by Randy Johnston

Worldwide competition and client demand for quality service have redefined the requirements for customer relationship suite providers and have promoted the emergence of "back office integrated" CRM systems. This integration is designed to actually do what CRM vendors have been claiming is the key to customer service success - bringing everyone in the enterprise onto the same central system.

Accounting software vendors that have expanded into developing CRM include Best Software, Accpac International and Microsoft Business Solutions. And more accounting vendors are looking at ways to add CRM capability that integrates with back office technology.

Traditional CRM solutions have generally excluded operations, purchasing, financial and accounting employees from the CRM culture. Truly integrated CRM solutions are different - by providing out-of-box integration to the complete range of accounting functions, they are designed to enable everyone in the enterprise to work from the same database, notes, communications, phone numbers, etc. This level of back office integration helps companies achieve higher CRM functionality, lower cost of ownership and potentially higher returns on investment.

Integrated CRM systems aren’t as plentiful as one would expect, so it’s important to look for the right things, and look in the right place.

Understanding CRM

CRM is more than just software or a set of processes - it’s a business culture solidly focused on winning and keeping the right customers. A good CRM solution builds value for its user’s business by opening up vital communication channels and by creating a common client-focused knowledge base.

CRM is about understanding the buying habits and preferences of clients, customers and prospects. With this knowledge users can:

  • Build and strengthen client relationships;
  • Provide unique value-added services;
  • Improve product development and service delivery processes;
  • Increase staff awareness of client needs; and,
  • Reduce client frustration by not asking the same questions over and over.

By effectively integrating operational, financial, marketing, sales and customer-service functions, a good CRM system helps make it easier for everyone inside the CRM user company to work together and share critical information.The best CRM solutions go beyond fulfilling the basic CRM functions. Systems that integrate back office accounting software and other business systems create an advantage - as they are designed to allow client information to be updated in real-time, while being shared and employed effectively across the entire organization.
CRM solutions should be robust and versatile enough to:

  • Be accessed from any location, including remote locations and mobile workers;
  • Integrate with the user’s back-office accounting system; and,
  • Integrate with a wide range of third-party software, or other internal systems.

Solutions with these capabilities enable organizations to operate more efficiently and to realize greater economies of scale.What the middle market needs

The ideal CRM solution will integrate multiple business channels and provide users with seamless remote access to up-to-date client information. This approach enables users to provide the kind of informed and personalized service appreciated by vendors and customers.

Think about the different interaction points a business’s clients currently use, and are likely to use in the future, to communicate with your organization. The mix may include your corporate Web site, text chat, e-mail, fax, phone and postal mail, among others.

Also, look for a system with the ability to support multiple communication devices (such as Web browsers, handheld computing devices and WAP-enabled phones) to give users the convenience of accessing customer data in various ways.

A good system will let users retrieve real-time information at any time, and from anywhere. Choose a CRM system that will meet the functional needs of your system users.

The value of Web solutions

One of the key benefits of a Web-based solution is that it requires only a single server installation. A Web-based architecture allows you to make changes to the software on the server just once, and then simply refresh the browser for the changes to take effect system-wide. Web-based systems are also easily accessed with a wireless device or PDA.

In contrast, a client/server-based architecture requires changes to every client machine each time you upgrade, customize or maintain your system - taking additional time and using valuable resources.

Advantages of Web-based solutions also include low-cost, rapid and global deployment, and effective remote administration of software, configurations and security.

Take the time to consider the architecture of the systems you’re evaluating. Ask about the benefits and limitations of each system to determine which best suits your organization.

Keep a global perspective

As advanced Web technologies become more accessible and easy to use, companies will increasingly interact with customers in countries around the world. The ability to support a global reach, even if not essential now, is a vital investment in your company’s future.

When reviewing CRM features find out if:

  • The company sells and supports products in the countries in which the user operates;
  • The software provides multi-currency support; and,
  • The software is available concurrently in languages other than English.

Implementation timeThe less up-front customization your system requires, the more quickly the implementation process can be completed. Before buying, find out how long the implementation will take.

Make sure you understand the factors that may increase or decrease the amount of time needed.

The key factor influencing the success or failure of a CRM implementation is integration. Often, CRM vendors speak of touch points - the fields with data that is transferred between different systems.

For example, if the phone number is changed in a CRM system, that "touch point" needs to be linked to the accounting system for the information to be automatically updated in the accounts receivable module. In most CRM systems, the vendor must select a subset of touch points and create appropriate links between the CRM system and the client’s accounting system; if the customer needs additional functionality, they must pay additional integration costs.

Here are eight helpful hints for promoting CRM as a business culture:

1. Build a case for change.

Think about the impact of the CRM strategy on people - the benefits and consequences of changing, or not changing.

2. Hold regular meetings across all departments to communicate project progress, problems encountered and resolutions for any outstanding issues.

3. Keep employees in the loop by providing information and clarity about what is happening, when changes will take place and how staff will be impacted.

4. Encourage employees to speak up about the changes and listen to what they have to say.

5. Give employees time to make the transition and to adjust to the new approach.

6. Support the managers who are leading the CRM march. Do your best to provide them with the necessary tools to successfully implement the CRM strategy.

7. Understand that effective implementation of CRM is a cultural process, and that it will take time for everyone to adjust to new ways of doing business.

8. CRM system users must inform customers about the company’s vision for a customer-centric organization. They must also ask for customer feedback and then use that information to improve customer interactions.

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