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Selecting Web Based CRM Solutions


When it comes to web based or hosted Customer Relationship Management (CRM) it’s important to understand all the benefits of the solution before beginning your selection process.

This guide is designed to help you build a business case for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system in your organization, develop an effective project, ask the right questions of your vendor, identify the challenges involved and implement a successful solution.

Understanding the basics of CRM

CRM is not software – it’s an ongoing business improvement process solidly focused on identifying, acquiring and retaining the right customers. A good CRM solution builds value for your business by opening up vital communication channels and creating a common customer–focused knowledge-base to better serve your staff and clients alike.

CRM is about understanding the buying patterns and preferences of your customers and prospects so you can sell them more of what they want and introduce them to new products and services that other, similar customers buy and enjoy (cross-selling and up-selling to use the jargon).

By effectively integrating your marketing, sales opportunity management and customer service management functions, a good CRM system makes it easier for everyone inside your company to work together and share critical information.

An effective CRM system encourages your customers and prospects to do business with you – the way they want to do business with you!

What does a good CRM solution do for a typical business?

Sales Opportunity Management
A good sales CRM solution will classify your prospects and help identify your best customers. With detailed profiles on your customers you can more accurately estimate and predict their buying needs throughout the sales cycle. Sales lead management software can help you automate routine sales tasks, track and manage sales opportunities – allowing you to spend more time focusing on the selling cycle and pipeline generation.

Customer Service Management
The right CRM system allows your team to take a pro-active approach to customer service. With up-to-date and complete customer information always available, your staff can resolve customer issues more quickly and successfully create cross or up-sell opportunities.

Improved decision making
CRM systems provide a single view of the customer across all contact points and channels. Each of these elements is necessary for smart decision making and long term strategic planning.

Why consider web based CRM – why not a traditional server based solution?

The short answer is of course that in some cases there is a compelling argument for the traditional approach to CRM – a system such as ACT! Or Goldmine for example – and, when the circumstances dictate, users have very little choice. The arguments for these traditional CRM systems usually rest along the lines of centralized control, no need for remote access by a dispersed sales team, limited customization requirements, no need for customer logins etc.

But in an increasing number of cases the argument for a web based approach (also called On-Demand, Hosted or Software as a Service approach) becomes stronger and, indeed, overwhelming. Web based CRM is the most popular hosted application around at the moment and one of the main reasons for that is the notorious difficulties that exist in trying to link CRM applications into the more traditional IT solutions such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems. Furthermore, the greatest benefit of a web based solution is that it does not impact the organization’s IT strategy at all. There is no software to buy, no database to worry about and no hardware or infrastructure impact. It can be deployed literally in hours and ROI is a snap to measure compared with server-based installations. This is a particularly strong benefit to small businesses or small project teams within large corporations where the less involvement of IT Departments the faster the deployment rings true.

Getting Started on your CRM project

Most organizations require that you justify the need for a new system before making a purchase. Building a case for CRM, whether it is Hosted CRM or on-premise CRM, provides the necessary background information to help you define the need, justify the cost and demonstrate the value of the investment.

Build a team
Establish a core group of individuals dedicated to driving the CRM project to completion. Before planning your strategy and implementation make sure your team includes a project leader and project managers to oversee the functional divisions of your organization – such as marketing, sales, customer service and technical departments. In small businesses of course that may be only one or two people!

Set your goals appropriately
Your team should have a shared understanding of your CRM goals. To achieve this, the core group should identify your organization’s objectives, focus on processes that require re-engineering and discuss the appropriate courses of action. It is here that you have to establish technical goals also: examine the impact on the business of having the solution hosted in-house or having the system web based. If your main goal is to have an easy to use system that requires little or no maintenance and does not impact your existing system then a web based CRM solution will come high up on your list of wants. If, however, you want tight integration with your existing ERP systems and want to centralize the database structure by installing new servers and operating systems to handle the solution then a server based solution would be better.

Examine your current processes
Analyze your existing business processes from a number of viewpoints, to find out how they impact both your organization and your customers. By evaluating your processes now, you can identify what’s working and what’s not and prepare to implement a new CRM system that emulates the most effective strategies for achieving success. Many server based CRM systems could have an impact on the entire organization’s processes whereas web based sales force automation tools (still basic CRM) have little or no impact on the back-end processes but still deliver a huge ROI.

The Selection Process

The decision to choose a specific CRM solution involves a core team of individuals to serve and represent the functional needs of various departments. This ideally requires full cooperation and collaboration amongst Users, Managers and Customers. Ideally you should choose a number of potential web service providers or traditional CRM software vendors (or a mix) and run a set list of functionality tests on each. This is where the hosted CRM service model works best: if you can successfully test your criteria yourself with limited help (although it can be useful to test their service or help-desk at this time also) then you will be onto a winner. When testing a server based solution it is likely a sales person will do a presentation or demonstration. Trying to get them to work through your agenda is not always that easy and it is possible to get side-tracked into looking at the bells and whistles rather than the core functionality. Sign up online for two or three free trials of hosted CRM solutions; have a checklist of features that you need to see working; ask their help-desk a few questions and see how it all comes together.

