CRM Recruiting Best Practices

/CRM Recruiting Best Practices

CRM Is Alive… and Thriving!

As I embark on yet another search for a VP of CRM, I once again observe the growing, widespread adoption of CRM as a top strategic business priority. When I first started recruiting in this space in 2001, the acronym CRM was about as well known as API. We can all thank Fred Newell, who many consider to be the “Godfather” of CRM thought leadership, for putting it into the business lexicon. As CEO of Seklemian/Newell, he was already an internationally renowned visionary and sought after marketing consultant. I vividly remember sitting down with Fred in 1999 at the annual DMA conference in San Francisco. I don’t recall what the circumstances were, but we shared an enormous base of common contacts in the database marketing field (which at the time was my main focus), and we had been introduced. He talked about his new (first) book, The New Rules of Marketing – How To Use One-to-One Relationship Marketing to be the Leader in Your Industry. He explained how there would be a strong demand for highly specialized CRM talent and he suggested that I learn as much as I could about CRM recruiting best practiices and get to know the players, which I did. Here’s this international guru offering fatherly advice to a common headhunter. Wow, I remember thinking: Better listen to him, and listen to him good! Today, CRM is fully one-quarter to one-third of my executive search practice, and I credit Fred for helping me “see the light.” Fred passed away in 2007, but his torch remains lit and shines as bright as ever at the CRMC Conference, which he started, and now under the brilliant direction of Devon Wylie. Those of us who have devoted so much of our professional lives to this field now consider the CRMC a must attend for anyone in the retail space.

One of the joys of recruiting in this field is hearing how CRM has positively impacted so many businesses. I am reaching out to many senior level CRM leaders in connection with this latest search who are with brands that just a few years ago had no such role on the org chart. Here is just a sampling of what I am hearing:

  • The head of CRM for a large insurer told me how their agents are experiencing multiple increases in productivity.
  • Another CRM’er talked about how it has allowed workers at a large automaker we all know to work together across multiple continents.
  • At one large pharmaceutical company, sales reps are generating new quotes in a matter of hours.
  • One CRM consultant I know well told me how some municipalities are even adopting CRM principles to engage citizens.
  • The head of CRM for a mid-size media company described how it has helped in the transition to digital readership (I have seen this first hand with several placements I made just last year with publishers).
  • Many tell me how it has boosted the use of mobile technology.
  • CRM is also transforming sales processes with social selling and mobile apps, and at some companies is being credited for reducing the sales cycle from months to days.

As I’ve written about many times over the years, CRM can be a complex machine with many moving parts. It can represent a seismic cultural shift moving a company from a traditional product-based management culture to one that is more customer-centric. Ask three senior executives to define CRM, you might just get 3 different answers, and of course that makes my job akin to kicking a field goal when no one really knows where the goal posts should be. But the positive impact CRM can have on an organization, when adopting a CRM mind-set makes sense, is irrefutable. And there are predictions that in just 10 years from now, AI and further technological advances will make today’s CRM look prehistoric by comparison.

What To Look For When Hiring Senior CRM Leaders

Recently I received a call from a nationally known financial services firm we all know, and they were interested in talking with me about a search for a Director of CRM, their first such hire. What they really needed was a VP, but they just didn’t know it yet.  That would have been the perfect time for me to direct them to a posting I wrote about the characteristics of successful VP’s of CRM. Trouble is, I hadn’t written one yet.

This article is going to fix that.

As a recruiter who specializes in this space, I’ve helped many companies take customer engagement to the “next level,” as it were, by recruiting and placing CRM leaders across a wide spectrum of industries from casinos to restaurants to office supplies and capital equipment marketed to businesses big and small.  Some clients already had rudimentary loyalty programs in place, some had none at all. Some of them already had strong digital marketing infrastructure, others were just scratching the surface. But no matter where they were on the CRM continuum, they all had one common need: Someone with the vision to lead the charge and transform the way they think about their customers, from the C-suite to the stores where associates interact face-to-face directly with customers on a day-to-day basis.

So, what makes a good VP of CRM? It’s a complex role with lots of complex responsibilities, but these are some of the defining skills and abilities you need to look for if your organization wants to elevate the way it acquires and nurtures its customers:

A Transformative Strategic Leader

First and foremost, a Vice President of CRM fundamentally changes the way an organization thinks about it’s customers. They are a change agent in every sense of the word. They influence senior leaders and provide the guiding light to develop and deliver more personalized customer experiences. Changing the way an organization thinks about its customers it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially in the field where associates are not accustomed to a different level of consumer engagement, and in fact, often resist it. It’s the job of the CRM chief to embed this new way of thinking within the culture of the organization.

Know How To Market to Multiple Touch Points

The best CRM VP’s are truly channel agnostic- they go where the customer is. They enhance the customer experience by applying targeted offers at every point of engagement, whether it’s online, by email, direct mail, social media, on the phone, or in-store, and they do it in a way that facilitates ease of use to deepen brand engagement. They integrate digital media, whether it be social media, mobile, targeted display, search or whatever it may be, to strengthen customer engagement at every phase of the customer journey.

