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One of the biggest challenges facing small businesses today, especially as they start growing larger, is how to integrate and automate key business management systems and software — customer relationship management (CRM), financials, e-mail, contacts and calendaring etc. The idea is for everything to work together efficiently and not end up creating extra work or new problems. That's exactly the challenge faced by Basic Communications, a cellular phone and satellite TV reseller in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
BasicCom recently completed an occasionally painful, but ultimately successful, project to upgrade its business management and CRM tools to accommodate the considerable growth the company has experienced over the last several years. It implemented a relatively new product, BizAutomation CRM + Business Management from BizAutomation.comInc., a solution for small businesses that ties together all the key management functions. It's also tightly integrated with the Microsoft Small Business Server and Outlook/Exchange tools BasicCom was already using.
The company looked at two other solutions that offered similar features before deciding on BizAutomation, says BasicCom's MIS manager, Fletcher Klap. "BizAutomation had the tightest integration with Outlook/Exchange, and it was the most feature rich," Klap says. "It was a clear winner in our opinion."
Fifteen years ago, BasicCom started selling cellular service in Grand Rapids. Today it has 14 corporate retail locations across Michigan (and one in Ohio) and 12 outside sales representatives — 50 employees in all — plus 42 independent dealers in Michigan. The company resells services and products from cellular carriers Nextel and Alltel, satellite TV provider Dish Network, XM Satellite Radio and security-surveillance provider WebCamOne. Annual revenues exceed $10 million.
Until a couple of years ago, BasicCom relied mainly on the GoldMine contact management system from FrontRange Solutionsfor crucial CRM functions. The company grew from using it on a single computer to running it on a server at its headquarters with multiple computers attached. "GoldMine worked well for a number of years," Klap says. "But as we grew into multiple locations, it didn't work as well for us anymore."
It is possible to use GoldMine in multiple locations, but the only way to create a central store of customer information — which is what the company wanted — you have to build separate databases for each location and then periodically synchronize them with the central database. There were problems with the synchronization process. Management worried about data integrity — customer records not being updated when they were supposed to be because the automatic synchronization process failed, or records being updated in two offices during the same period resulting in data conflicts.
As BasicCom grew increasingly sophisticated in its use of technology, it was also frustrated by the fact that GoldMine couldn't easily be integrated with Research in Motion's BlackBerry mobile e-mail platform, which the company's sales reps had begun to use.
BasicCom first tried Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Microsoft's CRM offering which works with Outlook/Exchange running on a Microsoft Small Business Server. The company installed the Microsoft technology and liked Outlook/Exchange, but didn't like the CRM product. It lacked several key features the company had come to rely on in GoldMine, and it was difficult to integrate with BlackBerry — even though BlackBerry Enterprise Servers work in tight integration with Exchange.
So BasicCom went looking for something that wouldintegrate well with BlackBerry, would allow it to build and maintain a central database and would also provide the missing CRM functions of GoldMine. That's when the company "stumbled on" BizAutomation, a then three-year-old company headed by President and CEO, Carl Zaldivar. The product, developed expressly for small businesses, was close to completion.
All in One
BizAutomation is an all-in-one solution with CRM and big business-style Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) at its core. It has modules covering virtually every business management function, including financials, projects, inventory, price books, e-commerce, documents and business portals. The product also includes pre-built integration with QuickBooks and other small business accounting systems. It installs on the same server as Microsoft Exchange and uses Outlook Web Access (OWA) or regular Outlook for its user interface.
BasicCom signed on early, purchasing a package of 50 licenses, enough for its own employees. It will buy additional licenses as it rolls the product out to independent dealers. Total cost with early adopter discount: about $19,000.
BizAutomation also handled the installation, although that may have been a service only available for early adopters, Klap says. It went very smoothly. BasicCom even opened up its servers to remote access so that the software company's technicians could help transfer customer records from the Microsoft CRM and GoldMine systems to BizAutomation. "The remote service was excellent," Klap says. "They were willing to make adjustments after business hours when system use was lower, which helped us a lot."
There were a couple of annoying software glitches during the beta period, but they were all cleared up with the final release of the product, he says.
Reaping the Rewards
BasicCom has only had the final production version of BizAutomation up and running for about three months and has yet to fully implement many of the modules and features. But it's already reaping benefits. Klap estimates that the efficiencies from using the CRM features alone will mean the investment pays for itself within 18 months.
Now that the company has a reliable central database of business management information, senior executives can better see what the branch offices are doing. "Management has an idea now of what its retail and outside sales people are doing in the field, what the daily workflow looks like and what the sales closing process looks like. Before we started using BizAutomation, management basically had no way of knowing what their production capabilities were," Klap says.
Now that it has a reliable customer database, BasicCom has been able to transfer more of the marketing function to head office. In the past, marketing — opt-in e-mail campaigns, direct mail — was mainly the responsibility of the branches because they had a handle on who the customers were. But too often, the marketing work didn't get done because field staff were too busy with day-to-day management and following up leads.
"By having all of the contact information up to date and controlled at a central location, our marketing efforts are much more effective now," Klap says.
The fact that the interface is all browser-based — BasicCom opted for the Outlook Web Access interface — means the system is easier to learn and use, and that has meant that more of the sales people and retail staff have been using the technology more effectively than they did before. In fact, the company sees BizAutomation as a premium for its independent dealers — an added benefit of doing business with BasicCom. It will bring those dealers online over the next few months.
There are a lot more benefits to be wrung from BizAutomation, Klap says. The company plans to use the software's workflow management functionality, for example. The program will automatically distribute leads based on criteria BasicCom sets — territory, for example — then establish a schedule of steps for sales people to follow and then the software will automatically generate e-mailed reminders. Because of BizAutomation's CRM-accounting integration, it can even follow the process right through to automatically generating an invoice when the sale is completed.
Having CRM integrated with e-commerce features means BasicCom can set up customer areas at its Web site, where it can gather customer input and feed it into the CRM database.
A Calculated Risk
The experience working with BizAutomation has been almost exclusively positive so far, but Klap says the company took a gamble by opting to buy from a relatively new software vendor that is itself a small business. There are pros and cons, he says. On the one hand, small businesses, especially those catering to other small businesses as BizAutomation does, are apt to be more responsive — and that has been the case.
"Our needs for modifications were usually met with quick changes," Klap says. "That's one of the pluses of working with a small business. And they delivered on it."
On the other hand, there's a risk that the vendor could grow too fast — or not fast enough — jeopardizing customer service levels or company stability. What happens if your software vendor goes belly-up? If you're dealing with a smaller, untried vendor, make sure the program code can be put in escrow so that if the company goes under, you have access to it, Klap says.
You can then hire a third-party developer or have in-house programmers continue support and development. For the same reason, it's a good idea that whatever solution you buy works with popular underlying technology — like Microsoft Outlook/Exchange.
BasicCom is guessing all of this will be moot, however. BizAutomation looks like a definite winner, Klap says.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.