Extending CRM

Cessna Aircraft Co. faced an unusual problem in arming its salespeople with the right data to make and close deals: It wanted to install a sales force automation tool and connect it to the “most extensive” customer database in the aircraft industry, says Dave Turner, manager of network systems at the Wichita, Kan.-based aircraft manufacturer.

Originally, database administrators had to look up prospect information, print it out and then fax it to salespeople. The system also generated multipage end-of-month printed reports. To save money, time and effort, Cessna decided to automate the process.

The sheer size of the database made the task daunting. Cessna needed to be able to extract information not only about its customers but also on individual airplanes and then slice and dice the data and get it out to the global sales force. The company decided to customize the data models – the sort of move many users and analysts view as a risky proposition.

The less tampering users do with vanilla applications the better, practitioners say. Customizing customer relationship management (CRM) software can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming, and it can make the core application unstable and difficult to upgrade. Indeed, some users advocate retooling business processes rather than tinkering with CRM code. However, for companies that need to preserve a competitive advantage, adding vertical-market features or exploiting homegrown technology may make sense.

Rather than customizing, look for applications that are flexible enough to allow changes through configuration, says Steven Bonadio, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. This includes having access to developer tool kits, being able to develop and configure business rules and workflows, and adding new fields on the user interface layout.

On the other hand, Bonadio says, it’s unrealistic to assume that there will be no customization. The degree of tweaking will depend on the sophistication of the user’s operations, whether external interfaces are needed and the CRM project’s goals. “Given that every organization has unique business requirements, some combination of both configuration and customization is often necessary,” Bonadio says.

Cessna chose Fairfield, N.J.-based StayinFront Inc.’s Visual Elk sales force automation product and Panorama decision-support tool to extract customer information stored in a Microsoft SQL Server database. The project required programming services from StayinFront to create special data models before two in-house developers took over.

“It’s always growing,” says Turner. “You don’t make it too complex. Define the requirements very clearly, and live, breathe and eat and drink the requirements. You need to be hard in not letting people change the scope of it.”

When the new system went live, salespeople were able to access the database from their desktops both through Web interfaces and other connections, notes Turner. “They look it up in Zimbabwe as the plane rolls up on the ramp and look in the database and find out who is the chief pilot, who owns it and who operates it,” he explains. “It also allows them to do queries by region.”

Competitive Customization

Despite successes, users offer caveats about customizing. “Maintaining customization gets difficult, and you don’t get to take advantage of new [upgrade] functions,” warns Greg Augustine, director of CRM and e-commerce at TidalWire Inc., a Westboro, Mass.-based distributor of storage interconnect products. Nevertheless, the company decided to customize its e-business Web site, which includes applications from San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems Inc.

In order to preserve the look and feel of its existing e-commerce site, the firm used a customized version of Siebel’s catalogue product. Boston-based CRM services provider Akibia Inc. handled integrating the catalogue with TidalWire’s e-business site. To keep users from having to log in twice once to get into the main site and a second to get into the catalogue to make purchases TidalWire used Microsoft Corp.’s Active Directory and a special user interface, Augustine says.

The project took four months and cost thousands of dollars but was worth the effort, Augustine says. TidalWire now has a single product catalogue that serves its sales force, operations group and Web site. Web requests for price quotes and orders are automatically directed to the right salesperson and can be tracked along with sales data, he says.

Some companies opt to avoid customization. Alberta Treasury Branches, an Edmonton-based bank, was able to use IBM’s MQSeries application messaging software to enhance its Siebel CRM call centre system. The bank wanted to share real-time transaction updates with service staff, says Ken Casey, vice-president of operations. MQSeries ties the back-end host with the Siebel applications in the call centre in near real time.

By knowing exactly what customers’ financial status is, the bank has been able to improve customer satisfaction, reduce errors and save money by making the process more efficient. The bank hired IBM to build interfaces to its host while tinkering with the core technology as little possible, Casey says.

However, he notes that the bank was cautious about the project. “The last thing we wanted to do was fool around with something that was a proven technology,” he says.

A Collaborative Effort

CreoScitex hopes to avoid customization issues by adding mySAP’s collaboration capabilities to its application suite.

Not every add-on function requires customization. Some users prefer to combine application suite components from a single vendor for easier installation. But in the area of collaboration, few tools are available today that let CRM applications talk to other applications, says Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc.

At CreoScitex in Burnaby, B.C., employees are rolling out collaborative features in SAP AG’s mySAP.com Web-based CRM module across 30 offices worldwide. The CRM roll-out will tie together a variety of information systems and allow CreoScitex to share customer data throughout the enterprise.

A division of Creo Products Inc. that supplies digital prepress equipment to the graphic arts industry, CreoScitex more than doubled in size following a merger in April last year. It needed to connect different legacy systems and allow business partners and customers to collaborate. The multimillion-dollar project is slated for completion by the end of next year.

“We’ll get payback through cost savings in two years through efficiency improvements, and beyond that, what we’ll be able to offer our customers will be gravy,” says David Pritchard, enterprise resource planning and CRM manager at CreoScitex.

The mySAP system combines the SAP R/3 back end and the newly released SAP CRM Version 3.0. It allows employees and customers to make changes on the fly and replicate those changes rapidly through the different systems, such as order management, supply and distribution, and billing.

“Our products are highly configured, and the ability to make the whole thing work, from quote to ordering into several factories and placing orders in different supply points, is very important,” says Pritchard.

He notes that the mySAP suite already contains middleware to translate data between the R/3 and CRM systems, minimizing the customization requirements, cost and difficulty of the project.

“We think that very little customization will be required,” Pritchard says. He adds, however, that linking mobile users’ laptops will be “quite a bit more complicated due to the need to keep laptops and central database records in sync.”