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CRM data integration still hobbles mobile

A lack of data integration between CRM and other back-end systems still impedes true mobile CRM capability.

Welcome to part two of our series on the benefits and challenges of mobile CRM. Part one explores the business case for mobile CRM and how companies are using mobile capabilities to change the way that sales teams, executives and other employees work. Here in part two, we focus on CRM's data integration challenges. 

Celso Mello knows firsthand how important integration is to CRM software -- and to mobile CRM in particular. Mello, the chief information officer at Reliance Home Comfort, said that integrating customer information -- from marketing to sales to service -- is core to success in his business, even if this integration isn't always achievable today.

Toronto-based Reliance Home Comfort provides home heating, cooling and water heater technologies to 1.6 million customers throughout Canada. The company uses Microsoft Dynamics CRM software for salespeople in the field, but Mello said that a lack of application integration between its CRM and its legacy billing, service and other systems can undercut customer service.

Celso MelloCelso Mello

"Let's say a salesperson walks into a home that already has another product -- a water heater -- and we've been to that house in the last three months trying to fix a water heater [unsuccessfully]," Mello said. "If you walk into a situation and you already know that we didn't do a good job, it's a different kind of conversation. If you walk in cold, the customer is going to tell you about that, and you're going to look silly."

Mobile customer relationship management (CRM) applications redesign software for easier use on tablets and smartphones so that employees can work productively even with a smaller screen. But integrating data from disparate systems with a CRM application is often the first challenge. Sometimes bringing data together into a single, complete view of the customer means bridging the gap between systems whose databases don't talk to one another.

"Business processes are becoming more complex and the old siloed approach is more appropriate for simple transactions," said Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research. "Increasingly, businesses want and need CRM to support not just their transactions but their end-to-end processes, and you can't do that if all your data is fragmented."

Siloed data and the 360-degree view of the customer

Despite challenges such as integration, data suggests that mobile CRM is gathering steam. In early 2014, Gartner predicted that CRM revenue would reach nearly $24 billion for that year. The research firm attributed about 50% of revenue to cloud-based CRM, but mobile CRM was also a contributing factor, according to the report.

While some vendors have developed mobile offerings as a slimmed-down version of the full CRM app, others have force-fit their software into mobile devices without making the necessary adjustments. "Some vendors ... are taking their capabilities and shoehorning them into their mobile form factor," said Kate Leggett, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "But it’s a different process, a shorter conversation." The result is that mobile tasks can remain inefficient or near-impossible where CRM data lacks access to other important systems.

But siloed data can waylay a mobile CRM effort just as much as poor mobile CRM app design. According to Mello, a future goal at Reliance Home Comfort is to have data from various applications residing and accessible through the CRM system. 

"It is very important to look at a customer as a single picture, from sales and service to billing," Mello said. "When you are talking to a customer, they expect you to know everything about them. But that is not the case today." Mello said siloed data can undercut customer service and support: Salespeople and service technicians are often missing key pieces of information as they try to help customers.

Get your CRM house in order before going mobile

Some companies arrive at a mobile CRM strategy only after improving related business processes. That was the case with Reliance Home Comfort, which had to integrate Microsoft Dynamics with other contact center systems before it could provide better mobile CRM functionality.

Four years ago, the company implemented Microsoft Dynamics to help make call center agents more effective and to reduce costs. At the time, agents had to go through 20 mouseclicks and three screens just to create a service order or dispatch a technician because customer requests required access to information in three siloed systems.

"We needed to improve that somehow," Mello said. But there is "no appetite for replacing systems" at Reliance Home Comfort, so the company selected Microsoft Dynamics to interact with other legacy systems via a middleware layer, Microsoft BizTalk. Today, Dynamics is the presentation layer for the other systems' data and aggregates this information in a single view for agents. The result is a more efficient experience with fewer clicks. But, Mello said, efficiency and cost reduction were only part of the result. Better service was an important byproduct.

"We also realized that we could have a much better conversation with our customer. Our ability to communicate and provide better service is more important than cost saving itself because we can turn it into more sales at the end of the day," he said.

The contact center project gave way to a sales transformation, initially to enable salespeople to generate a product quote while at a customer's home. Salespeople were outfitted with Microsoft Surface tablets running cloud-based Microsoft Dynamics. This put CRM information, pricing, contracts and so forth in their hands digitally, where previously salespeople lugged around heavy stacks of paper with brochures that had pricing and financing information, as well as SKUs for heating and cooling. It was "all manual, very paper-intensive, error-prone and time-consuming," Mello said.

With information from various back-office systems now housed in Dynamics, some of which is presented to the CRM system via ExperLogix's connector, salespeople can provide customers with a contract on-site that includes pricing and other details. And, as a result of sales reps using tablets and creating a more professional, polished experience for customers, Mello said customer satisfaction jumped 12 percentage points in the first month.

App integration brings efficiencies, new possibilities

Integration with other applications can streamline formerly manual, cumbersome processes.

North State Communications, which provides telecom services to homes in the Southeast region of the U.S., uses Salesforce.com's cloud-based SalesForce1 CRM platform to enable sales reps to review contract details with a customer on-site, including products purchased, pricing and account information. Its integration with Adobe EchoSign then lets them include a digital signature in the document while the rep is still away from his desk.

Joseph SmithJoseph Smith

That allows for better customer service and information management, according to Joseph Smith, manager of fiber broadband business development at the High Point, North Carolina-based telecom provider.

Smith has also integrated Salesforce's internal collaboration tool, Chatter, with external services including Foursquare and Instagram. Smith used the integration to build sales rep excitement about acquiring new business. He could post a picture on Instagram that includes a photo and his location, which salespeople could see via the news feed on Chatter.

"We did it to show the work we were doing out in the field to expand and to say, 'Hey, we're going to this new area of town with our fiber business,'" he said. Smith said that the company is also communicating more internally regarding customer accounts through Chatter, rather than via email. It has become a portal for communication in itself. The company has also uploaded frequently used documents such as pricing books and contract templates to Salesforce1 for easy access.

Unmasking CRM integration challenges

But integration isn't always seamless, of course. Mobile CRM can uncover integration issues that are endemic to CRM more generally.

"It is pretty embarrassing if you spend all this money and time getting mobile capability and find out that one of the crucial parts of your operation is now inaccessible -- and it's happened to companies," said Marshall Lager, a managing principal of Third Idea Consulting LLC.

At Reliance Home Comfort, salespeople alone cannot schedule for a technician to return to a home for service. The rep must still call an office employee with access to the dispatching and scheduling system. That takes time and two people to do a task that could be done by one if systems were better integrated.

In this way, new technologies like mobile CRM are unmasking companies' gaps in information integration and laying bare some of the obstacles to that vaunted 360-degree view of the customer, however idealistic it may be.

"All of that intelligent conversation with a customer about his needs can only be achieved if we have all information in one place," Mello said, "and that's the vision for CRM in the long run."

This was first published in July 2014

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