Beyond the C: Forecasting CRM as the system of record for the small-business space

By Rochelle Garner

Read this article at CRN

Irving, Texas (July 25, 2004) — Mitch Cannady envisions a time when CRM will disappear from the small-business market. Not the functionality, mind you, just the category known as customer relationship management. In its place: a term such as business management that denotes a single platform from which nearly all employees within an organization can conduct their work.

“I think it’s the logical progression,” said Cannady, president and CEO of Spinnaker Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based provider of CRM consulting and services. “Customers are beginning to recognize the ‘birth of data,’ by which I mean the fact that all data and workflow originate with sales and marketing. Eventually we’ll have all of the applications in a company feed into and from the same master database.”

Cannady’s grand-sounding vision isn’t a new take on data warehouses, ERP systems or any of the other application categories we now think of. Instead, he’s predicting an environment driven by, and revolving around, front-end processes. In effect, he’s forecasting CRM as the system of record for the small-business space.

That’s a dramatically different responsibility from CRM’s conventional function as a window into different data silos. That more-traditional perspective took form inside the enterprise, where most companies use complex sales, marketing and service applications as adjuncts to the ERP systems they rely on to run their businesses.

But over the past 18 months, solution providers serving the small-business market have begun to effect a change in CRM’s role. It is becoming the system from which 95 percent of all company employees conduct 95 percent of their work.

“CRM doesn’t supercede accounting, it becomes the screen into accounting,” Cannady explained. “The CFO and the folks in accounting don’t need pretty screens to do their jobs. For everyone else, CRM becomes the application they use when they come in in the morning until they leave for the day.”

Why this new perception of CRM as the small-business market’s do-everything system? Because it can. Until recently, CRM applications came across like Goldilocks’ encounter with porridge: They were either too simplistic, such as Best Software’s Act!, or too complex, a la Siebel Systems’ OnDemand CRM. Today, many CRM applications can be deemed “just right”—capable, customizable software that can serve as a console for a variety of functions.

That’s exactly how Sign Warehouse uses CRM in its setup, which was designed and implemented last year by Spinnaker Solutions. Using Best Software’s SalesLogix CRM application and MAS 500 accounting software, the Denison, Texas-based manufacturer and retailer of sign-making equipment has a single screen from which to handle sales, credit checks, technical support and customer service.

“Our accounting department is using the accounting package, and everyone else is using CRM,” said Chris Gripp, president and CEO of Sign Warehouse, who estimated that 70 out of the company’s 100 employees work from the SalesLogix screen. “We’ve streamlined what our people need to be trained on and use, and anytime you can simplify, you get more efficiency.”

Over the past five years, Sign Warehouse has seen annual growth of 18 percent to 33 percent. But as impressive as that is, Gripp said growth could have been even greater if the company had been able to deal with all of the business that came its way. Now it can. “By streamlining, we’ve allowed our system to catch up with what was coming in,” Gripp said. “We’ve picked up another 10 percent to 15 percent of business that was being squandered because of our internal inefficiency.”

Of course, internal inefficiencies extend beyond the sales organization. Nearly every small business has less-than-best practices for checking payment histories, providing technical support, assigning and managing support staff, or dispatching field personnel. Such tasks typically have two common characteristics: They need to pull in information from other sources, and they involve people and applications across the company. And that’s where the new breed of CRM applications from the likes of Best Software, Microsoft and FrontRange offer surprising possibilities. They can affect and react to business processes outside of sales or marketing.

Solution providers told CRN that applications such as SalesLogix, Accpac, Entellium, Microsoft CRM and GoldMine offer the configurability, customization—and workflow—that companies require.

“People are saying they don’t want to go to three different places on their desktop to see or enter information. CRM makes the most sense for creating that single view because it’s the most flexible, with the technology to add buttons and screens,” said Ed Solomon, co-president of New York-based solution provider Net at Work.

Manny Buigas, vice president of sales and marketing at Miami-based NextLevel Information Solutions, which sells and implements Best software, agreed that “workflow is a big help in opening up the organization, giving everyone total access to the information they need.”

Not surprisingly, the workflow within such packages has been harnessed to deliver methodologies aimed at improving the sales process. That’s especially true of SalesLogix, Salesnet (intended for large companies) and new U.S. arrival Entellium. But the ability to customize these programs also means solution providers can apply CRM software to nearly all important business processes. In other words, “customer” must move over for others in the center of the CRM universe. “If you look at CRM strictly for relationship management on the customer side, you miss out on a huge opportunity,” Buigas said.

“Think of it as an electronic Rolodex of information for everyone a company does business with,” said Brian Bruffey, president and CEO of Protech Associates, a Laurel, Md.-based solution provider focused on Microsoft CRM for associations. “As the collector of all your information, CRM can become the central location for all your data management. So instead of CRM being the connector, it becomes the master. And all information flows to other systems as required. That means fewer interfaces, which has been a huge pain point for customers.”

Pain point is right. Ed Buckley, vice president of sales for Professional Edge, said it’s not unusual for companies with only five people to have five or six databases. “We went into one company that had 56 databases we combined into one, running off of GoldMine,” he said, to illustrate just how fragmented a small business’s IT structure can be.

Nearly two years ago, the Dallas-based CRM integrator, which offers GoldMine, Microsoft CRM, SalesLogix and Accpac, began running seminars geared toward making CRM the system of record—becoming one of the first solution providers to base entire business systems on CRM.

“I would say just about any company could use CRM this way,” said Buckley, who describes a design that writes data from accounting and inventory systems, for example, into the CRM master database. And because CRM applications typically include business intelligence capabilities, users can easily create and read reports on nearly any aspect of the company’s operations. “We can populate that data from accounting or inventory and just create a view of it,” Buckley said. “Users don’t even have to log into accounting to see if a customer has ascending or descending sales, or if he’s on credit hold. And because we write that data back into the CRM system, users can quickly create reports on that information. It’s the reporting features of CRM where the C-level people absolutely love this.”

Those C-level executives are gleaning another benefit from the latest breed of CRM applications they might not initially recognize. They’re extending beyond the ‘C’ of CRM to embrace more than the customer. That means even small businesses can now harness some pretty potent processes.