Integrating CRM: No Pain, No Gain

If your dream is to make a seamless transition to CRM, dream on. Most midmarket solutions require complicated deployment procedures and customization. Still, with some hard work, integration is possible.

June 10, 2003

19 Min Read
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So we asked ACCPAC International, Epicor Software, FrontRange Solutions, Microsoft and Soffront Software to supply a CRM application that would accomplish three key things: allow analysis of our customer and sales records; provide NWC Inc. customers with a self-service knowledgebase to decrease time spent on technical support; and let NWC Inc. integrate e-mail and phone communications, to better understand customers' needs. The winner would be fully integrated into NWC Inc.'s infrastructure. PeopleSoft, SAP and Siebel also were invited but declined to participate, each saying it doesn't "do" reviews. Oracle reluctantly declined to participate as its solution doesn't support DB2.

Although we considered features and functionality in our evaluation, we weighted integration and deployment issues more heavily in our report card. The software would have to import our existing data, take advantage of our authentication infrastructure (Active Directory Services) and be tailored to fit our B2C model. Customization was a key factor in our testing, as most midmarket CRM programs follow a B2B model, in which records are tracked based on company relationships, rather than a B2C model, which typically focuses on a single contact per customer. We also required customer self-service capabilities: the ability to submit incident reports, search a knowledgebase for solutions to common problems and communicate with customer-service representatives regarding orders.


CRM Software Pricingclick to enlarge

The predominant architecture for most CRM solutions, whether targeting the large enterprise or the small- to medium-enterprise market, is a centralized server and browser client. This architecture offers a faster time to deployment, less desktop configuration and a single point of management. Some systems, such as Soffront CRM, offer both a fat client and browser access; others, such as Microsoft Business Solutions CRM and ACCPAC CRM, provide only browser access. Epicor takes the slimmed down Microsoft .Net client approach and puts a rich client, with a familiar Windows-style interface, on the desktop. FrontRange's GoldMine Business Contact Manager Corporate Edition offered only a desktop client at the time of our tests; however, the vendor released an identically priced, browser-based product, iGoldMine, just as we were finishing our tests.

Web services have found a home with CRM. All the products we tested offer SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) access. Epicor and Microsoft took this model further and built their software on the .Net framework. This gives their systems unprecedented customization capabilities. Although any serious customization requires programming skills and experience with Visual Studio .Net (Visual Basic .Net or C#), the possibilities are endless and far easier to integrate back into the product than customization via a conventional software development kit.Both Epicor and Microsoft have addressed Web services' security concerns. As we poked around their APIs, we concluded that without appropriate authentication, you can't mess with the product. On the other end of the spectrum, after we pored over the ACCPAC's WSDL (Web Services Definition Language), we couldn't determine how ACCPAC handles security. The functionality is severely limited to basic operations.

We were pleased that all the products handle general data security gracefully. We prefer the easy integration with ADS offered by Soffront and Microsoft. Soffront's method of applying access rights to specific customer records via queries made it easier to group customers into territories based on existing data, such as state of residence. Microsoft and ACCPAC do a good job of applying territory-based security to records, but we had to configure records into territories manually. None of the vendors provide authentication or access via LDAP, but LDAP is less important than ADS for the midmarket.Immediately after we installed each product, we attempted to import our customer data into the SQL Server each product uses as primary storage. (None of the vendors support DB2 directly.) We met with varying degrees of success. All but Epicor let us import existing contacts in different ways, but the nomenclature used for primary contacts varied from "customers" to "people" to "contacts."

Epicor requires the use of DTS (Data Transformation Services) within SQL Server to import data--a truly tortuous process. After spending several hours trying to develop DTS scripts, we decided to move on. Epicor offers professional services to assist with this initiative, and it would be wise to use those services despite their additional cost.

There is no way to just dump data into the databases that support a CRM system. Although most use straightforward table and column names, the linking between tables and the unique identifiers in each table will trip you up. The web of primary and foreign keys, identifiers and sheer number of tables that must be modified is sticky. You'll have to use the software tools that come with the product, hire professional services to assist or, if you're masochistic, enter the data manually.

When a CRM vendor says its product is "out of the box," you should immediately translate this to, "It installs quickly, and if you do things our way, you can be running within hours." Only Soffront CRM does not claim out-of-the-box functionality. While that may sound like a detraction, it's a benefit. Soffront's requirements make the customization so flexible that you can support any business model without getting a migraine. This model takes longer to deploy than the rest, but we liked having full control of the layout and being able to define the forms based on our own database schema.This is not to say that we couldn't customize other products. Epicor and Microsoft offer some codeless customization, though both require programming to really extend and customize their systems. Microsoft also provides some basic layout capabilities and a browser-based method of removing and adding fields. ACCPAC offers similar customization, including a way to add new fields to tables, add them to existing entry screens or create custom screens.

