The Perfect CRM For A/E/C Firms

What is the perfect client relationship (CRM) management tool? Does it exist? If not, what would it be like? What functionality would it have? What information would it hold or display? How would it be priced?
There are many different CRM tools out there and the term CRM has taken to mean many things. In today’s world, it can be your contact database, project database, or even your accounting system. But when I’m talking about CRM, I’m talking about a tool that will help you keep track of the people in your network and your business development/marketing commitments whether you are one person or an entire firm.

The Problems with Contemporary CRM Tools

A/E/C firms often struggle to successfully implement CRM tools and systems. You may be surprised to find out that some of the largest and most successful A/E/C firms don’t use the standard CRM systems. You may even be surprised to learn that there is evidence that suggests Deltek (the leading provider of CRM for our industry) does not even use it’s own CRM for its salesforce (it’s reported that they use Why do firms find it so difficult to implement CRM? My opinion is that there are a few fundamental flaws with contemporary CRM systems. They are as follows:
  • Built by programmers, not rainmakers
  • Lack of focus and innovation
  • Not set up to be your trusted system
  • Overcomplicated and unfriendly user interface
  • Unrealistic pricing structures

Re-imagining the Perfect CRM

Let’s re-imagine CRM from a new perspective. Let’s open our minds and think about the tool we actually need without considering the tools people tell us we should have. Let’s imagine the Perfect CRM.

Focusing on What We Desire to Achieve

As CRM systems evolved they lost focus. So let’s refocus. We don’t need a tool to help manage our clients, we need a tool to help manage ourselves as we pursue successful client relationships. The two key areas of information this tool needs to focus on are:
  1. Contacts
  2. Commitments
Let’s look at each of these separately.


Contact databases often focus on the wrong information. The most important information you gather about a contact is your interaction with that person and information you learn about them (example: Met at AGC Conference, plays flag football on Sundays, huge Phillies fan, looking for advice on networking). This should be the focus of your system, not what the person’s address is. That’s really ancillary information. So the focus of the Perfect CRM would be on the collection and sharing of this info that so often gets relegated to a very small box nowhere near the focus of the screen. The Perfect CRM makes the recording of these interactions both central and easy.

The Perfect CRM is also a reverse social network. This means it tracks not who you know, but rather who knows you. Each contact screen would show not just your firm’s responsible party, but who else in your company knows this contact and what their interactions with this person were. If a client was to see your CRM, they should either be wowed or offended that you capture so much information about them. For example, your screen on Skanska would tell you who in your organization has contacts at Skanska, and what interactions they have had with those contacts. The page would serve as a living history of your firm’s interactions with Skanska.



With these contacts and ongoing business development/marketing activities come commitments. Commitments can be created by you or by your superiors. For example, A large engineering firm I know uses a custom built CRM system to assign business developers and project managers specific contacts and tracks their interaction with them. They are required to interact with each of their assigned contacts every 60 days or their profit center gets “fined” $10,000. This is all facilitated through their CRM system. This is a perfect example of tracking a specific commitment.
The Perfect CRM does not track your typical to-do items or leads. It focuses on your commitments, meaning it requires you to define the outcomes you desire and the next actions you need to take in order to move one step closer to achieving them.  This may seem similar to a to-do list, but it is much more useful and powerful. The key areas of information for each commitment are:
  • Desired outcome
  • Next action
  • Category
  • Context
  • Responsible party
  • Due date (if any)
For example, my desired outcome might be to develop a relationship with Paul Smith at NASA, who I met at an industry conference. Here’s the information I would record.
 Desired Outcome Next Action  Category  Context  Responsible Party  Due Date
Paul Smith Relationship (Facilities Manager at NASA)  Call Paul RE: Golf at Springfield CC Client Relationships @Phone  Matt Handal 9/30/09
Here is another example. You found out that Bristol Myers Squibb is building a new co-generation plant. Your workmate Tim knows the head of Global Engineering at the company and has set up a meeting.
 Desired Outcome Next Action  Category  Context  Responsible Party   Due Date
BMS New Cogen Plant Project  Tim to talk to Phil S at next meeting RE: How we can help  Lead  @ClientMeeting  Tim Klabunde  9/26/09

The goal is to capture all open loops related to bringing in work, so the things you want to get done may not involve clients at all.

