Keeping up with customers

CRM in 2012 is about ‘customer intimacy’, ‘coherency’ and a buffet of options from the Cloud to hybrids.

It has been described as everything from ‘oxygen to get you through the recession’, to ‘plain darned commonsense at anytime’. CRM has become so ingrained in our business lives that you have to go to a dictionary site if you want to find it spelled out as Customer Relationship Management.

Leading local businesses like Icebreaker credit it with helping them go from a start-up to a successful SME (more the ‘M’ than the ‘S’ these days) and the business school academics tend to credit CRM as one of the better examples of applied technology, making a significant and positive difference to the way commerce works in today’s marketplace.

And that is probably key to understanding where the major players like Microsoft, Salesforce and SugarCRM, along with Sage, Greentree and Indigo, for example, see it going. Interestingly, none of the companies would appear to have a unique technological edge and the point-of-difference centres on the vendors’ compatibility with your company operations rather than with your IT system.

Clint Oram, co-founder and chief technology officer of SugarCRM, a US privately-held company, on a recent visit to Australasia (where they have some 600 customers and four New Zealand resellers) said he believes their open source technology is a key differentiator which allows businesses both big and small to customise a CRM system which can adapt to changing business needs. Or, to ‘drop’ the buzz term; scalability.
They claim to be the third-fastest growing provider globally in the CRM game, with a million users in 190-odd countries. But this is what is really interesting – they are turning their backs on selling their products to the big company CIOs and IT managers (they see them more as either validating or vetoing the technology afterwards) and targeting the sales and executive staff directly, to meet their business needs. Or as Oram puts it, “a shift in focus from CIOs to sales professionals eager to replace spreadsheets with software.”
That’s likely to mean a far less jargon-filled approach to SMEs. And where they go, others are likely to follow.

Lindsay Zwart, Microsoft’s Dynamics Business Group lead, establishes the environment: “A properly implemented and utilised CRM introduces coherency to your customers’ interactions with your company.
“How many times have you called and it’s been a nightmare to find someone who can find your bill or case? With CRM, all employees should have a 360-degree view of all your customer interactions – sales, service, communications and ‘the reasons’. This gives the customer the impression you are always on the ball.”
Zwart highlights organisational intelligence, efficiency and the need to make CRM easy to use (Dynamics CRM hooks into Outlook) across the company, as areas of focus.
“One of the key risks for any SME is all the IP each employee carries around in their heads, who the key contacts in customers are, who pays the bills, how to service a particular piece of equipment; when to ring that customer for their regular catch-up.
“It’s that six-month contract which has been negotiated, and all the little quirks that have been built into it – who asked for them, and why?
“What is the true impact of them? Getting these into CRM means that if the worst happens your business can continue. The phrase is: ‘no one is indispensable’, I believe? You need to get that information into CRM, so it’s your SME’s ‘recallable truth’.
“Then set your staff free to do what they should do: sell, solve problems, deliver services and market.”
Zwart believes that tapping an address on a mobile should bring up a map, and the phone number should call them. On the laptop the software should at a glance show any outstanding support cases, ‘pipeline’ and previous spend.
“Maybe even rate your customers bronze, silver, gold, or stars, so at a glance you know how important this call is. People need to get something out of a system to love it.”

Another CRM ‘Big Gun’ is Their promise is ‘customer intimacy’.
“The job’s much easier with the right system to support you in this super-competitive   environment, where ‘customer intimacy’ is essential to ongoing success,” says Stuart Cowdell, commercial manager at local telecommunications services firm Digital Island – who’s a big Salesforce Cloud fan.  
“And it is ‘out-of-the-box’ (via a web browser); just what we wanted. Not having to tinker with anything or hire administrative help and being up-and-running in a single weekend, made a huge difference – like revenues increased by 25 percent, along with improved sales management being ingrained into our achieving the right selling culture,” Cowdell says.
Hosted or in-house
Empower CRM provides a New Zealand-owned customer relationship management solution.  
“Its a feature-rich, easy-to-use business tool for organisations of any size,” says Rachael Staples, sales manager. “Whether you are a tradesperson or consultant working on your own, or run a team of 20 salespeople, Empower CRM will grow as your business grows.  
“It’s available as a hosted or in-house solution and easily configured to meet individual needs: users don’t need a degree or hours of training to learn how to use it. We include a rich mobile client (free-of-charge) which provides access online or offline to your key contacts. Via the iPhone and iPad, Empower integrates with the maps tool to get directions on how to find your customers too, and you can store your customers’, suppliers’, business partners’ or prospects’ details, ensuring you have ready access to this at all times,” says Staples.
“We have found many customers approaching us are already using SaaS tools such as Xero for accounting, so are aware of the benefits of running hosted software. We will be delivering Xero integration with Empower CRM in the coming months.”

