Tap the Value of Your CRM Investment

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CRM solutions continue to be criticized for producing a less-than-anticipated return on investment. Some organizations are even poised to pull the plug on these popular projects despite the investments made to develop them.


Before taking the radical step of abandoning a CRM initiative, consider how much your CRM system helps you understand your customers' business environment. This is the most overlooked area of CRM design, but one that can help ROI.


The first step to ensure success of any CRM initiative is to examine the business data used within the system. These are the details that help pinpoint qualified prospects, cross-sell more effectively and extend relationships across multiple buying groups more easily.


Such current business information about your customer typically resides not in your CRM system but in external databases including Securities and Exchange Commission filings, press releases, news coverage, trade press articles, industry reviews and analyst reports. To create a complete profile of customers and prospects, companies must be able to link their CRM systems with high-quality external business information.


The complexities of integrating disparate external sources into often-monolithic CRM systems, however, have limited the practical implementations of this goal. Though external information can be added manually to a CRM system, this is too costly and delivers only a short-term solution to an ongoing problem. Many enterprises have developed custom-built interfaces to combine various data feeds into their CRM applications but have struggled to maintain these links over time, especially when many external content sources are being accessed.


Web services and XML, and well-supported XML standards such as XBRL, provide a solution to this obstacle, letting companies integrate quality data directly into their CRM systems. This approach has many advantages, including:


Speed of development and update. With near-universal support from major CRM vendors, XML and Web services allow for rapid integration of external information into your CRM system.


This makes it easy to present external data that is most relevant to an individual functional group or business operation in context with internal data. Most importantly, integration can occur behind the scenes, with automatic updating of account profiles, financial models, credit-scoring applications or any other form or document, reducing the risk of errors caused by manual data entry.


Consistent data presentation. Incorporating external data within existing CRM applications ensures that data is displayed in a consistent, familiar format, thereby minimizing unproductive research, improving productivity and letting end users rely on a single application with consistent field placement for critical pieces of data.


Users then can receive a richer display of relevant business information within the CRM application, including news stories, current financial data, industry trends, updated executive biographies and detailed corporate family information.


The importance of consistent display extends beyond just applications to custom reports, presentations and even individual forms. Automatic data integration makes it easy to update regular reports, sales presentations, company profiles, risk-analysis worksheets, financial comparisons and any other material.


Information-driven triggering. Integrated data offers more than just formatting advantages. Once external information is incorporated within enterprise applications, it can be used to trigger alerts that drive specific business actions.


An alert can be as simple as notification of a recent corporate announcement or as complex as an elaborate financial simulation that immediately integrates new financial results. Overall, alerts ensure that users get the information they need to do their jobs effectively. Also, since XML is device-independent, information and alerts can appear on any platform, including a desktop PC, a wireless phone or a PDA.


Though XML and Web services can play a critical role integrating external data, the task of correctly matching external data with internal records usually requires expertise and supporting tools not found inside the corporation. This is leading many companies to seek comprehensive business information solutions that provide all of the tools and services to integrate internal and external data within CRM systems.


In choosing such a business information solution, you should evaluate several factors, including the range and quality of information provided, the experience and expertise of the information vendor and, perhaps most importantly, the vendor's business information taxonomy.


Taxonomies provide the framework for classifying, organizing and integrating a range of critical business information, and ensuring that it gets associated with the correct business entity within your CRM. For example, a commercial bank would want to ensure that its relationship managers can access detailed financial data (available in the form of SEC filings) about each client directly through the bank's CRM system, in order to evaluate credit worthiness. If the SEC filings are not correctly associated with each client, the evaluations obviously will not be correct.


The challenge is that taxonomy solutions are generally limited to a single approach: highly structured data (ZIP codes, SIC code, etc.) or unstructured text documents (news articles, press announcements, analyst reports, etc.). The unstructured taxonomies run deep on business and topic terms but don't perform well for tagging companies - the key entity to a customer-focused application.


The structured taxonomies typically are too narrow in focus and don't cover the universe of information required for customer-facing processes. When outsourcing data integration projects, look for solutions offering a classification system that efficiently organizes both structured and unstructured content.


By using Web services and XML, along with a trusted provider of business information, a company can seamlessly integrate internal and external data to provide complete snapshots of its customers, prospects and competitors, which in turn will create new opportunities and precisely target high-value prospects.


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