 Desired Outcome Next Action   Category   Context Responsible Party   Due Date
Wastewater Package Update  Megan to send Matt First draft of revisions  Marketing Project  @Office  Megan Yee  9/21/09
The Perfect CRM also needs to track the things you are committed to doing at a specific time, so that means it needs to have an integrated calendar. This way you can record your meeting with the client Tuesday at noon.
When people start capturing their commitments, they find that commitments come from everywhere. Therefore, the Perfect CRM also needs to integrate the collection of commitments wherever you input information. For example, when you add an interaction entry in a contact’s page you also need to define what your next action is (send an article? introduce to so and so?).

Why Track Commitments Rather Than Leads?

The fundamental flaw with tracking leads (like Heartcare Hospital renovation) is quite often a person, not the project, is the real lead. And sometimes leads go from lead to proposal to job as quickly as a few hours or as slow as a few years. I think this idea that you can take a list of leads and use it to accurately predict your backlog (to make business decisions) is silly. If you can do this, you should be a professional gambler, not a professional marketer. So it makes no sense to track leads, what phase they are in, and what the probability of award is. It’s either a job or not a job.
Trusted System
The major problem with CRM systems is that they never become your trusted system (the central place where you gather and process information). Everybody wants and tries to tightly integrate MS Outlook. This is a fundamental mistake, as the Perfect CRM needs to become your new Outlook (your trusted system). I know I know, that’s crazy. But this means the system has to have the primary functionality of Outlook, a user-friendly email client (like gmail or yahoo mail).  You may be reluctant to move to a new system, but you are just going to have to get over it. After-all, you are a big boy or girl. The benefit of this approach is simple.  Email has become our primary collection tool for information. Why have a CRM system that lives outside of that? Lets face it; nobody “forgets” to open their outlook (or other trusted system). To use the Perfect CRM, you have to abandon Outlook or whatever trusted system you currently use (good thing the Perfect CRM can import pst files)! If you don’t make this your trusted system, your CRM becomes the second place you look for information, which contributes to the failure of many CRM implementations. This system will be aware of your activities. It will track whom you email and what you email about. Your firm already does this, so it’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s just that now we are putting this info to some real use. For example, yesterday I communicated through email with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation Chief of Standards & Inspection, a Regional Construction Engineer for Vermont Transportation Authority, the head of training at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and at least ten other industry clients and contacts. Shouldn’t that automatically be recorded somewhere? This information works hand in hand with the contact database. If you are chasing a client in San Diego, you can see that someone in your firm has interacted with people in the client’s Chicago office. This type of information is typically lost in large organizations. Because the Perfect CRM tracks this information automatically, corporate intelligence will increase exponentially. In the Perfect CRM, if you email someone the system doesn’t recognize, like Aunt Mary, the system will prompt you to add this person to the contact database. If you choose not to add this person, it will simply add Aunt Mary as one of your 20 non-business contacts (not viewable by your co-workers). Your email client will also have a series of buttons to help you process your email by determining whether there is a action to take, a desired outcome to delegate, an action to be deferred to a specific date and time, information to file, and maybe a snooze button for emails you can’t process right now.  
 Don’t Confuse Enterprise with Better
As I’ve explained, CRM systems often lack focus. They try to do everything rather than focusing on doing one thing well. While there are efficiencies you get when working with an enterprise system (that controls everything and is designed for all industries), it’s at the expense of a user-friendly interface that people can use naturally without any training. That’s right, the Perfect CRM would not require you to sit through long training courses. Did anyone give you a course on checking your email or using Outlook? No. Because it’s something that’s intuitive. It’s critical for the Perfect CRM to be intuitive.
It’s All About the User Experience
User experience is an important part of the Perfect CRM and another area where contemporary CRM systems fall flat on their face. When a user opens up the Perfect CRM, they need to see information that’s going to help them bring in business and move closer to their goals.  One of the key things they need to see is their Hit List. This is a list of the top 10 or 15 key relationships they are focusing on. The system tracks their contact with these people and informs them if they haven’t made contact with them in 60 days (or whatever reasonable time frame). The user will also see their recent activities, commitments, and goals. In essence, the Perfect CRM helps the user focus on what’s important and it does it in a way that makes things easier, not harder.
Reporting the Information Managers Really Want
What about reporting? The Perfect CRM provides managers with the information they need to make informed decisions about their team (the Perfect CRM is set up in a hierarchy, meaning that a manager sees the activity of their group). The system tells managers who and what their team is chasing, the status of these pursuits and other marketing activities (mailings, advertising, etc.) With this information, they can report to the Senior Manager or Principal about the ongoing marketing and business development activities. They can also identify, almost in real time which efforts need to be redirected.

