How to Know Whether Your CRM Project is Floundering — and What to Do If It Is - Heller Consulting

How to Know Whether Your CRM Project is Floundering — and What to Do If It Is

How to know whether your CRM project is floundering

If your nonprofit organization is implementing a new constituent relationship management (CRM) system, there’s a lot riding on success. But if your CRM project is beginning to flounder, how would you know? And if the project is indeed having problems, what could be the cause, and what can you do about it?

You and your implementation partner are invested in making it to launch day with a CRM that empowers users to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, and in providing training and resources so that everyone understands the new solution and processes. Don’t wait until the project is over to see whether it succeeds or fails. In many cases, there may be warning signs of potentially significant problems to come and noticing the warning signs and intervening thoughtfully can get the project back on course.

Looking for the Red (or even Yellow) Flags

Every CRM project is different, but there are issues you can watch out for. Below are some of the most common warning signs that can help alert you to a potentially floundering CRM project.

Missed Deadlines and Trending Over Budget

These are the two most obvious red flags. Missing deadlines often leads to extending the project schedule, which typically impacts the budget. It’s an obvious warning sign that your project may be floundering.

A related warning sign is when your team misses internal deadlines – problems that may not show up on a high-level project status report for your leadership, but still represent a worrisome trend. Leadership might not notice these in the same way they will notice budget overruns or missed milestones, but the folks who are involved in the day-to-day project tasks will be frustrated if things aren’t moving forward.

However, not all missed deadlines carry the same level of significance, so it’s important to recognize when this is impacting the project’s success and when it is a reasonable response to other factors.

For example, an organization might decide to push back a deadline in order to better respond to an unexpected development, or it may be necessary to take more time to test the system in order to increase users’ confidence in the final product.

Project teams should consider the benefits and consequences of extending deadlines and be careful and conservative when doing so. And, whenever possible, find a way to make up for the slippage later in the project.


Sometimes, a team within your organization may be having problems making decisions related to your CRM project. Especially on lengthy implementation projects, getting stuck on every small decision point will have a ripple effect that either leads to the entire project timeline being extended, or a mad scramble before a major deadline to make sure all of the decisions have been made. Sometimes indecisiveness is due to avoidance; a project team focuses on relatively minor decisions – such as what to name a particular field – while delaying decisions on much more significant matters, such as whether or not to include a certain legacy system in the new CRM implementation. Other times the CRM project team may feel a lack of ownership or be worried about making decisions on behalf of others.

Project teams should have defined roles and areas of responsibility outlined so that decisions can be made more rapidly.

Lack of Involvement

Another indicator of future problems that may be “off the radar” is when there is a lack of responsiveness or involvement by stakeholders in the implementation. For example, user testing often happens in the middle of a project, and if for some reason a project manager sees that there have been fewer people than expected logging on to test functionalities and processes, it can be an early sign that something may be wrong. Testers’ feedback is important, and without it, the solution may not be meeting their needs, but no one will be aware of this until it’s too late. Lack of involvement often leads to decreased user adoption and can cause projects to flounder or fail.

It’s important to communicate expectations to the project team and stakeholders to ensure the project momentum is maintained. Check out this post and ask yourself if your nonprofit is putting people first in your CRM project.

Searching for causes

Once you’ve identified one or more symptoms that indicate your project may be at risk, here are some questions to ask that can help you diagnose the causes:

Is your project team too small? Or are too many stakeholders involved?

As mentioned above, missed deadlines or milestones can frequently result from a team getting stuck on relatively inconsequential decisions, creating additional delays that ripple throughout the project. This is often related to the structure of a client’s project team: if there are too few team members, every decision can become a bottleneck. The project team should be able to delegate more minor decisions to other staff members in order to allow the more managerial or supervisory members to make the “big” decisions.

At the same time, if there are too many project team members, this multiplies the number of meetings, opinions, feedback, and scheduling conflicts which can slow the project nearly to a halt. Project teams, especially large teams, should have a clear process for decision making that does not assume consensus can always be reached, and includes a path for escalating important decisions to management or executives.

