Hitting the sweet spot

Hitting the sweet spot

Small and medium enterprises are learning customer relationship management makes a big difference to their business - and eventually, the bottom line.

What do yachties, golf enthusiasts, gym members and real estate investors have in common? Geoff Charleston is doing his best to find out. As IT manager at the luxury Queensland resort, Sanctuary Cove, Charleston is putting the finishing touches to an integrated customer relationship management (CRM) system. Drawing information from resort facilities including a marina, restaurants and bars, a golf club, a health centre and a real estate sales office, he is banking on the system providing valuable insights for his company.

"We want to be able to have better relationships with people based on knowing more about them," says Charleston. "The system will gather information about anyone who has any contact with Sanctuary Cove."

Once fully implemented, the Microsoft CRM system will be linked to booking and management applications in each of the facilities. By drawing details into a central repository, client records will always be up-to-date.

The system will allow the resort to maintain contact with guests, encouraging repeat visits and greater use of facilities.

Sanctuary Cove's aspirations are echoed by many small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) in New Zealand and Australia. Keen to improve customer service levels and steal a march on their competitors, SMBs are investing in CRM systems in increasing numbers.

CRM software was once the exclusive domain of large companies, with cost and complexity putting it out of the reach of others. But a consistent push by vendors into the SMB space is changing that. Now, companies with just a handful of employees can often justify the investment needed to get a system up and running.

For most SMBs, the decision to implement CRM software is driven by increasing frustration with existing information management methods. Many simply outgrow manual systems or small software packages and realise that, if they want to continue to expand, things have to change.

"All small companies trying to become medium sized companies could utilise a CRM," says Jo Clegg, director of software development at Zeacom, a software company with offices and 100 staff in New Zealand, Australia, UK and the US.

Zeacom's business is closely tied to CRM - providing contact centre and call management systems for the small and medium-sized market. As Mike Engle, Zeacom marketing manager points out, "Call centres have positioned themselves for a number of years as the front door for CRM systems." The CRM systems sit in the back office, and a lot of the interactions the business has with CRM is through calls coming in to the call centre. "When an agent is taking a phone call, they need to be able to easily access that data in the CRM system." A CRM system plays a big part in enabling the call centre to provide highly customised service. And such has been the case at Zeacom, which implemented Microsoft CRM a year ago.

Prior to this, Zeacom had customer information stored in different applications across several departments. "There was disconnect between parties," says Clegg. It was not unusual, says Engle, for someone from sales to offer a product to a customer, without knowing the customer had talked to someone from the support team about his interest in the new module. The support person failed to inform the sales staff of this possible sale. Another example would be an account manager who would ring "blindly" a customer about the company's new products, not knowing the same customer has been dealing with Zeacom support staff on some issues in an earlier product.

"The biggest challenge was good communications," says Clegg. "Everybody would have the best intentions of remembering to tell the other person the different pieces of news along the way, but they'd forget because they would be busy."

The new system at Zeacom allows all departments to share and view information because it is interacted on daily and refreshed constantly. Data from various departments is overwritten and automatically updated into the CRM system.

Zeacom's foray into CRM space, however, was quite unconventional. Its US office became a beta customer of Microsoft CRM nearly two years ago, with the New Zealand office included in the rollout. This presented a challenge to the New Zealand staff because there was no local expertise available as the software has yet to reach the local reseller market. At that time, too, the CRM market was a new segment for Microsoft.

Recalls Clegg, "I have done a lot of CRM type of work and I was nervous about what support and help we would get from Microsoft. Because of trying to do things in New Zealand way too early, we just had to do it ourselves."

"Anyone who is not a software house couldn't have done what we did," she adds. "If you were in the business of freight forwarding or selling cars, there's no way you could have a technical team to make all these things happen. Our technical guys in the US did a fantastic job and we were able to talk directly to guys in Redmond and have those conversations with Microsoft US."

No big bang

One of the major lessons the two gleaned from the rollout is the need for a "clear project owner". "This should be someone in senior management who could pull the right people together," says Engle.

Zeacom initially chose a technical person to manage the project, but eventually, the chief financial officer spearheaded the project. "He clearly understands the importance of the system to the company. That this is our single repository of our company data whereas the technical guy understood that but didn't understand the implications," says Clegg.

One thing they did right from the start, however, was to shun the "big bang approach" which Engle describes as "Today is Monday - we're turning everyone off the [old] system."

He says a staged rollout worked best for Zeacom, where the customer support staff at the call centre - the group that has always been asking for a change in the system - were the first users. This group really had a lot to gain from it, he adds.

Engle underscores the importance of a proper training program for the users. "I personally don't believe online training is the way to go for something like this, you need to spend time finding a couple of advocates in the organisation to do the training."

Zeacom, meanwhile, developed the ScreenPop software to work with its CRM system. The middleware application allows the CRM system to bring up customer information as soon as the phone rings so the call centre agent could provide more personalised service.

The system could be programmed to recognise a caller as a "VIP" client and the system would give priority to this call or send it to agents assigned to handle top tier clients. In the same vein, the system recognises if the caller ID is on stop credit, so the call centre agent could inform the customer to sort out the earlier bill before placing a new order.

Clegg, however, says a number of small businesses in New Zealand may not be aware of the potential benefits of the technology. This, she says, is based on reactions she gets from business owners when she explains in industry conferences how Zeacom is benefiting from it. "They are not aware this sort of technology is not only available but also quite affordable even for small to medium businesses."

