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Why CRM data silos hobble a 360-degree customer view

For companies trying to serve customers in multiple channels and get a full picture of customers, data silos can get in the way.

Cascade Orthopedic Supply's sales team was only getting one piece of information from the company's CRM software: whom it was trying to sell to.

"It didn't say anything about what was actually sold, to whom, where, at what discount, and more," said James Mayfield, the company's business analyst. "The sales team was missing the complete picture of the customer transactions they needed to analyze performance and progress."

The company wasn't able to integrate data sources so its salespeople could do their jobs. Cascade, a California-based distributor of prosthetic and orthotic supplies, invested heavily in ERP software to integrate various business processes and applications. It used IBM's WebSphere Cast Iron and an application called Xactly Express to integrate data from other applications, such as sales commission data, into its Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) system.

"To me, it was important to break down these silos and have all that information in one place," Mayfield said. "It's nice to be able to compile this data in Salesforce to drive better decision making in your organization."

It's important to have a CRM strategy that spans multiple systems, in addition to [a company's] customer database.
Sean Whiteleyco-founder, GetFeedback

When CRM systems first hit the market, many organizations saw them as game-changers because they could store all customer data in one place. But a problem has emerged: CRM systems often function as data silos. It can be difficult -- and expensive -- to take data out of the silo and make it available to other enterprise applications that are critical to the business.

"Customer events often happen in other systems, such as a website, Web application or mobile application, and these data sources don't always connect to your CRM system," said Sean Whiteley, co-founder and general manager of GetFeedback, which sells online survey software. "For those reasons, it's important to have a CRM strategy that spans multiple systems, in addition to [a company's] customer database."

The benefits and challenges of getting CRM data out of the silo

In a 2014 Forrester Research survey, marketers identified communicating with customers across channels and obtaining a single, 360-degree view of customers across channels as more important than acquiring new customers or retaining existing ones.

Customers expect that every person they interact with at an organization -- whether that person works in marketing, customer service or on the front-end retail side -- understands their purchasing histories, buying preferences and preferred channels of communication. This kind of knowledge requires companies to have access to a complete set of data across all applications, and getting there comes with a long list of challenges.

Paul Mandeville, chief product officer at Boston-based QuickPivot, a multichannel marketing platform, likens the data silo problem to cardboard boxes that pile up in a basement: As boxes of knickknacks multiply over the years, organizing and consolidating what's in them becomes increasingly difficult.

Even for companies that have the tools to take data out of silos and integrate it with other applications, the problem of inconsistent, poor-quality data still exists, Mandeville said. In retail, for example, one application might label a large-sized shirt as "LG" while another classifies it as "Large." Making sense of inconsistent data when merged is difficult, requiring significant time and resources, he said.

"Now you're at the point where you've got this really, really big project," Mandeville said. "You have to decide: Are you going to open up every box or are you going to leave some boxes alone?"

According to Whiteley, the time and resources required to make CRM data available to other applications is beyond the capabilities of some companies. "Building integrations and processes that span multiple systems can be complex, and often requires development resources, which is not always an option for businesses," he said.

Data silo solutions

The good news, Whiteley said, is that data integration has gotten easier over the years. Despite the cost of resources for integration development, most apps have a simple set of application programming interfaces (APIs) and Web hooks that can be used to access information, he said. APIs allow various software programs and applications to talk to one another, while Web hooks allow CRM systems to communicate with third-party apps.

To facilitate data integration, it's important that different lines of business within a company do not make technology decisions in data silos, but in the broader context of the business, Whiteley said.

Mandeville advises clients to first figure out what their data integration goals are and determine what kinds of experience they are trying to create for customers. Whittling the number of systems down to a manageable number makes integration easier, he said.

Some affordable integration platforms Mandeville highlighted include MuleSoft, SnapLogic, and ReachForce. Companies can also turn to NoSQL database technology, which streamlines and manages large amounts of data, even if the data is not uniform or has varying formats. Mandeville said that companies will still suffer problems from siloed CRM data unless they address data consistency issues and the buildup of poor-quality data that complicates integration measures.

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