Setting up CRM workflow

28 practical Tips

Simple, Powerful Workflows for Your Business

The Complete Guide to CRM Business Process Management

Customer facing processes like onboarding a new client and delivering a service, are often time-consuming and error-prone. Business owners understand that in order to grow sustainably, they must standardize and automate them. While CRM Workflows promise efficient and consistent service, implementing them can be daunting. However, when the best practices are followed and pitfalls avoided, streamlining the front end of your business can be much easier than you’d expect.

Here’s how I can help.

For the last eight years, I’ve helped thousands of small businesses automate their processes using their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system and other Business Process Management (BPM) tools. This article is a CRM Workflow cheat-sheet. I’ve boiled my experience down into 28 simple actionable tips and offering it to you for free! Each tip makes it a little more likely that you’ll get the results that workflows promise. You’ll find it really isn’t too difficult and can actually be fun. If you know what you’re looking for, use the menu to the top right to skip straight to that section.

But first, let’s look at a quick example:

CRM Workflows in Pop Culture!

In 1954, a traveling salesman named Ray Kroc received an unusually large order of milkshake mixers from a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. When he visited the restaurant, he was astonished by the volume of meals that the small restaurant could deliver to its clients.

Ray noticed a few things about the stand that stood out:

  • Meals could be produced faster than any other stand
  • Meal quality, preparation time and customer experience were very reliable
  • Processes was broken down into simple, well defined tasks that required little training

That was the first McDonald’s restaurant, which Ray later took over and franchised. He largely credited McDonald’s success and ability to scale, to the efficiency and the consistency of its operations. Today, we’d call these processes “workflows” and specifically “CRM Workflows” if they’re customer centric.

While not everyone can be as successful as McDonald’s, if you follow the tips in the next section, you’ll certainly improve your odds.

Tips for CRM Workflows

Rather than just jumble them all together, I’ve organized the tips into four stages. While it’s optional, stick to the order as much as possible to get the most out of it. Here are the 4 stages and what they’re for:

Planning your workflows Spending a bit of time defining what your workflows should do, will go a long way.
Choosing your system There are no shortages of systems. There are criteria you can use to find systems that will work for your team.
Setting up your system Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth by squeezing all the benefits you can from your workflows.
Ensure workflow success You’ve done everything right so far. Now make sure that the system you’ve setup lasts and keeps paying dividends.

Now here are the tips:

Planning Your Workflows: Measure Twice Cut Once

1) Cut The Fat!: Before You Automate, Find Efficiencies.

Failing to do this is perhaps the #1 mistake that businesses make when implementing CRM workflows. Automation will make you more efficient, but to also be effective, you have to take a good honest look at everything you’re doing, and measure them against the results you are receiving in return. Workflows can reduce the amount of resources going towards a process, but only you can determine if it’s worth it.

How to do this?

Treat resources that go into a process as investments. What type of return do you need. When do you need to get it by? Set a benchmark then do an audit of all your processes to see which ones meet your standard. Talk to ground level staff actually performing each one. Follow the money and figure out what processes are delivering it and ruthlessly cut anything that isn’t.

I really can’t emphasize this next one enough.

2) Find the Gems: Make Everyone a High Performer

Before McDonalds bought any machines or hired any staff, there was a period of trial and error where they established best practices. In their case, many recipes and processes were attempted before they found the optimal ones in which they invested. Likewise, before any businesses grows explosively, there is a period of discovery to identify “the formula” that they use to replicate success.

What should your formula be?

In most businesses, there is some natural selection that occurs when staff perform the same task in parallel. Productive staff ascend the ranks where they spread their good habits to the rest of the team. More deliberate businesses use A/B testing to pit 2 versions of the same process against each other to see which wins.

Doesn’t sound like you?

If your business hasn’t formally recognized best practices, you must first do this before moving ahead any further. Talk to staff that always seem to have it together, or the ones that consistently overachieve. Isolate the things that they believe makes them successful and ingrain that into your workflows.

