Buyer's Guide

A buyer's guide to choosing the right CRM product

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Considerations for buying the right CRM tool

By identifying your must-have features, you can select the right CRM tool you'll need in order to build your customer engagement strategy.

Many organizations are looking for the right customer relationship management (CRM) product on which to build their customer engagement strategy. Features, functionality, application delivery, support and pricing are central to the decision-making process. In this article, we discuss these and other areas to consider before making a CRM tool investment.

Knowing your features and function needs

A CRM tool must do what your company needs it to do, or else it's useless and will only cause frustration.  So it's critical to know exactly what issues you're trying to solve before investing in any CRM tool.

If a company has a lead generation problem, it must know specifically which part(s) of the lead conversion process needs help and why. Is the right data being collected? Are you able to implement the lead nurturing sequences in the right channels (social, email, Web, mobile) at the right time based on demographics and firmographics? Do you need automated scoring updates to track how often leads click, open, download and attend webinars? This level of detail allows you to better judge the application's capabilities and know how it can solve your problems.

Identifying must-have features for your CRM tool

Must-have features for marketing automation systems include support for content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO)/search engine marketing and email marketing. Also important is the ability to manage multiple cross-channel campaigns simultaneously. Integration with content management systems such as Drupal, Joomla!, WordPress and others is also important for creating and distributing marketing messages. Basic lead workflow (nurturing sequences) and scoring capabilities are necessary to process the number of leads coming from digital marketing campaigns.

The main job of sales automation is to create and extend relationships by making it easier for companies to manage interactions with customers and prospects. It's important to integrate and find insights from social signals such as likes, shares or views from social networks (including company-owned communities, blogs, review sites, etc.), email conversations (Gmail, Outlook) and other interactions. The sales force automation (SFA) tool must help sales professionals stay aligned with the needs and expectations of customers in real-time.

On the sales process side, SFA tools must make it easy for organizations to adjust sales cycles when necessary and manage multiple sales processes. Today, if you aren't tweaking the process constantly, changing it to fit the needs of the buyer or in response to what competitors are doing, you can fall out of alignment quickly and lose customers. Systems that easily manage multiple sales processes and adjust them based on quick sales data analysis (reports, dashboards, etc.) will improve your organization's agility and performance.

While analyzing sales information is important, many sales managers spend a great deal of time managing data instead of interacting and collaborating with their teams. SFA tools should help visualize the process and quickly indicate problems.

From a customer service perspective, response times are critical. It's imperative that systems route customer issues to the right agent, automatically escalate the issue as needed and track service-level agreements (SLAs) to ensure compliance. Providing multichannel support through email, social media, live chat, self-service portals, phone and other channels is important so customers can use the channel that's most convenient for them. In addition, self-service is quickly becoming a must-have option, especially for mobile-first customers. Having robust, easy-to-update knowledge management tools for handling frequently asked questions (FAQs) across channels and for navigating multiple languages is essential for helping customers find answers quickly.

Other considerations for choosing a CRM tool

Other than which features are offered, there are several other areas to consider before buying a CRM product. 

TCO vs. pricing models. Cloud-based CRM options provide greater pricing flexibility with their monthly and annual options. This can make the decision process easier for many organizations with limited in-house expertise. However, if you have a high level of internal IT expertise, it's important to follow through with traditional total cost of operation (TCO) calculations to see whether on-premises products are a viable alternative -- at least financially. Companies with experienced IT staff and robust capabilities may find the fixed pricing and higher level of control for on-premises products more appropriate for their organization compared to the cost fluctuations of cloud options, which base their pricing on the number of users and usage patterns over time.

In addition to the more traditional one user/one account model, certain products allow companies to buy a user license that can be shared by multiple people. Account usage is tracked, and at the end of the month, the hours are tallied across all of the users of that account and you're billed in five-minute increments. So it's important to understand your usage needs, and then investigate which pricing models each vendor offers to see what works best for your organization.

Data storage. Your organization's capacity needs and storage infrastructure must be a part of the selection process. You'll want to look into such things as the maximum document file size you can save, the maximum number of content documents, the number of custom fields you can add and the number of custom objects you can create.

API calls. If you're planning to integrate custom applications with a CRM product, you'll also want to understand limits on API calls into the platform. For example, how many concurrent API calls are you allowed, as well as the total API requests in a 24-hour period? 