Highly Analytical

This one is pretty obvious. Data is the fuel that feeds the CRM beast, and CRM VP’s must be highly adept at customer segmentation and interpreting customer behavioral data and analysis. They need to know the latest analytic tools, and most importantly, they must identify and hire the talented managers who will lead the analytics and customer insight teams. This is a defining characteristic for anyone in a CRM leadership role, and it’s no surprise that many have quantitative-oriented college degrees.

Knows Technology

The VP of CRM is technically proficient in the architecture that collects customer data to drive CRM and loyalty marketing solutions. Often, CRM chiefs need to decide whether or not to replace older legacy systems and introduce newer technology, such as revamping the customer database. Gone are the days when they could simply hand their wish list over to the Ecommerce or IT department.  CRM leaders are truly “marketing technologists”, and they also know the importance of forging positive relationships with IT.

Knows the Suppliers

The technology decisions just mentioned often mean putting the CRM system in the hands of outsourced CRM technology providers. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of software-as-a-service CRM tools, not to mention providers that offer services ranging from highly advanced analytical services to developing and managing loyalty programs.  This decision tree has many branches: Whether to go on-premise or outsource, requirements gathering, integrating with CRM systems already in place, selecting the kind of loyalty platform, etc. It takes a seasoned CRM pro to make the decisions which ensure that the CRM infrastructure they build will be the right one for the organization’s needs.

Digitally Savvy

This is another one that’s pretty obvious, but it can’t be emphasized enough. At some e-tail organizations where the majority of the revenue is generated online, I’ve seen executive level jobs in CRM that are also responsible for a big chunk of the digital marketing strategy. But at minimum, a top CRM leader must have strong knowledge of web, email, social media, mobile and overall digital marketing technologies, analytics and strategies.


In many organizations, the CRM leader must be more than just an inspirational leader.  The ability to work at the strategic level, while at the same time comfortable being hands-on as required, is just as important, especially in environments where CRM is relatively new or being re-engineered. My senior CRM candidates never lose their ability to work at the level of their subordinates when called upon to do so.

The role of CRM leader is one of the most demanding specialties I work with. They need to be analytical, technical, strategic, hands-on, charismatic, an excellent communicator, they have to be able to fly at high and low altitudes, manage up and down the organization, they have to be a builder and a leader, the list goes on and on.  These are some of the most amazingly skilled candidates I work with, on many levels. And I’ve watched it happen many times:  Put this kind of talent in the right environment, and they will revolutionize your CRM efforts.

The Critical Importance of Collaboration for Successful CRM

What an amazing time to be in marketing. What an amazing time to be in CRM. As a major focus of mine for more than two decades, I’ve seen customer engagement evolve from the birth of the first SaaS vendor to the formation of in-house CRM Centers of Excellence that are driving marketing effectiveness across diverse corporate functions spanning global geographies.  One of my top searches right now is with a national health insurer that is shifting their culture from that of a traditional provider to a well-being partner that will empower customers to live a life that’s healthy, active, and rewarding.

How can you not get excited about that??

CRM leadership roles among the most transformational opportunities that cross my desk. These positions are anything but business as usual. They require candidates who bring a whole different discipline about how to think about current customers, and an understanding of what keeps them loyal.  Then, they have to work hard to engage and captivate new and existing customers. And it’s not just about what you should be doing, but also what you shouldn’t be doing.  As consumers ourselves, we all can relate to communications from brands that lack relevance and engagement. At most organizations, the evolution towards a more fully integrated, omni-channel, customer-centric marketing model takes years.  This particular health insurance client has been building its CRM team since 2012, and as one of the marketing leaders told me, “we’re just rounding second base.”  Experienced CRM pros know this journey all too well. They have to work across many different functions from customer service to finance to legal, and frequently across multiple locations and different customer segments. Talk about a challenge. Then of course there’s the leadership factor.  Aligning executive leaders to have real conviction behind such a transformation is essential. That is a central theme in my writings on CRM recruiting best practices.

There are lots of moving pieces that must work together to affect a successful end-to-end CRM makeover.  Perhaps the most important bullet item on the job description for the insurance search I referenced is the following:

  • Exceptional cross-functional collaboration,
  • relationship management,
  • influencing and interpersonal skills.

My client is fortunate to have an HR manager who has a strong understanding of CRM. He understands the vital role that cross functional collaboration plays in developing CRM strategies, and he does an excellent job probing for it. He looks for examples of how candidates have have evangelized the CRM function with past employers, and how they have conveyed the features, benefits reports, dashboards and ROI for different lines of business.

Bottom line: If you’re in CRM, you already know the importance of working across departmental lines. Be sure you emphasize this ability when interviewing for CRM-related positions.  Whether you’re a VP or a Manager, that will gain you big points in the candidate selection process.