If you’re the bottleneck of your processes, pay extra attention to this:

3) Automate Decisions: Embed Your Thought Process Into Everything

Some processes are more complex. They might fork into different paths to accommodate common scenarios that the business faces. For your workflows to be successful, you’ll need to identify the most common paths, and build-in the decisions that determine the paths into your workflows.

There are several benefits to doing this. One of course is that you’ll reduce the number of people required to be involved in any given process. The logic is built into the process so even if its architect is long gone, it can continue to deliver results. Another benefit is that this will speed everything up. The fewer checks and balances there are, the quicker everything can move forward.

This is the part that staff love …

When trying to get something done, the worst thing you can do for staff moral is to add a layer of bureaucracy. Staff who know the rules will feel free, while staff who are still learning will enjoy the confidence of knowing that if they follow the steps, they’ll be following management’s logic.

4) Enforce Optimal Order: Save Time & Energy with Logical Sequences

Within a process, tasks have an optimal - if not necessary - order in which they should be completed. Home builders understand this as well as anyone. It makes absolutely no sense for a painter to start painting before the foundation is laid. To keep your workflows logical, break them into multiple steps.

Also consider that some processes don’t always make it to the end …

The sales cycle is good example. You don’t close a deal with every lead. So if your process has a task that is performed when you close a lead, it shouldn’t show up in your to-do list until the lead is actually closed. These are called “task dependencies”. Find out which ones exist in your processes and be sure that dependent tasks don’t show up in your priorities until prerequisite tasks are complete. Here’s how we do it.

But there’s another reason to standardize the order …

If yours is the type of business where you don’t have time to do everything you plan, then be sure to take that into consideration. If two tasks can run independently of each other in one of your processes, but one of the tasks is higher priority, or can yield a better return, place it earlier in your workflow, understanding that there may only be time for one.

This one may sound counter intuitive …

5) Choose Wisely: Recognize What Should & Shouldn’t Be Automated

Just like where earlier we limited what we should put into workflows, here we are limiting which of these workflows should be automated. Filter out processes that, although may effectively be producing a result, are impractical, undesirable or expensive to automate.

For instance …

If you spend a lot of energy sending large quantities of lead generation emails to low quality prospects, this might be an interesting workflow to automate. It uses up lots of resources and because leads aren’t too valuable, mistakes are tolerable. In contrast, it would be riskier to automate a later stage of the pipeline, where a lot has been invested into each prospect. You can still use CRM workflows to standardize this stage, but you should think twice before automating it.

Can you be pragmatic?

Remember automation can be as much about improving the quality of staff’s work environment as about efficiency. So if there are processes that that staff actually enjoy (provided that they aren’t too resource intensive), don’t automate them.

6) Augment Staff: Robots vs Exoskeleton

People tend to compare workflow automation to robots, but a more apt comparison would be to powered exoskeletons. A robot is typically a machine that does human tasks autonomously or automatically. On the other hand, a powered exoskeleton is a robot-like suit that humans wear to augment their strength and perform tasks at superhuman levels.

Here’s the moral of the story …

Avoid the idea that workflow automation will replace your staff as would a robot. This is rarely the case. Think of workflows as an tool that gives your staff superhuman powers and the consistency of a machine.

7) Improvements: Know exactly what aspects of your business you want to improve

As the old adage goes “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” If you’re setting up workflows, there’s a good chance that you hope to improve some aspect of your business, so you’ll want to keep a gauge on related metrics.

Here’s the good news:

By standardizing your processes with workflows, measuring progress will become easier. The challenge will be deciding which KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) you plan to track and setting up a system that will track them.

Work backwards from your highest objectives. Identify them, get a baseline and set goals. Then do the same for the lower level actions that staff will take to achieve those objectives. This way, when results come in, you can confirm the correlation between staff actions and high level goals and plan accordingly.

It’s easy to go overboard though.

It’s important that (at least when starting) only bare essentials staff actions be tracked, particularly if tracking them is not automated. The act of measuring is not without cost and as always, annoying staff with bureaucracy will be counterproductive.

