CRM and Corporate Data

Companiescompeting in today’s business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C)world need a clear, comprehensive, and actionable view of their customers. Thisbusiness need is driving the category of customer relationship management (CRM)applications, which is all the buzz these days.

However,there is no single CRM application -- rather CRM is a set of applications that,together, attempt to deliver the Holy Grail of a unified customer perspective.CRM applications include call center management, e-mail management, sales forceautomation, marketing automation, customer service, and others. It’s probablybetter to categorize CRM as a set of business processes and applicationsdesigned to minimize customer acquisition costs and maximize customer loyaltyand profitability.

Given thisbreadth of functionality, no single vendor can cover the entire range ofpotential CRM functions, even though a few of the larger vendors are coming outwith product suites. For the next few years, however, it is very likely thatcompanies will need to adopt a best-of-breed strategy toward CRM software.

The problemis that if a company embarks on a CRM best-of-breed strategy it will have todeal with a very complex matrix of multiple islands of automation scatteredthroughout the organization. Each CRM packaged application comes with its ownpredefined data model, whether it’s transaction-oriented or analytic-oriented.Each data model has its own internal structure. These include the specifictables, columns, and foreign key relationships that make up the model, as wellas the specific column definitions. The key issue, therefore, is to identifyhow the various data models associated with a best-of-breed approach can beintegrated to deliver a unified customer perspective to the end users who needto make business decisions based on this data.

First, youneed to consider who the user is. For example, a senior marketing managerprobably needs summary data for limited functions, such as tracking keycustomer satisfaction metrics or Web site hits. However, other users, such as acustomer service representative working in a call center, or a sales account managermaking a customer call, have much more detailed needs for data on a specificcustomer.

Next, youneed to think about what data the user requires. Any customer-facing employeeneeds to have access to the complete range of customer interaction data. Theseinclude items like sales; shipments, back orders, and returns; accounting data;and customer service and support data. If this information is not available tothe customer-facing employee, that individual is placed in the uncomfortableposition of talking with a customer who knows more about his or herinteractions with the company than the company does. This is not a situationthat engenders customer loyalty.

How, then,do you deliver this integrated view of the customer to the appropriate employeein a timely and efficient manner?

Oneapproach to take is enterprise application integration (EAI). Using back-endmiddleware, companies deploy EAI systems that can automatically move data fromsystem to system. These systems must be very robust and flexible, since theybecome the messaging backbone of the customer relationship solution. Thissystem-to-system approach requires that the application have integrationadapters for all the systems that it needs to touch. It also requires that thedata model of the target system be able to receive the data from the sourcesystem. It may also result in a large volume of data being shuffled around acompany’s network in either real-time or batch mode, which has implications fornetwork topology and throughput needs.

Anotherapproach is to use a data warehouse or operational data store to capture datafrom various CRM applications. However, since the data is no longer in itsoriginal application context you must develop new business logic that allowsthe user to effectively manipulate the consolidated data.

Anotherapproach is to deploy a Web site with an integration server that provides apersonalized interface to the various application modules of interest. Thissystem-to-user approach links the systems at the desktop, but may not be ableto provide adequate data integration, since the user winds up integrating thedata into his or her head.

Whateverapproach you select, be prepared to spend a significant amount of money onintegration services. The good news is that for many companies, the investmentcan be justified because of increased customer satisfaction, retention, andprofitability. --Robert Craig is vicepresident of marketing at Viador Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a formerdirector at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at robert.craig@viador.com.