Another New Zealand organisation, Community Support Services Industry Training Organisation (CSSITO), implemented a CRM system when it decided its current infrastructure would not be able to support the growth in the area of training in the near future. CSSITO works with the disability support, community mental health and older persons health sectors. With just 12 employees in Christchurch, the team manages more than 5000 customers (4500 trainees and 650 employers) as well as some 500 assessors and has an annual funding budget of $3.05 million.

Lesley Thomson, client services manager, says CSSITO has been using an access database to hold the customer information. "It wasn't very flexible. It just recorded what they were training."

CSSITO decided to implement a CRM system from Pivotal, which was earlier deployed by other training organisations like the Electro-Technology Industry Training Organisation and Forestry Industries Training Organisation.

Organisation lifeblood

The CSSITO CRM rollout took nine months from planning to go live. "We're still developing it but we are reaping some of the benefits, definitely," says Thomson.

The project enabled CSSITO to simplify its overall database management by integrating seven different database systems into one. The single database is very important to the organisation, says Thomson. "The lifeblood of the organisation is the information we hold because we deal with service. That service revolves in the information we collect and feedback to our clients."

"Our three sectors of customers now receive information that is relevant to them, including updates on available training and new industry initiatives so we are using our scarce resources to the best effect," she says. "There aren't any cost savings yet. The improvement is in our customer relationships, the information that we are able to give to people, and our ability to know how we are doing."

Relocatable building company Ausco found itself on an expansion mode in mid-2000. The company was hard at work providing fleets of relocatable buildings for the Sydney Olympics as well as mining companies in remote parts of Australia.

"We were relying on a combination of Access databases, ACT! software and manual systems to keep track of prospects, clients and orders," says Ausco IT manager Ian Mascord. "It would take about a week after each month-end to get a clear picture of what was going on because it took that long to get all the customer information together."

But despite such enthusiasm and the obvious potential of CRM, many organisations confess to harbouring reservations prior to taking the plunge: "I have to admit we did have a bit of a fear of CRM," says Mascord. "You hear a lot about failed implementation attempts, about these big, complex projects out there that in the end just don't work."

Because of concerns packaged CRM systems may be too expensive, Ausco first created its own application from scratch. Developers were employed to design and build a system that could be rolled out to the company's factory and sales locations around the country. But, after a couple of years' work - and a limited rollout - the project was shelved, deemed unable to provide the kinds of benefits sought. Instead, the company took a deep breath, dug further into its pockets and looked for a packaged alternative. After reviewing six competing systems, the company opted to implement Intentia's Movex.

Mascord says once the system was in place, benefits were seen immediately. Management had access to real-time views of customer orders, prospects and sales projections for coming months. Sales staff members were encouraged to use the software through competitive incentives. The more orders logged through CRM, the bigger the bonuses.

Facing similar challenges was electrical and computer equipment reseller CABAC. The New South Wales-based company provides thousands of product lines to customers throughout the country. With customer details being held in everything from small databases to the paper diaries of sales staff, streamlining operations became imperative. Having invested in an SAP financials and warehouse management system in 1999, the company decided to build on that and implement SAP's CRM offering as well.

"I have a great aversion to bolt-ons," says CABAC's managing director Gordon Ketelbey. "For a company of our size, we had taken a big step with SAP, but it had worked and so it made sense to use their CRM offering as well."

Rather than having a large team of salespeople constantly out on the road, CABAC conducts proactive marketing from a call centre, at significantly reduced cost.

"Someone on the phone can make 60 to 80 calls per day, and it costs us A$4 per call," says Ketelbey. "This compares with someone in a car who can do about six calls a day, costing about A$100 a call."

While CABAC has successfully implemented a large-scale CRM system, the desire of most SMBs to avoid complexity is resulting in many shying away from the offerings of tier-one vendors. Despite the vendors' aggressive marketing of products to smaller companies, the nature of the software - which is often based on applications originally designed for much larger organisations - can make implementation an expensive and time-consuming task.

Klaus Bartosh, sales and marketing director at Australian web hosting company Hostworks, says he believes CRM offerings from larger vendors simply don't suit the requirements of many small organisations. "They might be fine for larger companies, but in Australia, most companies are small or medium in size," he says. "They are just too complex and too expensive to manage."

Bartosh adds Hostworks, which has opted for an outsourced, web-based CRM system, gets all the advantages with none of the tribulations and expense of managing infrastructure itself."I believe it is definitely the way to go for smaller companies thinking about CRM systems," he says.

While reports of such efficiency improvements are common in the SMB space, actually putting a bottom line figure on a CRM system's impact on turnover is not easy.

"We are a very service-orientated company and trying to quantify the cost of service or customer satisfaction is very difficult," says Ketelbey. "You have to take it very much on faith at first." He says the company is financially very strong and a portion of that has to be attributed to CRM. The difficulty is calculating that proportion.

Small company - big impact

In even the smallest of companies, CRM usage appears to make a demonstrable difference to operations.

With just eight full-time staff, Sydney-based company Resolution Marketing Services (RMS) has made its system an integral part of its entire operation. Too small to justify the costs associated with implementing and managing complex software suites such as SAP or even Microsoft CRM, the company opted instead for the ASP-delivered salesforce. com service.

RMS offers outsourced marketing and communications services to a range of big company clients. Its telemarketing, event management and market research involves staff making as many as 2500 calls each week.

Managing director Graham Porter says keeping track of activity and ensuring all information gathered is captured and stored are the key reasons for using a CRM system.

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