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CRM is rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a tarnished reputation. Helen Bradley explains what the new breed of CRM solutions offer.

Active ImageCRM software has an unenviable history of making big promises and, too often, falling well short of achieving them. It's been heralded as the panacea of all business ills, and derided for failing spectacularly and wasting billions of corporate dollars. However, underlying this, CRM is an extremely valuable tool. Implemented correctly, it can help to service your customers better, track and manage sales leads, and add value to your organisation.

We take a look at what CRM can offer your business, what needs to be done to implement a CRM solution, and what type of products you have to choose from.


Business Brain

CRM software is a set of technical tools for maintaining records about customers, suppliers and partners, the products you sell, the support issues you deal with and the myriad interactions relating to these that occur each day. This data is a rich resource and when it is made available to everyone within your organisation and to your customers, everyone can benefit from it. As Michael Bryant, managing director of ACT Today, says, "A good CRM is like the brain of your business. It's where all client information is stored and accessed, whether that be in-house or externally."

The process of maintaining and updating involves effort on everyone's part and this is where CRM applications can hit a brick wall—they depend heavily on an organisational culture that supports the application and that is dedicated to working with it. Sadly, too often one part of a business believes strongly in the application but the people at the coal face refuse to work with it and failure is inevitable. As Lynne Roussell of the Integrators suggests: "Successful implementations happen when it is not an option for staff not to use it."

"For a business to realise the full potential of CRM requires a commitment at all levels of an organisation. This is as true for SMEs as for large business," says Greg Simmons, director of Acuere business consultants. "Organisations that don't collect information on their customers and prospects aren't building this asset—that's where contact management kicks in. But it is the next level, realisation that key business processes can be improved, that drives adoption and returns true value from CRM."


Typical Applications

Active ImageAny business wanting to develop and remain successful needs to focus on its customers, suppliers, partners, and everyone it does business with. CRM solutions for sales force personnel, for example, may provide access to customer data on the road as well as the company data that sales people need to do their job efficiently, such as product and inventory information. If it is linked to an order management system, then queries encountered on the road can be answered promptly and in an informed manner. Better still, allowing the customer access to the order system lets them find their own answers, giving them better control over their account and freeing the sales person from routine inquiries.

For service centres, CRM software can help manage the service process effectively by tracking incidents, improving response times, assisting in deploying service personnel in the field, and providing troubleshooting information to everyone via tools like knowledge databases. These can also be put online and made available to customers who can then troubleshoot typical problems themselves without needing to contact the service department.

When purchasing a CRM product, you have a number of options ranging from the relative power of the product to where it is run from. There are plenty of solutions you can buy and install on your own computers. These range from standalone contact management solutions to those that are fully integrated with your other systems. Many applications such as the larger accounting solutions offer CRM tools built in or as add-ons. On the flip side, some CRM products offer additional software for managing accounting and other applications.

For Poh Cheung, managing director of Customer Systems International, a system that is a good fit for business processes and that offers benefits for everyone, is key. He suggests some of the questions you should consider when choosing a CRM system are: whether the system is designed to automate your current ways of working to achieve maximum benefit with the least change; and what value does the system provide each user to encourage use, rather than being another hindrance to the working day.

When a boxed solution doesn’t meet your needs, you can create your own. This comes at a price, however, as custom programming is expensive, and so you'll need a good design team and project manager to ensure you keep the project under control and you get exactly what you planned for.

Some CRM solutions aren't bought outright but are financed on a ‘pay as you go’ model. These hosted solutions are provided and maintained by third parties and they are gaining a lot of acceptance in the market. There are significant benefits to hosted solutions apart from reduced cost and these include speed of implementation and scalability. In addition, you can save on IT expertise and palm off onto someone else the worries of backup, managing security, and keeping the system functional. Solutions which are web-based have the advantage of being accessible to anyone who has a computer and internet connection, so they're ideal for businesses with employees on the road or working from diverse locations.

Shawn Stilwell, managing director of CRM provider Sqware Peg, is a keen advocate of hosted CRM solutions and uses Salesforce.com in his business to support the company's partner network. "Hosted solutions like Salesforce.com are easy," he says. "There's no hardware, no software, and little risk. If you decide you don't like it, you can go in a different direction and, if you do like it, it can be scaled and customised so you can grow into it."


Trial Run

The shareware software industry has been using the try-before-you-buy model to sell software for years. The concept is simple, let users try your software and, with luck, if the product is good they'll buy. This sales method is percolating up to mainstream products and CRM is no exception. Many products can be trailed for a short period of time so you can test uses and suitability to your business.

Alain Legrand, founder of Legrand CRM Software, advises: "When considering a CRM system for your business you need to go beyond the 'Can it do this?' type of question. You need to make sure the system will be readily accepted by all staff. Too often a CRM system is selected purely on features, only to discover afterwards that staff find it too difficult to use. My advice is: don't just ask 'What can it do?' but spend an hour trying the system in your office."

For CRM software to work you will need a significant commitment to the process from everyone in the organisation from the top down. Of all the software you will ever use, it's probably the program with the most potential to grow your business. If you start out by planning carefully, set well-defined parameters for the project so it doesn’t attempt to do too much all at once, and involve key people from the start, you'll have a good shot at keeping it moving in the right direction until it gathers a momentum all of its own.

* Helen Bradley is a regular contributor to DSB magazine and other international titles.

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