Today, more than ever, businesses have access to a multitude of specialty software platforms, both cloud-based and on-premises. Unfortunately, many may not provide direct integration and/or information sharing across platforms. Often, these applications provide attractive new features and benefits for operations and back-office functions, but their lack of integration can create offsetting inefficiencies within the organization.
In these cases, what had initially been predicted to be an improvement in business functionality devolves into a complicated stream of incremental work to close gaps and recognize incremental value. When investing in multiple software platforms, it can be a little overwhelming to be sure you are considering all your needs, so here are 5 important keys to planning a successful integration of your software platforms.
Before purchasing new software, evaluate your needs and gain internal consensus on your minimally required functionality. Many software providers make available a list of all features on their website and some even provide a trial period to evaluate their product. Armed with the list of what you need the software to do as well as some optional features that would be nice to have, search for products that suit your needs before you start comparing features to pricing. Capabilities such as access to your data, off-the-shelf integration with your other products, and, Reporting and Dashboards may not be at the top of your list, but these are important features which could add to your perceived value of the product. You also do not want to pay for features and functionality you are not going to use.
It’s clear that you will need to know what your investment budget is, but what can be less clear is the pricing methodology for different products. Some software provides pricing based on number of users or transactions, with no minimums, and limited configuration required to get started. Others are specifically designed for use in large-scale enterprise operations, necessitating large up-front implementation and configuration costs in addition to minimum monthly or annual fees based on users or transactions. You should be able to narrow down your options by understanding these pricing models across the products you evaluate and knowing which is best for you.
Don’t forget to get recommendations from friends, family and other business users, especially if they are currently or have previously used a product you’re evaluating. You may discover that the company increases prices frequently, does not provide good customer support, or does not release updates and bug fixes on a consistent basis. Hearing these concerns from people you trust is usually more meaningful than reading on-line reviews. Your sources may be willing to let you observe how they use the product and what features they find most beneficial.
Identify “Golden Sources”
One of the more critical aspects of planning out data integration between systems is to determine the system of record for all data. It is possible that multiple systems capture the same information, so the business needs to determine which will be the “Golden Source” or whether several platforms can be used to maintain the information and the last update “wins”. If you choose a single “Golden Source”, then you either need to prevent employees and customers from being able to update the information in other systems, or communicate that changes made in other systems will not be reflected after the update. If multiple systems can update the same data, the rule needs to be that the last update is captured.
It is important to centralize data collection and audit data changes whenever possible. Having an audit trail for critical data is vital and will allow for some level of recovery in case any issues arise.
Ensure Consistent and Timely Shared Data
Failure to integrate platforms can cause numerous problems for your business. Inconsistent customer experience often results from the use of dissociated systems. Take, for example, the process of scheduling a visit for a prospective college student. The student might schedule the appointment online, but if the college’s on-line platforms are not integrated with their CRM platform, admissions representatives might end up calling or emailing the prospective student again. This could result in confusion for the student, resulting in multiple scheduled visits, and wasted time for the admissions representative.
It is critical that you understand your business processes, so you can make decisions related to the consistency and timeliness of data and the type of integration you may need. If you create an email marketing campaign once a month, then maybe you don’t need to implement real-time integration between your order entry system and your CRM application. In that case, it would be sufficient to run a simple file export from order entry and import the file into the CRM application whenever you plan to run a campaign. On the other hand, your shipping software would probably need to know immediately if a delivery address changes in the Order Entry system.
Return on Investment
As with any business investment, you expect the benefits to outweigh the cost. It is important when determining which software to implement that you have a real clarity about the total cost of implementation and ongoing ownership, and the value you can reasonably expect to recognize through increased revenue, reduced expenses, preempted risks, and improved efficiency.
Typically, there is at least some benefit simply from configuring and implementing the software or else you would not invest in the platform. The larger return comes from integrating the product with the other software you have deployed. As mentioned earlier, the availability of integration features will impact the total cost of ownership for the product. Some products require minimal configuration to integrate directly with certain software, whereas others may require custom application development to leverage REST APIs to handle the sharing of data across platforms. If you have IT staff with the experience to build the integrations in-house, the cost can be manageable. If you need to engage consultants to create the integration, this may come with more initial expense, but the collaboration could bring a value that exceeds the total cost of ownership.
Appropriate Training for All Employees
In order to ensure the software you purchase and integrate into your business provides the results and benefits you expect, all employees need to be trained to incorporate this new system into their business processes and used appropriately. You rely on employees to contact customers, take orders, purchase materials and services, and perform financial transactions. If employees are not aware of which system to use to perform specific job functions or the importance of accurately collecting and entering information, the money invested in these platforms will not provide the return you expect. Ideally, all their activities are improved as a result of your investment.
Don’t forget to provide a mechanism for employees to provide feedback and ask questions about the new software in order to ensure information is collected and leveraged to improve customer satisfaction, increase revenue and optimize efficiency. What you are likely to find is your employees will have a better understanding of the tasks they perform that may force them to use the software in ways that are not intended or configured, resulting in poor data quality.
A trusted IT solutions partner, such as DecisivEdge, can help businesses determine the best method to achieve integration. Whether the solution involves API development or migrating to new systems that work together more efficiently, DecisivEdge can help you find the right solution. We evaluate your business processes, finding ways to reduce complexity of employee training and take advantage of features in existing software.
DecisivEdge can assess your technology environment, define needs based on current performance and goals, help you select the appropriate platforms to meet your needs, implement off-the-shelf platforms, or build customized solutions.