As customer relationship management (CRM) technology has matured, users have begun looking for bigger payoffs by enabling better integration with other enterprise applications. For instance, companies that want to let their customers view the status of their orders in real time might need to connect their call center or e-commerce applications to supply chain or manufacturing systems.
"The notion that CRM is largely a stand-alone sales force automation function is no longer valid," says Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. "[Users] realize that CRM is central to many supply chain functions, such as order tracking and management, logistics and service."
But making those applications talk with one another isn't easy. One way to solve this problem is to migrate to an integrated enterprise application integration (EAI) suite from vendors such as SAP AG, Oracle or PeopleSoft. These products have prebuilt integration hooks that ease application-sharing headaches. They also include tool kits or adapters to hook the suite applications to other vendors' modules. By using the suite vendors' tool sets and prepackaged processes, you can cut integration costs involved with custom coding and consulting. But even if you're willing to invest in such a migration effort, individual suite applications might not always have the features you require.
Users who go the best-of-breed route and use applications from companies such as Siebel Systems can use built-in integration capabilities, says Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Giga Information Group. For instance, Siebel is rolling out its Web services-based Universal Application Network framework to connect applications and allow business-process integration.
Other CRM software vendors, including Kana Software, Chordiant Software and PegaSystems, also offer products that enable integration at the business-process level.
"These vendors tend to do best at customer-facing or partner-facing applications, where there's lots of integration required and processes change frequently," Kinikin says.
Canada Post took the suite route after dealing with the aggravation of linking multiple applications. "In the pre-Y2k world of our systems landscape, we had best-of-breed and custom-developed interfaces tying it together, and it was a real mess," says Aaron Nichols, general manager of business transformation at Canada Post. "It was tough to manage and hard to make changes."
Integrating disparate applications was possible, but it was complex and expensive because the software was passing information related to orders, pricing and contracts, he says. Because of this and the challenges of business-process re-engineering and change management in the organization, Canada Post decided to install SAP's CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) modules.
Using Web services, Canada Post has also connected its Web site to the SAP system so it can take orders and connect them directly to the ERP system. The mail carrier also built an interface to its legacy tracking software to let customers track parcel deliveries.
When Canada Post went live with SAP CRM 2.0, the technology was immature, Nichols says. And there were many questions to sort out, such as whether the master customer profiles should reside in the CRM system or the R/3 system. Nichols plans to move to Version 3.0, which he says is a more mature product with a broader range of CRM features.
The CRM system has both prebuilt and homegrown interfaces. The connectors between the SAP CRM and R/3 applications that handle workflow came out of the box, but they required a bit of tuning. "We had to spend some time understanding them," Nichols says. The connectors allow call center workers to access a customer's case history from the back-end systems by entering a phone number. They also allow the system to route individual cases into the human resources system to determine whom to send them to for resolution.
Canada Post's order-taking system isn't an SAP product, but it ties into the back-end R/3 software by way of eGate EAI software from SeeBeyond Technology.
EGate handles all data going in and out of the SAP system. Nichols says business-process designers crafted each interface to select the requisite data that needed to be mapped and passed back and forth, and they developed error-handling routines. Once the designs were finalized, they were given to an integrator, who built, tested and deployed the architecture.
Nichols says the integration project has resulted in a consolidated set of systems with tightly linked business processes and a common view for all customers. "We eliminated over 80 legacy systems and reduced labor costs by eliminating duplication and waste in processes," he says.
Siebel in the Middle
Suites may claim easier integration, but Jay Gardner, CIO at BMC Software, says mixing and matching different CRM and ERP applications wasn't a big deal. "There is definitely value to an integrated application, but I don't think I have to have [all applications] from a single vendor," he says. Although Gardner says he wouldn't want to link together five different systems, two front- and back-office suites are manageable, he says.
BMC recently connected its Siebel sales force automation system to its Oracle financials backbone to automate order processing on the Web. The Houston-based maker of management applications has also connected a Siebel installation to its call system from Vantive (now part of PeopleSoft). The Siebel system also pulls information from a document management system, which allows support workers to view images of customer contracts. Information sharing among the Web team and the inside sales, direct sales and support staffs has generated a faster turnaround on potential sales leads, Gardner says.
BMC initially wrote its own custom interfaces for these applications but now plans to use EAI software from WebMethods to simplify future connectivity. The WebMethods system, in pilot since June, provides more extensive coding capabilities than BMC's legacy systems allow, Gardner says.
For instance, it enables a "publish and subscribe" model that lets BMC connect applications that need to share data with WebMethods without having to write separate point-to-point interfaces for each one. BMC also plans to configure its Siebel application to generate XML as its common CRM document format, so that the WebMethods XML adapter can parse it. BMC will then use Web services to establish data synchronization between applications, Gardner says.
Going forward, both suite and best-of-breed CRM vendors point to their support for Web services as the glue that will hold disparate systems together. But, says Giga's Kinikin, "the reality is that Web services is a five- to 10-year evolution, not a magic answer. We're at the very beginning of a new journey."
And even after Web services are established, she says, IT will still need to incorporate process flows, metadata and semantics-based standards such as electronic data interchange.
Vendor Approaches to CRM Integration
Oracle touts the value of its integrated business application suite, but it also offers integration with competitors' products using prebuilt transformation adapters. These adapters allow data to be exposed for use with standard Web services technologies such as XML, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Universal Discovery Description and Integration. But "[Oracle] still is largely interested in just keeping users vanilla with its products," says Steve Bonadio, an analyst at Meta Group.
PeopleSoft claims to offer easy integration for its CRM customers through its AppConnect data integration broker, data warehouse and portal middleware tools. The vendor has a "pure technology" approach, relying on its portal as the presentation aggregator, says Bonadio. The company also offers support for XML-based Web services connectivity.
SAP takes a similar tack by offering its own application server product and portal to facilitate CRM data integration. It relies on the SAP Web application server, mySAP Portal and messaging exchange technologies to permit users to map CRM documents to general business documents using SOAP and XML technologies.
With its newly announced Universal Application Network (UAN), Siebel appears to be the most forward-thinking in viewing integration as a way to craft business processes, Bonadio says. UAN is a series of Web services and XML-based business-process library specifications that, according to the company, make it easier to connect Siebel's CRM applications to homegrown systems and other packaged applications.