of their regular workload.

  3. Short-Term Consulting Roles: Consultants specializing in technology transfer may take on these responsibilities. Different setups have their pros and cons.

K Shelton: "My recommendations for enhancing contributions are: share your goals and desired outcomes with the project team, be open about what you do not know, advocate for solutions on behalf of colleagues outside your team, express gratitude for your peers' contributions, and participate in change management efforts."

7. Testing Components for Trust Building

Dr. Knight: Julie highlights the importance of involving key users in testing components of the new CRM.

Involving the end user in late-stage testing can be incredibly helpful to avoid confusion and give the users another opportunity to ask questions. For example, suppose a user is testing the results of a dashboard that automatically updates at 6 AM daily and comparing it to real-time gift data. In that case, they will automatically think the dashboard is incorrect when, technically, both datasets are correct, just at different times. Note this should be late-stage testing after initial feedback and testing has already been addressed.

K Shelton: K emphasizes the value of allowing users to test the components of the new conversion. This process makes the long-term goal of implementing a new CRM seem more tangible and allows key users to see how their contributions have shaped the system. Testing components can help users gain confidence in the system's reliability and functionality.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Dr. Julie Knight highlights the pivotal role of thorough training and knowledge bridging in the context of lengthy CRM conversions. She emphasizes the need for early training sessions to prepare users for change, underlining the power of patience and storytelling to provide vital context. Furthermore, she stresses the significance of acknowledging and supporting the efforts of the Advancement Services team and department representatives post-conversion, recognizing the profound impact of even the smallest gestures.

K Shelton aptly reminds us that, "As we navigate the complexities of CRM conversions, let us remember that trust is the bridge between hesitation and adoption. When trust thrives, so does the adoption of our CRM solution."

Together, these insights have paved a comprehensive roadmap for successfully navigating the intricate journey of building trust during CRM conversions. From tackling challenges to implementing proactive strategies and empowering cross-functional teams, this foundation of trust stands as the bedrock of enduring success.


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Shaff Fundraising Group is a consulting firm specializing in fundraising, marketing, and analytics. We take pride in our independent approach, free from technology affiliations with SaaS and other companies. This approach allows us to provide objective, solutions-oriented support to our client partners and the broader fundraising and engagement community.


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