Enterprises see the light on marrying front- and back-office systems

Marrying front- and back-office data is becoming increasingly important to all sorts of business operations.

Many businesses are starting to realize the initial promise of CRM technology and are now better managing their interactions with customers.

That's not to say all businesses have yet to perfectly marry their CRM efforts with on-premises or Software as a service, or SaaS, offerings, but enough of them are finally acting on meaningful information about their customers that the industry is now looking at the next wave of potential.

And one key piece is the integration of external customer data with internal office data -- a melding that, if done properly, could allow companies to try bold new things in customer relationship management (CRM).

But, by many accounts, it appears this full integration of front-end and back-end data is still a future goal for many, although it's not too far off if businesses can square away their technologies. Companies have only recently started to use customer data effectively. Integrating customer and front-office data is simply the next step to be taken on the CRM journey.

"CRM is constantly growing but it's also settling into the technology that automates customer-facing operations," said analyst Paul Greenberg, president of the 56 Group and a founding father of CRM.

"It's enabling companies to be more effective than they ever imagined in handling customers. But they need to stay fully engaged. And to do that, you need data: social data but also data from the back office," he said. To marry this kind of information, "systems of engagement" -- like social platforms, email and collaboration platforms and the data that reside in these systems -- need to be well integrated with "systems of record," that is, CRM or ERP systems that house customer and product information that has traditionally been the currency of doing business. Now, for businesses to boost sales, make business operations more efficient and understand customer needs, companies need to join these two systems to get a 360-degree view.

The integration of data is becoming increasingly necessary with the whole business relying on a system of record that's built around the customer.
Paul Greenbergpresident, 56 Group

The technology exists to integrate external customer information with internal information such as financial records, ERP data and HR files, Greenberg said. But technology buyers haven't yet made that kind of integration a priority, he said.

New York-based software developer VenturePact has experienced some of the benefits of optimizing its CRM practices by meshing customer information with internal data -- but hasn't yet combined all its data because it's still working out the kinks of database integration.

Using HubSpot, an inbound marketing and sales platform, VenturePact recently integrated marketing leads from a SQL database with sales leads that had a home in a CRM system, and now "everything that comes from marketing is deeply integrated with our CRM," said company co-founder Pratham Mittal. The problem, though, is that VenturePact is considering creating, on its own, an enhanced CRM system within its SQL database, but that new system wouldn't be able to integrate with HubSpot, which the company can't lose because of its marketing value.

VenturePact has limited resources and only a few developers on staff, Mittal said. Complete CRM integration is on the list of things to do but not at the top. "Incomplete integration is one of those inconveniences you can live with but it can also hurt you over time. I'm thinking of putting it back on the top of the list," he said.

A single technology suite for CRM, ERP and other functions won't do, Greenberg said. Companies are better off mixing and matching systems, and they are often willing to explore cloud-based or on-premises software -- even from small, relatively unknown vendors -- as long as it integrates with existing technologies, he said.

"The integration of data is becoming increasingly necessary, with the whole business relying on a system of record that's built around the customer," Greenberg said. "So, CRM technology is being built for wider and wider integration. A single integrated suite is not the way to go. Instead, businesses are looking for pieces they need for customer interaction and back-office stuff that also have the means of talking to one another."

Dustin Cederholm, a marketing manager at Fluid Advertising in Utah, advises companies on CRM, ERP and other business software. He believes that many companies failed to ask the right questions when purchasing CRM technology and discovered later that some of those CRM systems don't easily integrate with other systems, thus preventing a melding of front-office and customer data.

Only large companies that invest significantly in technology -- like the online retailers Amazon and, for example -- have successfully integrated ERP data on inventory and delivery with CRM data and marketing campaigns, he said.

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