Getting the right fit brings CRM nirvana

You may decide that CRM is what your company needs, but one question you have to address is how the new system will fit in with...

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You may decide that CRM is what your company needs, but one question you have to address is how the new system will fit in with your existing technology. As Ross Bentley discovers, it is vital that you work out what applications you want to integrate and in what areas.


All businesses are under pressure to take a more sophisticated approach to IT and to generate far greater customer databases, demanding high levels of personalised service. The idea of gaining a single view of your customers by integrating various sources of information into a customer relationship management (CRM) system is appropriate to even the smallest of companies. This should be apparent from the increased expectations of your customers.

“Whether doing business over the phone or via a website, everyone expects to have the experience today,” says Zach Nelson, president and CEO of Netsuite, which last month launched a hosted CRM application aimed at small businesses. “They expect your suppliers to know what they have bought, how they paid for it and to recommend items or services that are related.” Putting his vested interest to one side, Nelson may only be slightly exaggerating when he says that customer expectation is so high that investing in CRM is a question of “survival” for SMEs.

But as you consider investing in CRM, one of the main issues you must address is your approach to the integration of the various information sources – such as databases and spreadsheets – that you will have to merge in order to achieve a single view of the customer.

There are two main stages on the road to CRM nirvana, where integration issues are likely to arise. In the first instance your company will need to build a central CRM repository and you will need to pull together all the available information that exists on different company records. Secondly, at the point when this database is complete, your company may decide to integrate with a website or with other applications that hold fresh information in order to enrich the customer contact and provide greater information on that customer. That may include information about your customers’ payment habits or when their last order was dispatched from the warehouse.

Numerous applications
Taking these two examples, your company would in these cases have to tie-in information from the accounting system and say a logistics or distribution system. However, there are a numerous applications that a CRM system could potentially have to integrate with and this depends totally on the nature of your company’s business and what your company wants to achieve through CRM.

Let’s look at stage one. Prior to a CRM implementation, you are likely to have data relating to your customers stored in many locations.  “Data will be on Access systems, Excel spreadsheets and individual sales people will have your own contacts databases and diaries,” says David Pinches, marketing director at Sage CRM which supplies a system called SalesLogiX aimed at the SME market.

According to Pinches, the initial approach to pulling all this data together into one central customer database or sales tracking application will have little to do with technology.

But what will exercise greatly your company and require some in-depth strategic thinking is determining what fields to have in your CRM database and deciding on the type of information you hope to get out of your system. Pinches says you’ll need to take some time out to think about exactly what you want to achieve with a CRM system.

“What do you want your CRM system to look like? It’s about thinking strategically. Are you trying to attract new customers or is your main aim to keep existing customers happy? This will determine how you set your database up and the emphasis you give the application. If it is the former, then the system would track sales through to completion. If it is the latter, you are more likely to integrate with the accounting system so your users have more information with which to serve your customers.”

Your company will also need to ensure the data with which you populate your CRM database with is of a good quality. Data cleansing is to a certain extent a manual job. It entails ensuring that contact details are accurate, that the right information is in the right fields and that a single customer contact does not appear more than once in the new database.

Advice on how to approach this should be forthcoming from your CRM reseller. This point is picked up by Alan Macneela, vice president of research at market analyst Gartner, who says that mapping customer data into a standard CRM database is straightforward, and in most cases will take place as part of a standard installation process provided by CRM suppliers and your resellers. He says: “SMEs have an average of 4.4 IT staff. They are hardworking and the environment is in many ways chaotic. They [SMEs] want CRM applications that they can plug and play – they haven’t got the time to pursue six-week implementations.”

Supplier relations
A number of software suppliers are lining up to take CRM to companies like yours, who suppliers believe have neither the time, skills or resources to approach CRM without assistance. In recent months there has been a resurgence of the application service provision model for the delivery of CRM – Siebel and Netsuite announced the arrival of hosted CRM solutions for SMEs in October, joining among others and Microsoft, which already deliver CRM over the Web.

Your company shouldn’t have to look too hard to find a CRM supplier that will help you build the system you need and help you link it with existing business applications. Steve Benson, UK online manager at Hertfordshire Business Link, has seen many small businesses try to embrace CRM. For those that succeed he says it is “an amazing step forward”.

Benson says it is important that you get advice on how to structure the central CRM database. “Merging databases is simple, but deciding how to format fields can be difficult for someone with no experience and could determine whether the project is a success or not,” he says.

Benson adds that once you have built a centralised database of customer details it is not too far a jump to integrate that with a website that enables customers to place orders and check their account online. “Centralising customer information opens up a lot of possibilities, including interfacing with a website that will allow existing customers to visit you online and check your accounts,“ he says. “Companies can even invite website visitors to leave comments online, which should provide invaluable feedback from your customer base.”

Moving your CRM details online will likely be a more straightforward task for your company. Typical of the new breed of CRM applications on offer is Netsuite, a CRM service that offers website functionality already integrated so that you can publish information to your partners and customers from your CRM system from day one. It also offers an integrated enterprise resource planning system so that you can move your financial data to an application that is already linked to your CRM system. 

With such an integrated CRM offering, Netsuite’s Zach Nelson sees the move to CRM as a good chance for you to make significant business improvements and to develop a system that truly supports a more mature approach to your customer relations. He cautions against following the ‘Boston Cowpath route’, a reference to the convoluted road system within  Boston where town planners simply built roads on the dirt tracks that already existed rather than taking a step back and thinking about how they wanted their new, modern city to look and how they wanted the traffic to move around.

Facilitating integration
Nelson says that SMEs wanting to integrate Netsuite with external applications and websites can use a developer tool kit to make use of the XML and HTML hooks that are built into the product. Developer kits and wizards are found in most CRM applications to facilitate the integration process with other applications. Pinches at Sage says that his CRM product naturally integrates into the company’s well known accounting packages, but he admits that integration with an external application is a “non-trivial matter.”

If your business does not employ someone with the relevant skills to deal with all of the required technical issues, then you will have to look to your reseller or hire a contractor to provide the necessary programming.

In general, you should leave the technology to the experts, but you may want to take time to think about what Annette Giardina, business director at Microsoft partner and reseller Aspective, calls “designing the implementation”. This entails working out what applications you want to integrate with and in what areas. You must also think about what level of integration you want your CRM system to have with other applications and who gets access to this information.

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