SAS Tackles CRM

Always a favorite among academics and engineers, statistical software vendor SAS Institute is aiming at a facelift. As part of a broadened footprint that includes a step into the data warehouse business, the company has been pouring research dollars into building an analytical tool for the marketing community, in hopes of picking up sales in the hot CRM space. The fruits of that effort appear to be paying off with the signing of retail catalog giant Williams-Sonoma, which has chosen to implement SAS Enterprise Miner.

This year Williams-Sonoma plans to send out 270 million catalogs to households, hawking everything from cookware to furniture. Given the tough economy, Williams-Sonoma knew it needed to do a better job of getting the right version of its catalog (the company publishes seven variations) into the right customer's hands.

And this would require some serious analytical-marketing software. "The emergence of the Internet as a new channel brought with it a whole new source of information, and we discovered that our existing data mining infrastructure wasn't flexible enough to meet the demands of our growing multi-channel business," said Maureen Holbrow Martin, director of database marketing at Williams-Sonoma, in a statement.

But what did SAS know about marketing? In the CRM arena, competitors such as E.piphany have already taken aim at the niche. SAS turned to its legacy for help. The company claims 38,000 customers, including 99 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies. With such a base, SAS can leverage its 25-year-old reputation to find new clients and up-sell its loyal portfolio.

Like most firms, Williams-Sonoma knew something about SAS. Ph.D.-toting employees used SAS software during their researching days at universities. In fact, SAS statistical applications were being used in the deepest corridors of Williams-Sonoma's IT department. "We were familiar with the power of SAS, as we are already using SAS to generate business intelligence," Martin said. Williams-Sonoma decided to give SAS a chance, and that's how the company slipped in through the back door and past competitors.

Once SAS got its analytical marketing technology in front of Williams-Sonoma executives, and demonstrated its complex algorithms, a deal followed shortly. Simply put, SAS rode the coattails of its own prowess and reputation to sell cutting-edge software. "We discovered that the in-depth statistical capabilities of SAS are stronger than those of some of the other players in the market," said Martin, adding, "Based on our knowledge and trust in SAS, it was a pretty easy decision to choose SAS Enterprise Miner for our new application."

Williams-Sonoma began rolling out the application this month as a cornerstone of future CRM initiatives. The goal, of course, is to target catalog mailings rather than conduct mass mailings, and thus reduce postage and advertising costs. Phase two of the project will be to incorporate email campaigns and increase personalization of catalog offerings.

With a giant retailer now in its pocket, SAS is emerging from back rooms and gaining visibility. It hopes to sell its analytical CRM wares in retail, financial services, telecommunications and pharmaceutical. And the company is looking to allay any highbrow assumptions about its user community. "SAS is changing to sell to the marketing or business user," says Nelle Schantz, SAS global strategist and program director for CRM (and a former marketing executive). "You don't have to be brilliant to use our software."

Bob Moran, research vice president and managing director of data knowledge and analytics at Aberdeen Group, admits SAS faces a battle in name-brand recognition in an intensely competitive space. But he likes the company's chances, given its deep pockets and technical acumen. "SAS has a robust CRM solution that comprises analysis, multi-channel campaign planning and execution, response management and consulting services," says Moran. "The company has demonstrated that it is far more than statistical software."

Tom Kaneshige also writes for

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