Those days are gone. That's why small and mid-sized firms are looking at Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software as a way to improve responsiveness and increase sales.
"If customer support isn't handled properly, repeat and referral business dry up, which can mean death to any business," said Steven A. Brown, director of global support for Financial Technology International (FTI) of New York City, a provider of financial enterprise software with 17 of the top 20 global financial service institutions as long-term clients. "CRM is essential today because service is no longer an afterthought, but is actually a key part of product positioning and the customer lifecycle."
Not all CRM packages are the same, however. Some business executives are attracted to the high-end process management and analytic options offered by the leading CRM vendors. Unfortunately, such suites can come with a hefty price tag (up to $10 million with ongoing programming and consulting services) or long deployment times (sometimes a year or more to install).
"A CRM implementation is often a perilous journey," said Gerhard Waterkamp, an executive consultant at IBM's Siebel Practice. "Studies show that about 55% of CRM projects can be regarded as failures because the projects did not achieve the desired return on investment (ROI)."
At the other end of the CRM spectrum, generalized hosting services such as Salesforce.com offer ease of deployment and maintenance, but may lack the customization that some require. Sales quote integration, customer support workflow and asset tracking, as well as marketing campaign analysis and reporting are sometimes missing, for example.
Similarly, stand-alone contact management systems such as ACT or Goldmine, while fine for their purpose, aren't typically flexible or robust enough for deal-based businesses, which may design, manufacture, and support products themselves.
What the market has been missing is an integrated CRM that is flexible enough for big business processes, yet affordable by small and mid-sized companies and perhaps most importantly, rapidly deployable. One attempt to fill that gap is TechExcel CRM by Lafayette, CA-based TechExcel.
Searching for CRM
Unsatisfied with its previous customer support tracking system, FTI needed to streamline internal business processes and offer clients an increased ability to service themselves. The company reassessed its support requirements and embarked upon a two-pronged strategy to attain its objectives: streamlining of internal business processes and the adoption of CRM techniques.
FTI laid out the requirements for it CRM system: it had to keep installation simple without expensive, high maintenance customization; and it must offer real-time data for offices and clients. Furthermore, the data had to be reliably centralized, not scattered throughout the organization in multiple formats from different sources.
Brown selected TechExcel CRM to manage customer service, as well as every phase of product lifecycle from acquisition through customer purchase, field service, and returns. FTI went live with the application within a month and the company is pleased with the results.
"Everyone, including clients, can access key info on a real time basis," said Brown. "Call up an incident number and all the relevant information is there, centrally located, with no missing data or communication."
Support staff can now bring up client account information and resolve issues at the time of the call, instead of having to return calls after research is done. All email related to support tickets with attachments, for example, and all communication to and from clients is immediately to hand. Further, an expanded knowledge base also allows clients to self-service many issues.
The new CRM system also helped FTI to maintain a more structured customer database. Support staff, for example, knows immediately which software version a customer is running, so they can better manage the customer's production environment. When a customer service agreement is expiring, FTI staff is notified so they can take action with regard to contract renewal.
As a result of keeping support staff, management, and customers informed, the system acts as watchdog to ensure that everything works as it should. The system standardizes the support process at each level of the organization and streamlines the process to minimize turnaround time.
Finding the Right Balance
When it comes to the selection of CRM, many variables come into play such as organizational size, complexity and costs. A small organization or one with relatively simple processes will probably do fine with a contact management system. A large company with complex processes, on the other hand, may well need Siebel, PeopleSoft or another higher-end system.
With the enormous expense involved, however, there is clearly a middle ground in the CRM arena. In the mid-market, or in small companies that utilize involved processes, technology selection should take into account ease of use more so than width of functionality. A limited, but simple tool is probably going to have higher ROI than a leading edge application that takes months to master.
"Companies need to ensure they are investing their dollars wisely," said Rod Johnson, service director, customer management strategies practice of Boston-based AMR Research. "To avoid overbuying and mismatched vendor selection, determine your organizations best fit by focusing on usability over functionality."