10 Ways to Smoothly Integrate CRM

Updated: April 30, 2009

Many corporations with entrenched legacy platforms balk at the idea of scrapping systems or starting over just to add CRM capabilities — hence, the perennial challenges of injecting CRM functions into existing architectures. While integration is never easy, a handful of industry executives suggest these 10 strategies for working with what is already in place.

Look at the Big Picture

Envisioning the business-process changes that top executives want to achieve is paramount.

"Most companies that are successful at their CRM deployments spend the time it takes to map out the complete business-process flows that they are trying to automate before they start to design the technical architectures for how to integrate these business processes across systems," said Ariel Kelman , senior director of platform product marketing at Salesforce.com . Salesforce.com offers solutions with open Web services, APIs (application programming interfaces) and native connectors for SAP AG and Oracle Corp .'s ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platforms.

Design Once and Reuse

Once an enterprise has a broad plan in place to improve business processes, IT shops shouldn't have to build the CRM interface over and over again.

"With today's CRM, you can design the process once and ensure that it works seamlessly across channels," said Mike Betzer, vice president of CRM strategy at Oracle. To that end, the database giant crafted its Oracle Application Integration Architecture using pre-built integration processes that quickly tie together Oracle applications scattered throughout an enterprise.

Further, Oracle recently introduced its Application Integration Architecture Foundation Pack to link CRM capabilities to existing systems from differing vendors. "We recognize that not all customers have selected Siebel CRM or Oracle E-Business Suite for their applications of choice," noted Jose Lazares, Oracle's vice president of application development. "Foundation Pack offers common objects and services tied to a methodology and some change- management tools that will enable any application to be integrated with any other," he said.

Figure out Where It Hurts

After corporate decision makers help steer the IT staff toward an add-on CRM solution that will help address broad business-process issues, enterprises should become more granular and figure out specific changes that must be made — before technical rollouts begin.

"It is so important to define the critical areas where data flow must occur so the business can continue to operate. Following that, an enterprise must determine what areas are causing pain for the customer and whether those areas will be addressed with the new solution. From there, it's time to build a rollout strategy that is clear and concise," said William Gast, CEO of Kyliptix Solutions Inc., which is now unveiling its KiBS (Kyliptix Business Suite) solution for small- to medium-sized businesses interested in adopting CRM capabilities.

Take Smaller Bites

Since adding CRM to legacy platforms can easily invite integration snafus, corporations should deal with one problem area at a time.

"Start small," advised Martin Schneider, senior manager of product marketing at SugarCRM Inc ., a Cupertino, Calif. provider of open-source CRM solutions . "When large enterprises try to fuse all of their systems — with varying code strings and proprietary APIs — that is a recipe for failure. Quick wins and smaller, manageable projects will make success far more likely," he said.

Don't Dismiss Stand-Alone Options

Although many IT decision makers are now trained to steer clear of products that fall into the "stand-alone" category, technology executives might not want to be too quick to dismiss the idea of limited CRM applications.

"An increasingly popular strategy to mitigate the risk and expense of adding CRM functionality into a business is to allow one or more stand-alone, end-user-driven CRM options that have specific corporate rules and procedures for usage. Rather than business units requiring the use of an enterprise system, IT managers would focus on the integration of legacy systems with ‘approved' stand-alone products," said Jon Finkelstein, COO of SLM Holdings Inc., which partners with CRM companies and provides solutions to the financial-services industry.

Untangle Potential Code Snarls Ahead of Time

Whether CRM initiatives are large or small, stand-alone or widely integrated, IT staffs should thoroughly think through coding issues before getting started.

"The IT environment of most large enterprises is one of complexity and is often made up of technology components from different providers along with homegrown systems. All of these systems are made up of heterogeneous code bases, which can make integration an expensive and time-consuming headache," continued SugarCRM's Schneider. To help with the complexity inherent in many coding issues, Sugar 5.0 includes a module builder designed to let users deploy applications without writing code.

Plan Ahead when Adding APIs

Think about possible changes down the road in outfitting legacy systems with APIs to support new CRM functionality.

"Ideally, modify the legacy system to support an API in such a way that you can switch out CRM systems if that is ever required. Thinking this through now will provide greater flexibility for future integrations," observed Geoff Brookins, CTO of Salesconx Inc., a New York City-based online marketplace for sales professionals. Salesconx is now in the midst of incorporating internal CRM functionality using Salesforce.com solutions.

When Shopping for Options, Consider SOA

More enterprises are turning to SOAs (service-oriented architectures) as a way to pull CRM functions quickly into existing systems.

"The advantage of SOA is that information can flow in both directions. Mission-critical applications can both integrate external Web services and be seen as a Web service by other components. It is important for customers looking at deploying CRM solutions to choose products or hosted environments that can accept and integrate information from these mission-critical sources," advised Mark Haynie, CTO of Micro Focus Ltd., a Rockville, Md.-based provider of CRM Web-service applications.

Anticipate Trouble Spots

Integration almost always suffers bumps along the way. "Carefully monitor the patient — which would be the legacy applications — to ensure that new bugs have not been created or that any instability in the systems has not been introduced," warned Salesconx's Brookins.

One Step at a Time

As enterprises think through different strategies for integrating new CRM applications into existing systems, it is important not to become overwhelmed.

"Don't look at integration as an all-or-nothing dilemma, but take an iterative approach to integration," offered Francis Carden, CEO of OpenSpan Inc., an application-integration company based in Alpharetta, Ga. Carden suggests that companies come up with a list of business objectives and approach each one systematically.

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