• August 1, 2009
  • By J. David Lashar, associate partner, CRM practice, IBM Global Business Services

Servicing Software-as-a-Service

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For the rest of the August 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

[Note: This is the second half of a two-part series. The first installment, "To SaaS or Not to SaaS?", appeared in the May 2009 issue of CRM.]

With the advent of software-as-a-service (SaaS), business leaders can deploy CRM applications to their organizations with little to no involvement from the technology staff. Given the problematic CRM projects of the past, the impulse to circumvent the tech experts is understandable—but foolhardy.

To capture the full value of CRM, most organizations must integrate their SaaS CRM platforms into the rest of the technology landscape. Doing so, of course, requires collaboration with technology staffers. And for this collaboration to be effective, the business side needs to understand the challenges that the technology department continues to confront, even with relatively easy-to-implement SaaS CRM applications.

Data Movement
Few organizations, least of all enterprise-scale ones, can deploy SaaS CRM without both importing historical data from legacy applications and integrating the new software with other business-support efforts, CRM and non-CRM alike. For large organizations, these technical activities have been the ones most likely to pose risks, drive costs, and cause failures for CRM projects on the traditional on-premises platforms.

The risks and challenges can actually be worse with SaaS, due to the relatively limited capabilities of the native tools for data migrations and systems integrations. Alternatives to the native tools exist but must be licensed from SaaS CRM platform vendors, from partners working with those vendors, or from the professional services firms that have developed tools and accelerators.

Even so, organizations will find that they have many of the traditional tasks to perform, such as data mappings and detailed interface design (except in the rare case of moving data between one “out of the box” system and another). For interfaces, modification of the Web services in the native SaaS CRM platforms is almost certainly part of the process.

Because of the aforementioned limitations to the SaaS CRM tools, these tasks can be highly challenging. If not done properly, sales reps, for example, will not be able to see account information such as service history, while contact center agents will not be able to look up order and payment status. Worse, sales reps might not be able to see their opportunities or generate their quotes.

Data Structures and Maintenance
The challenges related to data movement are due not just to limitations in the native tools, but also to limitations in the SaaS CRM data structures themselves. In short, with their heritage in smaller organizations, SaaS CRM platforms do not readily meet enterprise-caliber requirements for setting up and maintaining hierarchies for accounts and partners or for controlling visibility and updates to account and opportunity data. A complex sales-coverage model with multiple product lines and routes to market is not easily implemented or supported.

One client, for example, found that handling changes in a 2,000-person sales force required two to three support persons on a nearly full-time basis, even more in the event of acquisitions or territory realignments. As usual, there are approaches to overcoming these limitations, and tools to complement the native SaaS CRM capabilities. Business leaders simply must understand that these types of limitations are inherent to the platform, and a pragmatic collaboration with technology personnel will be necessary to devise an appropriate solution.

Operational Optimization
The technology staff also confronts SaaS-specific challenges in operational support. The “no infrastructure” aspect of SaaS CRM is at the core of the SaaS value proposition, enabling (among other benefits) rapid deployment, regular upgrades, and on-demand scalability. This also presents technical constraints, inhibiting and even preventing the technology department from managing availability, controlling security, optimizing performance, and migrating configuration changes.

The latter two constraints can have unforeseen impact. The technology team owns and manages all layers of an on-premises system, enabling the optimization of database, application, and hardware performance. With SaaS CRM, your tech staff owns none of these layers.

The impact is most likely to be felt at the database layer, where your tech staffers will not be able to tune for optimal performance of queries (and will not, for example, be able to add or drop an index). Thus, if a particular screen or report is taking unacceptably long to generate, there may be little that they can do about it. The SaaS CRM vendor controls the database and cannot make modifications to satisfy a given customer, because the change would put performance for the rest of the customers at risk. (The so-called single-tenant model for SaaS may address this constraint, contingent on certain arrangements between vendor and customer.)

When changing the migration setup, SaaS CRM applications do not employ repository or configuration files to control application configuration and functionality. Thus, SaaS CRM does not allow changes from a development environment to be applied to the production environment via a “code migration.” Rather, the changes must be applied manually, decreasing efficiency and raising the possibility of errors. As usual, tools exist to help. The key for business leaders is to understand that deployment of, say, a training environment likely will not be a straightforward exercise; also, implementation of configured enhancements (for example, a new workflow) may require more time and pose more risk than expected.

By taking a pragmatic approach to SaaS CRM organizational change [see Part 1 of this series, from CRM’s May 2009 The Tipping Point column] and collaborating effectively with their technology staff to overcome the technical challenges of SaaS CRM, business leaders can avoid the failures of the past and realize their organizations’ CRM blueprints. If you understand where the challenges are, solutions can be developed, perhaps in conjunction with an outside partner. Whatever path you choose, however, make sure to approach your SaaS-enabled CRM business transformation in close collaboration with your technology department.

J. David Lashar (dlashar@us.ibm.com) is an associate partner in the CRM practice of IBM Global Business Services and the leader of the IBM CRM Center of Excellence for SaaS.

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