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CRM Interfaces: Does Being Pretty Matter?

CRM interfaces

There are a number of ways to evaluate how “good” customer relationship management software is, and visual appeal is often one of the primary methods. Similar to other product-focused industries like automotive manufacturing and consumer electronics, competitive CRM vendors are constantly trying to improve the “look and feel” of their software. But should aesthetics really inform buying decisions?

Regardless of whether or not they should, they do. In fact, aesthetics don’t just affect the buying decision; they also affect subsequent user adoption. A study by the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab revealed that 46 percent of web users list “design look” as the biggest indicator of overall site credibility. No matter how much we deny it, humans are drawn to beauty, whether in a digital medium or the world at large. We trust it. We remember it. We come back to it. And yet, as Tolstoy wrote, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”

Beautiful Software

In the world of CRM software, “beauty” is most evident in the interface of a system, i.e. the sales dashboard, the news feed, the customer profile, and so forth. But what is the role of aesthetics in business productivity? Does a nice looking interface help sales teams solve problems faster? Sell more products? Convert more leads? Or are features and integrations more important?

In a way, these are all trick questions, because the answer is a paradox. Pretty interfaces have limited utility; they are only valuable if they enable efficient access to CRM tools and data. But in that sense, they can be very valuable. Just as camera angle, composition, and lighting have a strong effect on the interpretation of a photograph, the design, placement, color, and symmetry of a CRM interface directly influence a user’s ability to receive (access, comprehend, retain) the information inside. In software terms, this confluence of form and function is known as the user experience (UX).

To better understand this, you need only consider the areas where CRM typically underperforms. Barring other variables like lack of training and management oversight, CRM initiatives tend to fail due to lack of adoption by the end-user. According to Tactile Inc., 53 percent of CRM users say they enter data into the system once-a-week or less, and 47 percent use outside apps and services (sometimes referred to as “shadow IT”) to perform routine activities such as note-taking, task management, email, and calendars. Many times, team members consult these external solutions because (you guessed it) they’re looking for a better user experience.

The Most Important CRM Interfaces

In addition to looking for the right features and integrations, decision-makers should select a CRM with a clean, attractive, and easy to navigate interface. The dictionary defines an interface as “a thing or circumstance that enables separate and sometimes incompatible elements to coordinate effectively.” In the case of software, an interface is a mediator between back-end data systems, the device in use, and the device user. Without an interface, users would be forced to conduct blind searches and make manual adjustments to tomes of unformatted data, such as you might find in a .CSV file.

The most important interfaces are those that pertain to central visibility, customer identification, and business intelligence. The more macro-level interfaces are usually referred to as “dashboards.” Here are a few you’ll want to pay specific attention to during software procurement, or if you’re reevaluating your current solution:

Sales Dashboard: Sales dashboards provide a summary view of the pipeline, and highlight key metrics such as account activities, planned vs. actual sales, product ratios, and more. Generally the detail and scope of information displayed on a sales dashboard will depend on the level of user access. The director of sales and other executive leaders might see broader metrics like sales by region or year-to-date revenue. The sales reps, on the other hand, might see more practical, granular information like top customers or open opportunities. A well-designed sales dashboard helps team members stay updated on current priorities and challenges.

Marketing Dashboard: Marketing dashboards give users at-a-glance visibility into the progress of current campaigns and the movement of leads through the sales funnel. As with sales dashboards, the level of information presented in overview will depend on user permissions and additional customization. A marketing dashboard can visually depict any number of metrics, including lead sources, messages sent, conversions, site visitors, web form completions, etc. In addition, it presents users with an array of menus, hyperlinks, and search fields for easy access to additional CRM tools.

Newsfeed: Many CRMs now incorporate newsfeeds into home screens or specific user dashboards. Newsfeeds display a running list of updates, usually related to specific team members or accounts. This information can include account changes, new deals or cases, comments, recent user activity, and more. Because of the real-time, collaborative environment it creates, many compare CRM newsfeeds to social media newsfeeds.

Mobile Interface: Even if your team members are on-site employees, they probably at least do some work outside of the office. A CRM’s mobile interface helps users navigate through different modules, view notifications, and get a quick overview of what’s happening with various accounts and opportunities. The best mobile interfaces are usually embedded in native mobile apps. These apps have the advantage of being optimized for screen size and device navigation, whereas a basic mobile web view only shrinks down the desktop interface.

The Customer Profile: The customer profile is different from other interfaces because it’s a bespoke page rather than a static overview—in other words, the information displayed on a customer profile will depend on which profile the user has retrieved, how that customer has interacted with the company, and how much of their information has been collected. In many ways, the customer profile is the building block of a successful CRM strategy. The layout of data and the ease with which it can be accessed directly impact how an agent will interact with a given client, which products or services they might recommend, and how quickly they’re able to solve problems.

Business Intelligence (BI) Dashboard: BI dashboards pull real-time data from multiple sources and display it on a single, customizable interface, using visual aids like graphs, charts, and heatmaps to make metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) more comprehensible. This is an area where attractive design vs. confusing or bland design can make a big difference in overall utility. Some CRMs include their own BI module with custom dashboards for administrators, while others require an add-on that integrates via APIs.

Qualities to Look For

Now that you have a better idea of which interfaces to evaluate, here are some specific design qualities to look for. Together, these amount to a better user experience.

●    Simplicity: In the same way that “featuritis” (an over-abundance of features) can cause a CRM to fall into disuse, an over-saturated interface obscures important information and causes confusion. Instead of noticing a few helpful updates, the user will be overwhelmed by complexity, which could cause them to ignore the page altogether. Interfaces aren’t designed to provide a complete picture of the business, but rather a summary of basic information. In other words, less is more. Home screens and overview dashboards in particular should focus only on the most recent, relevant data points and projections for the near future.

●    Visibility: Visibility is the yang to simplicity’s yin. If an interface is too simple, users will gain only limited visibility into a given data layer, like deals in progress or team activities. An interface designed with simplicity and visibility in mind will give users at-a-glance summaries only in areas that save additional time required by a drill-down or one-off report generation. You could pull up a report on revenue by customer to isolate your most valuable accounts, or you could gloss over a list of the current top customers displayed on your sales dashboard.

●    Style: Referring back to the Stanford study, the way a digital interface looks has a lot to do with whether or not people trust it and feel comfortable using it. While aesthetics are admittedly not the most critical element of CRM success, they do carry weight when it comes to user perception and adoption. Don’t be misled by flashy graphics and cool animations so much that you ignore functionality, but do choose a CRM with an attractive, modern design. You want your team to be confident and feel like they’re using a top-of-the-line system, not something that belongs in a time capsule.  

●    Customization: CRMs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Sales reps, department heads, and C-level executives all use them for different reasons. Accordingly, the various interfaces within a CRM should offer customization for specific business roles and user permission levels. Some of these configurations might be preset based on a given user’s job title, while others are more fluid and allow for individual customization. For example, many CRMs let users hide widgets, fields, or menu buttons that aren’t being used.

Attractive interfaces obviously shouldn’t be your biggest selling point in a CRM solution, but there is clear value in choosing software that offers a pleasant user experience—and yes, “looks” are part of that. You should weigh the visual appeal of a CRM on the basis of how much it contributes to overall usability. A system with all the right features is a good start, but a system with all the right features in all the right places and the ability to customize those configurations according to your needs . . . now that’s a beautiful piece of software.