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Integrated CRM databases: going beyond the concept

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To provide excellent levels of service, contact centre staff must have the information they need to serve customers, writes Keith Fenner, strategic sales director at Softline Accpac. This requires centralising customer relationship management.

Tt’s an equation you’ve reiterated to your staff numerous times: excellent service = customer satisfaction. To make it a reality however, it’s imperative that your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software enables this by allowing your contact centre staff access to detailed information about the individuals who make up your customer base.
While some vendors and software providers will apologise and tell you that this sort of integration is not yet possible, it is. Integrated CRM databases are well beyond conceptualisation. They’re already proving their worth in numerous IT-mature corporations both locally and around the world. The secret to their success? Very simply, internet architecture.
While investing in a CRM application should be no different to any other business management software investment, the fine print on the box is starting to differentiate “solutions” from mere “applications”.
The main one you need to consider in terms of creating an integrated database is its underlying architecture. The application’s customisability, adaptability, portability, scalability and extensibility are all functions of this. Most critical, however, is that it has internet architecture.
Internet architecture ensures that the corporate data and all operations performed on that data, as well as the user interfaces are built in clearly defined layers that communicate using internet standards.
Characterised by central-server installation, thin client deployment, centralised administration, portable application and optimised performance on WANs (wide area networks), internet architecture ensures superior performance across all user scenarios including disconnected access (laptop), internet access (wired and wireless), dial-up access and in-office access. It thus makes service delivery possible – from both an in-house and outsourced environment.
Accpac CRM is an example of a pure internet infrastructure. This means it leapfrogs the client/server technology most prevalent in CRM applications today, and subsequently eliminates the administrative overheads and expense of support for both deployment paradigms. The differentiating feature of this particular solution’s architecture is its three layers: interface services; business logic services; and database access services.
These communicate among themselves using internet standards; integrating data and ensuring real time information is available to all staff no matter whether mobile or at an office – somewhere.
With today’s economy being driven by the internet, it provides the fastest access method to business information for both your staff and your customers. In terms of its interface service, Accpac CRM’s internet architecture provides universal access to all CRM applications and data by delivering the solution within a standard web browser, a Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) enabled device, a mobile SMS device and Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).
The wireless and internet device layers (components of the Accpac CRM presentation layer) manage the connection between the Accpac CRM application and the Microsoft internet Information Server (IIS). The Presentation Layer detects the device type being used (browser, PDa etc) and outputs the user interface in the format most appropriate for that device.
The Internet architecture of this solution further enables a company to integrate information from multiple applications into CRM solutions, making this consolidated information available through an intranet, the internet, and/or mobile internet platforms. The business logic services layer further exposes business functions including customer self-service and marketing automation.
These functions have several components that check user security, maintain user persistence (remember what a user is doing), synchronise data with mobile users, return information from the database, generate web pages from the data and perform transactions among others. They thus co-ordinate the delivery of information and functionality to clients.
In this way a CRM database becomes not only integrated but dynamic – crucial in the area of web self-service. With the trend moving towards this highly customised individualised service, companies are being offered a comparatively easy way to reduce calls to contact centres and subsequently, through pure logistics, improve service.
A comprehensive self-service module can give customer, user and partner access to a subset of its data, integrating an existing corporate website with the application, allowing end-to-end continuity and closed loop marketing integration. Using self-service tools, a company can additionally allow its customers to selectively interact with its client database, further freeing up some of its internal resources and allowing the customer to “help themselves”.
When it comes to the actual database operations of Accpac’s CRM, these are performed through components of the Common Database Services Interface (CDSI) layer. This maintains data integrity by validating data updates before they’re written to its database. In this way it prevents any new data from corrupting the database or creating duplicate records on the server. The CRM application stores, retrieves and collates data from these databases, presenting it in a uniform manner to the user.
As to the benefits of CRM internet architecture, these include everything from single server installation and centralised management to scalability. By enabling full access to a CRM solution via an internet browser, administration of the system becomes more manageable and cost-effective. Users of the application also benefit, as they can access the centralised database any place, anytime. Internet architecture eliminates the need to install multiple copies of the same software or upgrades on all PCs belonging to the company, while removing the need for expensive and maintenance-intensive technologies to facilitate remote connectivity such as Citrix or Microsoft Terminal Server.
Internet architecture also solves the problem of connected and disconnected users. For connected mobile users, the architecture allows secure access through an internet browser, PDA or WAP-enabled device. For disconnected mobile users, it allows them to work from a personalized local copy of the central database and then synchronise over the LAN or via the internet.
Scalability is another key feature that a CRM application with internet architecture enables. Many CRM solutions economise by using a two-tier client/server architecture over-simplifying the system by eliminating the server tier and requiring each client to manage their own connection to a database. The lack of a true middle tier means that there is no central distribution of processing and that the database itself must directly support every client.
Two-tier deployment models will thus not scale to a large number of users or to large data transfer requirements, making them ill-suited to expansion. The multi-tier deployment internet architecture enables can spread processing loads across numerous machines, supporting increased transactional throughput and only requiring the addition of inexpensive PC servers.
Internet architecture also makes an application that much more adaptable by means of an Integration Server. Trained users can make frequent and significant functionality changes and additions as their business needs dictate, all without expensive reimplementation. Customisation is made through a web interface and stored in a centrally located metadata database.
Any changes to the application are thus delivered “on the fly” the next time the user connects to the CRM application, essentially eliminating rollout time. This further allows seamless re-use of business logic between connected and disconnected applications.
The future of CRM thus seems to be intimately linked with the internet. By utilising this as a tool to enable CRM tools, the internet is not only making communicating with your clients possible, but also transforming them into tangible individuals with real needs that you as a company can meet and thereby make them your customers for life