Narrow the Field

Look for a CRM system that integrates your back office accounting software and other business systems only if you need that! Many organizations find themselves paying a small fortune more for functionality they will never use and is unwieldy/impractical to use. When even Microsoft Dynamics can’t yet integrate their CRM and ERP systems, it tells you just how much of a challenge this can be. It’s much better to choose a system that matches your most effective sales and service strategies first and then look at the options to integrate with Finance or ERP solutions. For example, if you have a sales process that focuses on your existing customer base then an integrated CRM/ERP solution has real merit. However, if you have a model that relies on constantly finding new business and new customers then all of our experience tells us that there are very real challenges to be met in integration. For example, ERP systems are only interested in live customers -- CRM systems in these environments are usually more concerned with prospective customers: the two are different datasets and need different processes and methodologies to deal with them.

Because of this, it’s often better to concentrate on the more generic benefits of CRM at the outset therefore:

Improve communication channels
The ideal CRM solution will integrate all business channels and provide your users with seamless remote access to up-to-date customer information. Think about the different interaction points your customers are currently using -- and are likely to use in the future to communicate with your organization. A good hosted CRM system providing service on demand will allow you to retrieve real-time information at any time and from anywhere. Choose one that will fit the functional needs of your system users and customer alike.

Keep a global perspective
The ability to support a global reach, even if not essential now, is a vital investment in your company’s future. And whether you do business globally or just interstate – it’s critical that your team can access information 24/7 in today's modern, fast-moving sales world.

How much implementation time can you afford?
How much time can you afford to have a new server built, operating software installed, databases configured, CRM software installed and configured…versus just being able to sign-up and go! Hosted CRM simply cannot be beaten by a server based approach in this key area. We have direct experience of clients signing up in the morning and being operational by the afternoon -- that's how simple it should be.

Selecting the System That’s Right for You

Now that you’ve evaluated a number of possible solutions, its time to make a decision.

Consider the following when selecting a software vendor:

Outcome of the Free Trial
How did the software look to you? Was it fast and easy/intuitive to use? Was there demo data available or the option to test it with demo data? This is often a major factor as you have an opportunity to see the solution working rather than have to create a whole bunch of scenarios for yourself from scratch (studies show that 80% of potential customers who sign up for Free Trials never log in more than once – the likely reason is the amount of work required to set up a meaningful demo system)

Evaluate their technical support
Log a service request with the potential vendor and see how quickly they get back to you. What was the response like? Was it sales or service oriented i.e. did they try to close you or did they try to fix the problem/answer the query?

Get flexible reporting
Make sure that you can output the data in a variety of ways including to Excel. Can you use reports as inquiries so that you can build your own paths through the system.

Ask about customizability
Does the software allow you to modify all aspects of the system? Can it be customized to suit your business? Do you have the ability to create and modify fields, tables and security settings?

Does it fit your budget?
Most web based CRM solutions are very cost-effective in that you can budget per user per month, but in many cases if you do a lifetime ownership sum you can quite often be surprised that the total cost of ownership is more than a server based competitor. It’s important to balance the number of users you will have with the timescale you will run the system over before settling on the overall budget. Remember that web based systems should be intuitive to use and therefore require little or no training: you must also discount the hardware and operation/database software necessary for server based solutions when taking the full picture into consideration.

Implementing Your System

What is the best way to make the implementation process a smooth and successful one?

Create a sandbox
To smooth the implementation process, create a ‘sandbox’ for your CRM related business processes with your chosen vendor so that you can test or pilot the processes with your team prior to go-live. It is here that any small customization needs will be discovered and ironed-out. Any good vendor would be happy to go through this process with you and with a hosted CRM solution your financial “risk” will only be the rental amount for the duration of the pilot – in our case if it took a month it would cost you $50. After the sandbox phase, upload your database to the new system and test performance under full load. Again, any good vendor would work with you and again in our case we charge a flat $50 per data table to be uploaded.

Prepare for customization
One of the most common mistakes companies make is trying too hard to limit customization to the selected packaged software. If you need software that can meet the unique requirements of your business be prepared to customize it after installing the “out of the box” solution. With iportinstant CRM , we have priced it so that the monthly rental amount is very low allowing you to apply more of your budget to customizing it to the way that you want it.

Plan for ongoing evaluation
Keep in mind that your CRM system will always be evolving. As a result implementation never completely stops. Ongoing evaluation of your business processes will help you maximize the benefits CRM can bring to you organization.

Chic McSherry

You can find more comparisons with CRM systems here