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Customer Relationship Management
September 2004

Integrating SMBs For A Customer-Centric View


By Jon Van Duyne, Best Software


As technology continues to streamline the ways companies do business, customer expectations continue to rise to dizzying new heights. Accustomed to online ordering systems devoted to their every preference, consumers today automatically expect organizations to expertly (and instantly) deliver, service and support the products they sell. Otherwise they'll go to another vendor.
For small and medium-sized businesses already challenged to do more with less in a competitive marketplace, meeting this heightened expectation is a necessity for survival as well as success. The savviest among them are integrating customer data information across departmental boundaries ' from call centers, help desks and field-based sales personnel, to home-based operations and accounting departments ' and creating a single, customer-centric view for increased profitability.

Customer-centric data integration not only helps companies manage growth efficiently, it helps them make insightful business decisions. For customer-facing employees, this means 24/7 access to customer data, including invoice, sales and payment histories, which can determine appropriate cross-sell or upsell opportunities. For back-office staff, the advantages include greater control over the order entry process and less time spent re-keying inaccurate or duplicate orders.

While adoption of effective customer relationship management strategies is perceived as increasingly essential, a recent Gartner report stated that less than 20 percent of midsize businesses (those with between 100 and 999 employees) have actually adopted CRM solutions. For the other 80 percent, CRM remains an opportunity waiting to be fulfilled. Additionally, Forrester Research reports that while 92 percent of surveyed companies believe having an integrated view of customer data is either 'critical' or 'very important,' only two percent have actually achieved it, giving the companies that adopt customer-centric integration a timely competitive edge.

Bridging The Communications Gap
The connection between effective information sharing and business success is well documented. It's been proven time and again that businesses with good internal communications enjoy better relationships with their customers.

It's also one of the ironies of conducting business that as companies grow ' gaining more customers as well as profits ' they tend to lose the kind of easy interoffice communications that helped them prosper in the first place. What was once mutual knowledge becomes divided by domain, as colleagues who sat desk-to-desk and informally shared information about client activities end up segregated by multiple systems and departments that, while streamlined for internal efficiency, can create potentially damaging gaps in customer knowledge.

In many cases, it's not uncommon for front-office departments such as sales and customer service to assume they're sustaining the business, while the back-office ac-counting section is equally confident it's the group safeguarding and maintaining the necessary procedures for success.

How often do sales or support people get asked for shipment status information they don't have? What if they take an order only to find out that the customer is on credit hold? Unfortunately, poor or infrequent communication between departments ultimately affects customer satisfaction. And customer satisfaction is, of course, the ultimate goal of any integrated front- and back-office solution.

A Cultural Shift
Integrating a company's front- and back-office systems streamlines workflow and communication and gives employees the ability to view and analyze complete customer data, respond faster, make more informed business decisions and provide higher levels of customer service. It also eliminates the potential for double entries while keeping procedures for checks and balances in place, along with the native, best-of-breed product functionality required by each department.
While the customer experience is obviously the most urgent guideline when it comes to implementing customer data integration, the process involves people as well as structural analysis and planning; thus, the process is as much a cultural shift as it is a technological one.

To assure the smoothest possible transition, frequent communication about the win factor of the proposed new system should be maintained, including how it will affect day-to-day responsibilities. The sales vice president is usually the primary sponsor of a CRM front-office initiative, but it's also critical to obtain executive buy-in for each department that will be affected, front- and back-office alike.
Equally pivotal is establishing a project 'champion' who will be responsible for the project ' the go-to person who not only makes the new customer-centric system a success by demonstrating the benefits of using it, but who also encourages fellow workers to tweak and perfect it.

It's also essential to establish a timeline for completion that includes the project's different elements, from data migration and system configuration, to enabling field-based, remote-user databases. For successful integration to be accomplished, companies need to be clear about what they want: a single, central, combined and accurate view of each customer that will allow sales and other customer-facing departments to interface more effectively with accounting and operations delivery departments.

The full benefits of CRM are realized when integration technology reaches throughout the organization, providing each employee who has customer contact with real-time access to the same information from any location.

Establishing Data Value
Customer data integration may be simple as a concept (and rewarding in results), but the actual implementation process involves numerous technical requirements and considerations. The best way to begin is by establishing a plan that includes an assessment of current systems as well as the overall project budget. To help ensure that everything goes smoothly, hiring a local systems integration company to work closely with those involved is recommended because it will be able to provide essential advice and on-site technical support, from initial planning through completion.

Once the groundwork for the integration process has been laid, an assessment of the reliability and accuracy of the pre-existing data contained within each department's applications should be made. This will help establish the amount of work that may be needed to cleanse, merge and maintain the integrity of the data that are to be imported into front- or back-office systems while still maintaining the streamlined day-to-day functionality of each.

