In the final analysis, it all comes down to sales. Companies can devote considerable time and effort to realizing cost reductions, quality improvements, and other objectives, but without sales, those undertakings can't generate profits. Simply put, all other things being equal, the more products and services a company sells and the more it charges for them, the greater the profit will be. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) can help to achieve profit goals by improving customer satisfaction, optimizing interactions with customers, and ensuring that no sales opportunity is left behind.
Mention CRM to people who have only a glancing familiarity with the term, and the first thought that comes into many minds is "contact management software." CRM is much more than that. It encompasses the integration and harnessing of all customer and prospect information at a company's disposal. It also enables the comprehensive management of and visibility into workflows related to interactions with customers.
As the above suggests, in the purest sense of the term, CRM is not a technology. Technology facilitates CRM but does not define it. Nonetheless, common usage abbreviates what should be referred to as "CRM applications" to simply "CRM." For brevity purposes, this article, which is primarily about CRM software, not CRM business processes, adopts the common usage.
Patrick Townsend, president of Patrick Townsend & Associates, is in a unique position to comment on CRM. Not only does his company provide tools and services that help organizations to integrate their back-end systems and data with CRM, but it also recently began using a CRM solution, Salesforce, itself.
Interviewed in Nashville while attending the COMMON conference, Townsend lauded the insight into customer relations and the ability to manage those relationships that CRM provides. "The tools are great. I'll give you an example. I got up this morning and logged onto Salesforce from here. I can see the status of two or three customer support issues that I'm tracking because they're important. I know exactly what's been happening. When I'm in an airport, I can do exactly the same thing.
"I was on the [COMMON Vendor Expo] floor before we came here, and I was talking to somebody who is interested in some of our products," added Townsend. "Tonight, I'll put that into Salesforce and ask the sales rep to have the information ready for that person before they get home. That's something we would never have time to do in the past."
CRM also addresses the "bus threat," i.e., what happens if customer information is stored primarily in the head of a salesperson who gets hit by a bus? By capturing all information about customers and their interactions with the company, CRM ensures that the knowledge remains within the company's domain no matter what happens to the salesperson.
Beyond data visibility, CRM workflow features automate some currently manual processes and ensure that important customer contact activities, including sales, support, and accounting tasks, are not inadvertently omitted.
In-House or SaaS?
Looked at from the 30-thousand-foot level, there are two generic CRM approaches: Run the application on your own systems, or take advantage of one of the CRM Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings.
SaaS offers the advantage of lower up-front costs because, instead of buying a software license, you pay a monthly per-user fee to use software hosted on the vendor's systems. Because you don't have to install server-side software (and possibly not client-side software either if it is browser-based), implementation costs may be somewhat lower under the SaaS model, but probably not by as much as you might expect because, as is discussed below, to be successful, a CRM requires considerable integration with your existing business applications and data. Completing that integration will likely be more difficult than if the CRM and its database run on the same server as your other applications.
The SaaS approach eliminates some maintenance and administration costs as the SaaS vendor assumes responsibility for maintaining, upgrading, and securing the software and data.
Because the SaaS model amortizes many of the up-front, fixed costs as monthly per-seat fees, ongoing per-user expenses are typically higher than for applications run in-house. Thus, when deciding which approach to take, you must determine whether the higher ongoing costs are justified by the lower capital costs of SaaS. When performing this analysis, take the time to find out what you are buying. Some SaaS functionality may be offered as an add-on from a third-party provider, requiring an additional per-user monthly fee.
Control of data is a concern under the SaaS model as your CRM data will be housed at the SaaS provider's site. You have to consider whether that will lock you into the vendor. Townsend advises, "Read your contract. That's important. You definitely have to look down the road and say, 'Someday I may want to get my data out of there.' You've got to make sure your contract is well-written and gives you the ability to extract your data. And you need to test it up front. I wouldn't use a service where I was not quite certain that I can get my data out and not be held hostage."
If you're going to run CRM in-house, you can develop the application internally, but because CRM is mission-critical, wide-ranging, and complex, you are generally well advised to acquire CRM skills, experience, and best practices by buying a CRM solution. In addition to standalone CRM applications, some ERP vendors offer CRM modules as a part of or as an add-on to their applications.
Whether you host CRM in-house or follow the SaaS model, bringing in an expert with extensive CRM experience (possibly from the software vendor), will smooth the implementation process. Townsend stresses that point. Despite the fact that his company has considerable experience helping customers integrate CRM with back-end systems, after a rocky start, Townsend brought in a consultant to help with his company's implementation of Salesforce.
"For us, getting a consulting company who knew the ropes and who has taken other companies through it was important," said Townsend. "It was a resource I could go to. That's not a technical problem; it's a knowledge management problem. I found that invaluable."
You might not need to reach outside for that expertise. "It might be a resource in the company," continued Townsend. "You may have somebody who's done this and really knows the ropes and who has the backing and the trust of the other people in the company. That's important."
CRM permeates the enterprise. Salespeople are not the only ones who capture and employ customer data. Two other departments that will interact with the CRM are customer support and accounting. Beyond them, quality assurance staff may use CRM data to analyze customer support activities resulting from product defects. And CRM provides senior management with visibility into customer interactions and allows them to ensure that customer issues are being dealt with rapidly and effectively.
The catch is that to achieve these objectives, data must be fed into the CRM solution on an ongoing basis. Existing systems already capture much of this data, but other data exists only in people's heads or is not being captured at all. If some employees perceive that considerable effort will be required to collect this data, they may resist the introduction of a CRM solution.
