There are a lot of good reasons to integrate data between disparate systems. Integrating data between CRM, ERP, and other lines of business applications can eliminate duplicate data entry, provide key data to users, and help to provide that all-elusive 360-degree view of the customer. Data integrations can also be used to automate processes which can eliminate bottlenecks created by users manually entering data. A great example of this is the integration of quotes/orders, which have been entered into CRM by salespeople, being pushed to ERP by an integration tool. This eliminates the need for a user manually entering the sales order in ERP. If your company handles a large volume of orders this can save massive amounts of time. Think an integration is right for your company? Before jumping in, there are several things to consider.
What is data integration?
The first thing to understand is exactly what is a data integration? A data integration is the integration of data between 2 or more systems. Sounds simple, right? Data is entered into one system, a sales order into CRM for example. The data integration takes that data and pushes it, using integration software, to one or more systems. The key thing to remember is that it’s the data that is being pushed between systems. This means that the target systems (the systems where the data is being pushed) must have a place to store that data. Systems like Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (CRM) have a flexible data model which can be customized to handle most data. This makes it a great candidate for integration.
Now that we’ve defined a data integration, let’s talk about what it is not. We are frequently asked to integrate invoices from ERP to CRM. The idea is to provide salespeople with the ability to view the invoice so that they can re-send it to the customer. The idea is that the integration will give the salesperson the ability to recreate the invoice document that was sent to the customer. This is not how a data integration works. We can integrate the invoice data to CRM. But this integration will create an invoice record in CRM, it does not recreate the invoice document that was sent to the customer. The invoice that was sent to the customer was typically generated as a report that was run from the ERP system. That report could probably be recreated in the CRM system, but just integrating the data is not the solution.
Why do you need data integration?
So, we know what a data integration can do and what it can’t do. You might now be asking, “what are some good reasons for a data integration?” We discussed one reason earlier, taking a sales order that was created in CRM and pushing it to ERP. Most modern CRM systems provide the ability to create quotes which can be sent to a customer or prospect. Once the customer agrees to purchase the quoted items, in a non-integrated scenario, that quote is physically handed to the accounting team who is then responsible for manually creating the order in ERP. With an integration, that CRM quote can be pushed into ERP automatically, saving the time required to manually re-enter the data. Another reason to integrate the data is when you have the need to act on the data. Several years ago, I worked for an insurance marketing company. We used a line of business system to manage insurance policy information. By integrating this information to CRM, we could create targeted marketing lists based on the type of policy, carrier, etc. Using those targeted marketing lists, we could create marketing campaigns based on a person’s buying history. Because we had a need to act on the data (create marketing lists), integration was a good solution.
We’ve discussed some situations where an integration would be beneficial, now let’s discuss when an integration may not be your best choice. Let’s revisit the insurance example. If I didn’t need to act on the data and I only wanted visibility into it, say I only wanted my users to be able to see a summary of the policy information from that line of business application from within CRM, then a business intelligence tool or report may be a better solution. If your only purpose for integrating the data is to summarize and report on it in the other application you should first look at a BI solution.
The power of data integration
There are many excellent integration tools on the market. Once you’ve seen the power of these tools it can become very tempting to just integrate everything. There are a few reasons to make sure you have a strong business case for building an integration. First, building an integration takes time and expertise. You will need to have resources who have expertise on the integration tool and on the systems that are being integrated. Second, no matter how well the integration was designed and implemented, there will be failures in the integration of specific data. Somebody needs to monitor the integrations for failures and needs to know how to resolve those failures. Finally, some integration tools charge by the number of connections, so adding integrations to additional systems can add to the cost of the integration software. When choosing an integration tool, be sure to pick on that works with the systems that you need to integrate. Many tools have adapters or connectors specifically designed to work with specific platforms. By choosing a tool with system specific adapters you are increasing your chances that the integrations won’t break when you upgrade one of the integrated systems.
Integrating data can be a smart decision if you keep these items in mind. I recommend working with a company who has experience building integrations. They can help you navigate the many complexities involved in building successful integrations.