Choosing a Manageable CRM and Email Marketing System

About two months ago I launched a customer relationship management (CRM) and email marketing system for an organization. The implementation utilizes Salesforce CRM, ExactTarget’s email marketing platform, and Demand Tools for data cleansing and maintenance. For the most part, I’m very happy with the way everything turned out, but this type of project is not for the faint of heart.

Implementing and maintaining a fully functional CRM is a big data management challenge, and it is a human challenge as well. A new CRM generally touches many departments and requires changes to business processes. Even in a small organization this is type of change is bound to encounter serious resistance. Luckily, in this case, we were only focused on improving our customer support and marketing programs, so the involvement of departments outside of marketing was generally limited.

I am sharing my experience now, because I noticed a lack of objective information, while researching the various technologies available. There is a great deal of money in the business of managing customer data these days, and all the marketing campaigns for this solution or that one create so much unhelpful noise. My aim here is to clear up the confusion, and begin a conversation about a topic that I find fascinating – CRM and data driven businesses really are cool! So, let’s begin.

The Goal
The goal of this project was to take multiple flat files from email newsletter subscriptions, house mailing lists, event registrations, and other customer lists, and combine these into a single relational database. By bringing together many widely dispersed data sources the new CRM would now be able to track some of the following key vital information:

  1. Recency, frequency, and monetary value (RFM) data from past purchases
  2. Customer lifetime value
  3. Engagement with communications e.g. (recency and frequency of email opens and clicks).
  4. Interactions with customer service.

We planned to and we are now using this information to greatly enhance our interactions with customers.

The Choices
There are an innumerable number of choices for CRM solutions. Some of the major players are SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, and Microsoft. I also considered the small business focused Highrise and the “open source” SugarCRM.

The Decision
In making my decision about the appropriate CRM for a small to mid-size business, I eliminated SAP and Oracle as these vendors are mainly focused on enterprise level multi-million dollar implementations, which did not fit with my lean budget requirements and would not have been cost effective. I also eliminated SugarCRM, because the time and labor cost of implementing and maintaining their free ”open-source” solution would be prohibitive and the cost of their professional services and hosted solution was inline with Salesforce and Microsoft.
I eliminated Highrise, because their pricing plans stopped at 30,000 contacts and there was no obvious number to call to explain that I had more contacts. This indicated to me that the company is focused on very small businesses and would generally have a hands-off approach to customer service. I was left with Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics CRM as the real contenders for my needs, so I installed trials of both applications and I did some fairly extensive testing of both systems to understand the pluses and minuses of each.
The conclusion that I came away with from my Microsoft testing – about a year ago – is that the product still has a way to go. The interface was rather confusing and importing contacts through the web interface was not as easy as I expected. It seemed that the system was designed so that data manipulation was supposed to happen within a Microsoft Office product like Outlook or Access. This left me to wonder how effective the product would be for Mac users in the organization. Finally, when I called to ask about pricing and my problems with data importing and management, the sales and customer support representatives that I talked to were not very helpful and seemingly rather disorganized. This did not speak well for a company that makes a customer relationship management system.

In the end I decided to go with Salesforce for a number of reasons. I was able to import and start working with my contacts quickly. The interface is very intuitive, so there is a relatively shorter learning curve for new users. Salesforce customer support is very good in contrast to my initial experience with Microsoft. All common end user tasks can be easily accomplished through the web interface, so Mac user will likely have a good experience now and in the future. Further, Salesforce now had some great iPhone apps for both the general CRM and their new Chatter service (think private Twitter for business). Finally, there are lots of third-party apps – available on the AppExchange – that round out the system and help it do exactly what you want. The two key pieces of third-party software for my purposes were Demand Tools and the ExactTarget app.

On the negative side Salesforce, like other cloud based CRMs, charges on a per user basis and you will likely need at least 10 users to begin even a limited deployment of Salesforce within your organization. Each third party application that interfaces with Salesforce will generally need a user account as well as anyone working on the system. The enterprise system, which I recommend, is $125/user/month, so you should expect to spend at least $15,000 dollars per year on your Salesforce CRM and costs will escalate quickly as you deploy it to more employees. There are also data storage and API limits and additional data storage can be quite expensive. Still, the Salesforce cost structure is relatively inexpensive in comparison to other CRM solutions.

Third-Party Software for Salesforce
The Demand Tools suite of applications allows you to easily perform very complex data manipulation and cleansing routines via a user interface rather than SQL coding. The applications are only available for Windows, which is rather annoying, but Demand Tools is so useful for Salesforce administrators that it certainly justifies installing Windows on your Mac, which I did.

The following are a few examples of what you can do with Demand Tools: merge all contact records with the same email address; assign country codes based on the ending string of the contact’s email address, and perform very complex filtering to clean and merge postal mailing addresses.

The ExactTarget app allows you to send mass emails to newsletter lists and any other custom segments that you define directly from Salesforce. This app works well for sending emails from Salesforce through ExactTarget’s email engagement platform. It is also relatively easy to do basic tasks like personalizing emails.

However, the ExactTarget integration is not great at sending information back to Salesforce. ExactTarget’s subscription management tool for Salesforce leaves a lot to be desired, and we had to build our own subscription management form because of this. Also, the system sends every piece of email engagement data (opens, clicks, etc.) back to Salesforce for every subscriber, so you will quickly run out of space in your Salesforce database with the out of the box solution.

Although it will require a custom solution, my recommendation is to manage email engagement data in ExactTarget and pull in the needed contact data from Salesforce to do reporting on email performance by demographic. You will also find it useful to summarize and push back engagement data for individual subscribers to Salesforce, so you can understand, who your engaged/non-engaged subscribers are. Unfortunately, this will also require custom coding, which means additional time and expense. 

The bottom line is that the ExactTarget integration with Salesforce leaves a lot to be desired, but I have not found a better solution for handling email marketing at the moment. I am working with the ExactTarget support team on the various issues and custom coding, and I will continue to experiment with other email vendors’ integrations going forward.

In sum, the Salesforce, ExactTarget, Demand tools solution for CRM management is quite good and I would certainly recommended it with the few warnings outlined above. I hope this note helped you understand some of the dynamics involved in choosing a CRM solution as well as some of my reasons for going with the particular solution that I chose. Look out for my next post, which will dive into how to extract and take action based on the recency, frequency and monetary value data in your CRM.