Steps to a Seamless CRM Integration

Updated: April 30, 2009

Making a CRM system work for your company is about more than finding the right solution. Carefully linking existing applications to a CRM system is critical for success. Imagine, for example, convincing a customer to enroll in a new service only to mail them a brochure the very next week touting the exact same service. Applications, from SFA (Sales Force Automation) to ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), must work in tandem in order for companies to get the most out of a CRM system.

Integrating such disparate solutions, however, isn't always easy. Customer data is known to lurk in myriad, silolike locations across an enterprise. Unearthing these sources and funneling them into a unified CRM system takes time, money and expertise . There are steps, however, companies can take to ease the process.

Keep Your Eye on Processes

According to Tim Hickernell, associate senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, when connecting existing applications to a CRM system, the first things a company needs to consider are its processes. Technical requirements are certainly key, but "if you look at integration from a purely technical connector point of view, you'll miss process inconsistencies and opportunities to improve processes," Hickernell warned.

That's why it's crucial that companies examine which systems are going to be affected by a CRM implementation. For example, in the case of a company looking to integrate a series of CRM modules such as marketing, SFA and analytics, processes are intertwined and revolve around customer experience, thereby allowing for easy integration. On the other hand, if the integration is across disparate systems such as an SFA module and an ERP solution, "you are definitely impacting customer processes and ultimately the customer's experience," said Hickernell. All of which calls for taking stock of the processes associated with every application during the integration process.

Back to Cover Integration

The next step is carefully examining front- and back-office applications. Although a CRM system is typically considered front-office technology, crucial customer data can reside in back-office solutions such as order-management, manufacturing and financial systems. As a result, companies need to be certain to pluck relevant data from these back-office solutions to ensure proper integration with a newly introduced CRM system.

And last but not least, Hickernell recommends crafting a strategy for managing master data. After all, master data helps set the standard for defining data and information quality and can ease data-migration processes. "You can only ignore declaring a master data strategy (so long) before it'll come back to bite a company," warned Hickernell. For this reason, companies need to create a master-data framework by taking inventory of how and what systems and applications will be touched by a CRM implementation.

Hidden Obstacles

But even these three steps can't completely safeguard a company against CRM integration headaches. Partner systems, for example, pose an enormous challenge, especially if a particular partner is heavily involved in the overall customer-management process and houses its own customer-centric data. Linking applications that run across international boundaries and legal jurisdictions may cause companies to run afoul of various pieces of consumer legislation and government-mandated privacy policies.

Nor does an on-demand CRM system guarantee ease of integration. Said Hickernell, "The perceived benefit is that just because everything is in one place it becomes easier to integrate. But that could be true if you just adopted an on-premise solution from a single vendor." Nevertheless, he added, on-demand delivery is driving trends in application development, such as mashups, that could help simplify the integration process.

The bottom line: CRM can deliver enormous benefits, but take the necessary steps to ensure that it performs in tandem with your IT environment to reap the greatest rewards.

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