Data security, backup and recovery. The contract should specify which party is responsible for security, backup and recovery of lost data in the event of a disaster. For cloud-based CRM services, these responsibilities are usually assumed by the service provider, since it hosts the application and data on its own servers. A possible addition to include in the contract might be to require the service provider to indemnify, or reimburse, the business for damages incurred as a result of vendor negligence in the event of a data leak or a legal suit from a third-party.

You'll also want to know where a cloud CRM provider's data centers are located and if there are any issues concerning data residing in countries that have laws or policies that may not fit with your organization's corporate security needs. Additionally, if your organization chooses a cloud option, make sure you have immediate, unrestricted access to your company's data and can easily download it at any time. This is especially important in the case of a dispute or early contract termination.

You'll also want assurances that your data won't vanish if the cloud provider goes out of business or discontinues your service. Many cloud-based CRM vendors allow you to export and take a backup of your CRM data in a few simple steps.  Before you sign a contract, ask for an analysis of your existing data to provide a more accurate price estimate for data migration into the new system.

Policy for regulatory and compliance requirements. If your business operates under regulatory constraints such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and you want to go with a cloud CRM option, make sure the service provider's data policies are fully compliant and that the contract guarantees compliance in handling sensitive customer information.  It's important to know up front if the cloud option won't meet your legal and/or regulatory requirements. And if you do choose an on-premises solution, the vendor contract may require your organization to furnish its own security and backup.

A CRM tool must do what your company needs it to do, or else it's useless and will only cause frustration.

Internal technology capabilities. Before investing in a CRM tool, you must consider skillsets and technological capabilities already present in your organization. Decision-makers need to take into account what it will take to support the evolution/transformation needed for the organization's ongoing success. 

Established enterprises operating in mature industries such as financial services, healthcare and government probably have experienced IT staff with core competencies in traditional areas, such as database management, application development, systems design, etc. These experienced professionals will likely have a high level of business domain expertise, thus being capable of supporting mission-critical applications and operating in complex environments where integrations and customizations are common. With these skills available internally, more options, such as implementation types and vertical solutions, are available.

But if a company is younger and wants to put more of its resources into creating and implementing a new business model and fewer resources into supporting a traditional technology infrastructure, a cloud-based CRM tool is most likely the way to go. This also allows your IT resources to be very focused on understanding cloud technologies and architectures, using modern platforms to integrate business applications in the cloud.

Regardless of which scenario you more closely relate to, it's just as important to know the future direction of your organization, especially whether traditional technology areas will be a core competency for your company, or if your organization will focus more on developing and refining the business model as the core competency, and leveraging the right technology pieces and partners.

Customization. If you're supporting an organization that's heavily focused on implementing newer, more agile business models, you'll need software with a robust configuration model that makes it easy to use. This should minimize the need for IT staff to be directly involved in such things as modifying the look and feel of interfaces and creating reports. In addition, it should free IT staff to focus on integrating other important cloud-based applications and platforms with customer-facing interactions driven by information coming from CRM systems. 

If you're overseeing a more traditional IT operation, you may put a premium on being able to use APIs to have deep integrations between legacy systems and CRM systems at the interface/application/data levels. So having access to rich APIs and connectors becomes critical to your organization's ability to provide the level of service needed by your business users.

Platforms and ecosystems. You aren't just buying a CRM product, you're investing in a customer engagement tool comprised of an extensible, scalable platform that will grow with your organization; a customer engagement tool that's connected to a robust marketplace with a large selection of business apps that integrate with the platform and a rich partner network of technology and business domain experts able to provide ongoing guidance and support. Knowing not only your current challenges, but the future direction of your organization and how quickly it plans to get there is important in determining which vendor solution(s) you will build your customer engagement strategy.

Technology partners versus engagement model mentors. Many traditional IT organizations depend on the assistance of a vendor's professional services division or technology partners that have gone through the vendor's certification process. The local availability of these resources is an important factor in determining which CRM product is selected. 

Those companies building an IT organization to support new business and engagement models may want a CRM provider that has a robust ecosystem made up of resources able to help with best practices in applying customer insights to improve interaction and engagement opportunities. Being able to help not only with using the system from a technical standpoint, but molding the application to support an evolving engagement model and making it easier to gauge the success of engagement efforts, could be critical to the development of the organization. Cloud-based CRM systems providers are able to help organizations understand in real-time how people are using the system and what they're trying to accomplish, and assist them in being more efficient.

Next Steps

Data standardization is still key to sales

Knowing your customers is the first step to personalized marketing

 

This was last published in September 2015

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Buyer's Guide

A buyer's guide to choosing the right CRM product

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