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Understanding the Customer — Yes You Can Integrate Your Customer Data

By February 3, 2014Article

Customer visibility, knowing your customer, the 360-degree view of the customer — it’s the hot topic today. While everyone generally agrees that consolidating as much information as you can about your customer is a good thing on a number of fronts, getting that visibility from an increasing number of sources can be daunting. What data is most important for marketing versus sales? Where and how should you distribute it so it brings value to your business? 

Scribe conducts an annual survey to better understand the progress businesses are making with customer data integration and the challenges of achieving that goal. With over 900 respondents in 50 countries, what we’re seeing is that customer data integration is crucial and many are just starting the journey. 

This year over 81 percent of respondents believed that integration was important, but just 16 percent of those businesses reported achieving full integration across their most critical business systems and data sources. Cloud applications appeared to be especially tricky, with 60 percent of respondents reporting that they have not yet integrated their cloud applications, particularly their cloud CRM. 

There has been a rush to the cloud, particularly for marketers and salespeople seeking the benefits of cloud-based CRM and marketing automation systems. However, what typically gets lost in the rush is the actual integration of those cloud systems with the business’s existing processes and applications. Companies may assume that cloud applications automagically integrate to other systems because the vendor has an API. Or they may see a nice list of brand name integrations on the company website and assume that integration was built into the platform already. As we’ve seen from our survey results, that’s typically not the case. 

Oracle backs these claims up, as their new report found that the lack of integration, particularly with cloud CRM, results in staff downtime (54 percent) and missed deadlines (52 percent). Particularly troubling is that 75 percent of these businesses reported that their innovation initiatives have been stunted by integration problems with cloud applications. The very initiatives to implement or improve multi-channel marketing and provide more intelligence to the business fail because these cloud applications are completely disconnected from essential business processes. Free flow of information and effective process simply don’t happen without integration. 

Difficult, but not Impossible 

Despite the survey results and the dire warnings, you can still integrate your cloud applications into your business even if the cloud vendor hasn’t supplied that integration out of the box. And you can do that successfully. 

LED Source, North America’s #1 LED lighting franchise operation, is an example of a business that embraced cloud CRM and quickly found out that this cloud CRM platform did not have a ready-made, seamless integration with one of the leading financial packages for SMBs worldwide. With no integration, LED Source would be flying blind with no visibility into the performance of their franchises. With hundreds of franchises and more added each month, LED Source required a repeatable and consistent integration approach. After extensive research and several trial approaches, LED Source eventually found an integration platform that met their needs. Today, the company has a consistent, centralized view into their franchises and can easily repeat that implementation every time a new franchise is added. With similar planning and an understanding of cloud integration, line of business (LOB) leaders can achieve this same level of integration between CRM, marketing automation, and all relevant customer-facing systems to enable seamless access to customer data. 

Steps in the data integration journey

Data integration isn’t the sexiest topic in technology and it can be a hair-ripping, frustrating experience. We’ve come a long way from custom code, and there is an ever-increasing array of integration tools, platforms and solutions available to businesses. There is something out there for (almost) every business regardless of your budget, technical expertise or need. There really isn’t much excuse these days not to integrate. That said, there are some important things to pay attention to when mapping out an integration strategy and choosing a vendor. 

1. Start small and be ruthless

Your integration project’s success or failure depends on this first step. It doesn’t matter what vendor or approach you use, if you have vague or grandiose visions of a complete integration across all your data sources and applications in the first chop, you’re going to fail. No integration vendor or tool will help you here — no matter how easy or innovative the product or spectacular their professional services are. 

Focus on the most painful areas first where integration can provide a real and tangible benefit — for marketing, that’s often CRM and marketing automation. Be as specific as possible. This is where you get ruthless. LED Source focused on two immediate problems — synchronizing financial data needed for reporting and having an easily distributed, pre-built integration model for new franchises. LED Source could tangibly measure the success or failure of the integration in a number of ways — the hours reduced from taking manual exports and reports from each franchise, degree of accuracy of the reporting, time to get reports, time to set up new franchises, franchisee satisfaction, etc. 

This first step will go a long way in picking an appropriate vendor that will make your initial project a success and help you show real value to the business. This is project management 101, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t follow this step because integration is just “putting some data together.” No matter how small, treat it as seriously as you would any other key business initiative. 

2. Be honest about your budget, resources and technical abilities 

This step is hand in hand with defining your initial integration needs. You need to know what you realistically can handle before you select a platform or solution, so make sure to communicate with IT. There are a lot of cool, cutting-edge products out there that can do incredible things; but you need to do an honest assessment of what you can learn, manage and pay for. 

Cost and budget are fairly obvious, but we’ve seen a surprising number of times where customers experience “sticker shock” when they start to factor in professional services, extra resources, training and premium support. Know how much you can really spend and be up front with your prospective vendor.  The vendor can assist you with the best options to maximize their solution at a reasonable cost. 

Another common pitfall is either underestimating the complexity of the integration product or overestimating the technical abilities of the person that will implement and manage the integration solution. If you know that your Big Data analyst likely will be the person building the integration, then be honest with yourself and the vendor. A week’s worth of training on a platform that is really for an experienced database programmer or developer will not help your analyst succeed. 

If your IT department cannot absorb another project or you don’t have a skills match for the integration platform you want, consider going with a value-added reseller, system integrator or other managed-services provider that can implement and maintain your integration.

3. Find the integration offering that is the easiest and most efficient for your business needs. 

It seems counterintuitive, but you want to have more people in your business able to participate in integration project or do simple integration “self-service.” LOB users with some technical skills should have the means to quickly create the simpler, ad-hoc integrations themselves. An easy, intuitive user experience that appeals to a broader range of technical skills in your IT organization means more people to respond to requests. Those with deep technical expertise can finish more sophisticated or complex integrations faster and hand the rest off to more junior people to manage. 

When evaluating solutions, give some thought to the type of users that most likely will create and maintain integrations after you complete your initial projects. Ideally, the most technical and least technical of your target users should both be able to do what they need to do.

4. There is no one integration solution that will work for everything, forever 

Your business will change and grow. Your needs and the sophistication of your integrations will change and grow along with your business. You want to pick an integration solution that best fits your most pressing needs for the next two to three years. No vendor can have all the connectivity, capabilities, features and performance that fits every change and every desire of your business at the price you want. It’s very likely you might have more than one integration product or platform to serve different needs over time.   

Your platform or solution should allow for more generic connectivity options like ODBC, JSON or Web services so you have more options for future data sources. You also should make sure the vendor generally has the range and type of application connectors that make sense for your business. If your integration needs expand beyond marketing to include things like financial and supply chain integrations, then you should lean towards a vendor that has connectors for EDI and applications like SAP. Platforms that have solution developer kits (SDK) or APIs to build custom connectors or manage integrations are also a nice plus if you have the programming expertise.

While it seems it’s still a bit of a struggle to achieve that goal of integrating customer data, there are many more options today with integration platforms that are accessible and powerful. Integrated data helps businesses run faster, smarter and better — but only if you set yourself up for success each step of the way towards your connected enterprise. 

What challenges have you faced integrating customer data? And where have you achieved the best efforts/rewards ratio? Feel free to click to continue the conversation below or on Twitter. 

Betsy Bilhorn is VP of product at Scribe Software. As vice president, product management, Betsy is responsible for leading Scribe‘s new product initiatives. Prior to joining Scribe, she held several leadership positions at SaaS pioneer Web Trends, including participation in the evolution of Web Trends OnDemand. She has also held leadership positions at system integrator, Lease Dimensions, where she managed large deployments of global CRM, ERP, and financial systems, including acquisition and integration. 









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