Furthermore, the introduction of a CRM solution will change the way some employees work. Resistance to change is a common human attribute. Consequently, one of the first tasks on the road to successful CRM implementation is to gain buy-in from all affected parties. Without it, there is an unacceptably high probability that the CRM will be subconsciously--or consciously--sabotaged.
Take the time to explain the value that CRM will deliver to the affected employees and to the company as a whole. Employees are unlikely to become committed to working toward the success of the project until they recognize its potential benefits, but many of the benefits are not apparent to someone who has no experience with CRM.
Involve as many affected employees as possible in the planning process. This way, they will feel part of the process, and the resulting CRM project will be more likely to meet their needs without unduly burdening their existing work processes.
It won't always be feasible to receive everyone's buy-in in advance. "You have to demonstrate to your people that CRM is going to benefit them and make their jobs easier and that it's not just going to be another set of busywork," noted Debra Stafford, Touchtone Corporation's director of sales for its Wintouch CRM product, an IBM i-based CRM. "The thing is that you have to get them using it. Once they've used it for awhile, you'll find that they don't want to give it up because it really does make their lives that much easier."
Ensure Ease of Use
Software provides the greatest value only if people employ it to its fullest. And that value increases proportionally with the ease and efficiency of the application's use. An intuitive, easy-to-navigate user interface is important in this regard, yet it goes beyond that. Everyone who uses CRM will also use other applications. At a minimum, that will likely include email, word processing, and possibly spreadsheets, but in IBM i shops, some people will also use IBM i-based ERP, customer support, and other applications. One-click transfer to and from those other applications, along with a common look and feel, is another critical piece of the ease- and efficiency-of-use puzzle.
That's why Stafford suggests, "You want to make sure that your CRM is on the same platform as your main enterprise applications. The reason is that this allows for tight integration with a very customizable front-end. You can then get it to the point that whatever you're used to seeing on the back-end, you'll also see on the CRM front-end."
Identify and Implement Data Integration Requirements
One of primary objectives of CRM is to provide a comprehensive view of all available customer information. For example, if the accounting department has put a hold on a customer's credit or that customer has called customer support to report a critical problem that has not yet been resolved, the sales rep handling that account should know about those issues before he or she schedules a sales call. Thus, integration of data from other systems will be a critical determinant of the success of a CRM project.
When using a SaaS solution, integration is typically done using XML and a Web services protocol to move data between your systems and the remote CRM. According to Townsend, that's an area where implementation issues often arise. "To give you a sense of some of the technology problems," he said, "one iSeries customer was told, 'You just upload data via the Web service.' It wasn't until they actually tried to do it and it failed that we were able to determine that this was a completely different Web service protocol. We've got 10 years of development experience around Web protocols, so we looked at that and said, 'Oh, OK, we see what this is and we can handle it,' but these are the types of challenges for iSeries customers and developers that are very difficult. In this case, the customer really had no way of knowing what was going on."
Running a CRM in-house on the same server as your other applications can simplify the data integration process somewhat because you can avoid the need to use Web services, a technology that is unfamiliar to some IBM i professionals. CRM applications run in-house might access existing databases directly, but they will more likely use a replication process to copy data between the back-end databases and the CRM database. Depending on which CRM you choose, the vendor may offer pre-built configurations that integrate out of the box with some of the major ERP application suites.
Stafford adds that, "Having real-time data is critical, and that's another reason for having your CRM on the same platform. If it's on same platform, integration is tight and stable. As soon as an order is placed or an invoice is sent out, you'll see it on your front-end and that's what you want. You don't want any lag."
Work on Workflow
One of the advantages of CRM is its ability to automate workflows and ensure that important customer-related activities happen when they should. Therefore, it is important to identify what those workflows should be and program them into the CRM.
Stafford gives an example of what a workflow might look like in a specific circumstance. "You go to trade show and a large number of leads come in. You can say, when a lead comes in schedule an activity to send out a brochure or a follow-up letter that day. Once that marketing activity is completed, the next activity might be for the sales rep to send out some samples and to make sure that the customer is able to put those samples in place and do a test run. Then, once that's completed, in two weeks the same sales rep will follow up and find out how the customer felt about the samples. Then you might have two options based on the result: Do another test run or take the next step in the sales process."
Stafford cautions that, "You want a workflow that will automate your business' existing best practices, not impose processes on you."
Thanks to horror stories about lost data and compromised privacy, consumers and regulators--and hence businesses--are more focused on data security now than ever before. This area requires considerable attention when implementing a CRM.
"Almost all CRM applications hold data that would be considered sensitive," commented Townsend. "It's not often credit card numbers, but it could well be home phone numbers, personal addresses, and drivers' license numbers. People can extend these databases to contain quite a lot of information that we call PII, personally identifiable information, which is subject to several regulations, including privacy notifications and others. So this is an area of concern right now, and I think CRM is a little behind on it, but they're going to be caught up in it, and that is that people need to be careful about sensitive data.
"If you have a data loss from a CRM application, it doesn't matter if you host it or it is hosted by an Internet provider; it's going to be your responsibility to deal with it. And that means being careful about the implementation to make sure that the data is encrypted properly. And it's also going to mean, on the System i side, properly securing data as it resides in the databases and as it moves around. We've not yet seen too many significant losses out of CRM applications, but I have no doubt that it's on the horizon. So the data security issues are another challenge, and I think it's about to come up as a bigger issue."
Once companies have employed CRM for awhile and have discovered its potential, they typically want to expand its use. However, Stafford recommends that you don't do this too frequently. She suggests reviewing the application and its use every year or so. Making too-frequent changes will result in the project getting out of hand. And more extensive experience may provide evidence that a change proposed early on in the CRM's use is ill-advised.