Other roadmaps for the software are to develop industry specific configurations. Staples notes Empower CRM is a relatively new product. Indigo took over the ownership in September 2011 and since then has secured customers worldwide. It offers all customers a 30-day free evaluation allowing a seamless transition to a permanent licence. Empower CRM is priced at $42 per user per month or $450 per user per month (+GST).
Mike Lorge, MD, Sage Business Solutions, looks at the various deployment options for business owners.
“A proper CRM solution should be available both on-premise or in the Cloud. Whatever route a business chooses, they shouldn’t be locked in, as customers can migrate between Cloud-based and on-premise.
“Basically, CRM Cloud-based solutions should provide businesses with immediate access to a powerful CRM solution at a low monthly cost. A CRM on-premise solution offers users deeper customisation capabilities and, where possible, powerful integration options. Automated process workflows, mobile solutions, web self-service and more, help improve productivity and empower staff to communicate more effectively with their customers.
“And then there is what we call ‘ERP integration’ – a system which integrates all data and processes used by a company into one unified system, and includes all facets of the business from planning to manufacturing, through sales and marketing. This enables users to view combined financial and non-financial customer information within a single application, regardless of where the information is generated or stored, from front-office to back-office.
“Three-sixty degree customer visibility is particularly useful for managers, who may require access to a customer’s purchase history, or for customer service representatives needing to update a customer on the status of an order. Providing these users with access to both financial and non-financial information eliminates the customer data ‘blind spots’.
“The all-round benefits should be clear,” he says.
“‘We’re moving to the Cloud.’ You hear that a lot in the business world today: the Cloud is the buzz word: Cloud is the future – it’s here now, but before long it’s going to be where all data is stored, and where all business applications are hosted.
 “When it comes to computing solutions, it’s what they do, not how they’re delivered, that really counts.”

What suits you?
Peter Dickinson, CEO of Greentree, and Ken Davis, executive director of Greentree’s New Zealand Cloud services partner CodeBlue, jointly reckon businesses need to be properly prepared when considering Cloud computing, and they need to ask some hard questions of vendors to ensure they get a solution that works for them.
If you’re looking at a significant computing upgrade, should the Cloud be your first option? Will a wholly Cloud-based system suit your needs? Or are there some functions that are still better performed by computers on-premise?
“Let’s be honest,” says Dickinson, “the technology industry loves big platform changes as they get customers to buy all over again. Too often, the self-interested tech zealots talk as though there is only one answer, when in fact there are many answers. You need to be sure you get the answer that’s right for you.”
Equipment obsolescence is a major selling point for Cloud vendors he says.
“‘Get your computing from us’, they say, ‘and kiss your hardware problems goodbye’. Upgrades and replacements are our problem, not yours. The only hardware you deal with is the means by which you access your data and applications. And, what’s more, you can access them anywhere, from any web-capable device.
“You don’t need that great big expensive server in your office; you probably only use a fraction of its capacity anyway. With the Cloud, you get (and pay for) just what you need.”

Convenience and flexibility in one. Dickinson uses the analogy of driving your car versus catching the bus. As he points out: some days you need your car because the bus doesn’t suit.
“There are a lot of instances where you don’t just want to go from A to B; you want to go from A to B and you want to pick up a package from C on the way. Or you want to leave at 7.30 rather than 7.24.
“You want to be in control of what you’re doing, and the bus doesn’t always give you that.”
He also points out that when Amazon’s data centre suffered a major outage it left quite a few global websites out of action for days.
“There seems to be a lot of sales pitches that the Cloud totally eliminates risk. To me this is an illusion, until the disaster that nobody predicted happens. Such incidents also drive home the message that businesses must never abdicate responsibility for their data – whether it’s stored on-premise or in the Cloud.”

He is equally wary of SaaS being the be-all, pointing out what you save on capital costs may be exceeded by your monthly rental fees. In addition, any SaaS upgrades will be done when the provider is ready, not when you may want them, and functionality may be limited.
“It’s horses for courses really,” he says. “It doesn’t suit everyone’s situation and we’re finding with a lot of customers that the right solution is actually a hybrid – some services in the Cloud, some on-premise. That’s becoming quite a common result.”
The message is clear: get the perfect solution to your situation now and ensure it is sufficiently flexible for the future.

Kevin Kevany is an Auckland-based freelance writer.

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