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How far should CRM customisation go?

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Workshop Deploying a software application can be a balancing act between making the system work for the business and changing the business to fit the system.

This was certainly the experience of Cutting Edge Services when it implemented a customer relationship management (CRM) package. With 100 staff, Cutting Edge is a supplier of equipment and consumable items to the food industry – or more specifically, to abattoirs.

Initially Cutting Edge was not sure what software solution it needed but the challenge was clear. “We had a ‘let’s-create-a-spreadsheet’ mentality,” says Tracey Lynch, customer service manager. “We had a high reliance on email, but sometimes things were falling between two stools, particularly when responding to sales enquiries.”

What attracted Cutting Edge to the Sage 200 CRM system was that it would work out of the box, without much customisation. But there were doubts at first. “When it was demonstrated, the example given was a kitchen company,” recalls Lynch. “It was difficult to see how it would support our needs.” Reassurances led to a sale, and the company was so convinced it even passed up the offer of training.

The result was what could loosely be described as a car crash. The out-of-box system seemed to work only for keeping basic customer records. “Many of the fields didn’t appear relevant to our business,” says Lynch. “We didn’t do anything at all with Leads, Opportunities or Cases.”

After using the system at the most basic level, Cutting Edge decided to spend some time learning more about it and making it work better. The company picked people from different parts of the organisation and ran a training programme covering each aspect of the system. The team then decided how to implement each area to fit the needs of different departments, as well as the business as a whole.

Early lessons showed there was a limit to the mileage to be gained from customisation. Certain elements, for example terminology to describe stages of the sales and service process, could be changed in principle; in practice, however, they proved too intrinsic to the system.

“We referred to Enquiries when the system referred to Leads, or to Prospects rather than Opportunities,” says Lynch. In a bespoke world the company could have kept its own terminology, but it became clear it could progress faster if it changed to the system’s language rather than sticking to its own.

From that point on, the team made sure that any customisation was within the bounds of “standard changes”. “We didn’t want to affect future upgrades,” says Lynch. “We started being able to speed up our lines of communication. The whole ordering process became much slicker.”

Customers too started to appreciate the benefits. “We were able to have much more intelligent conversations, based on past purchases and current requirements. We are constantly being asked for new products. If a person who normally handles that product line is not available, we can see exactly where he is up to and give the customer a far better answer about progress,” says Lynch. This level of traceability also makes for better forecasting and stock buying, benefiting the business as a whole.

As the sales process became more streamlined, attention turned to Cases, which Cutting Edge now uses not just for support enquiries, service requests and customer issue handling, but also for demonstrations of larger pieces of equipment.

“The return of demonstration equipment used to be hard to manage,” says Lynch. “Now it is linked into our own workshop and cleaning processes, and it is a lot easier.”

So, do Cutting Edge employees feel they are becoming slaves to the machine, now that they are having to tweak how they do business and the language they use? Far from it, according to Lynch. “Everybody has been quite refreshed by what it can do. The people who like it the most are those who are least into IT. You can key in information once, and then get on with your life. Now different departments have seen the potential, they have come up with their own requests for modifications to work flows, so they can improve how they use the system,” she says.

The software has also brought together different departments and improved handling of customers. For example, receptionists can look up customers and check on enquiry status if sales people are unavailable. “They’re busy, but let me have a look for you” has become a standard element of the receptionists’ script.

Such cross-fertilisation has been appreciated. “Everyone understands the business a lot better. It has helped with team building across the company,” says Lynch.

She sees the implementation as an ongoing project. “Every time we make a change, that leads to something else,” she says. Right now, the company is looking at extending the system onto mobile devices, freeing up the distributed sales force.

The take-away lesson is that however out-of-the-box a solution may appear to be, there is no substitute for understanding how to make the most of it. Far from imposing a system on an unwilling audience, it is all about working with the tools provided. A little effort up front can make a big difference in the long term. ®

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