The beauty of these products lies not in their ability to manipulate fields, however; it's hidden in the way each database's linking mechanisms connect customers to products, orders and data sources such as e-mail messages and even chat sessions. Despite the difficulties that arose from these complicated database schemas during the data-import phase, we appreciated the products' abilities to make sense of such tangled data webs.

We found CRM systems' primary support for B2B relationships frustrating. The B2B terminology often can't be modified, which means that we were stuck choosing "account," "contact" or "people" to describe what we call "customers." Our sales and customer-service staff could adjust to the jargon, but it would require time, training and a temporary decrease in productivity. We'd like these applications to offer some level of light customization, to enable a smoother transition for our users.

When the smoke cleared and the last echoes of our swearing had dissipated from the lab, we chose ACCPAC's CRM solution for NWC Inc. We were impressed with its customization and general functionality. Its feature set provided everything we required at a reasonable price. The customer-service portal was more than acceptable and required fewer modifications to our infrastructure than Microsoft's product. ACCPAC also supported our B2C model better than its competitors. The only software more flexible in this regard was Soffront's, but the base product does not include a customer-service portal--an unfortunate Achilles' heel.With its easy customization, painless installation and well-rounded feature set, ACCPAC CRM handily won our Editor's Choice award for midmarket CRM solutions. This product starts off on the right foot by including all the required software. Unlike Microsoft's CRM, ACCPAC required no preinstallation software or configuration changes before we began.

Customizing ACCPAC CRM was a pleasant experience. We could extend tables and customize screens to include company-specific fields from within a browser. These capabilities greatly influenced our choice of ACCPAC, because no business will align perfectly with the database schemas a CRM vendor supplies. Industry-specific fields or ones necessary to the organization's business process are inevitable. Only Soffront was more flexible in this regard, as it let us completely define our data schemas without losing anything in the translation.We were surprised by ACCPAC's well-designed work-flow engine and its inclusion of escalation and notification features. Escalation provides a method of ensuring timeliness of response to customers similar to procedures found in network-management systems. Midtier CRM products are rarely so complete.

We were also impressed with ACCPAC's reporting capabilities. All the products we tested offer enterprise-class reporting, internally or via Crystal Reports. And all but Microsoft include a version with the system. Soffront's and ACCPAC's reporting capabilities are flexible and based on user-customizable queries. Soffront's reporting functionality is built-in; ACCPAC users can choose built-in reports or Crystal Reports.

ACCPAC's base product includes a customer self-service portal that lets customers access the knowledgebase and interact with customer-service and sales representatives. Such a component, which Epicor and Soffront also include, is critical to a successful CRM solution. We were disappointed that the products from FrontRange and Microsoft lack this feature.

The only drawback to ACCPAC's application is its reliance on Excel to import data. Excel 2000 limits the number of rows in a spreadsheet to 65,536. Our test case, therefore, would require at least nine different Excel files to import our 600,000 customers and a whole lot more to import our millions of orders. Though the vendor said that this limitation can be alleviated by using Office XP, our testing showed that the limitation still exists within XP. In either case, we had to install Office on our server--something we really rail against doing. We greatly preferred to import a CSV or DBF, as the competition allows. ACCPAC says it is working on a version that will remove the Excel requirement and offer alternative methods of importing data.

ACCPAC gives users a well-designed GUI complete with an intuitive navigation scheme. Looking up a customer is a breeze and all relevant communication is conveniently attached to the customer for quick navigation among products, cases and detailed customer information. Users can personalize the dashboard, which offers information on recently viewed companies or customers and the user's task list. Likewise, users can configure a wide variety of preferences, such as a default search screen (with company, person and lead) and date and time preferences.ACCPAC CRM 5.5, ACCPAC International, (800) 945-8007, (925) 461-262. www.accpac.comEpicor's CRM product is a 100 percent Microsoft .Net-based program. A .Net-based client communicates with the Clientele server via Web services and offers a richer client experience than its browser-based competitors. As such, Clientele requires some upfront work for deployment on the desktop, as the .Net framework is required. Users can perform the installation by browsing to the Clientele server, a simple procedure. However, Windows 9x workstations will need upgrading because the .Net framework 1.1 is only available for Windows 2003, 2000 and XP. NWC Inc. would have no problem with these requirements, but many midsize companies may have trouble complying. Therefore, we preferred competitors' browser-based access, as a means to eliminate the costs of desktop management and potential upgrades for all users.