8) Balance: Establish Equilibrium in Your Business

When planning your CRM workflows, you’ll be taking a critical look at your processes. This is an opportune time to look at the bigger picture and correct any imbalances and try to predict any future ones.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Are people getting an unbalanced day?
  • Will anyone potentially become a bottleneck at some point?
  • Will someone’s job be too repetitive?
  • Will fun/difficult tasks be spread fairly to everyone?

Perhaps you are implementing workflows specifically because you answered “Yes” to one of these questions. Either way, you have an opportunity to be effective here. Think closely about each task. Consider the consequences of each person’s schedule and before moving to the next stage, run the plans past a few colleagues for idea and approval.

9) Streamline: Interchangeability Leads to Versatility and Robustness

One of the benefits of standardizing your processes for workflows, is it will become easier for staff to jump in and cover for each other. During the planning phase of your workflows, it’s important to recognize this and to take it into consideration as you architect your solution. The advice here is to break the process down in a foolproof step-by-step manner.

Ideally it should work like this …

Anyone in the business should be able to look at a process in motion, know what the next steps are and jump in if necessary. While not all members of your team will be equally versatile, the most universal the workflows are, the more versatile your team will be as a whole.

10) Envision Growth: Plan To Get 10X Bigger

Typically the ultimate goal of implementing workflows is growth. As such, when planning your workflows, you need to think about how they would hold up if the growth were to actually materialize.

Ask yourself:

  • Will you need to hire an infeasible number of employees?
  • Will quality be spread too thin?
  • Will machines need to be replaced?

Growing pains are a great problem to have, but they are ones that can be easily avoided, or at least mitigated, if you plan for them in advance. Identify potential resource or money bottlenecks and plan your workflows to accommodate growth in these areas in advance.

This next tip is optional, but might come in handy later.

11) Document: Make a Blueprint of Your Plans

You may know your workflows like the back of your hand, and you may be the one implementing them. In this case, documenting your workflow plans may be unnecessary. Save time and skip that step. In other cases, you might have some very complex processes whose details would be easy to forget. Or perhaps you are proposing workflows to someone else who will need to approve of them. In this case, its best to document your plans so everyone is on the same page.

How to do it?

There are several standards for documenting workflows that you can also use if you also want to make sure everyone is speaking the same language such as UML. You can also find lots of tools, such as Lucid Charts to that let you create standardized workflow diagrams in sharable format.

So now you know how you want things to work. Next we’ll talk about identifying systems that can make it work.

Choosing Your Workflow System

12) Easy: Will Staff Actually Use It?

The system you use to implement your workflows will be interpreted as synonymous with the workflows themselves by staff. So if your system seems easy, so will the workflows … and vice-versa. So when selecting a system, to filter out the majority of the options, ask yourself one very simple question “Would I want to use this?”. If you can’t answer a definitive “yes” then you’re time could be better spent elsewhere. The single most important thing users care about is ease of use.

To identify if a system is easy to use, look for these characteristics:

Login Will they need to remember another password?
Automatic Does it automatically assign and schedule tasks?
Simple Are there a ton of options that the average employee won’t need?
Intuitive Would a new staff member need much training?
Colours Are colour used to help them gauge priority/category/responsibility?
Notifications So important that we’re saying it again. Staff want reminders!
Priority list Is there a section where staff to quickly see what they need to do?
Navigation Will they get lost in the system?
Mobile Can they access from any device?

If a candidate system checks off these items, you’ve already won half the battle.

This next one doesn’t get talked about nearly enough:

13) Flexible: Will It Meet Our Specific Needs?

For a system’s workflows to fit the precise best practices of your business, chances are it won’t come pre-set right out of the box. You’ll inevitably need to bend, twist and flex it to fit your specific needs. The benefits of workflow automation are only realized when minimal human intervention is required to “steer” the systems guiding your staff. This is by far the most important thing to consider when picking a system so we’ll spend a bit extra time on it.

