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Integrating CRM: No Pain, No Gain

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 Pricing

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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.

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