The days of standalone customer relationship management application implementations appear to be numbered.
More businesses -- particularly large midsize companies and enterprise accounts -- are seeking technology solution providers and MSPs that can help integrate customer relationship management (CRM) more tightly with other back-office systems.
That goes for both existing deployments as well as brand-new CRM customers -- an increasingly rare breed, solution providers said.
"A lot of organizations have started to understand that having point solutions has limited value," said Danny Estrada, CRM practice director for Net@Work, a solution provider based in New York City that specializes in back-office applications and solutions. "There is a desire to have end-to-end business solutions that handle everything from ERP to CRM. That is what is keeping us busy."
CRM integration part of end-to-end data strategy
When IT spending slowed down in the 2009 time frame along with the overall economy, sales of CRM applications were relatively strong, Estrada said.
Three years later, however, businesses are starting to question the value of those investments and are looking for relevant points of integration that drive more value out of their CRM investments.
More information on integrating CRM
Best practices for CRM implementation
"The implications of 'big data' are starting to dawn on them," Estrada said. "When a lot of customers use CRM for the first time, they don't understand the implications of storing files, spreadsheets and other content, and sharing them. That is changing."
Linking CRM with enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications such as order processing, inventory management and invoicing is a logical starting point. But global projects that bridge multiple currencies and multiple countries are also becoming more common, said Corinne Sklar, vice president of marketing with Bluewolf Inc., a cloud software integrator in New York City.
In addition, more companies are integrating CRM with social media applications that allow sales teams to better read demand signals from existing customers and customer prospects, Sklar said.
To address any of these scenarios, solution providers must offer consulting services that help businesses step back and define what they hope to accomplish.
"We are helping people develop specific business metrics they should seek from these deployments, because this will help drive the impact," Sklar said. "Too often, these projects are very IT-driven, and you need to help clients look beyond that."
Mobility and CRM integration
Far more companies are also paying attention to whether or not a CRM solution supports mobile access from smartphones and tablet computers.
"It is in most, if not all, of our project plans," Estrada said. "For us, it has a lot more importance over things like social media and business intelligence."
Bluewolf is likewise seeing much sharper interest in features and services that help extend a given CRM application to sales teams regardless of where they are located on a given day, which is one thing that continually makes the case for cloud-hosted CRM services, Sklar said.
"If you look at CRM as a whole, organizations are taking it deeper into the enterprise; they are looking at it as a platform," she said. "They are looking closely at the mobile productivity aspects and how they put this functionality into the hands of their entire sales teams."
Phased approach to CRM integration recommended
But just because customer relationship management projects require high-level, holistic goals doesn't mean businesses should try to achieve all of them at once. It means solution providers hoping to succeed with CRM projects must introduce project management frameworks to larger projects and into well-defined short-term engagements -- ones that demonstrate enough business to convince clients to move on to the next phase.
"People are already overburdened, so you really need to systematically break them out of that to get them to a better place," Estrada said. "The bottlenecks come down to available resources and prioritizing."
To that end, Net@Work created four different types of CRM-related services that help it act quickly while giving it the flexibility to adapt to evolving client needs, Estrada said.
Those include quick-start implementations that help companies add basic functions quickly; migration services for companies that are several years into their CRM implementation and are preparing to move toward a more integrated approach; larger business process overhauls of which CRM is just one component; and multi-engagements with specific short-term objectives that roll out over 18 months to two years.
About the expert
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York City area with more than 20 years' experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a business-to-business trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.