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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

CRM Is Here to Stay: Evaluating Its Use with ERP

by Trevor B. Cain

The debate over whether the recession has ended may continue, but most industry watchers agree that conditions over the past two years have created a new climate in business – a climate where caution reigns, and increased customer service will be a key differentiator between competitors.

I hear almost every day from Activant clients and prospects that they need better tools and access to more accurate, real-time information in order to provide the increased level of service required to keep their current customers and attract new business. Competition is tough: a quote from one rep today could easily turn into an order for a competitor tomorrow.

The businesses I work with are distributors of wholesale durable goods. Wholesale distributors often run lean and mean – many times, without an outside sales force or the ability to be in front of every customer all the time. This does not exempt them from needing to create a competitive edge, however. Their field sales force has to be more proactive than reactive. They need to walk into a customer meeting armed with information: Quotes and invoices based on the last visit. Were there any new quotes? Any outstanding orders? Credit issues? Other problems?

Being aware of what is going on with an account has always been basic to customer relationship management (CRM), but in today’s climate, it’s a critical factor. As a result, wholesale distributors are looking for a better approach to CRM as they evaluate Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to run their business. For some, this is their first look at CRM, but others may be seeking to consolidate systems, searching for a more efficient alternative to maintaining two or more databases of information that often don't communicate with each other.

These stand-alone CRM applications can be quite costly to the midsize family-owned distributor. The functionality may be robust, but is it tailored to the specific demands of the distributor? Often, the investment has more function than needed.

When considering ERP systems for distribution, the question to ask in reviewing CRM functionality is: What does CRM mean to my business? Determining what CRM means to a distributor involves evaluating all areas of the business and their needs. CRM isn't just the customer relationship as it pertains to sales, but also accounting and value-added services, if they exist. Outside of sales, distributors also maintain relationships with their vendors. Without inventory and knowledge of availability, distributors would be dead in the water.

One approach to evaluating these areas of the business is to empower key employees from various departments to have a voice in what is important.

  • Does the company have an outside sales staff? If so, enhanced CRM functionality could greatly increase their efficiency. This usually goes to their bottom line, which is what they are always watching.

  • Do these field sales reps have laptops, smartphones, iPads? What tools do they need to have access to and from a system?

  • Can your company automate workflow not only within the business, but also out to those reps in the field?

  • Can the system generate automated tasks based on those important transactions that often require follow-up, such as quotes to the customer?

  • Does your company get involved in larger bids with customers (i.e., it's not just a single quote, but multiple quotes under a larger opportunity that may linger on for months)? Is the company able to track these opportunities in order to generate a pipeline of what is to come in future months?

These small pieces of functionality will make the difference between being proactive or reactive. The bottom line is, to see both immediate and long-term effects of CRM, you should get buy-in from employees. Determining needs, uncovering key functionality and implementing are only half the battle. No matter what CRM system you choose, the ROI will come only if it is put to use.

Trevor B. Cain is an Industry Segment Manager at Activant Solutions Inc. Find out more about Activant at or call 1-800-776-7438.

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