Enterprise Apps

VoIP Delivers CRM Power to Small Businesses

Asked to define CRM, most enterprise executives will tell you it’s the process of moving a company from a product-centric focus to a customer-centric one. Since customers ultimately write your paycheck, it’s not hard to see why enterprises have embraced this concept and the technology to enable it.

However, it’s a different story for smaller businesses, which almost by definition are already customer-centric. It’s the size — and inertia — of big organizations that builds barriers between companies and their customers.

So why are small businesses also embracing CRM technologies? Because the promise of more profitable customer relationships transcends business size. Smaller businesses typically have different issues to address to achieve this goal — issues that enterprise CRM solutions haven’t addressed particularly well. VoIP, however, is changing this.

The VoIP Alternative

To understand why VoIP is changing the approach CRM solutions are taking to smaller businesses, think for a moment about what a customer relationship really is: the sum total of that customer’s transactions and interactions with your company. Due to the fact that they impact finances directly, transactions are usually well-documented and easily tracked. However, interactions are usually not recorded in the same manner — at least, not in smaller businesses.

In enterprise call centers, substantial investments in computer telephony integration (CTI) and CRM make it possible to capture interactions and subsequently document and distribute this information as necessary.

This is not the case in smaller businesses. With traditional TDM (time division multiplexing) telephony, implementing automated logging and basic screen pops is complex and expensive. Even if the business can afford the technology, it is tough to justify the return on investment because of the relatively low volume of transactions. In addition, small businesses are far more likely to rely on mobile and non-dedicated workers for sales and service, raising the expense and logistic challenges.

The introduction of VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, has changed the playing field. Voice is already data, meaning that unlike a complex systems integration task, there is a natural path to seamless integration with data-driven applications.

Further, features like call logging and click-to-dial — complex projects with traditional telephony — are innate. Also, VoIP applications are easily remotely hosted and managed, which is a boon for distributed businesses and those without large dedicated IT staffs and budgets. With hosted applications, in particular, remote staff are typically easy to integrate into the sales and support workflow.

The bottom line is that the baseline for effective CRM — capturing interaction data and making it readily available at each touch point — is now available to any size business.

So, what VoIP CRM applications are available for small businesses to consider? One can group them into three categories: VoIP-enhanced CRM applications; hosted contact center applications; and hosted VoIP services that include CRM.

Three Different Approaches

In the first group are the 800 pound gorillas: Cisco and Microsoft. Both of these firms are focused on VoIP-enhanced CRM as a key selling point of their technology, albeit from different angles.

Cisco’s Call Manager is a VoIP platform with an open API that allows it to interface to on-premise CRM applications. This is particularly appropriate for businesses with existing CRM applications, given that the level of customer development isn’t trivial — although it is lower than traditional TDM CTI (computer telephony integration).

Microsoft CRM users can avoid much of this custom development with a free add-on called the “Call Manager Connector” that integrates with Microsoft CRM to display CRM-specific customer information on Cisco IP phones, enable click-to-dial from CRM records, and screen-pop CRM records to an agent’s desktop when recognized customers call in.

This is particularly interesting in light of Microsoft’s recent announcement of its Unified Communications Roadmap, which puts its Live Communications Server in competition with Cisco — as well as Avaya, Nortel and other IP telephony vendors. With no product expected before mid 2007, it’s hard to say how this will shake out.

The hosted contact center concept will have particular appeal to businesses with old or rapidly growing contact centers. In this space, providers likeContactual and Five9 deliver a combination of VoIP-based Automated Call Distribution and hosted CRM application suites. These suites enable a virtual call center capability to be spun up very quickly, and provide the entire set of call control, data management and reporting tools required on-demand.

Five9 will also integrate with Salesforce.com andRightNow so that users of these on-demand applications can quickly add on contact center capability without migrating their data.

Finally, there is theAptela approach of hosted VoIP with embedded CRM. In this model, a fully hosted VoIP capability, including PBX and phone line replacement, is bundled with an innate CRM capability that provides call-center-like functionality to the entire organization, most notably to sales and service personnel. This solution can also be appropriate for smaller contact centers.

Aptela’s hosted VoIP solution enables organizations without existing CRM systems to get fairly robust CRM capability without any third-party package, or to integrate with several hosted applications includingCustomerOne, Salesforce andSugarCRM. The distinct advantage of this approach is that smaller businesses won’t need any on-premise equipment or software; nor will they need to integrate any third-party applications. Users and call control features can simply be added as necessary.

The result will be a streamlined system providing all users with the same application for functionalities such as call control, unified messaging and find-me/follow-me. Sales and service will also have an added layer of functionality including advanced ACDs (automatic call distributors), monitoring and screen pops. This solution also means simpler training and maintenance.

Finding the Right Mix

The key for any small business is coming up with the right blend of functionality and ease of use. As functionality increases, so does complexity — and complexity can lead to errors and waste. Complexity can be unavoidable when you’re faced with exceptionally large call volumes — particularly if you’re looking to optimize agent utilization across large workforces and product lines, and even more-so when you introduce transactional analysis, as well as automated sales and support tools.

That said, it’s easier to add features to a simple application than it is to simplify a complex application. Any of the three category options will provide a significant number of the features and functions of an enterprise contact center. In fact, the inherent functionality of a new integrated VoIP solution far surpasses a classic 500-seat enterprise call center of less than a decade ago.

Most small businesses don’t need any additional tools to help them get customer-focused. As mentioned earlier, they’re there already. With the adoption of a new technology that is easy to integrate and utilize, these are the businesses that will likely find immediate ROI — and gratification — via VoIP-enabled CRM.

Chief Executive Officer Howard Freidman has been president of Aptela since its inception in 1998, and he has 15 years of experience in the information technology industry. Before founding Aptela, Freidman held executive positions with Internet development firms Proxicom and Neoglyphics Media. He has a BBA in Information Management from George Washington University.

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