| By Chuck Schaeffer
Comparing the Best Distribution CRM Software Applications
Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, SAP and Oracle NetSuite are the CRM software market share leaders in the distribution industry.
These four systems go beyond generic CRM processes to deliver industry specific capabilities such as inventory visibility throughout the supply chain, mobile order processing, complex pricing, promotions, negotiated trade agreements, and supplier rebates with bill backs, chargebacks and SPAs.
Each of the top CRM software systems for distributors has different strengths, weaknesses and value propositions, discussed below.
The best Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software for wholesale distribution aids industry imperatives such as higher sales conversions, increased customer share, improved demand forecasting, more frequent inventory turns, better performing supply chains, and most importantly improved cost containment, margins and profits.
In the prior post I shared the top industry specific capabilities offered by the best CRM distribution software providers. This post will deliver comparison information among the top four CRM systems for wholesale distributors.
The Best Distribution CRM Software Solutions
Cross-industry CRM systems focus on the generic CRM processes and leave it to separate ERP or supply chain systems to deliver visibility to pricing, trade agreements and inventory availability, movement and fulfillment. But that doesn't work when almost every customer interaction deals with pricing and inventory. The best wholesale and distribution CRM software apps support cross functional business processes that morph CRM, ERP and supply chain systems into a seamless all-in-one solution. They simplify CRM by eliminating disparate technology boundaries that give distributors the information they need irrespective of where the data is located.
I've been comparing and implementing CRM software at distributors for more than two decades and the number one question I get is, "What is the best CRM software for distribution?"
The easy answer is to say, well, that depends. So, I'm not going to say the easy answer. Instead, I will suggest to answer the question you start by considering market share, market growth and the industry specific requirements that make CRM software for distributors different than generic CRM software.
CRM Software Market Share in the Wholesale Distribution Industry
So, I'll start with market share. The Big 4 CRM software solutions across all industries are Salesforce, SAP CRM, Oracle CX and Microsoft Dynamics 365.
The Big 4 CRM software solutions are also the leaders in the distribution industry. Not because distributors have the same requirements as other industries; they don't. But because these vendors deliver CRM software capabilities needed by distribution companies, things like simple and efficient order processing, pricing rules and optimization to improve margins, orchestrated order fulfillment to keep customers satisfied and supply chain visibility to improve inventory utilization.
The Top 4 CRM Software for Distributors
Selecting the best distribution CRM software is a long-term decision that should be based on the many criteria that support your staff, customers and company priorities. Consider the following comparison points only as a starting point.
Salesforce is the market share leader – overall and in the wholesale distribution industry. The company pioneered cloud CRM, social CRM and is a top innovator.
That innovation has delivered advanced distribution capabilities, digital commerce, Einstein AI, a broad platform and a deep AppExchange ecosystem.
Salesforce strengths include:
- Salesforce is an innovator and disrupter. Companies that seek to innovate and disrupt their markets can learn from Salesforce and benefit from its applications
- The user interface was one of the first to be built on consumer technologies and deliver a simple and rewarding user experience. This has achieved a profound effect in user adoption
- The combination of its Lightning platform (Force.com), Apex, other Platform as a Service (PaaS) tools and AppExchange ecosystem provide significant application extensibility
- Commerce Cloud and omni-channel commerce experiences that provide customers online, on demand procurement and customer self-service capabilities are quite strong. That's essential as 41 percent of wholesalers now call e-commerce their top sales channel, an increase from 31 percent from the prior year (Source: Digital Commerce 360 report)
Salesforce is the only top CRM distribution software solution that does not offer Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Supply Chain Management (SCM) applications. However, the company does offer packaged integration to SAP and a few other ERP systems.
