“Free” Software Implementation vs. Building a Strong Foundation

An enterprise-level software implementation can be a traumatic event. I spend most of my days talking to prospects evaluating AIM and other fund management systems and it seems like people fall into one of two camps: people who have been through unsuccessful implementations in the past and people who have yet to go through any implementation at all. In both cases though, there’s skepticism about the value of implementation and whether it’s a worthwhile investment.

They don’t let me post on the Altvia blog very often, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer up my unsolicited thoughts on the importance of investing in an implementation, why a “free” implementation might be worth exactly what you’re paying, and when the best plan for your firm might be no implementation at all.

The Case for an Implementation

I always compare a software implementation to the foundation of a house. The foundation is what you build everything else on and while you may remodel or redecorate, the foundation is solid and unchanging. For fund managers or LPs investing in funds, a software implementation puts the company in a great position to evolve and grow over time because the software is able to adapt to accommodate the new and various requirements that arise as a firm grows from, say, managing one fund to managing five or more.

Without that foundation, you get a couple of years into a new system and changes get much more difficult to make or you end up scrapping the system altogether and starting from scratch because it’s easier than reworking a system that wasn’t really right from the start.

Why a “Free” Implementation is Sometimes Worth Exactly $0

It’s easy to see why a lot of software purchasers think that CRM should just work out of the box; users of all kinds of software are used to downloading what they need from the app store and having it work right away. Enterprise software requires a different mindset for two big reasons: 1) when you’re buying an app, there’s usually no need to migrate data from another system, and 2) most people downloading an app have a very similar set of requirements. Unfortunately, if you’re, this is rarely the case.

As I alluded to above, if you have no existing data to import and you have very generic requirements, a “no implementation” implementation might work for you. It’s my experience that this is usually only the case with new firms since unique requirements are essentially another way of saying your “special sauce” that makes your firm different and what makes investors want to give you their money. For established firms, implementing fund management software like you would install an app is a dangerous approach because you’re downplaying the importance of what makes you unique.

A traditional crm was built for general ‘customer’ scenarios

Software platforms have made the world a better place by making work a better place. Indeed the world is better off when people enjoy their jobs even marginally more, and workplace applications on big CRM platforms like Salesforce.com have done that and much more.

But the potential that platforms like these offer presents diminishing returns: once the platform provider has engineered too many industry specific components into its platform, its usefulness for other industries begins to be threatened, and with that so do the usefulness of the component tools built into the platform.

So it is with the CRM category that Salesforce.com has defined: it is generic enough to work for many industries, and yet still offers the potential for others to round off the edges and nail more vertically-oriented and extremely tailored software solutions.

Private capital markets are actually a great demonstration of this dynamic. Where generic CRM platforms simplify — appropriately so — to assume there’s a business, a customer, a sale, and service of that customer, there are a few industry-specific pieces that are missing.

Take for example, that investors become customers by investing through legal entities the GP raises. It’s a subtle but important nuance that just doesn’t make sense at a platform-as-a-service level (because it’s overly complicated for a simple one-time sale that many industries require), but which can easily be added without 10 years or software engineering. Once provided, the rest of the platform’s components become tremendously powerful again and you’re set to take over the world.

As a traditional CRM in our pillars methodology, these nuances must be present to properly account for investors in these legal entities, potential target companies and which are owned by these entities, the context of all interactions with these parties (as well as the appropriate overlap, ie co-investments), and how you’re arriving at finding these opportunities on both sides of the equation, such that you’re able to piece together what’s effective and what’s not. Not just because we say so, but because these are the very relationships and data that are key to the motivation behind a CRM in any industry.

It’s critical, too, that the valuable publicly-available information that helps to enrich CRM systems and save users painful steps of entering it themselves is fully-integrated at the platform level.

Again, look no further than the 3,000+ pre-built integrations that Salesforce.com — the creator of the CRM platform concept — has at a platform level to do so, and which only exists by way of holding just short of overly-specifying certain industry workflows that would present challenges to properly integrate.

Stakeholder reporting and communication (investor relations) draws on a range of datasets

The traditional “customer service” model of CRM systems once again makes overly-simplified assumptions about the customer relationship when applied to private capital markets.

In fifteen years I personally have yet to hear the terms “warranty” or “service call” in this market because it’s just not the same. But make no mistake, as uncomfortable as it may be to say aloud, customer service is more important now than ever and it’s constantly happening; the industry is, after all, considered to be a financial “service”.

As it turns out, that service is primarily information-based — it’s driven by data and takes the form of reports and analysis that drive decisions, and then end up again in investor-facing reports and analysis.

The foundational elements of a private capital markets CRM must be built such that they accommodate this data (like we discussed above), but so too that it can accommodate additional supporting data that investors (customers!) need in the context of service.

Oftentimes this supporting data — financial metrics and time-based values, for example — is believed not to meet the traditional definition of CRM and the natural thought is “well, better do this in Excel!”.

While I happen to believe Excel is still the greatest software application ever built, its introduction to this value chain we’ve discussed herein actually creates the problem many firms suffer from: key data needed to provide customer service (again: effectively the entirety of a firm’s reports and analysis) is now in disparate systems and detached.

Both of those dynamics are important and distinct: not only is this supplemental data disparate, but when brought together there is no logical association that can be made between the two data sets.

Allow me, then, to make the point very simply: not only can this financial and time-based value data (you may be thinking about is as “portfolio monitoring” or “accounting”) be a part of a CRM, it is arguably the most important part of a CRM because it’s at the core of what providing service to the customer entails — information that comes out of data!

Firms need a digital method to engage stakeholders (ie investor portals)

Investor portals are not new; in fact, for many of us — including myself — they conjure up horrifying nightmares in which we’re aimlessly guessing at folders to find the newest document we need.

So in lies the opportunity: not only have the portals we’ve come to hate not simplified the process of acquiring information, they’ve failed to create an entirely new experience that is “customer service” driven.

To be fair, this is not a B2C market where you’d be long out of business for not having focused on customer service and thus the customer’s technology-driven experience. But don’t expect to be around too much longer if you aren’t thinking about this shift.

Today’s institutional investors increasingly expect this same consumer-like experience, and a massive opportunity is being missed by not providing it. It’s not about providing them the experience they desire; it’s more about the ability to measure engagement that is had in return.

Put simply: what’s keeping the market from providing this experience is the availability of the information that’s required to create the service that provides the experience.

If you’ve hung in this long, you know that by focusing on your CRM, you have the data that’s required to manage the customer relationship and the technology-driven experience through which that information is shared to create a differentiated and opportunistic customer experience.

investor relations