Here are a few pointers on what type of flexibility to look for in a CRM workflow system:

Date calculations Processes are typically time dependent. So when you apply a workflow to a situation, there is likely an optimal timeline that the tasks in the workflow should follow. Scheduling them manually introduces huge capacity for human error. Whatever system you choose, make sure that these dates are automatically calculated and tasks are scheduled accordingly.
Assignment rules Processes often involve multiple people who serve different roles. Workflow systems need to know which is responsible for each tasks and be able to assigned it to them. Depending on the situation, a given task may need to be assigned to a number of different people. Your system should be able to build this logic into the automation so that tasks always get assigned to the right person, without human intervention.
Reminders Easy to forget, but reminder notifications are very important to keep processes moving forward consistently. Ensure that the system you are using will reduce lag in your workflows by alerting people when their tasks are due, so that everything is done at the optimal time and so that they next tasks may be triggered.
Steps Earlier we mentioned that some tasks need to be completed in a specific or optimal order. Some systems support task dependencies and or prioritization. Make sure the system you choose supports the task ordering that you planned for.
Universal Must cover almost all cases. You use workflows to standardize things that happen over and over many times. So if there are edge cases, there’s a good chance that they’ll pop up often enough. Your workflow system will need to accommodate the bulk of the edge cases e.g. prospect is a couple rather than a single person.
Self serve Workflows are living breathing things. As you establish new best practices, you’ll need to update your workflows. Optimally, you built your original workflows yourself, but regardless, you should at least be able to tweak them yourself.
Customizable You can have perfectly flexible workflows, but if the rest of the system isn’t also flexible, you’ll run into a wall. If the system you are looking for lets you create/edit/control things like fields, tags, sharing, labels, layout and integrations, you’re on the right track.
Reporting Depending on what your goals are and what KPIs you’ve chosen, you’ll need reports to match. Some systems have very flexible reporting that can meet pretty much any need, while with others, you get what you get.

If you choose a flexible system many other sins can be forgiven. Consider all 6 criteria above when evaluating your workflow system.

Which leads us to the next big criteria …

14) Market: Was It Designed For Us?

There are all types of CRM Workflow systems out there. Some are designed for specific industries, while others are more generic. Some are intended for big enterprises, while others cater to SMBs. When selecting a system - any system - make sure you know what you’re getting into.

For example, if you are a small business and you use a CRM that is designed for a larger business for whom price isn’t an issue, chances are it will be far too complicated and expensive for your needs. Or if you’re an HVAC company, systems designed for financial advisors or real estate agents probably won’t work.

Before you trial a system, try to understand what market it serves:

Industry specific vs agnostic

  • Who have its clients been in the past?
  • Do they have testimonials on their website or re their product reviews available online?
  • Who are the ones giving it 5 stars? Are they in your industry?

Keep in mind that many CRM workflow systems work extremely well for specific industries even if they don’t advertise it. When in doubt, contact support (without giving away what your business does) and ask them who their core customers are.

Small Business vs Enterprise

  • Are they trying to sell it to big or small organizations?
  • What plan options are available?
  • Is there an affordable “starter” plan as well a more expensive “pro” plan?

As a small business, it can be incredibly frustrating to be stuck in a pipeline intended for large enterprises. You can expect that you’ll need something from that pro plan and that salespeople will try to upsell you until you switch. Know what you’re getting into from the start.

Are you aware of the different categories?

15) Category: CRM vs BPM?

Here we’ll look at different types of systems you can use to achieve CRM Workflows. There are two main categories: Workflow CRM and BPM system. We’ll identify what each is best suited for.

BPM system

The first option is to employ a Business Process Management (BPM) System as a backbone to your IT, which you would connect to your CRM. BPM systems house the your workflow rules and monitor the systems that could trigger a workflow. It then tees up the next sequence of activities that need to be done and can even notify the person responsible.

Here’s an example …

In McDonald’s case, a BPM system could monitor the cash register. Then if it detects the sale of a hamburger, it can heat up the grill and tell the cook of to prepare the burger.

BPM systems have traditionally been expensive and slow to setup. They inherently need to be connected to other systems through APIs (how systems send information to each other) and Webhooks (how systems notify each other). These days you can avoid most of that technical side by using BPM systems like Zapier. You can embed your workflow rules into Zapier, and connect it to the relevant systems with minimal technical knowledge.