Epicor's customer self-service portal was as good as ACCPAC's. It is well-designed and integrates easily into the system, requiring only setup of a portal user within ADS to get it started. Enabling Epicor to accept e-mail and integrate requests for support or information (the infamous "Request Info: [email protected]" link found on Web sites) was simple and integrated easily into Epicor's work-flow engine.

Customization was an issue in terms of business terminology, as it was for all but Soffront's product. Hardcore customization requires programming in Visual Basic .Net/C#. Furthermore, it is impossible to do simple, field-level modifications without this model. The products from Soffront, Microsoft and ACCPAC allow such modifications.

Epicor's rich client interface is interconnected and easy to navigate. A user can smoothly navigate among customers, companies, products and other contacts from specific companies. We especially liked Clientele's option to copy addresses, phone numbers and other information from company level to contact level; the option both links records together and saves keystrokes. The tight integration between contacts and companies means that companywide communication and documents, such as RMAs and defect reports, are accessed from any contact associated with the company. Although the interface is as easy to navigate as that from ACCPAC, it lacks the wide array of personalization features its browser-only competitors offer.

Clientele Customer Support 8.1; Clientele Self-Service Portal 8.1; Clientele eMarketing 2.1, Epicor Software Corp., (800) 883-4582, (503) 612-2600. www.epicor.comWe are impressed with Microsoft's foray into the CRM market. Although version 1.0 has quirks, it is nonetheless poised to be a contender. Like Epicor's, Microsoft's product is based on the .Net framework. However, because it's a browser-only program that can be deployed in-house or as a hosted system, it takes less work and expense to maintain on the desktop, with no client installation, upgrade or maintenance. You can also let mobile users access the system easily.Installing Microsoft CRM was simple. The required XML Parser 4.0 and .Net framework are included--but preparing the infrastructure was no small task. We had to modify our domain, because Microsoft CRM requires its PDC (Primary Domain Controller) to be in native mode. We also had to install and configure Message Queuing Services before we could install the main application.

Microsoft CRM was the only product to correctly handle our CSV file of customers. The product imported every customer entry correctly. The mapping of fields from the file to Microsoft's data scheme was impressive, blowing away even ACCPAC's and FrontRange's solutions for mapping data.

However, navigation issues exposed Microsoft CRM's immaturity. While most browser-based applications provide easy access to all functions, some functions, such as searching, were hidden in the menu system and not readily accessible. Users will find it difficult to dive in and search for a contact or company on the fly. Creation of such records is a snap and links between documents and customers are easily navigable, but getting to them from the main page is difficult. We preferred ACCPAC's and Soffront's menus and personalization, which let us configure the interface in a portal-like fashion.

Microsoft Business Solutions CRM 1.0, Microsoft Corp., (800) 426-9400, (425) 882-8080. In moving to version 8.0, Soffront began offering a browser-based client along with its traditional fat client. The fat client's cluttered and confusing interface initially made us skeptical about Soffront's browser access. However, we admit we were wrong. The browser component is highly customizable and, even though it's not usable "out of the box" without defining data formats and forms, the program's flexibility gives Soffront CRM an advantage over its more rigid competitors. We recommend you use the browser-based client and just forget the fat client exists.

Installing Soffront CRM 8.0 is a remote procedure akin to those for WebEx, VNC and pcAnywhere. We initiated the installation, which required no configuration changes to the server or firewall. After installation, the product provided only administrative functionality. No end-user data or forms were created--only those that let an administrator configure and customize the system.Since forms, their layouts and, by extension, the database, must be designed, the administrator has complete control. We appreciated being able to duplicate our DB2 database schema within Soffront. Upon creating a form, the system automatically makes an associated table in the database. Likewise, each field we added to the form resulted in the appropriate column being added to the table. While ACCPAC and Microsoft offer some flexibility in positioning of fields, neither can compete with Soffront's completely configurable form design. If the system's administrator understands the company's business process, it should be easy to create forms that mirror that process. We did so and found that navigation of the browser-based client was superb. We were also pleased with the ability to access reports from specific areas. After defining areas for customer and product, we could create sub-menus for specific functions within each area, such as customized reports, screens and links to other areas.

Soffront makes integrating with ADS a no-brainer and, unlike Microsoft, is indifferent to the domain mode. Instead of tying a software-specific user to ADS, as ACCPAC requires, Soffront simply lets ADS handle user authentication and authorization.

