Akibia Consulting's Vertical Challenge

It's not just CRM vendors that are tailoring their offerings to certain vertical markets -- CRM integrator Akibia Consulting has seen the light, too. And at least one industry watcher believes a vertically-focused integrator is more important than a vertically-focused software vendor.

Four-year-old Akibia Consulting announced today formalized services for the following verticals: finance; insurance; healthcare; life sciences; consumer goods; high-tech; energy; and manufacturing. "Going vertical is absolutely critical," says Adam Honig, president of Akibia Consulting. "CRM best practices vary widely by industry, and you can miss key elements with a one-size-fits-all approach."

The services include CRM Roadmap services for helping clients navigate through the CRM maze before embarking on the trip, PhaseOne services for a rapid foray into a CRM project and, lastly, PhaseNext services for delivering on those pesky add-on solutions such as analytics, e-mail response management and campaign management.

Indeed, 'vertical CRM' is the catchphrase of the moment. Siebel Systems touts 20 different flavors of its Siebel 7 CRM software. And last month PeopleSoft announced four versions of its CRM offering. "There's no question that the trend in CRM is toward verticalization," says Erin Kinikin, vice president of e-business applications and strategies at Giga Information Group. "But the vertical products are really just templates. The integrator is the one that helps companies translate generic CRM into the most valuable approach for that industry and business."

One of the biggest inhibitors to CRM is organizational resistance, which has little to do with software. For instance, CRM software designed to help professional customer service representatives cross-sell products doesn't take into account change management -- that is, many service-oriented employees are wary of salespeople, "and asking them to cross that cultural divide takes some work," Honig says.

Akibia Consulting believes the first step to a successful CRM project is building a central CRM database. Vertically speaking, this often means leading with a sales module at healthcare companies because of their established customer bases; whereas a customer service module might be a better starting point for high-tech manufacturers. "You want to start with the natural pull of the information you have," Honig says.

It's also nice to know the intricacies within an industry. For instance, financial brokers guard their customer lists, and thus a CRM integrator working in this vertical must first have a plan to convince brokers to share their data. "If you can't do that, you might as well throw away the software," says Kinikin. "The job of the integrator is to know these 'gotchas.'"

So far, Akibia Consulting's methods are paying off. The 150-employee firm touts more than 30 new customers this year, ranging from RSA Security to Kraft Foods Federal Credit Union to Aspect Medical Systems.

But Honig concedes that vertical CRM isn't the magic bullet for CRM projects. Even inside a particular industry and company, finding the true motives that drive a CRM project is often difficult. Honig recalls one insurance company where "executives in their heart-of-hearts really wanted to decrease cost in call centers." But during initial meetings, Honig was told that the CRM driver was improving customer satisfaction. "They were hiding behind making customers happier," Honig says. "The biggest challenge in CRM today is having customers clearly articulate the outcomes that they are trying to achieve with CRM."

Tom Kaneshige also writes for Line56.com

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