It is Time for a Smarter System

The CRM system you use is dumb, at least compared to the perfect CRM. For example, The Perfect CRM offers you personalized assistance.
“You sent an email last week to Joe Contractor, do you want to see who else knows Joe Contractor?”
“You sent 20 emails to Jim Architect this month, do you want to add him to your Hit List?”
“You haven’t updated your Hit List in 6 months. Please re-evaluate it!”
“Tim has emailed someone who works with one of your contacts. What help can you offer him”
The system will also eliminate the duplicated efforts in our business development pursuits. No longer will two people in your company be chasing the same prospect or proposing on the same RFP.
On the flip side, It eliminates people’s ability to say, “I know the President, so you don’t have to know the Marketing Manager.” That is often a very bad direction senior professionals give. Since every interaction is recorded, you’ll know who is talking to who and more importantly who hasn’t really talked to someone in 20 years.
All is of this is facilitated by the automated collection of information.  While it may seem invasive and confining at first, you’ll realize quickly how liberating it is.
Plug It In
The Perfect CRM should have some other attributes. Abilities that you can add to your system as professional or user-created plug-ins, like the ability to email info about people and commitments into the system when you are out and about, integration with LinkedIn, or a location aware phone app. The systems API will be open so users can grow, improve, and connect to the system. You can extend the Perfect CRM to fit your business, but the initial system will only have the essential elements to keep things easy and efficient.
Arm and Leg Not Included
A huge problem with CRM systems is the pricing structures they use. The current models of pricing are uninformed. This is because CRM companies think marketing and business development is a thing only a few people in your company do. But if we are creating a firm of rainmakers or a marketing culture, then we want everybody in the firm using our CRM. A small firm of 50 people will not want to pay even $20/month per user. $12,000 a year is just too big a piece of the marketing budget pie for a firm of that size. And the service fees… don’t get me started. The problem with service fees is that you are calling for help because your CRM is a complicated piece of junk. So why are they charging you an arm and leg for their mistake?
We want a user-friendly system that’s reasonably priced and that everyone can use (not just look at). The majority of A/E/C firms are small.  The Perfect CRM needs to be priced so all employees can participate without it taking a big chunk out of your marketing budget. Here is what the CRM firms don’t want you to know. Development costs for web-based applications have dropped dramatically over the last few years. If you know what you are doing, The Perfect CRM system I describe could be built for less than the cost of your typical enterprise CRM system.
The Imperfect CRM
Right now, the Perfect CRM is just a dream; a superstition and myth, until someone gets off their butt and creates it. But any system you create or use that helps you track the contacts and commitments of you or your team is your CRM. It may be an off the shelf system, it may be a spreadsheet, MS Outlook, or writing on the side of a toilet stall. If I was a gambling man, I would bet that most of the experts involved in our little experiment will tell you that how you use the tool is more important than what tool you use. And if you can use these tools to keep you and your team focused on the right things, then you’ll be OK. Well, at least until the Perfect CRM arrives.
Let me know what you think of my perfect CRM concept by leaving a comment! Feel free to try and shoot holes in it. Let’s get this discussion started!

The Perfect CRM is a series of essays by industry experts on the topic of client relationship management tools. Each expert will draw upon years of experience to outline their vision of the perfect CRM system. This exercise will provide you with new insights into what works, what doesn’t work, and what you should consider when implementing a CRM system. The experts include:

Visit these sites to read each experts take on the perfect CRM!


  1. Excellent post, some very interesting points you raise and some very true ones also. Zurmo have been working on an open source crm solution that aims to tackle many of the problems of traditional crms.

    Having worked in the CRM industry as a trainer for some years I agree that CRM success = Adoption + Understanding. Seems simple enough but what a good crm needs to do is make the second part of this equation easy. As you rightly point out crm should be intuitive… that means it is a tool to HELP them in their job…. not an extra administrative task for managements reports!

    You have given me lots to take away and think about, I especially like your ideas about the crm being a reverse social network. Since Zurmo is an active open source project please feel free to join in on our discussions in our forums

    hopefully we and our open source community can make the Perfect CRM a reality! 🙂

    • Matt Handal says


      Thank you for reading the post and responding with your thoughts.