Soffront CRM 8.0, Soffront Software, (800) 763-3766, (510) 413-9000. www.soffront.comGoldMine's underlying architecture turned us off immediately. A hybrid client-server solution, it reminded us of legacy systems that are client-server only in the sense that they share data by mapping a network drive. That is, a networked client requires a drive to be mapped to the GoldMine server so that it can share the data on the server instead of being replicated on the workstation. When was the last time a true client-server system required you to open a document for editing on a shared drive? GoldMine does a good job of importing data and offers both CSV and XML data import. We were overwhelmed by the complexity of its interface, however, and found navigation difficult. Navigation through a CRM system is based on actions you perform on a customer/contact, such as looking up purchases, placing an order or documenting communication. Most of these functions are not linked directly to the customer/contact screen, but are accessed via a context-sensitive task bar at the top of the application window. Because GoldMine, an MDI (Multiple Document Interface) application, lets multiple customer windows be open, it is too easy to perform an action for the wrong customer.

GoldMine's customization capabilities are limited and of lower caliber than those of the other products we tested. For example, we could not customize the base screens to modify the fields a user can view. Additionally, FrontRange uses the BDE (Borland Database Engine) to manage connectivity with external databases and exhibited flaky behavior on our workstations, including cryptic error messages and instructions to increase file handles, something we haven't seen since our DOS and early Windows days. This clinched our belief that desktop management would be an issue with such a deployment--a nonissue with all the competing products.

FrontRange recently released a browser-based client, iGoldMine, but it was not available in time for our tests. We would hope that the browser-based client is as different from the fat client as Soffront's Web access is from its fat client.GoldMine Business Contact Manager Corporate Edition 6.0, FrontRange Solutions, (800) 776-7889, (719) 531-5007.

Lori MacVittie is a Network Computing technology editor working in our Green Bay, Wis., labs. She has been a software developer, a network administrator and a member of the technical architecture team for a global transportation and logistics organization. Write to her at [email protected].

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Executive Summary | How We Tested | Outsourcing CRM

Executive Summary

Midmarket CRM vendors like to claim their systems are usable "out-of-the-box." Not so. While products from ISVs targeting this market are a great deal easier to deploy than those for the large enterprise, implementation pains are still a given. But how debilitating will that pain be? Some products come closer to the ideal of out-of-the-box functionality than others.We tested CRM applications from ACCPAC, Epicor, FrontRange, Microsoft and Soffront in our Business Applications Lab in Green Bay, Wis., for inclusion in our NWC Inc. infrastructure. We discovered that if you're willing to make modifications--some significant--to your core business processes, these products will indeed require very little customization and can be deployed successfully in just a few days.

However, if you believe as we do that your software should conform to your business processes, rather than vice versa (hey, call us crazy), you'll experience some discomfort. We rated products on their ability to import data from our DB2 database and integrate with our directory, ADS, and we checked their customizability. While no single product performed flawlessly, there were bright spots among the bleak darkness of implementating a CRM application.

Our Editor's Choice was ACCPAC's CRM 5.5. It was customizable yet had a primo feature set, all at a reasonable price. Offerings from Epicor and Microsoft tied for second place.

How We TestedWe tested CRM systems in NWC Inc.'s Business Applications Lab, using a Compaq ProLiant DL760 with eight 900-MHz processors, 2 GB of RAM, an

18-GB SCSI hard disk and a GBE copper NIC. Our base software included Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Microsoft SQL Server 2000.

We imaged five of the drives with the same base software configuration. Each product was installed on one of the disks; any additional required software was installed during installation.

After installation we worked on setting up users and groups. In the process we evaluated each product's ability, or lack of, to integrate with existing user-management solutions such as the ADS server in our NWC Inc. infrastructure. Once we had users and groups configured, we examined the process of importing corporate data from our existing DB2 database. Our goal was to import our customer, order and inventory data into the system with an eye toward synchronization in the future, via conventional database replication mechanisms or through an EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) solution.

We then administered and customized each product, a time-consuming process, as most programs are geared to B2B scenarios and NWC Inc. is a B2C-focused initiative. We closely assessed each product's ability to be customized to our environment and how well we were able to model our business with each product--including terminology.Continued evaluation of each product after initial deployment and customization included testing work-flow capabilities, integration with messaging and, if applicable, customer self-service Web sites.

Outsourcing CRM

As an alternative, offers a hosted CRM solution, which reduces TCO by housing the system offsite and requiring no desktop client. takes its CRM program offline and lets mobile sales and customer-service reps work even when they're disconnected. Using the same model as the products from ACCPAC and Microsoft and a local MSDE (Miscrosoft Database Engine) installation, the hosted application can be synchronized with the desktop, providing all the information a mobile employee would need offline.

You might think such a system would hinder customization, but has made it easy to tailor the application to your needs. In fact, ACCPAC and Microsoft offer hosted versions of their products without any loss of features or functionality.


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