Watching CRM dashboards is like monitoring stocks online—it's easy to get mesmerized by the merest up tick or downturn in lead flow. But like savvy investors, savvy marketers need to do the legwork to understand what's really being measured—before getting seduced by graphs and charts.

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Marketers have never been more metric-driven. We obsessively check our CRM dashboard, and we know that the CEO and sales team are doing the same. How do we stay ahead of the numbers in a real-time world?

Case Study: Too Many Dashboards

An executive team I consulted with was disappointed with lead flow and was convinced that their marketing programs were a waste of money. Meanwhile, the Marketing Programs Manager and Inside Sales Manager were blissfully ignorant that their jobs were on the line. Why?

The managers were all looking at lead counts from different dashboards, and the highest lead count was almost 10x greater than the lowest lead count.

Why did the reports differ so widely?

Each manager had worked separately with the CRM administrator to create a lead report. One measured raw lead flow, including duplicate contacts and spam. A second report aggregated leads by state (inadvertently stripping out international leads in the process). A third report aggregated leads assigned to each sales rep—capturing less than 10% of the lead total, because the incoming leads for inside sales, leads in unassigned territories (the sales team was a few reps short), and reseller leads weren't included in the count.

I suspect that there were more lead reports out there—but by the time I saw No. 3, I had all lead reports deleted. With no dashboard to watch, the sales and marketing team worked together to agree on the definition of a "lead" and set consistent measurement criteria before setting up another report.

How do you take control of the lead machine, and make sure there's no wrench in the works?

Get Marketing on the CRM steering committee—if it's not already

Most CRM deployment projects are driven by the sales team. Marketers need to be involved up front to define the systems, the project plan, and measurement criteria. Don't be blind-sided by a report or a major release you don't know about. And make sure your team gets the consulting, training, and marketing automation capability you need to be effective.

Become a CRM expert—get your hands dirty!

When your programs are under scrutiny, the last thing you need is another action item—but understanding how your CRM system works is critical to your success as a marketer. Take advantage of online training and webcasts. Make your administrator your IM buddy (I did, and all I had to do was ask). Focus specifically on the data fields and reports in the campaign management function of the system so you can quickly get your hands on the data you need. Or deputize an ambitious, tech-savvy member of your team to do the digging for you and keep the whole group informed.

Don't expect a solution out of the box—allocate budget for marketing automation tools

Most CRM systems are not designed for campaign management (despite what they claim). To track lead to revenue (which this is about, after all), to consolidate leads from all sources (web leads, search engines, outbound campaigns), and to nurture leads over time, you will need marketing automation tools to supplement your CRM system. I know a few marketing departments that assign a person to import leads from other systems and export data to Excel to create custom reports—but it's not anyone's favorite job.

Don't stop learning—keep evaluating and tuning the system

No one gets it right out of the gate. Be prepared to evaluate your progress monthly—not just when you have a reporting deadline. Challenge yourself and your team to find new ways to measure your progress—and to find holes in the process that could hinder you moving forward. Have a working lunch with the sales team (and offer to buy the pizza) to test your reporting metrics and question your assumptions

Be proactive—set realistic expectations for upper management

Just because you can access reports instantly doesn't mean you'll instantly impact the revenue line. If you have a six-month sales cycle, a real-time dashboard won't close the deals any faster. Expect to proactively walk through the lead-nurturing process and the lead-to-sale process with your management team.

It's a real-time world, but building awareness, nurturing leads, and driving sales still take real time.

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Su Doyle is a go-to-market strategist who has served as CMO and GM for high-tech and media companies. She writes on marketing and product strategy at Email her at