Customer relationship management (CRM) is one of the most important investments a business can make in today’s unpredictable environment. According to a study conducted by Gartner Research, chief information officers ranked CRM in their top 10 technology priorities for 2012, a major jump from its ranking in 2011. With rules and regulations becoming stricter, and the economy remaining rocky, companies must differentiate themselves by the way they manage their customer and prospect experiences.
CRM is one of the most important elements in maintaining and fostering relationships with customers and prospects; therefore, customer and partner service levels and sales efforts must continually improve. In another 2012 CEO study conducted by Gartner, CEOs said CRM was the most important area of investment to improve business over the next five years. And, while CRM may not be used for the same purpose by every organization, it is common to see companies seeking the same customizations and integrations to help manage interactions with customers and sales prospects, to not only keep and win business but also to enhance business operations and increase profitability.
While on-premise (self hosted) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications may be seen as two different types of implementations of CRM, they both require integration to existing systems. Since on-premise CRM applications give companies greater control, they have traditionally been used as the preferred implementation direction for most organizations. While many organizations are turning to SaaS implementation because of the reduced need for hardware and database investments, on-premise CRM applications remain the most complete solutions. An internally hosted CRM solution is also the most fitting for deep integration with a company’s existing legacy systems.
More companies are seeking a tighter integration between its CRM software and legacy systems such as enterprise resource planning, finance, order management and billing systems, just to name a few, since these systems are essential to creating an improved customer experience. Because of its very nature of being a backbone application, on-premise CRM software enables companies to seamlessly tie together all aspects of their sales and customer service efforts to other major sources of information making legacy system integration by far the number one customization with on-premise software.
Another key area of integration with hosted applications that is more frequent is computer telephony integration (CTI (News - Alert)). A CTI customization is most often seen in a call center environment where the telephony hardware and software are being tied to the CRM application so when someone calls the company, it automatically routes the call to the correct person, automatically completes the screen pop for the agent so they know who they are talking to and shows the past call and service history of the client. This enables in the quickest, most efficient manner with high levels of personal service.
In the world of SaaS CRM applications, by far the most common area of enhancement work seen is creating different types of online portals for various personnel and customers. With this customization, clients, partners and sales and service teams access their own views of information in a single location using a variety of different styles of portals.
An additional type of integration occurs in the SaaS environment creating a hybrid environment – requiring the integration of the SaaS software with the customer’s existing in-house applications. So again, similar to the integration with on-premise CRM software, integration with a company’s financial, manufacturing applications and billing systems must be performed, but with the added technical issue of working between two separate platform environments.
The other type of CRM customization most often seen in both on-premise and SaaS environments is the connection to mobile devices. Tablets are extremely popular and certain mobile sales applications enable sales teams to send and receive data to and from either a hosted or SaaS CRM server. Field service representatives can now look up their inventory, schedule service calls, process payments and perform other various tasks from the palm of their hand. Tying the information of remote workers back to the customer’s central database from a mobile device allows for the convenience companies use to work more efficiently.
Why deeper CRM integrations?
The overriding theme seen for integrations with CRM applications today, both on-premise and SaaS, is integrating the information silos that have been created through automation of individual business functions. Companies are now seeking ways to integrate these separate information silos into one interconnected environment that houses all information and enables separate software programs to easily be accessed and seamlessly work together. It is not uncommon to integrate dozens of applications with CRM software in today’s market since many organizations appreciate the need to provision and manage a cohesive, consistent, high quality and personalized customer and prospect experience. Companies traditionally installed financial applications, followed by manufacturing and distribution applications and last in that evolutionary chain were the customer facing, CRM applications. Now, most organizations have gone through at least the first cycle of putting in those functional silos, which leads us to today’s reason for greater integration.
Effectively implementing CRM customizations – beyond the norm
When traditionally speaking about implementing CRM customizations, most companies use a generic development methodology with relatively linear stages or steps. But, effective implementation of CRM applications requires using more agile-oriented development methodologies. Showing the application users what the end result will be earlier in the development cycle is crucial.
Agile (News - Alert) development enables consultants and developers to solicit the user’s feedback during the customization to ensure needs are being met. Too many implementation methodologies gather the requirements in the beginning, complete a functional design and technical design, build and test the system and then at the conclusion conduct user acceptance testing. And, this is right before the program is ready to go live. It is extremely expensive and far too late in the development cycle to efficiently and effectively make any changes. What invariably happens is the developer goes through all those steps before it is shown to the end-users, and the response could very well be that the product does not fit their needs. By asking for feedback during the process, customers are getting a faster, more accurate response to their requests.
Developers need to be sure to embed the appropriate type of testing at every stage of the development cycle rather than back-end loading all of the testing. An area many believe is paid too little attention and should be particularly focused on with testing is SaaS implementations. Many companies sell SaaS CRM applications as “a plug and play” as opposed to treating it with the appropriate level of commitment and specifically testing all the way around.
The development team should be engaged wherever possible with the subject matter experts of the client. Engaging both developers and end-users is typically not possible with an offshore development model. Most organizations that operate solely through offshore models lack the ability to effectively communicate client requirements and then manage the appropriate development cycles. To exacerbate this problem further, the use of outsourcing continues to evolve, driving a desire for greater innovation from service partners. Companies needing integration and customizations need to try to find CRM experts and developers who can be directly engaged in iterative development cycles for the project.
It is always advantageous to have developers out of projects centers working directly with those subject matter experts of the customer to make sure they fully understand the requirements and those are demonstrated early in the cycle with prototypes. This allows users to provide their immediate feedback to the developers as opposed to the conclusion of the cycle. And, developers can involve customers in building the appropriate kinds of test scripts early in the cycle as opposed to the end and finding out that users’ expectations are not being met. Being able to leverage proximity is key to ensure that all customization and integrations requirements are fully understood and therefore have the maximum chance of success.
Kevin Burkhart is executive vice president of Eagle Creek Software Services, a United States-based IT consulting and technical services company specializing in Oracle (News - Alert) CRM, business intelligence and enterprise software development. The company offers cost-effective, higher quality software development and support services using its Dakota Model.
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