Do you have clearly defined requirements? Do you understand your organization’s own processes?

Another common source of delays is when an organization hasn’t “done its homework.” This problem often surfaces when the implementation partner inquires about a current process or workflow, in order to give recommendations about how it should be addressed in the new CRM environment. If the various business teams involved in your CRM implementation team haven’t adequately prepared, they may provide conflicting or incomplete answers. In other words, if your organization doesn’t know or understand your own business processes, you may need to do some internal preparation before their processes can be mapped or translated into the CRM. Alternately, Heller can help you with business process design.

Have you fully assessed the new system you plan to implement?

A project may also go astray when an organization has chosen a CRM product that fundamentally can’t meet their needs. This isn’t incredibly common – more and more of our clients have done their homework on products in the evolving CRM marketplace – but it has happened and it can lead to substantial issues in a project.

For example, there are annual conferences highlighting a variety of Salesforce, Microsoft and Blackbaud products, vendors, and other features of the CRM ecosystem. Nonprofit professionals who attend these events are bombarded with an array of marketers and offers. In some cases, they may make selections based on little more than a vendor’s marketing claims – only to find out, deep into an implementation project, that they made the wrong choice.

Heller has worked with clients to try to make the best of this situation by trying to create new workflows, workarounds or retrofits to make the product do what the client needs it to. This process can have major implications for both budgets and timelines. We have worked with many clients to complete a solution fit assessment as well as detailed solution selection projects. We also offer a popular CRM Roadmap service designed to work with you to map a plan to meet your requirements using your specific CRM solution.

Identifying solutions

The causes of a floundering CRM project can be varied and complex, and the most effective responses are likewise varied. Work with your implementation partner to identify the cause and then form a solution. Some suggestions:

  • Take a deliberate pause
    Although it can impact timeline and budget, sometimes the best solution begins with taking a deliberate pause in the project. The project team can use this moment to determine the cause or causes — whether it’s one of those situations described above, or something else. It’s a good idea to reevaluate your assumptions and requirements going into the project and, if possible, make needed changes before you spend any more time or resources.A deliberate project pause that results in some of the actions described above can be beneficial and even strategic. It’s a far smarter strategy to take a step back to make sure you’re on the right path before you charge forward with the rest of your implementation. Since these systems are the backbone of your fundraising or operations teams, it’s worth taking a little bit of extra time to make sure we get it right.


  • Dedicate more staff resources
    These projects often require large investments funds but also require significant staff time. If the project team is struggling to keep the project rolling while also continuing with their regular job duties, consider adding more resources or shifting some of them to be full time on the project. Consider incorporating interns, volunteers, or temporary staff to help with simple administrative tasks or data entry, freeing up more project time for the key stakeholders.
  • Shake up the project roles
    Sometimes people get assigned roles or responsibilities that don’t play to their strengths, and CRM implementation projects are no exception. When you’re in the middle of a project and the team is struggling to advance, consider changing the project manager or swapping out some of the team members to bring in fresh perspectives and renewed enthusiasm.
  • Incorporate change management approaches
    CRM projects can present non-technical challenges if change management isn’t incorporated throughout the project. Change management will help your organization and its people adapt to the new CRM system and processes, understand what to expect and when, and create buy-in for the project so that all team members feel responsible for the project’s success. Some approaches you might consider include: extending the duration of testing periods, adding time to better collaborate with your implementation consultants on what the final design and functionality will be, incorporating more communication channels to set better expectations with both end-user staff and executives, or creating a space for staff to raise concerns so that they can be addressed rather than ignored. Read more on aligning people, technology and processes in a CRM project.

Is your CRM project floundering? Contact us today to discuss how we can help!

You might also want to check out the following resources:

About the Author

Jennifer Thall
Jennifer has been working with nonprofit organizations for over ten years, starting at the National Community Tax Coalition on the policy and advocacy team where she used Salesforce to monitor and enhance campaigns and operations. Jennifer’s experience analyzing and optimizing... Read More