SMBs

CRM for ERP: Built-in or best of breed?

In the experience of one UK SMB, CRM functionality in manufacturing ERP packages is often added as an afterthought and doesn't quite measure up to what sales and marketing departments need.

This post isn't a market survey of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) packages; it's simply the story of our journey as a small (less than 100 staff) manufacturer using three ERP systems over the last 20+ years. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

I'll also give away the ending and tell you that in 2012 we bought a dedicated CRM package and integrated it with our ERP. It's early days, but we're very happy so far and believe we made the right choice.

Why CRM?

In my post on making an ERP selection, I defined ERP, rather facetiously, as "joined-up business software." In other words, it links, at a minimum, functions such as order processing, stock control, purchasing, production, shipping, and accounts. ERP packages may also include functions such as quoting, personnel, or customer returns.

CRM is much more about marketing campaigns, sales opportunities, pipeline analysis, and recording interactions with individual contacts. ERP, typically, doesn't record or manage these activities.

ERP system #1

Back in the 90s when we ran our first character-based ERP system, we discovered one of the fundamental advantages of CRM: visibility. We have a team of applications engineers and we kept hitting the issue of the team not being aware of what had been said, or sent to, a customer or prospect. The engineer who had taken the call or sent the fax (as it was then) knew what he had done, but nobody else did. We lacked the most basic "contact management," and there was no way the ERP system could be altered to accommodate it.

To try to tackle the problem we invested in a third-party product (also character-based and running on Unix, for those who like to know). While this was well-intentioned, it suffered from being clunky and not widely adopted. I don't recall to what extent it was integrated with the ERP (if at all) but results were patchy to say the least.

ERP system #2

Our second ERP system (EFACS from Exel Computer Systems) was a Windows/SQL product but, true to form, had a very weak contact management module. This time we tried to build our own and got a little way towards the visibility goal, but again with patchy uptake (and, I can say with hindsight, some very strange database design decisions on my part). What's more, what we created was of little use to our marketing staff, who resorted to using a completely separate GoldMine database.

ERP system #3

In 2008/2009 we embarked on our third ERP implementation. In the version we were implementing there was next to nothing in the way of contact management or what could be called CRM. A new version seeking to address this was released just too late for us to go live with (of course). Knowing this was on the way we didn't attempt any DIY CRM-building this time. When we did get to see what had been released, it was a little underwhelming, but we were promised improvements in the next release. Finally, when that version came out, we gave it a thorough road test and didn't like it -- it just wasn't capable or slick enough. The appeal of being fully integrated with our ERP was outweighed by its shortcomings. Disappointing.

So, we decided to go for a separate CRM package that could be suitably integrated with our ERP. We drew up a spec taking into account the needs of sales, marketing, admin, and production. We again ran a thorough selection process, and the winner of which was Gold-Vision from Esteiro Business Solutions in the UK.

(To be fair to our ERP vendor, they continue to improve the CRM element of the system; they just never quite caught up with what we needed.)

Our implementation of Gold-Vision took less than three months. Integration is currently one-way only (ERP to CRM), accomplished by means of scheduled SQL Server Agent jobs that run very quickly. We now have the longed-for visibility of customer interactions and can track appointments, sales opportunities, service calls, and so on. With a much improved marketing tool and the general stimulus to sales and service activity, we're expecting a relatively quick return on our investment.

Summary

In our case, our manufacturing ERP just wasn't strong enough on CRM. Choosing a best-of-breed CRM package and integrating it with our ERP has proved the right decision.

About

Mark Pimperton BSc PhD has worked for a small UK electronics manufacturer for over 20 years in areas as diverse as engineering, technical sales, publications, and marketing. He's been involved in IT since 1999, when he project-managed implementation ...

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