Preparing for Today's Data Marathon

Organizations of all sizes across all sectors recognize the power of being able to use their data to make informed business decisions and take advantage of market opportunities as they emerge, if not before. The methods by which data is acquired and handled play an increasingly critical role in how companies engage prospects and manage customers in an ever-shifting and complex landscape. Data is the new black, and all enterprises recognize that a central hub is required to aggregate and manage it—these processes are overwhelmingly delegated to the CRM system.

For the second year in a row, all the respondents in Scribe's annual State of Customer Data Integration survey (900-plus this year) indicated that their companies use a CRM solution to handle customer and prospect data, decisively beating out other core business systems (including enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, and marketing automation) as the chosen facilitator of customer data acquisition and its management.

Business leaders and IT professionals also see that data must be structured and accessible in a holistic and consistent way across an organization for its value to be realized. Seamless and iterative integration across business applications is an imperative. Our survey confirms what the market is telling us—that for reasons largely having to do with the added complexity and concerns brought to the table by cloud CRM deployments, actual between-systems integration of CRM and other business systems is astonishingly low—just 10 percent to 33 percent. Only 16 percent of respondents indicate full integration among business systems (up just one point from 2012). As Scribe's CEO Lou Guercia puts it, today's businesses need a practical, sequential approach to data integration to prepare for the real data marathon.

The Need for Tight Integration

Key objectives of today's business and IT leaders include driving new growth while being able to continue supporting an existing client base well. To accomplish these and other goals, "new" CRM environments require tight integration with other core business applications. Given the current low levels of CRM data integration, this mandate clearly presents a daunting set of challenges. However, the expertise and technology required to integrate CRM data securely (with ease of use and continued adaptability in mind) are available. This essay looks at the advantages and disadvantages of existing integration approaches and how old school tools are giving way to new school methodologies that deliver a holistic and intuitive platform.

The Old CRM Data Integration Approaches

Custom coding is still the predominant method being used (48 percent of organizations use internal coding; 31 percent use consultants to code) to migrate, synchronize, or integrate CRM data into other business systems. While custom coding and the more outdated processes of manual data entry and batch-loading (32 percent) are still being used by organizations (likely due to assumed cost savings), these methods result in labor-intensive and inefficient, often misaligned data structures.

IT's reliance on custom code poses resource constraints that limit companies' ability to integrate systems fully. This lack of integration, in turn, plays a role in the CMO Council's finding that only 4 percent of marketers and 7 percent of IT executives believe they are prepared to exploit the proliferation of data and channels, many of which will remain siloed. Custom code coupled with manual data entry costs businesses millions of dollars annually. The latest Oracle-commissioned study found that 52 percent of businesses reported missing deadlines due to poor integration across cloud vendors, and 75 percent blame cloud integration problems for stunting innovation initiatives.

New Ways of Integrating CRM Data

Prebuilt connectors provided by software vendors are common (employed by 44 percent of surveyed organizations) and tend to be more robust and structurally versatile, resulting in stronger direct data cohesion than custom coding or file uploads.

Another industry best practice is for companies to look at today's integration offerings before they default to custom code or manual integration. Chances are that organizations will find an integration product that fits their budget and technical expertise. These tools can be the best value for providing integration quickly to businesses of all sizes. Many integration vendors recognize the need for advanced customization, including custom code, and most platforms offer fine-grained control over integration processes through rich configuration environments, developer kits, and APIs, offering the best of both worlds.

A third best practice is to partner with systems integrators. Businesses that employ systems integrators see higher levels of core systems integration, including financial system data that had previously lived in unconnected ERP systems. These CRM integration specialists provide the multilateral data integration that "old school" integration processes cannot.

The Integrated Road Ahead

Cloud integration presents a significant and formidable challenge to all organizations, from small-scale businesses to big enterprises. Hybrid environments can be even more complicated, and CRM data integration adds a layer of messaging and outreach choreography that must be addressed and succinctly managed. The rapid and sustained growth of CRM is certain; Gartner predicts CRM will be a $36 billion market by 2017. Cloud data integration and, particularly, cloud CRM data integration is compulsory for any organization that wishes to successfully engage its prospect and client base.

Successful CRM data integrations protect data while delivering full transparency to targeted, authorized users. Technical and business leaders view CRM systems as critical for their ability to share key customer and prospect data among departments while driving accuracy and consistency of customer information. Optimizing customer and prospect outreach requires that every element of both organizational behavior and messaging is collected and correlated with consumer base behaviors and individual customer preferences—increasing new sales and renewals while discouraging oversaturation and repetition. Conversely, the absence of a holistic and agile CRM data integration strategy is an increasingly costly and painful omission.

Peter Chase is founder and vice president of business development at Scribe Software.

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