When to use a BMP system …

  1. If you are a very big organization and have many systems that need to be coordinated.
  2. If you are a smaller organization who (for whatever reason) needs to use a particular CRM which doesn’t support your workflows.

Workflow CRM

The second option is to use a CRM that has workflow capabilities built right into it. This is inherently easier to wrap your head around because there is nothing happening behind the scenes. The drawback is that it can be difficult enough to find a CRM that you like, let alone one that you like which also supports workflows. But they are out there. Our system Solve Client Manager falls into this category.

Here’s an example …

In the McDonalds example, picture the same scenario, that the cash register triggers the burger cooking process. But in the analogy of the CRM with workflows, you would buy the cash register and the grill would be sold as a single turn-key solution.

When to use a Workflow CRM …

Years ago, it would be hard to recommend this option, because there were fewer systems and most had yet to evolve to the point that they could handle the average organizations workflows.

  1. Your CRM supports the nuance of your business so well, that workflows are not worth sacrificing it.
  2. The majority of your workflows can be handled by your CRM i.e. not a lot of other systems need to be involved.

16) Scalable: Can It Grow With Us?

The reason most businesses implement workflows in the first place, is to make it easier to grow. Earlier you envisioned what it might look like to grow. You may have even estimated the time and money it will cost your business each time you execute a workflow. Look at each system and ask yourself if it will serve your needs at your projected size as well as at your current size.

Here’s the deal …

You may discover that a given system might only get you halfway to your growth target. This may still be a viable option. While we all like to start with the end in mind, it’s not a sin to bridge a gap with a temporary solution as long as its moving you closer to your goal.

17) Pragmatism: Be Practical and Make It Work

One mistake startups and idealist both make when selecting systems, is to set their standards unnecessarily high. Seasoned business owners know that no system is perfect and that its very rare for all criteria get met when choosing one. So before you begin evaluating workflow systems, draw a line in the sand beyond which point a system would be acceptable.

I’d suggest this …

Prioritize the things you want the system to do into “essential”, “important”, and “nice to have”. Then after evaluating the different systems, even if there are none that clearly meet all your criteria, you’ll be able to distinguish the ones who came close and choose the one that best meets your original objective.

So now you picked a system. Let’s get the most out of it.

Setting Up Your Workflows

18) Pick One

The fun can now begin …

Setting up workflows is addictive if you envision how much smoother your business will run. But before you get carried away, understand that this is a quality over quantity situation. So set up a single workflow and start using it before going further.

Setting up one will help you get familiar with the system you chose and help you discover the options that are available. Pick one that you know well. Take time to experiment knowing that the time invested in the first workflow will pay dividends with the next ones. Staff will also appreciate that you’ll have eased them into this new world of workflows. They’ll typically have lots of suggestions so you may even need to rework the first one before moving onto others.

19) Scheduling

This is perhaps the most useful aspect of a workflow …

Workflows are composed of many tasks or activities that need to get done to move the process forward. These tasks are often time dependent. When you planned your workflows, you identified scheduling rules. Then when you picked a system, you likely chose one that support these rules. Scheduling is one of the most common and consequential areas in which errors are introduced, so make this as simple as possible for staff. Avoid making them do any math or pick too many dates. If it can be automated for them, or even avoided altogether, now is the time to do it.

20) Assignments

If there is more than one person in your team, this is essential …

When planning your workflows, you also identified the rules that determine to whom each tasks workflow should be assigned. You probably also found a system that supports these rules. Now is the time to set that up. This is another area that can introduce errors in your process, so again, you’ll be better off if you can automate to the point that assignment will be completely covered by the system.

21) Notifications

Cut the lag between someone getting assigned a task and them starting it …

If you’ve chosen a system that supports notifications (native phone notifications rather than email) you can shorten critical path of your workflows. Also, by letting people know what their responsibilities are up front, they’ll have the opportunity to manage their priorities.

