Incoming spam leads CRM solution provider to a chain of business deals

Spam email asking a CRM solution provider to buy booth displays was bidirectional marketing; it made him realize past work could become future CRM business leads, if planned right.

When reseller Bob Ritter got a piece of email in his spam folder in June 2005 asking him whether he wanted to buy an expo display, he didn't see junk mail -- he saw a lead.

The email had come from the vice president of marketing at Skyline Exhibits, a marketing-supply company Ritter already knew from some of his own customers -- Skyline dealers for whom Ritter's First Direct Corp. had already implemented GoldMine CRM .

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First Direct, based in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., specializes in business automation for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). What if, Ritter thought, he could land a CRM contract with Skyline and then go on to sign up the rest of Skyline's dealers

"In effect, I'm turning the tables. I've got the name of a VP, I've got a phone number and email address," Ritter said, recalling the email. "Wake up and smell the coffee is my philosophy -- it's an opportunity."

The St. Paul, Minn.-based Skyline designs trade show exhibits, which it sells exclusively through a network of about 140 independent companies spread over 40 countries.

Skyline had shared leads and supported that network with a homegrown CRM system, which it required that dealers use, though many didn't like the application.

In 2000, however, complaints from dealers and the expense of extensive Y2K repairs prompted Skyline to nix the software. Skyline told its dealers they were on their own for business-automation software -- as long as they could still take in and use the spreadsheets of leads Skyline provided.

That arrangement, however, left many of those dealers without a good replacement, or a good idea of how to implement one; Skyline found itself helping its resellers find reputable local VARs.

Ritter's idea was to work with Skyline on a standard implementation of GoldMine that all dealers could use. It would save dealers the hassle of finding their own resellers and spending money on custom CRM that wouldn't work with the rest of the network; Skyline could avoid having to work with dealers one at a time.

The end result was that Skyline commissioned First Direct to create a GoldMine CRM template that could apply to any of Skyline's 140 dealers. About 20 of those companies have signed on for the deployment since the project was launched in December -- and a couple come through the pipeline every month, Ritter said.

GoldMine started emerging as the preferred application among dealers about two years ago, according to Barb Baker, Skyline's dealer support manager. But some still used Sage Software's ACT! CRM, Skyline's old system or other software.

Some of the dealers that migrated to GoldMine did so through First Direct, laying the groundwork for the grander plan he launched after Skyline's email asked him to buy a display.

"It's the first time we decided to take that [vertical] focus not just to an industry level, but to a business level," Ritter said. "So, not just [CRM for] trade shows, but Skyline" specifically.

The idea appealed to Baker, who had taken on responsibility for helping dealers set up their CRM. By funding development for a common template, Skyline hoped to shore up its channel -- and thus its own income -- by giving its dealers better software and eliminate the need for each of them to invest time and money in a custom project.

"That's really when I got hooked up with First Direct.," Baker said. "I looked at a couple of [other] resellers, but I really liked Bob's persistence. Everything he told me he was going to do -- he never dropped the ball."

The template and basic application are free to Skyline's dealers, but the time it takes First Direct to install and, if necessary, customize it for each dealer is not, which leads to a steady flow of contracts for First Direct. Skyline does not use the template internally; it is simply meant as a quick, affordable way for its dealers to get set up with CRM.

The GoldMine application itself is also better adapted and more responsive to dealer requirements than the version Skyline sidelined after Y2K. It is well suited for the average dealer size of about 10 seats, Ritter said, but can also scale up for dealers with a couple of hundred seats.

Read how Ritter and his crew customized the CRM they implemented for Skyline and how they pitched it to Skyline's network of dealers in part two of this story.

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