She Said, He Said: Let’s Talk About CRM Over Customization


By Anne and Matt Hofmann

Customer relationship management platforms (CRMs) are big businesses in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Companies like Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, SAP and Blackbaud are constantly developing new products, and most have evolved to offer mobile and cloud-based solutions. The CRM market is the largest of all software products with revenues expected to exceed $80 billion in the next four years.

Over a meal one day, my husband and I, who together have 25 years of nonprofit experience, started discussing CRM conversions and the pitfalls of over customization. Today we will share our views from our unique perspectives, mine in finance and fundraising, and his in business analytics and project management.

What do we mean by over customization? This is when you take an out-of-the-box software product and add an excessive amount of your own custom fields and routines (repeatedly used sequence of codes). For example, your moves management system currently has 10 prospect/donor stages and your CRM provides for five. Do you customize the five additional stages, or streamline your process into the five built into the system?

SHE SAID (Anne Hofmann)

During the first 20 years of my career, the organization I worked for went through three major software conversion projects. For the first, my areas of focus were accounts payable and procurement; during the next two, I was focused on prospect management in major gifts fundraising. In addition to being an end-user for each conversion, I was also designated a super user with administrative privileges and extensive involvement in configuration. Additionally, I served as the primary trainer for others at my organization who would be using the new software, developing training documents and conducting live sessions. Needless to say, I saw the good, the bad and the downright terrifying during these processes.

Why do people tend to over customize a new database or CRM? In my experience, the answer has been fear. Change can be difficult and scary, especially at a job that you have been doing for a really long time. People have processes and procedures that they are comfortable with, and that comfort can be hard to let go of. When they begin to configure the new system, the temptation to make it look like the old system can be strong, with identical fields, reports and routines.

Why shouldn’t you over customize? Your organization has spent a lot of time researching what would be the best product for their needs, and has spent a lot of money licensing it and hiring consultants for the conversion. When you over customize this new product, you sacrifice its greatest benefit — efficiency.

Companies design their software with industry best practices in mind and are often introducing cutting-edge technology and procedures to help your organization get to the next level. If you were in your old system for several years, then it’s likely your processes are out of date. Attempting to make your new product look like your old one inhibits your ability to maximize these efficiencies because they won’t work the way they are designed to. Instead of attempting to force the new system to fit your old processes, allow the new system to help you transition to new, more efficient ones that will save you time, increase productivity and improve results.

Team buy-in is key to this process — this is where your leadership team comes in. They need to involve the team in the process, starting with why the conversion is necessary and the desired outcomes. Have key members be involved in the decision-making process. Once the decision is made, acknowledge that it will be a challenge, provide transition resources and set expectations for adoption. A great approach to conversions is to identify a champion and innovator for the conversion process from each team subgroup (frontline fundraising, gift processing, research, etc.). This should be an experienced individual who is tech-savvy, not afraid of change and can serve as a liaison between their team and the conversion team. This will ensure that all needs are being heard and that information about the conversion flows back to the team.

HE SAID (Matt Hofmann)

As a senior business analyst with more than 10 years of experience and someone who is responsible for most of the internal and external reporting for my organization, I’ve had to become intimately acquainted with our CRM. In my current role as assistant project manager for a current CRM transition, my experience has shown me some important points and given me a very similar perspective as my better half.

Why do people tend to over customize a new database or CRM? My short answer is limited buy-in. When a company wants to introduce a new CRM, the implementation team needs to do a completely thorough gathering of business needs from all departments. Some of those specs may need updating, streamlining or even re-envisioning, but all core business functionality needs to be accounted for. If a department or function of the business is left out of the planning, your new software won’t be up to the task and further customizations will be needed after implementation.

This can be expensive. What may happen instead is the creation of time-consuming workarounds. For some users, this may mean managing their own contacts and data outside of the CRM completely just so they can do their jobs. This leads to a dispersion of data across multiple systems and machines, and the company loses its single source of truth — what the CRM should have been all along. Over a long enough period, these workarounds and ersatz solutions can impact standard operating procedures and even business policy.

If your customizations do get implemented, entering data into such a system can be confusing, redundant and time-consuming. For those responsible for internal and external reporting, gathering and using data from an over-customized CRM can be clunky at best and near impossible at worst. By way of example, due to an incomplete understanding of our business needs at the initiation of our outgoing CRM, certain data points existed in more than one place in the database. The juggling of two disparate tables was necessary for reporting on a KPI (key performance indicator) for the business.

So how do you get to that final Holy Grail of a well-suited CRM that works as designed? Start with complete buy-in from the users. Get complete senior-level buy-in when selecting the software, and then complete buy-in from key end-users during implementation. This is no easy task. While many users spend their days enduring the redundancies and workarounds in their current system, the effort required to change to something new may pose an even larger challenge. Don’t rely on email entreaties alone — you’ll only get crickets. Schedule war-room-style sessions with whole teams, or individual meetings gathering processes and feedback from users. In the long run, this approach will prove beneficial for every end-user and for the organization as a whole.


In a CRM conversion, communication of needs, expectations and desired outcomes is key. If members of your team at all levels can say, “This is going to take our department and our organization to the next level of success,” you’re in a great spot. If your CRM trainer and conversion consultants are saying, “Your product won’t be supported if you make those customizations,” you’ve gone too far.

Your new CRM should ultimately increase your organization’s efficiency and effectiveness. If a member of your technology team is constantly having to support customizations and workarounds instead of innovating, you have not achieved this. Keep an open mind, keep the lines of communication open and you will be well on your way to a successful conversion.

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