22) Priorities

Not all tasks are created equal …

This should be clearly communicated throughout the organization so that everyone agrees on what needs to happen next. If when creating your workflows, you can indicate on each task what the level of urgency is or how valuable it is, you can count on fewer decisions needing to be made by staff day-to-day and a more consistent outcome. If you can use colours to indicate priority, you can expect even better results.

23) Client Perspective

Take a step back …

Look at what you’ve done so far and review it from a client’s perspective. Ask yourself some questions:

  • What days of the week, or what time of day would they prefer to be contacted?
  • Will they interact with more people than necessary on your team?
  • How will they view your business after being subject to your workflow?

Ask yourself these questions for each of your workflows before trying them out on actual clients.

24) Visibility

There are 2 aspects we’re looking at here …

  1. Can someone jump into the system and get a good overall view of what’s going?
  2. Can you quickly see the status and next steps of an individual workflow?

One of the big benefits of workflows that we discussed is that they produce the standardized data which makes it easy to identify and monitor things that aren’t working. You’ve likely selected a system that has amazing reporting capabilities, so now is the time to setup reports that that will track your team’s progress.

Another benefit of workflows is that everything is standardized making it easier for anyone to step in and do someone else’s task in their absence. Be sure that you make it easy for staff to pull up any given workflow and to see what the next steps are and who is responsible for it.

25) Connected Systems

Chances are, your CRM isn’t the only system you use …

Processes that begin in your CRM may contain activities that span multiple systems. So to get the most out of your CRM workflows, connect your CRM to those other systems in a way that staff will be able to plow through their work with minimal distraction.

Most CRMs have a variety of prebuilt integrations such that you simply need to connect your accounts to get the benefit. Many also offer APIs and Webhooks to keep information synced between systems. While your workflows may require special type of integration, a good objective is for the CRM to contain as complete a contact profile as possible.

Now the stage is set. Make sure things go as well as you imagined …

Ensuring Your Workflows Are Successful

26) User adoption

As is the case for any system, your success will require (and may be measured by) staff buy-in. Even when the system will clearly make staff’s jobs easier and improve their lives, you can almost always count on resistance to change. It’s just part of human nature and is more pronounced with older staff.

Here’s the good news …

Once staff start using a system they like which is making them successful, they’ll use it faithfully and they’ll find ways to improve it. To summarize what to do to get staff to use the system you’ve chosen:

Solve a real problem The system must make their lives easier.
Phase it in Don’t steal away their old system right away. Give them both for a period.
Encourage mobile Mobile has better adoption because people prefer apps.
Good design Hopefully you’ve picked a well designed system. Design workflows to be simple too.
Training Not everyone needs the same amount of training. But at minimum make sure everyone is on the same page and can do their basic job.

27) Measure and improve

Now to see how well it all worked …

Now that work is getting done and recorded in a systematic way, management can step back and watch the numbers as they roll in. Some workflows will certainly have stages between which you’ll want to measure conversion rates to see which steps are effective and which aren’t. Look at the reports you’ve setup and try to identify the parts of the process that could use improvement and modify your workflows accordingly. If there are obvious low hanging fruit, where a small change could yield a noticeable improvement, fix those first.

28) Repeat

When you set-up your workflows, you likely had specific processes in mind that you wanted to standardize and or automate. Now that you’ve successfully implemented workflows in the customer facing side of your business, and you’re familiar with what they can do and what the system you chose is capable of, it might be time to look at other areas of your business, to see where you could replicate your success.

A few examples of areas other than sales where workflows may be useful:

  • Employee hiring or training
  • Purchase fulfillment
  • Proposal process
  • Expense claim/approval
  • Incident response
  • Partner onboarding
  • Support ticket

Wrap Up

Establishing standardized CRM Workflows for your business is absolutely necessary when franchising or expanding your business in sustainable way. It can dramatically reduce the load on your staff without compromising and in many cases, even improve customer experience. The time and resources you free up give you room to breathe, experiment and ultimately grow your business.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding this article or CRM workflows in general, feel free to reach out and we’ll be happy to help. Of course we also offer our own CRM workflow system called Solve Client Manager. We’ll be happy to help you get started with it as well. Why not give it a try?.