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Article : How to Decide if Customer Relationship Management Technology is For You

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technology has historically been seen by Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) as prohibitively expensive and firmly in the domain of big businesses. Now however, vendors have spotted that SMEs are increasingly receptive to CRM technology and suddenly everybody from small players to tech giants are offering SME-specific solutions.

Not only is the market flooded with vendors to choose from but SMEs also face the dilemma of whether to opt for a hosted or on-site CRM solution. Factor in a healthy dose of technical jargon and the process of selecting a CRM system can seem incredibly daunting.

The key is to select a CRM system that is not just an SME-generic product, but one that meets your company's specific needs. In order to do this, research is essential.

What is CRM?
Customer relationships rely on ensuring attentive, efficient service at all times. This requires customer information. However, whilst most companies have large quantities of information gathered, its value is minimised because it is scattered across departments with no holistic view available to staff.

CRM provides a single, integrated portal to all customer information, making the information easily accessible to everyone requiring access. CRM also ensures that customers will have a personalised, consistent, and satisfying experience in every contact they have your organisation - whether they are dealing with representatives from sales, customer care or support; and whether they choose to interact with you face-to-face, by phone, or online through the Web or email.

Key benefits

  • Single source for all customer and prospect information
    All information on customers, prospects and past communication with them is stored together in an accessible, efficient way

  • Single system accessed by all customer-facing staff
    No duplication of calls, no breaches of customer care – everyone is in the know and up-to-date.

  • Integration with back-office systems
    Data is integrated to provide a complete view of all activities, with less reliance on disparate systems. This improves visibility across sales and marketing operations providing users with access to additional information and functionality such as customer transaction data, credit availability and order processing.

  • Analysis and forecasting of sales pipeline
    More than just a contact management solution, CRM is powerful tool that enables analysis of past sales and prediction of future revenue per client

  • Customisation and self service
    The system can be customised to fit individual needs: define your own fields, profile key attributes; create your own screens, tabs, lists, and views. Best of all, you define your own workflows - such as the number of steps in your sales process - to exactly match the way you do business.

Hosted or onsite CRM – how should I choose?
The big CRM dichotomy is hosted versus onsite. 'Hosted' CRM is web-based, with the data stored by a host (usually the vendor) and accessed by the user. 'Onsite' CRM is a network version, with all the information stored by the user company.

Hosted CRM
Is affordable: a low monthly fee covers ownership, maintenance and implementation. It is quick to implement: there's nothing to install on any computer or servers. Thus you can get started without help from an IT consultant. There is no up-front investment in hardware or software. Hosted costs scale according to your organisation's growth. There is no need for a dedicated system administrator.

Another key benefit is that customer information can be easily accessed by a mobile workforce, with 24-hour secured access from any location in the world. No matter where your employees are, they have complete access to the information they need. With wireless device support, information can even be viewed on a handheld PDA.

Onsite CRM
Once a business reaches a certain size, it makes economic sense to pay an upfront license fee rather than a monthly per-user outlay. Deploying in-house – for a one-off charge – also means you can adapt the sales, marketing and service system to exactly match your business's unique requirements

Every company has its own "legacy" systems; the databases, applications, and web tools that it has relied on for some time. In-house deployment is unquestionably the best way to ensure these can be integrated into a coherent system.

Onsite CRM represents no lessening of remote accessibility. It is still accessible over the Web from wherever you need to be, operated and accessed through a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Best of both worlds: Hybrid Services

Many companies are being forced unnecessarily to make a choice between the two systems, when in actual fact the option is now available to select a combination of the two.

IT systems at their best are organic entities that grow and transform with your company, and the ability to switch seamlessly between a hosted and onsite solution offers significant benefits. For most companies in the initial stages of CRM implementation, hosted works. For many more, they never need leave it. However, for others, to deliver real ROI there are elements to add that make CRM the central nervous system of their company and for this, hosted won't deliver. In this instance the ability to switch within the same product family; to transfer the same data seamlessly; to maintain the same functions and interface with which users have become familiar represents a massive saving in training and re-implementation.

Thus, it is worth finding a company that offers a hybrid solution, and specifically one that offers the same architecture for hosted and in-house deployment of its CRM solutions.

In conclusion
The CRM solutions available to SMEs are now numerous, genuine and affordable. However, there are still marked differences between each offering. A one-type-fits-all option is not feasible when it comes to CRM: by definition each company's relationship with its customers will vary as their offerings and sectors differ from one another. However, there is a solution to fit most SMEs – it is just worthwhile to take some thought and consultation to decide which works best for your business.

About Gerry Carr:
Gerry currently works on the international strategy team for Sage's mid-market products. Prior to this he has spent the last 5 years working in various marketing positions for eWare CRM and ACCPAC CRM having moved from working in the integration software industry.Gerry is frequently quoted in the press and at conferences on the subject of how smaller companies can get the most from their CRM investment, having worked with dozens of companies trying to do just that.

ACCPAC International, Inc., part of the Sage Group family of companies (London: SGE.L), provides small and mid-size businesses a broad range of end-to-end business management applications designed to enhance customers' competitive advantage. The Sage Group plc is a leading international supplier of accounting and business management software solutions and related products and services for small to medium-sized enterprises. Formed in 1981, Sage was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1989 and the Group now employs over 7,500 people worldwide.

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Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2004

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