SaaS CRM integration programs require business involvement, not just IT

SaaS CRM was brought into many companies by sales divisions circumventing IT. But if they want integration with other systems, IT can't help without business input, experts say.

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The challenge that confronts Erik Walters, program manager for business solutions in the sales operations division of DirecTV, is one that confronts many organizations that have invested in CRM via Software as a Service (SaaS) -- integration.

DirecTV began running Oracle CRM On Demand before it was even called Oracle CRM On Demand. DirecTV signed up for the service when the product still fell under the Siebel umbrella. That dates back more than two years, and DirecTV has yet to integrate Oracle CRM On Demand with the rest of the organization.

But that is changing. Like many companies seeking to extend and better leverage their CRM investment, DirecTV is beginning to look at integrating Oracle CRM On Demand with other systems.

That's not purely an IT project, analysts warn.

"What typically happens with SaaS integration is the big issue starts out with data: Is it consistent? Can I use the existing legacy systems?" said Ray Wang, partner at Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.-based consultancy. "Then the conversation turns to process, and that's where a lot of the issues start to arise."

In many cases, the business side of the organization brought in SaaS CRM without much input from IT. In fact, because of its low start-up costs and easy deployment, SaaS CRM was frequently a way for people like the vice president of sales to circumvent IT and get an application up and running on his own. However, now that it's in place, that doesn't mean they can simply turn to IT and tell them to hook up the system to the rest of the organization. Business needs to stay involved.

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"This is really all around an information supply chain -- what's important and what information do they need?" Wang said. "The business leaders need to start with what information they need and what questions they need to ask. So, when we're thinking about integration, it's not just technical and not just business. The value is in analytics -- how many days does it take to make a product or how well do we do in average deal size per customer?"

At DirecTV, sales operations is running the sales force automation tool, and as IT is evaluating its strategic architecture plans, it's turning to sales for insight into how SaaS fits into the picture.

"We were definitely engaged prior to this, but I don't think [IT] really understood," Walters said. "It's been an education process for us."

There has been a growing acceptance and understanding of SaaS by IT in recent years, according to Bill Band, principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

"IT organizations across many industries are starting to embrace SaaS," he said. "In particular, large organizations are doing an about-face and starting to adopt SaaS as a primary strategy. The two things that were concerns were security and integration. People have become a lot more comfortable with the security standards, and SaaS providers like Salesforce and Oracle OnDemand, even Microsoft, have been coming out with more integration capabilities. More APIs, more releases to answer the integration question. Some of the integration [that] organizations thought they needed they [now] find they didn't really need. SaaS vendors have beefed up integration with newer releases. Implementers have come out with integrator solutions."

The desire for integration with more systems has many drivers, Band said. For example, as organizations strive to put more information in the hands of sales and customer service people, that requires more from the ordering systems.

In some organizations, the process of integrating SaaS CRM is helping business understand some of the havoc they wreak on their IT staffs, according to Wang.

"We see a lot of cases where business says, 'We hit the limits of the system. It does everything we need, but we need to tie this back [to other systems],'" Wang said. "The IT side may say, 'Look, there are five divisions doing the same thing with four systems, but they each work a little differently.'"

The SaaS integration challenge is similar to some of the challenges companies that bought best-of-breed applications faced in tying together data and systems, Wang said. But for DirecTV and other Oracle customers, there are some different factors involved. In Oracle's case, its applications use the same data model. So the processes may be slightly different and need to be harmonized across on-premise and off-premise and across different modules.

"Vendors using different data models typically encounter some challenges, but the process models are what's more important," Wang said. "This is going to be more important as we start encountering hybrid deployment scenarios. Most of the innovation is being delivered by SaaS vendors or vendors with SaaS deployment options."

DirecTV has spoken with Oracle and on-demand integration partners like Cast Iron about the project.

"Web services seem to be the No. 1 item right now," Walters said. "The only challenge we have right now is [that] On Demand cannot call out. If we could call out, we could do things much more integrated from here. It prevents us from being able to do ad hoc changes and updates. You don't want to go change millions of pieces of data if you don't need to."

So where should a company that needs to begin integrating SaaS CRM start?

"Anywhere," Wang said. "The easiest place to start is with the analytics. That's really where the value of these large systems is. Can I grow this business? Are we meeting their needs? For any process like campaign to lead, order to cash, incident to resolution, we want to know what the status is, the granularity, and define the customer model effectively."

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