CRM Platform versus Best of Breed


Is there a consensus whether best of breed CRM systems are better or worse?

There's less of a consensus and more of a historical pattern whereby new technology innovation is brought to market quickly, normally as a narrow best of breed point solution, and then over time broadens into a suite (either through organic growth, or more likely as part of an acquisition).Customers seeking hard to find functionality, available only in best of breed CRM systems, will acquire those applications and then incur the system integration in order to benefit from the specialized functionality.

However, as CRM products mature, they accumulate more and more functionality and often broaden into suites. Those single vendor CRM suites often then bypass more narrowly focused point products as CRM products reliant on multiple vendors impose additional risk in systems integration, additional training for users, additional time and money for system administration and the potential for vendor finger-pointing during support issues.

Also recognize that not all 'integrated suites' are equal and the third party integrated products in some of the vendors eco-systems have widely varying levels of integration. When reviewing the claimed integrations among multiple vendor solutions, looking beyond a superficial level may reveal serious implications. Although multiple vendor CRM solutions do generally provide a basic level of data integration, the systems often fail to share data at the various points that would benefit users who communicate with customers or manage customer relationships.

If SFA and Customer Service are delivered from different vendors, do customer services requests appear in the SFA customer history, do those requests contain hyperlinks so the sales person or account manager can jump to the request and understand the situation before making a sales call? If SFA and Marketing Automation are delivered from multiple vendors, do all campaign and other demand generation activities occurring from marketing update each account? Is the salesperson able to view all marketing activities initiated to a particular account and recognize which activities the account responded to and which generated no response? Can the sales person hyperlink from an account record to the marketing campaign that produced the account?

Does every authorized user have visibility to every marketing initiative, customer service record and all correspondence in a single location or a single holistic view? More often than not, multiple vendor systems use multiple databases and provide piecemeal visibility to the customer relationship whereby each vendor retains a core element in their own repository and the user must know where to go and review several screens to get the consolidated picture.

Best of breed solutions can produce additional functionality, however, come with additional costs in the form of integration shortcomings and user complexities stemming from learning, operating and upgrading different systems from different vendors at different times. Seldom do multiple vendor systems consolidate customer information in a single view for a complete picture or follow consistent practices with regard to the user interface, navigation and keystroke sequencing, thereby, putting an increased learning curve on the user community. Many best of breed apps also have limited customer management functionality, and may resemble contact management systems more so than customer relationship management applications.

Customer Relationship Management

Reviewing information systems utilization a step further encourages evaluators to step up from just the multiple components of CRM and to look at the big picture of all enterprise-wide business systems. The basic business systems of virtually any organization will include a back office accounting or ERP system, a front office customer management system, an Internet site and often an Intranet.

The single greatest integration cost generally stems from the linking of front-office CRM applications to back-office accounting systems. This is also a frequently missed item during CRM software selections that is ultimately discovered when the organization recognizes it must maintain and integrate redundant customer data in the CRM application as well as the accounting Accounts Receivable module. Without some form of integration between front end systems and back-office accounting, how does the sales force know current inventory availability or pricing or if a customer is beyond credit terms or delinquent? How do sales people create quotes from their CRM system and simply press a button to turn those quotes into orders in the accounting Order Entry or Accounts Receivable system? How does customer service know what the customer has procured in order to provide support on only purchased items, or items currently under a warranty, or know what cross-sell and up-sell items make sense for the customer based on their prior purchase history?

System administration issues among disparate business applications are many and include pertinent questions such as what happens when one of the vendors launches a system upgrade or a new point release? How are SLA's measured when the source of the error is under question? What happens when the vendors fail to get together to identify and resolve bugs, errors or issues? If one vendor in a multiple vendor solution has data center, software or customer service problems, does is affect or interrupt the other integrated applications? Is it feasible, likely or even possible to develop and automate business processes that cross multiple vendor systems and can it be done cost effectively? How will you deal without a single point of contact for support and problem resolution with multiple vendor integrated systems? What additional steps will you put in place so that resolution time frames don't prolong user downtime or result in a loss of user confidence?

Few CRM systems provide such back-office integration capabilities without significant integration programming. However, failure to provide any of the previously referenced integration results in manual rekeying of data, redundant data, longer cycle times and difficulty in reporting across multiple data repositories.

Although well documented API's and Web services have boosted platform integration, integrating legacy back-office with online front office, or vice versa, is usually time consuming, expensive and fraught with small difficulties. The integration routines are normally relegated to batch processes of staged data which thereby defeat the goal of real-time information across the enterprise.

Comparing best of breed CRM systems with single vendor software suites often becomes an exercise of weighing unique or increased functionality against user benefits (ease of use across applications), IT benefits (ease of administration, upgrades, etc.) and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). While suite solutions may reduce IT headaches, multiple vendor systems may accommodate unique business processes which deliver competitive advantage.