I've implemented Salesforce for many distributors, and to be fair, Salesforce does not accommodate distribution industry requirements such as sales order processing, distribution pricing (trade agreements, SPAs, supplier rebates) and inventory visibility as standard capabilities, or what we use to call out of the box before the cloud. However, it does offer a broad platform, flexible tools, packaged integration with some ERP systems, and a deep AppExchange ecosystem that brings together the components needed to satisfy wholesale and distribution industry requirements.
Consider Salesforce if you intend to transform your distribution business. That may include shifting your value proposition with new value-added services, expanding channels or market boundaries, or elevating the customer experience.
However, acquiring the market share leader comes with the Salesforce price premium. If you leverage this application for digital or business transformation your investment will pay dividends. But if your goals are less ambitious or your growth path is more incremental or you do not leverage Salesforce's advanced capabilities, you will increase investment and total cost of ownership significantly without much payback.
- SAP CRM
SAP is the ERP software market share leader for the enterprise market. However, SAP CRM does not possess the same credibility as the company's flagship S/4HANA ERP solution. Nonetheless, SAP CRM does contribute to the biggest SAP strength, which is a single, enterprise-wide solution that includes CRM, ERP, SCM and Human Capital Management (HCM) to support cross functional business processes needed by distributors.
Because of the company's strength in ERP, and integration with CRM, distributors have a complete solution that responds to their biggest challenges, such as forecast and demand planning, inventory turns, logistics efficiencies, warehouse management, transportation management and agile supply chains.
At a more tactical level, SAP CRM strengths include:
- Demand planning with demand-side forecast collaboration that includes CRM pipelines an external partner forecasts in the planning process
- Sales order processing, with flexible quoting, shipping integration, EDI and complete order to cash visibility. Sellers can monitor sales order fulfillment and be alerted to predicted late deliveries
- A global solution with multi-currency management, 28 languages and 44 country specific localizations
- Visibility within CRM of inbound and outbound shipments, inventory quantities and item location (down to the bin). Visibility can be enhanced with advanced technologies such as GPS, Internet mapping and IoT
- Customer rebates, incentive programs and automated chargeback management are extremely effective to help sellers squeeze more profit from tight margins
- SAP Commerce Cloud delivers impressive ecommerce and omnichannel capabilities for both B2B and B2C industries. This is particularly important as more than one-third of distributor customers complete at least half of their purchases online; a trend that will only continue to rise
- The distribution industry's best sales and operations planning (S&OP) application
- The information reporting with SAP Crystal Reports and analytics powered by SAP HANA are extremely flexible and include the KPIs important to wholesale distributors
SAP CRM is best suited for large, global distributors with complex distribution requirements. Consider SAP CRM if you are a wholesale distributor evaluating SAP ERP software, you are an existing SAP customer, or you want an enterprise-wide fully integrated business application suite.
Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement
The distribution industry is Microsoft Dynamics second largest install base, behind only manufacturing.
The Microsoft CRM value proposition is similar to SAP, in that the CRM software is part of a holistic, enterprise-wide solution. The Microsoft distribution solution includes CRM, ERP, SCM, HCM, eCommerce and analytics.
However, there are two big differences when compared to SAP. First, Microsoft's CRM software, called Dynamics Customer Engagement, is a very strong application even without the rest of the application suite. Microsoft CRM software is sold far more often as a standalone solution and without the company's ERP software. And second, where SAP dominates the largest companies, Microsoft is the ERP software market share leader among midmarket companies.
