Customizing Open Source CRM in the Real World

Updated: June 25, 2009


If you've been paying a modicum of attention to the CRM market, you'll know there's a lot of hype surrounding open source CRM. That's because companies can customize the entire system to their every business need. Sometimes, though, the no-holds-barred fray of possibilities is a bit overwhelming. However, there are two primary ways to attack the problem: write code or use prebuilt applications in your own arrangement.


"There are different ways to look at customization," said Martin Schneider, director of product marketing for open-source based SugarCRM. "For techies, ease of access to the source code is where the possibilities begin. For non-techies, prebuilt applications, such as SugarCRM's Modular Builder, can be assembled in ways that are unique to your needs without writing any code or doing any heavy lifting."

The modular approach at SugarCRM is more a matter of personalization than customization, in the purest sense, and it evolved out of chaos. "In the early days we thought, ‘Just put the product out and get lots of users,'" said Schneider. "But then the need arose to put customization in a different perspective. We needed to rein in that activity some to curtail upgrade problems after many customizations."

The need for seamless upgrades coupled with the ease of using modules attracted techies too, in the end. "We do both, write code and use modules," said Chad Hutchins, business development Web specialist at Milsoft Utility Solutions, a company that produces software for SmartGrid use by utilities. Milsoft is a SugarCRM user.

While all that sounds well and good, what can customization of open source CRM really accomplish for companies? Milsoft presented some good examples.

Hutchins said Milsoft has deployed three major customizations. In the first, Milsoft "tore Sugar Professional's Creating Quotes to bits" and rebuilt it to fit the very exacting and complex quoting process Milsoft has to comply with in order to work with utilities. "It's a very complicated quote process and you simply are not likely to find any existing format on the shelf that will work," said Hutchins.

The second major customization essentially closed the loop between Milsoft's Development and Support Groups. The Support Group is customer-facing and it tracks every complaint, problem and opportunity, and responds to the customer accordingly. The Development Group, on the other hand, is internal-facing and is busy developing and improving the product. Before the customization, lots of details slipped through the cracks.

The loop looks like this: The support group reports a customer's complaint to the development group who then seeks to resolve the problem and then reports back to the support group who then contacts the customer. "We added extensions, using SugarCRM logic codes, so that FogBugz, the bug-tracking software we use, could push back to the support team automatically any changes the development team makes so the customer can be contacted immediately," explained Hutchins. "The communication cracks are now sealed."

The third major customization integrated Milsoft's content management system with SugarCRM specifically to leverage registrations. Milsoft offers registration forms on its Web site for a number of things including product demo downloads, product showcases held around the country and product training classes. "We created a generic module in SugarCRM, using the SOAP interface, that populates the fields and contacts the right person in Milsoft to respond anytime anyone registers on our site for anything," said Hutchins.

The key to determining the customizations your company needs is to simply identify your problems and then customize open source CRM to build solutions that precisely resolve those problems. That wasn't so hard, was it?

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