Column: 10 Tips for Finding a CRM Partner

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Are you looking to join the customer relationship management revolution -- or evolution as it more aptly may be described? If so, you are not alone, according to a recent Harte-Hanks survey of 448 corporations.


One-third of businesses in the survey have a CRM program or project in place or will have one in place within 12 months. While many companies realize traditional direct marketing programs must be updated to the new world of dialogue-driven CRM, they wonder about the best approach.


Many businesses choose the do-it-yourself database and marketing services approach. At first, this seems cheaper and faster, and can be more tied to the business requirements. While this makes sense for easier applications and small data sources, this is a miscalculation for companies considering a more widespread, companywide view of the customer. Here, a combination of new and legacy systems, and a need for data quality and customer data management throughout, often lead businesses to outside partners.


The Harte-Hanks research shows that most companies rely on both internal resources and external partners to do the job. In most cases, the need is for a certain type of partner, one that really has a hi-tech ability to provide true one-to-one marketing to your customers, in any combination of media.


Here are 10 tips to help search for the right CRM partner:


1. Take advantage of the new technologies. The CRM trend is taking hold. If you do not take advantage of CRM, can you keep pace with the competition? There are enough early adopters to show how to devise and implement a CRM strategy, and avoid pitfalls.


2. Understand your users. Harte-Hanks defines CRM as an integrated information system - typically developed from disparate data sources - that is used to plan, to schedule and to control all client and prospect interactions within an organization. The users of this information system include sales, marketing, customer service, finance, call center and other fulfillment staff.


3. Know why you are doing it. Companies that reported they are implementing CRM said they are using it to cover these areas:


• Customer service (95 percent).


• Sales force automation (91 percent).


• Call center management (90 percent).


• Marketing automation (87 percent).


• Integration with back-office applications (87 percent).


• Campaign management (85 percent).


4. Give it time, and measure it over time. The estimated time to implement a CRM project appears to revolve around one year. In the study, 72 percent of the companies now involved in a project report that it will take up to a year to be fully operational. Meanwhile, 47 percent of the companies planning a project think they will be fully operational in a year. Of course, the proof is not time, but return on investment. Make sure going in you have the metrics to show at least some short-term payback.


5. You do not have to go it alone. Many companies are buying the CRM gospel, but they are not buying a prepackaged solution. Harte-Hanks found that 16 percent of the companies that started CRM projects this year are developing a program primarily inhouse with some external development. Another 27 percent have outsourced the CRM project, while 26 percent are using inhouse development of a commercial CRM package. The complexity of many projects is driving companies to seek outside partners that can make it happen.


6. Know the challenges. Companies that are implementing CRM reported the five biggest challenges, in order of difficulty, are:


• Participation of different departments (93 percent).


• Integrating multiple sources of data. (93 percent).


• Securing internal development resources (90 percent).


• Integration with back-office applications (90 percent).


• Managing external partners (87 percent).


7. Know the trends. Before they undertake an entire CRM project, many companies are outsourcing some CRM marketing services. These companies are doing so to take advantage of the following:


• Call centers that are being reinvented as interactive centers to allow customers to contact the company any way they choose (mail, phone, e-mail, Web pages).


• Opt-in e-mail marketing that is dramatically increasing response rates over traditional direct marketing.


• Automated response centers that are used to keep pace with the deluge of e-mail replies.


• Profit-generating and loyalty building programs that let all departments interact with customers to share customer data in real time.


Should you do it internally? There is no doubt that technology can improve the way companies sell and market to customers. Should you invest in CRM systems that you own and operate? Here are some advantages of inhouse CRM programs:


• Control of entire process.


• You command 100 percent of group's attention.


• No external access to corporate data.


Should you use a partner? However, the investment in time, resources and energy for a CRM project is considerable. Here are some advantages of finding a partner for CRM programs:


• Hard-to-recruit technical staff ready to deploy.


• Reduces organizational head count and human resource concerns.


• Vendor responsible for replacing outdated hardware and software.


• Previous experience shortens learning curve.


• Technology costs spread among a variety of enterprises.


Ask questions. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating companies that provide CRM services:


• How long have the vendors had CRM services in place?


• How many clients do they have?


• What industries are they serving?


• Are testing and tracking procedures available to systematically improve your results with future campaigns?


• How much concurrent volume can the automated response system handle?


• What service and support are included in the price?


When you build a CRM program, most firms are taking a phase by phase approach. Thus, it is really an evolution - where each step must have a demonstrable return on investment to proceed to the next level. Showing ROI wins adherents to CRM inside the company while delivering greater service to customers.
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