By Peyton Burch

The successful consulting firm and value-added reseller must continue to evolve in order to address the ever-expanding demands of the marketplace. Customers expect a trusted, expert advisor who serves as a single source for all their business issues - not merely the financial accounting reporting requirements.

With yesterday’s challenges of inventory tracking, transaction processing and quick order entry addressed, business leaders now want their information system to be able to match inventory re-stocking to customer demand, to channel the best leads to the best salespeople and to spot late paying customers before they order again.

Effective CRM/front-office solutions are essential components of a complete business management system. And, for smaller businesses, the best time to implement the front-office solution is concurrent with the back-office implementation.

The cultural conflict between accounting and sales departments exists in virtually every business. While both groups recognize the need for each other, the disparate personalities and the seemingly disparate business roles often make it difficult for the respective groups to work together and share information.

Top sales people are constantly seeking information, such as product availability, sales history, credit limits and receivable status, to better serve their customers. While the leading back-office solution contains much of the information that is desired by the sales group, sales personnel typically rebel at the discipline that is required to operate accounting software, and controllers cringe at the thought of salespeople mangling their accounting data.

The leading CRM and SFA solutions - ACT!, Goldmine, SalesLogix, Onyx, Pivotal, Siebel - have been integrated with the top back-office solutions to create visibility across the entire enterprise. Business owners are now able to assuage the concerns of both essential elements of their business without compromising sales efforts or internal controls.

This process of "front-ending" the back office makes a consultant’s role much easier. By providing solutions for all facets of the business, the consulting firm can more easily achieve buy-in from the all the parties that are necessary for an effective implementation.

While most consultants endeavor to position their software solutions as investments, integrated front-office and backoffice solutions make this investment concept more of a reality and less of a consultant’s perception. Business owners are more inclined to spend money on solutions that impact sales and customer satisfaction.

Front-office engagements can certainly become very involved and complex. Implementations that take full advantage of the functionality of the more advanced solutions normally will require several months to complete.

The more complicated CRM solutions can often take from 2 to 18 months. This is the case I had with a client that was generating $25 million in revenue and targeting $100 million in sales in a few years.

Strategic alliances between accounting and CRM consulting firms are often necessary to address the full spectrum of issues that these projects may present. And approaching the project in phases makes it possible to coordinate the front-office and back-office systems.

The first phase of the front office implementation involves bringing up the sales and account management functionality, including contact management and sales force automation setting up the customers and contacts, and assigning sales responsibilities and related work.

The account management phase of the front-office project is ideally suited to be performed in conjunction with a back office conversion.

Remaining phases, including support, marketing, opportunity management and campaign management can be implemented after the proper foundation is established. These latter phases are focused on the sales team only and traditionally do not rely on the back-office team to roll out.

However, with concurrently designed system, the vital empirical data and metrics that are required to properly evaluate these more advanced front-office components are captured and provided by the back office.

Front-office and back-office solutions are typically linked through a utility program that updates the respective contact records in a real time or batch mode. The field mapping that is necessary for this integration is easily defined as part of a mutual design and implementation. Often times, user-defined fields are incorporated as part of this process to increase the working relationship.

In many instances, sales and accounting have maintained separate customer contact databases. As part of the conversion process, these independent accounts receivable system prospects can be defined in the front office in order to easily flow into the back office at the proper time.

The simultaneous implementation of the front-office and back-office solutions allows the business workflow to be evaluated and redesigned from a cohesive perspective.

The back office can be structured to capture and report on the historical data to measure sales trends and performance, while the front end can utilize the credit policies that are established in the back end.

Security can be structured from an enterprise-wide perspective. In many instances, the sales team is limited to "inquiry only" rights information, such as product pricing and customer credit limits.

Some businesses choose to restrict the sales team from access to product costing information and, certainly, sales needs to be excluded from setting commission rates. Custom reports and menus can be developed to provide the necessary information without sacrificing the integrity of the accounting data.

The proper technology environment can be implemented to support the business management objectives of the entire company. Business owners are more inclined to make hardware investments a part of a complete solution, as opposed to a piece-meal approach. Advanced technology, such as a WAN or VPN may be cost-justified when both sales and accounting divisions benefit.

Front-office solutions often include features that are designed for road warriors and remote sales offices. Incorporating this functionality into your coordinated front-office and back-office design expedites the process of placing and fulfilling orders.

Work-flow processes can be defined that track the quoting, ordering, picking, shipping and invoicing functions. Procedures can be developed to support the processes of the entire business. Training programs can be developed based on the desired workflow and tailored to meet the specific needs of the respective users. Users are focused on how to do their job, not which software is performing what task.

The sales team can develop some appreciation for properly entering sales orders, as improper entry impacts the product availability and credit limits that are captured in the system.

The people that regularly handle the account keep customer addresses and contact information current. Commissioned sales people work with the accounting department to collect past due receivables. Credit limits and holds are communicated and enforced.

The cohesive implementation of the front office and the back office fosters an environment of cooperation between the sales and accounting departments. While each group maintains control over their respective systems, common data is effectively shared in a mutually beneficial manner.

Employees operate as a team and the entire company wins, thanks to the technology that resellers bring to their clients.

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