Because back-office operations data are traditionally the company's system of record and include accurate customer financial information, this is usually the data to start with when implementing a new front-office system. The most valuable and accurate data should be imported first, using the data import tool of choice, followed by a secondary set of auxiliary data. Once the two data sets have been validated and consolidated into the front-office product, the newly integrated system will also need to be cleansed using de-duplication tools.

The next step is to create a cross-reference link for existing accounts between the front-office account and back-office equivalent, i.e., an accounting company code or customer I.D. number. (For new accounts these links will be created automatically.) Additionally, the values contained with other auxiliary data lists need to be matched so that, for instance, salesperson codes and shipping methods will match the back-office order validation process, otherwise the order or quote can't be processed.

For remote or field-based front-office users, it's important that all information they receive is manageable and pertains to their specific accounts. Otherwise they could be overwhelmed by the amount of time it takes to update their databases. One way to ease the transition is to assign teams and ownership during the data-import planning stage. It may also be necessary to designate specific synchronization expectations once the actual front- and back-office data integration has been accomplished.

Considering Costs
Rather than starting over with new technology, in many cases companies that adopt CRM solutions are integrating their current systems and adding new software flexible enough to work with their existing applications and can be adapted for future growth.

Even before deciding which software to invest in or which architectural approach to adopt, the IT department and management team should evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of available software and architectural approaches, from scalability and flexibility, to out-of-the-box configurations and advanced configuration possibilities.

For example, how much data and proc-essing does a particular approach accommodate? Will it allow intelligent and dynamic functionality adjustments (i.e., Is it simple to maintain from an upgrade perspective?)? Does it provide ready-to-deploy integration that requires only minimal configuration or development work? Does it allow for customizations and multi-server, multi-database configurations? What are the licensing costs and requirements?

Along with the capabilities of the final solution, other elements to consider include the number of systems and the type of data consolidation required, upgrades to existing hardware and operating systems (if existing hardware and operating systems are not up to spec) and the scope of the integration itself.

Cost is obviously a major consideration, but when it comes to data integration systems optimum ease of use, flexibility and customization are often as important. Still, with contact and relationship management representing one of the largest growth segments in the software market, most vendors are pricing products to compete for SMB budgets. Available options range from modular update systems that take a few days to install and cost a few hundred dollars, to advanced solutions that may take as long as three months to complete and cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

Weighed against the financial investment, of course, is the ultimate return that comes from investing in enhanced customer management, satisfaction and loyalty.

Investing In Customer Satisfaction

Providing excellent customer care is not only a profitable business practice, it becomes a matter of course once a truly customer-centric integrated system is in place. By giving front-office, customer-facing staff unfettered access to accounting information, including customer invoice, sales and payment history, the staff can better determine whether particular customers present appropriate targets for cross-selling or upselling opportunities.

Another key factor in determining ROI is when the across-the-board savings and corresponding better use of employee time that results when the usual double entries ' typically occurring across two or more departments ' are avoided. No longer will sales reports, for example, need to be modified by the sales manager or sales vice president, and operations or accounting department time that was previously spent re-keying orders or answering sales questions can be used for checking shipment status and other productive activities.

There may also be instances when it makes sense to give front-office users direct access to accounting systems so they can run a customer inquiry or place an order directly into the back-office system. The extended functionality provided by a more flexible front office includes the ability to follow through on requests; conduct synchronized mail merges; view top customers, accounts due and credit-hold lists, as well as unprocessed orders; and even analyze recent buying trends.

When an actual dollar value is placed on this kind of high-level customer management, it's easier to calculate the cost savings that will result from a reduction in customer attrition, whether this is accomplished by approaching unprofitable customers with new service options or by no longer servicing them at all.

1 + 1 = 3
There's no doubt that customer-centric integration is a unique opportunity for small and medium-sized companies or that it will have a lasting impact on how companies conduct business in the future. What's increasingly clear is that it also provides a value greater than the sum of its parts.

By automating and aligning front-office sales and CRM tools with back-office accounting and financial systems, SMBs will not only meet customer needs better ' fulfilling requests faster and more efficiently ' they'll also be able to optimize the resources that help them meet and exceed financial goals.

Because front-office and field-based users have an open view of the order and invoice process, along with the latest production information, pricing, discounting and inventory available, they can use purchasing information to plan future sales and marketing campaigns. Because back-office personnel spend less time answering questions from sales, re-entering or correcting data and generating reports, they're able to spend more time maintaining control over order entries, financial records, product pricing and/or discounting.

For the organization as a whole, the benefits of a unified solution include open communications between departments that support key business processes, resulting in better business practices. Sales and operations costs are reduced. Orders move to accounting faster. Products are shipped sooner. The company gets paid faster. Employees are more satisfied with their jobs. And customers receive the kind of service that keeps them coming back.

Jon Van Duyne joined the Mid-Market CRM Solutions business unit of Best Software in October 2003. As senior vice president and general manager, he is responsible for production and logistics for North America and global SalesLogix research and development. Jon's team consists of sales, marketing, product management, research and development, finance, human re-sources, customer support and professional services.

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