Focusing on just the CRM software for distributors, benefits of this solution include the following:
- Native integration with Outlook. And it's really more than just contacts and email integration. Microsoft replicates the CRM application within Outlook so that distribution sellers and executives can perform their CRM activities without leaving Outlook. I've implemented Dynamics CRM for a long time, and I find this is often the most appreciated benefit by users
- The Microsoft CRM software is a cloud native, browser-based application that permits very flexible configuration. Other CRM systems also permit configurations, but once made you are unlikely or unable to change. Microsoft's tools and constructs are more flexible and show that becoming standardized does not mean becoming inflexible
- This system can manage the full distribution life cycle process and achieve the ultimate goal of getting the right products to the right places at the right times and at the lowest cost
- Dynamics has a powerful guided selling tool to facilitate structured sales processes. It's a visual process flow that suggests repeatable processes and best practices at each sales stage or step in the sales cycle, and it is very effective at increasing sales win rates
- Microsoft is ahead of most competitors in business process automation capabilities. The application offers multiple workflow types (i.e. synchronous or asynchronous workflows, Dialogues, Actions and Business Process Flows) and the Windows Workflow Foundation or the Power Automate platform can make workflow automation even more extensible
- For distributors with value added services that include field service, Microsoft's Cortana and HoloLens technologies can satisfy some unique use cases. I've used the HoloLens virtual reality technology to accelerate finding inventory in a warehouse, and also used drone technology to count every item every night in the warehouse
- Microsoft's Power Platform tools are low code/no code graphical tools that permit CRM software customization by non-programmers and without over-customizing the application. That means a higher fit application with less CRM maintenance and much easier upgrades. The Power Platform includes Power BI, which has become the top user generated, agile data analytics tool.
- Microsoft CRM software is a global application that delivers localized functionality in about 40 regions with 42 languages. The application covers all the "multi's", such as multiple company, multiple currency, multiple languages, multiple time zones and multiple-inventory locations.
- Microsoft CRM software is the least expensive cloud application among the Big 4.
- CRM market share growth shows Microsoft gunning for the number 2 position. Although Salesforce continues to extend its lead, Microsoft has challenged Oracle CX and SAP CRM for the runner up spot. Salesforce is the leader, and Microsoft is the primary challenger.
Microsoft Dynamics Customer Engagement is well suited for midsize companies or divisions within large companies. Consider Dynamics CRM if you are a Microsoft technology shop, a small or midsize distributor looking for least cost CRM software or seeking cross-functional and enterprise-wide information systems.
Oracle and Oracle NetSuite
Oracle offers an enterprise distribution system designed for large, complex, global deployments. It's an impressive cloud application that has risen from the acquisitions of JD Edwards and PeopleSoft and evolved from the Oracle E-Business Suite. However, where we see the biggest CRM software growth in the distribution industry is from Oracle NetSuite.
NetSuite is the younger brother acquired by Oracle in 2016. Strengths for this application include:
- Sales order processing — A cross platform mobility solution can take sale orders online, via EDI or in the field, and automatically push them through to the back-office system. That streamlines the sales order and fulfillment processes. Sales order processing from CRM can also include trade agreements, SPAs and customer specific pricing. That's important because if your CRM system doesn't bring real-time visibility to inventory pricing, trade agreements and fulfillment it's not going to work well for wholesale and distribution.
- Real-time inventory visibility — Knowing inventory quantities in any location, and what's available to sell are key for distribution sellers. NetSuite delivers deep visibility to inventory quantities and related distribution transactions, such as accounts, sales orders, invoices and deliveries.
- Enterprise-wide application suite — This system can support enterprise-wide distribution execution with a single vendor, fully integrated business application. That suite includes ERP, SCM, HCM and business intelligence (BI). A vendor-managed integration that automates enterprise-wide transaction processes is a big deal to many distributors who want to avoid complex and costly system integration.
Like SAP, the NetSuite CRM software does not carry the same credibility as the ERP software. And while the NetSuite ecosystem cannot compete with Salesforce AppExchange or Microsoft Dynamics AppSource, the company has a network of partners that offer tailored solutions for microverticals.
Oracle NetSuite is well suited for midmarket distributors or decentralized operations that roll up to an Oracle ERP solution. Consider Oracle NetSuite if you are looking for a holistic business application suite to deliver cross functional distribution processes, and CRM software is a relatively small component in the decision-making process.
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Most CRM software apps do not support inventory visibility, orchestration, and utilization. That's why most CRM software apps are not a good fit for wholesalers and distributors.