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We’re back with Part Two of our virtual roundtable discussion, in which we asked experts to weigh in on the complex process of database conversions. In Part One, our experts addressed reasons to undertake a database conversion, top tips to ensure success, and a realistic timeframe for a conversion.

Part Two covers lessons learned the hard way; pitfalls to look out for and avoid during the conversion; and how to ensure your post-conversion transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Meet the experts:

Database Conversion Panel v3

What is typically the biggest unknown/surprise/unexpected finding when it comes to a database conversion?

Steve: Database companies often boast that they can integrate with any tool—but it’s best to confirm and validate this well before the conversion happens. The worst surprise is to find out that your new system doesn’t actually integrate with your other tools. To avoid this, ask for references from other groups who have successfully integrated with the tools your organization uses. Also, tools and functionality referenced during demonstrations of the new database may turn out to be difficult or impossible to implement for your particular program. Make sure your contract includes complete itemization of every deliverable, and that the database company’s team is always available for questions and clarifications.

Also, to ensure the cost of conversion does not exceed plans and expectations, create a five-year cost estimate for all of your vendor options. Have each of your vendors validate your estimates—and integrate these estimates into your contract. This can help prevent cost overruns down the line.

Gina:  Conversions are like a box of chocolates—each one is unique and every one comes with a surprise or two. We continue to learn from each conversion and continually strive to improve our implementation process.

Having smart people on the implementation team helps an organization understand what it has been doing well and how it might do things better, and unpack and fully document its new business rules. This makes for a smooth and even fun conversion. Most importantly, during a conversion, the company must be flexible and have a CRM application that can accommodate a variety of unique customization and integration needs.

John: Surprise: Post-conversion clean-up takes longer than you expect! Unknown: The new database impacts functionality in another part of your organization, which impacts your expenses (a good example is if the database is more difficult to use than anticipated, thus increasing gift-processing expenses). Unexpected finding: Customizations to the database were not fully scoped out because there was not enough money to build out the needed functionality. Thoroughly research all items when planning your conversion.

Rose: For me, the biggest surprise is always the tremendous amount of time a database conversion takes and the enormous number of details involved.

Can you share an example of big lesson learned through a conversion, and how to avoid missteps where possible?

John: Avoid customization, if you can, because it is a slippery slope—it is expensive and does not always work the way you expect it to.

Gina: We have learned that it is critical to document the decisions that are being made around business processes as the conversion is happening. It is so important to be able to look back after a conversion—in the short term and over the long term—to understand the business processes and any necessary customizations that have been made to the CRM application to accommodate those processes. If someone from the organization were to leave, these documents are critical in helping a new hire get up to speed on the decisions that were made during the conversion process.

As for avoiding missteps, the most important thing is constant and effective communication, with both the client and the company clearly defining and mutually agreeing upon the roles and responsibilities that each team member will have during the implementation.

Rose: The biggest lesson my team and I learned was that our timeline was unrealistic.

Steve: To me, the biggest lesson learned is that if ownership in the project—the good and challenging aspects alike—is not shared, conflict can arise as issues crop up, leaving your internal conversion team to complete the work in isolation. Most important to a successful conversion is true transparency and open communication. Engage all stakeholders at regular intervals to ensure expectations are in line with reality. When expectations fall out of step with current events, disappointments can follow, which can lead to a lack of confidence in the tool before the new system is even brought on line.

What do you recommend post-conversion to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible?

Gina: The job is not done when the new database goes live. I think the two most important aspects post-conversion are user adoption and planning your future growth.

User adoption across the organization is key to the success of a new CRM, and it must be an organizational priority during and after the conversion process. Proper training throughout the organization ensures that the client’s staff knows how to best use our application—best accomplished through one-on-one and group training. In terms of future growth, work early on in the relationship with your database company to invest yourself in becoming a part of that company’s user community, understand their product roadmap, and be a voice that helps guide the development of their platform.

Steve: As Gina said, a conversion isn’t over once you’ve gone live, so make that clear throughout the process. If stakeholders assume the hard work is done when you go live, confidence in the system can sour. You will need to refine and revisit many of your procedures and business rules after the system is up and running. The refinements can continue for another year or two after you go live. It’s valuable that users understand this going into the conversion. And of course, nothing is more important than training. Training must be mandatory. Users must fully understand how to utilize your new tool.

John: Yes, manage expectations with all staff to make them aware that it will take about a year for the post-conversion clean-up to be complete. This is especially true if you are merging multiple databases into one. I’ve found it best to offer multiple/flexible training opportunities for staff. As they start working in the database, there will be many times when they will run into obstacles or questions, so it’s necessary to have a dedicated account person available from the database company to answer all questions that come up.

Rose: Again, make sure you have the right mix of people on the team—stakeholders, users, database company, etc.

Any other thoughts?

Steve: There’s a balance that needs to be struck between finding the perfect solution and protracting the timeline of a conversion to the point that it becomes a pai
n point for your organization. Be thorough and careful with your decisions, but avoid procrastination because decisions are difficult or because you’re not able to build 100% consensus. 

Gina: A database conversion is one of the most important decisions that an organization can undertake. Some have said that, from a marketing standpoint, a good database—one that helps you do your job better and more efficiently—is a nonprofit organization’s most valuable asset. The conversion process is a great opportunity to step back and evaluate your programs and processes, identify weaknesses, and improve upon them. Take advantage of that opportunity.

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