CRM and complaince – making the connection

Customer relationship management (CRM) means many things to many people. From a technology standpoint it often refers to the integrated information systems used to plan, schedule and control pre-sales and post-sales activities in an organization. From a business perspective, CRM is usually viewed as strategies to improve long-term growth and profitability through a better understanding of customer behaviour. In today’s environment, where greater accountability, and stricter audits and record keeping is the name of the game, CRM can play a vital – and often overlooked role – as a vehicle of compliance. In this edition of Voices, Rui Mendes, president and CEO of NOVAData Information Systems Inc. talks to IT World Canada’s online editor Joaquim P. Menezes about CRM and compliance. NOVAData is an Oakville-Ont.-based software design and development firm.

CRM, as its very name suggests, is about understanding customers and enhancing customer service. But you’ve expressed the view that for public companies, CRM is also about compliance. What’s the link between CRM and compliance.

In today’s regulatory environment – characterized by laws such as Sarbanes Oxley, PIPEDA and so on – “compliance” has become much tougher for public companies, and for obvious reasons. At the end of the day most of your transactions are with your customers. The trick is to avoid using separate sets of tools – to manage your customers, and to fulfill [your compliance requirements]. When you interact with customers you should simultaneously be able to monitor and record your transactions with them. Our product [GroupForce] enables you to accomplish this up to any level of granularity. End users don’t even know they are being audited. But every transaction they engage in – if they change the price, alter the discount offered to a customer from 10 per cent to 30 per cent and so on – is monitored and recorded by the system. All this information can be tracked in the log, and e-mailed as a warning to some executives, so appropriate action can be taken. All of that functionality is built into the auditing mechanism of our product, through all the modules. So you run your business normally. You don’t have to put another tool in place to provide auditing for compliance purposes. The system does all of that.

In your view, what should a company look for when selecting a CRM product?

The first challenge for organizations is to ensure they have proper procedures in place to run their business. If you know the right procedures, any CRM tool has a greater chance of success. Other than that, when selecting a CRM product, it’s very important to opt for one that’s flexible. No two companies are alike; every business has its own nuances; so flexibility of the tool is key. It should also be capable of being customized to your needs, without your having to pay a great deal of money to specialized developers, who would basically be reinventing the wheel. The successful CRM solution can also be quickly implemented, is not complex or costly to configure, and provides a quick return on investment. We don’t really think people should be spending millions to get a quick return on a product like that. Also, in today’s environment, it’s important that a CRM solution provide – at the very least – adequate auditing capabilities, a policy enforcement depository, and good workflow and approval cycle mechanisms.

You use the term “CRM Plus” to describe the type of functionality offered by your flagship product GroupForce. Why?

GroupForce is a set of business management tools for small to mid-sized businesses. We call it a “CRM Plus” suite because it provides all the basic functionality of a CRM product – contact management, sales force optimization and so on – but also offers other touch points to customers: event management, survey, invoicing, requisitions…it takes care of all of that as well. GroupForce includes close to 30 modules. The bottom line is we want to give people and organizations an integrated set of tools they can use to run their business. GroupForce is this set – and CRM is one area it covers. But at the end of the day, CRM covers every touch point with your customer, and transactions through all these touch points should be consistent. [GroupForce] modules provide that consistency.

Are GroupForce applications accessible over wireless devices?

Yes they are. A while ago we divided our modules into components and deliver those via Web services. We have interfaces with wireless devices based on what the customer requires. So our product can be accessed from a Blackberry, a phone and so on. A sales person, for instance, when interacting with a customer could quickly browse through pricing and other information on a Blackberry, and if the customer wants to buy the product, type in the quantities and issue a request to GroupForce which – at the server level – would generate an invoice and e-mail it directly to the customer. If it’s an order, [the salesperson] may send the purchase order directly to a specific supplier of choice. Before he gets to the office everything is done. So their CRM tool becomes his assistant. And applications don’t need to be loaded on to the device.

So would you say this is a kind of wireless model of thin client computing?

That’s right. Our practice is not to load stuff on a device, as these devices have restricted capabilities, restricted memory. If you have a wireless connection – be it a phone, WiFi or any other connection – you have access to a terminal. It’s a thin client you’re carrying with specific capabilities. If your device has a Web browser you can use that to get access the backend functionality, if not you can run small Java applets that perform that translation.

Can you cite a customer example to demonstrate how this works in practice?

One of our U.S. customers uses our system to create projects on the Blackberry. They are a service-oriented company that supports small companies in R&D and gets them into business. They have a few hundred people providing that service, and also use other contractors. Let’s say they’ve just talked to a company that has this interesting idea about a new project. They create the project [plan]; it goes through an approval cycle and, once it’s approved, appropriate persons get notified. Then their [staff and contractors] are informed about the research that needs to be done. Internal and external staff log times and expenses through their Blackberries. Those [logs] go through an approval cycle, and invoices get generated automatically. All of that gets done with the Blackberry as an axis point. GroupForce modules used by this customer include our contact management, project management, timesheet and reporting tools.

The important thing is none of these applications reside on the user’s mobile device, the are all accessed from a central server. The cost and labour of creating and maintaining applications that achieve the above functionality on small devices (smart phones, Palms, Pocket PCs, Blackberries etc) would be significant. Also, in most cases, there would be insurmountable memory and power restrictions. Having a friendly “small screen” organization dashboard is much more cost efficient, has plenty of extendibility, is secure (the database never leaves your organization’s server) and is available to all wireless devices.

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No avoiding compliance quagmire