Get Site Going, Then Integrate Online, Offline CRM

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When building an e-commerce business, time to market is important for most companies looking to take advantage of a hot market opportunity as rapidly as possible. Of less initial concern has been integrating online channels with the existing offline businesses.


Customers and prospects, however, want seamless integration of sales and customer service, regardless of the delivery medium. Achieving seamless integration takes focus, planning and an eye on the future.


IMarket learned this when the company launched its Internet unit about 18 months ago. We, too, wanted to launch as quickly as possible. We achieved that goal by creating an entirely new business unit, zapdata.com, to build, market and deliver Internet-based sales and marketing tools to businesses.


The advantage of creating a new entity within the company was to focus on the immediate objective - building the e-commerce business. We got it done by devoting 20 percent of iMarket's staff to the effort, including developers, marketers and customer service staff.


The group developed and launched the site in six months, and zapdata.com has grown to represent a significant part of iMarket's revenue. But every business decision has consequences. In our case we decided that in the short term, we could live without a unified view of the customer resulting from the integration of the online and offline databases (a heretical concept for a database marketer).


However, we realized there would be a time when we would reintegrate the company as a single unit. After all, both our desktop and Internet products enable companies to find new customers, analyze existing customers and identify new market opportunities. Our sales and marketing goal is to help customers choose how they prefer to be serviced and be ready to work with them in the way they choose.


Work with the customers to determine what they need. For our marketing systems to support this goal, we needed one integrated database where all relevant customer information is stored. No matter what a customer buys or where the purchase is made, the information is easily accessible. This allows everyone to respond proactively to customers, whether it is a salesperson selling iMarket's services to a large corporation or a live chat/customer service representative answering a question from a small-business owner on the Web site.


What can others learn from our effort?


• Be flexible. Getting your site operating quickly is important. Creating something that works is vital. Once objectives are met, think about whether, how or when the online and offline businesses can be integrated for greater effectiveness.


• Plan ahead throughout the process. Design the new system with an eye toward integration with the legacy system to present one view of the customer. The database software and other available technology make this feasible.


• Design a solution that identifies duplicate records and enables information to flow accurately as it is received.


• Do not change user interfaces too dramatically. The sales force and customer service representatives are not hired for their technical expertise or their ability to use a sophisticated software system. They are hired to identify selling opportunities, close deals and service the customer. Keep the look and feel similar to what is already in place, and realize that the new information provided by integrating all channels will only improve their chances for success.


• Thoroughly cross-train employees to be knowledgeable about each of your products, services and delivery capabilities - to help them identify and close cross-sell and upsell opportunities.


With our integration effort nearly complete, we are focused on execution. We are asking and answering questions: How should we communicate with our customers? How do we identify better cross-selling opportunities? How do we ensure that we are communicating with customers the way they want? How do we better understand how and what they are buying and offer them better solutions?


We envision a future where we use customer information to predict customer needs and help lead them there. The integrated view of iMarket's online and offline businesses and information about the customers with whom we work lays a solid foundation for this effort.


Tom Gaither is vice president of marketing and Ryan Applegate is director of marketing systems at iMarket Inc., Waltham, MA, a provider of business-to-business sales and marketing tools. Reach Gaither at tgaither@imarketinc.com and Applegate at rapplegate@imarketinc.com.
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