CRM systems can be a struggle to launch

Customer relationship management (CRM) systems have become the new Holy Grail of high-end corporate computing. But like the famously difficult last Holy Grail - enterprise resource planning systems - getting them up and running is harder than it looks.

For example, a few years ago, Canadian Tyre Corp found itself drowning in its own systems. In 1996, the chain of 430-plus home goods department stores decided to consolidate its 21 call centres and multiple back-end databases, said Steve Folkerts, solutions consultant at Canadian Tyre Acceptance, the company's financial services arm.

"Our reps couldn't possibly take time to build a relationship with the customer because they had to take too much time building relationships with the systems," Folkerts said.

But once company officials were able to justify the cost of the call centre integration, they realised they also needed a strong CRM system, he said. Once the CRM system was selected, however, officials decided it needed to be tied to the company's legacy databases.

"We didn't own all those back-end systems," Folkerts explained. "Nor was it cost effective to build that kind of industrial-strength integration."

So in late 1998, the company purchased WRQ's Apptrieve host-integration system, which includes a graphical mapping tool, a development kit and a strong server. Apptrieve helped Canadian Tyre link its legacy databases and tie them to its new CRM system.

Like Canadian Tyre, many companies started catching on to CRM systems a few years ago but ran into so many kinks connecting to legacy systems that they're not done yet, said Chris Selland, an analyst at The Yankee Group.

Canadian Tyre launched a pilot

of its system in March 1999. But the system quickly stumbled when the company had to refocus its energies to solve unexpected Y2K date-change problems.

Now, with Y2K projects over, the company is rolling out the first phase of its new unified systems. "All of a sudden, I had a strong back end and an easy user interface," said Folkerts. "It was like my dream come true."

The next steps, he said, are to add Internet and e-mail channels to Canadian Tyre's customer service system and to boost customer self-service functions on the Web.

Charles Schwab & Co in San Francisco experienced similar growing pains in building its Web-focused customer system, but it worked through them faster. "We had initially started as a separate company," said Martha Deevy, senior vice president of Schwab's electronic brokerage unit. "But our customers raised their hands and said, ‘We don't like this bifurcated model . . . We want you to merge it'."

It didn't take long for Schwab officials to realise that the online and off-line businesses needed to come together, Deevy said.

"Customers want to go where they can get their answers most quickly and where they feel most confident that they're going to get the problem resolved," she said.

And while Deevy pays attention to customers' online experiences, one of her colleagues is doing the same for customers in Schwab's branch offices.

"We're continually challenging each other to say, ‘I can do this online. Can you do this in the branches?' " she said. "It's a very productive tension."

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