      It looks like we are on the same page. CRM needs to be very useful and very easy to use.

      I believe CRM needs to be “rethought” and redeveloped from the ground up, ignoring what has been done in the past.

      I think SugarCRM is the epitome of what you don’t want to be.

      I checked out Zurmo and right now it looks like most of the crm programs I have seen. When I look at CRMs, the first question I have is, “What’s different?”

      It is rare that I can answer that question.

      FatfreeCRM and Highrise are the two I’ve seen that seem to deviate from the typical CRM. But I think they still hold on to many of the old ideas about CRM.

      Everybody’s goal seems to be to develop a CRM that everybody can use. But when you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to nobody.

      The two questions I would ask about Zurmo is what’s different and who is it for?

  2. Zurmo is an open source project right now and not meant for business end users yet. At this point, the major difference is the architecture, engineering, and test-driven development approach. Right now, there is basic Contact Management, Opportunity Management, and Activity Management functionality. Your ideas of having the CRM focus on the interests and interaction rather than email address, phone number, address, etc. is quite interesting. Most CRMs have fields for basic Contact info and also allow for custom fields around “interests”. In Zurmo you can change around fields so that “interests” are more prevalent than other info. Interactions are tracked under the “Activities” sub-panel in the Contact detail view.

    The notion of Commitments is also unique. It seems like a Commitment is composed of several sub-tasks. You can potentially achieve this with a custom module that allows you to outline the desired outcome and then break it into tangible Tasks that can be done by the user or assigned to others. In traditional CRM, you can conceptually think of it as a “Project” that is broken down into “Project Tasks”. I realize Commitments are a bit different, but there are ways to use out of box CRM functionality to fulfill this requirement.

    As we continue to build the product, it would be extremely helpful to receive input form individuals like yourself so that we can do our best at creating the Perfect CRM. In terms of “what’s different”, we are have revamped the User Interface to be more intuitive and allows for easier navigation: With the open source model, we are actively engaging the community to give us feedback on what features/functions we should include so that we can build a smarter system. Your feedback would be extremely valuable:

    • Matt Handal says


      I looked at the new UI and certainly have some thoughts. Contact me through LinkedIn or at matt [at] if you would like to discuss some ideas.

  3. I thought more about his idea of commitments, really its just a concept that can easily be applied to say Tasks. Calls and Meetings could be switched off in Zurmo if you want and you can just create a task for each commitment, that appears to be how Highrise and Fatfreecrm have handled it.

    The only difference really is in the name, if you wanted to then you could easily use a task as a reminder to get something done, ie:

    • Follow up with John @ Getty Plastics
    • Send invoice for Jettisons latest order
    • Work out the mess with billing for Thomas Cook, I should call them if I can’t work it out.

    As you rightly point out these are “things I have to do” its not always necessary to itemise them as a call, meeting, task, etc. In fact these are the sort of things I often get sent to me by my manager in the form of an email, “Ross, find out what’s going on over at such and such company”, or “Can you do a Migration Assessment for XYZ client”.

    I can see how this simplifies matters, in truth it’s a lot closer to life if you look at the crm as a tool to help you stay organised. It might not be the out of the box standard for activities in Zurmo but it can be done. Its actually got me thinking about Tasks a lot more and how they could be used and displayed in the new GUI which is looking great by the way.

    Matt, I would love to get your involvement on those ideas so do pay us a visit and leave your comments. I believe Ray may be reaching out to you as well.


  4. Great article! Would you recommend any CRM software for Architects/ Engineers. I have been using Paypanther and Zoho, but I am always looking for something new. Thanks!

  5. Hi Matt, I stumbled upon your very informative article while searching for CRM for engineers.

    Looks like this was written over 6-7 years ago. “Technology” has involved quite a bit since. Do you have any new insights or recommendations on CRM software? (Or do you still recommend Zurmo per your other post?)


  6. Hi Matt,

    I work for a small architectural firm and we are looking into CRM. Since this article was written 10 years ago, I was wondering if you still recommend Zurmo?


  1. Learning CRM says:

    […] would like to see Zurmo become the Perfect CRM me, Ford Harding, Tim Klabunde, Bernie Siben and others envisioned back in 09. I would like you to […]

Speak Your Mind