Extending CRM

Cessna Aircraft Co. faced an unusual problem in arming its salespeople with the right data to make and close deals: It wanted to install a sales force automation tool and connect it to the "most extensive" customer database in the aircraft industry, says Dave Turner, manager of network systems at the Wichita, Kan.-based aircraft manufacturer.

Originally, database administrators had to look up prospect information, print it out and then fax it to salespeople. The system also generated multipage end-of-month printed reports. To save money, time and effort, Cessna decided to automate the process.

The sheer size of the database made the task daunting. Cessna needed to be able to extract information not only about its customers but also on individual airplanes and then slice and dice the data and get it out to the global sales force. The company decided to customize the data models—the sort of move many users and analysts view as a risky proposition.

The less tampering users do with vanilla applications the better, practitioners say. Customizing customer relationship management (CRM) software can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming, and it can make the core application unstable and difficult to upgrade. Indeed, some users advocate retooling business processes rather than tinkering with CRM code. However, for companies that need to preserve a competitive advantage, adding vertical-market features or exploiting homegrown technology may make sense.

Rather than customizing, look for applications that are flexible enough to allow changes through configuration, says Steven Bonadio, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. This includes having access to developer tool kits, being able to develop and configure business rules and workflows, and adding new fields on the user interface layout.

On the other hand, Bonadio says, it's unrealistic to assume that there will be no customization. The degree of tweaking will depend on the sophistication of the user's operations, whether external interfaces are needed and the CRM project's goals. "Given that every organization has unique business requirements, some combination of both configuration and customization is often necessary," Bonadio says.

Cessna chose Fairfield, N.J.-based StayinFront Inc.'s Visual Elk sales force automation product and Panorama decision-support tool to extract customer information stored in a Microsoft SQL Server database. The project required programming services from StayinFront to create special data models before two in-house developers took over.

"It's always growing," says Turner. "You don't make it too complex. Define the requirements very clearly, and live, breathe and eat and drink the requirements. You need to be hard in not letting people change the scope of it."

When the new system went live, salespeople were able to access the database from their desktops—both through Web interfaces and other connections, notes Turner. "They look it up in Zimbabwe as the plane rolls up on the ramp and look in the database and find out who is the chief pilot, who owns it and who operates it," he explains. "It also allows them to do queries by region."

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AT A GLANCE

Should You Customize?

It’s worth considering if you:

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Need industry-specific features.

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Require changes for competitive advantage.

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Need to preserve legacy code and processes.

But be aware of the trade-offs:

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Customization and ongoing maintenance may be expensive.

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Programming changes may cause problems with the core application.

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CRM software upgrades may not work with the customized code.

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Competitive Customization

Despite successes, users offer caveats about customizing. "Maintaining customization gets difficult, and you don't get to take advantage of new [upgrade] functions," warns Greg Augustine, director of CRM and e-commerce at TidalWire Inc., a Westboro, Mass.-based distributor of storage interconnect products. Nevertheless, the company decided to customize its e-business Web site, which includes applications from San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems Inc.

In order to preserve the look and feel of its existing e-commerce site, the firm used a customized version of Siebel's catalog product. Boston-based CRM services provider Akibia Inc. handled integrating the catalog with TidalWire's e-business site. To keep users from having to log in twice—once to get into the main site and a second to get into the catalog to make purchases—TidalWire used Microsoft Corp.'s Active Directory and a special user interface, Augustine says.

The project took four months and cost thousands of dollars but was worth the effort, Augustine says. TidalWire now has a single product catalog that serves its sales force, operations group and Web site. Web requests for price quotes and orders are automatically directed to the right salesperson and can be tracked along with sales data, he says.

Some companies opt to avoid customization. Alberta Treasury Branches, an Edmonton, Alberta-based bank, was able to use IBM's MQSeries application messaging software to enhance its Siebel CRM call center system. The bank wanted to share real-time transaction updates with service staff, says Ken Casey, vice president of operations. MQSeries ties the back-end host with the Siebel applications in the call center in near real time.

By knowing exactly what customers' financial status is, the bank has been able to improve customer satisfaction, reduce errors and save money by making the process more efficient. The bank hired IBM to build interfaces to its host while tinkering with the core technology as little possible, Casey says.

However, he notes that the bank was cautious about the project. "The last thing we wanted to do was fool around with something that was a proven technology," he says.

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Cessna Custom CRM

Cessna’s salespeople have access to data through four channels: They can use a thin-client Citrix Systems Inc. MetaFrame server, the Web or a direct LAN connection, or they can periodically sync up the desktop to the network. StayinFront’s Panorama software extracts requested data from the SQL Server database, which contains customer information, airplane data, maintenance records and other information, and routes it to the requester through the appropriate channel. Cessna modified the data models and business rules in StayinFront’s Visual Elk to allow special sets of data to be presented to each client type.

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