CRM to Link Biz Systems

Tool recruited to coordinate customer-facing, back-office software.

The days of stand-alone CRM systems are numbered.

More and more, users of the software want to tie data from customer-facing applications to data from back-office applications, such as supply chain and inventory management, as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

A look at the latest technology initiatives from vendors in the customer relationship management space indicates just how important making those applications easier to integrate has become.

Top CRM developer Siebel Systems Inc., of San Mateo, Calif., this summer is due to release its Universal Application Network, a set of Web services designed to ease integration with non-Siebel applications. PeopleSoft Inc., of Pleasanton, Calif., and SAP AG, of Walldorf, Germany, have made similar moves to make integration less painful for organizations that use their applications in combination with other vendors applications.

One benefit of bringing together CRM and back-office systems is better customer communications.

TaylorMade Golf Co. Inc., of Carlsbad, Calif., has begun a pilot project to tie its Kana Inc. iCare customer service applications to its i2 Technologies Inc. Demand Chain Management application. This allows events triggered in the i2 system—such as a change in order status, a credit problem or shipping status—to be automatically communicated to the customer via iCare. The integration, which TaylorMades global e-marketing manager, Rob McClellan, described as "straightforward XML," could also allow the company to turn events such as overstocking of a particular product into marketing and promotional opportunities for its customers, although the company is not doing that yet.

"Were touching the consumer more and touching them in a more meaningful way," McClellan said. "It makes the chance of converting them into a customer that much greater."

Microsoft Corp. agrees. The Redmond, Wash., software company is touting front-to-back-office integration and integration with its Office suite of applications in its forthcoming .Net-based Microsoft CRM package of applications. Other vendors, such as Onyx Software Corp., Pivotal Corp., FrontRange Solutions Inc. and Salesnet Inc., have recently thrown their support behind .Net Web services.

Meanwhile, Best Software, the U.S. subsidiary of London-based Sage Group plc., announced last week it was absorbing its sister company, CRM software developer Interact Commerce Corp., further indication of how the walls between front office and back office are coming down.

Officials at Aston Group North America Inc., a systems integrator in La Jolla, Calif., that resells CRM software from Siebel, Pivotal and Navision A/S and plans to add Microsoft CRM to its offerings when it becomes available later this year, said companies are beginning to understand that unless CRM software is tightly integrated with back-office systems, it has little value to a business.

For Reliant Resources Inc., in Houston, integrating data from disparate systems is a key to better serving its customers in the competitive energy market.

Reliant combines SAP software for front- and back-office applications with a Siebel application for account registration and activation and several home-grown systems. The company uses data ETL (extraction, transformation and loading) software from Acta Technology Inc. to bring disparate systems data together.

"We can track every interaction the customer has with the company, see the whole life cycle of business processes," said Walter Sevier, senior data analyst at Reliant. Sevier said this allows Reliant to better respond to the service, billing and other issues of its residential and business customers.

"Our big goal is providing service to the customers," said Sevier. "Having access to all their data at such a detailed level gives us a competitive advantage."

Sevier said Reliant will still require a data integration platform, despite the Web services integration capabilities that Siebel and SAP are planning. "We have to do ETL if we want to have a common data store to generate tracking reports from," Sevier said. "But the Web services support should help us to tie data back to the source more easily and get a better sense of what data we still need to pull in."

ClubCorp USA Inc., a Dallas-based company that owns and manages 185 country club, golf course and resort properties nationwide, is also using data integration technology—Ascential Software Corp.s DataStage—to pull together data from a home-grown membership information system and a point-of-sale transaction system. ClubCorp uses this integration to gain a better understanding of the services and activities needed by different types of members, said Doug Williams, vice president of IT at ClubCorp."It gives us a way to manage all that membership and sales information," Williams said. "Theres a lot of it moving around."

By getting a picture of what members want, ClubCorp can improve sales and marketing campaign planning and see what programs to put together for what customers at which properties. "We see this as a customer retention issue and a way to generate new revenue opportunities," Williams said.