Dear craftsmen: sometimes your tools deserve the blame

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I've recently been doing some poking around for statistics about customer relationships manager (CRM) software, particularly the reasons that companies give when CRM software hasn't worked for them. If you're not familiar with CRM, don't worry about it for the purposes of this post. All you really need to know is that it is a strategy for organizing and improving a company's relationships with its customers, often through the use of software. In any event, I ran across the results of a survey about reasons for CRM failure (you can find the same data if you feel like entering a heap of personal information at the first link under "What is CRM" on this page).

There are a lot of different reasons shown from the survey, but the thing that struck me as odd is that 20% of people cited "Lack of CRM Understanding," while only 2% listed "Software Problems." Now, as a software developer, I appreciate these respondents not blaming everything on the software, but results like these also reflect companies that aren't expecting enough from their software. If 20% of companies have trouble related to understanding and using CRM, that's almost certainly a failure of  software, at least in part.

Good software doesn't just provide functional tools to the user, it should also provide  understanding of how the tools can best be utilized. At the very least, training within the software can accomplish this, but at it's best, the design and interface of the software should make its utility self-evident. Ultimately, software is defined not just by what it let's you do, but by what it encourages you to do. You could store most of the information that goes into a CRM in an Excel spreadsheet, but no one would claim that Excel is CRM software.

When Gmail first came out, the big story was that they provided 1GB of storage space. Admittedly, at the time that was a pretty impressive feature, but it's not, in my opinion, what really made Gmail great. What differentiated Gmail was that it promoted a new way to think about webmail, enabled by all that space. Having 1GB available means you never have to delete anything; you just archive it. It means searching and tagging instead of scanning through lists of folders. It means grabbing that two month old email and threading it alongside the reply sitting in your inbox. Gmail didn't just provide new tools to webmail, it provided and advocated a new way to use webmail. In my review of Microsoft's revamped Hotmail, I talked a bit about how Hotmail provides the ability to attach up to 10 GB of files. That's a much larger limit than just about anything else out there, but Hotmail doesn't encourage you do do anything new with the new feature, rendering the extra space pretty uninteresting.

In any event, if you're having trouble understanding or using your software, it's probably not entirely your fault. Furthermore, the chances are good that plenty of others have had the same problems, and hopefully a few of them decided to make something better. We've talked about some ways to find software alternatives, and we'll happily take suggestions for software to review if we haven't covered it previously. Just let us know in the comments.

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