Vertical CRM software or customise?

by Richard Boardman on March 18, 2011

Photograph courtesy of atomicjeep

As new generations of CRM system have become ever more flexible the potential to rapidly customise software to meet needs that may be far removed from the vanilla package has increased dramatically. This has created a dilemma for many potential purchasers of CRM as to whether it’s better to go with a vertical solution, already adapted to their specific industry needs, or customise a ‘best of breed’ general application.

While there are reasons why customising a mainstream application may be a good option – vertical solutions, while strong in industry specific functionality, often lack flexibility and breadth of functionality – It’s rarely a straightforward decision. Here are some of the things to bear in mind:

Does the vertical solution really fit your needs? While there may be a vertical solution available for your industry it may not fit your actual business model or support your core requirements. Just because you are in the widget industry doesn’t mean the objectives for your project will be met by a widget industry specific CRM application.

What are the trade offs? Vertical solutions tend to meet a specific set of needs well, but are often weaker in terms of general functionality. Being as clear about what capabilities are not available is as important as those that are.

How long would it take me to customise a mainstream package? This is a critical consideration. If a mainstream package can quickly be customised to accommodate the industry specific elements then this is likely to be the better option. I can think of a lot of industry specific solutions which are different more in name than substance. On the other hand there are solutions out there that could take man years of work to emulate. Being able to tell the difference is key to making the right decision.

What else does the vertical vendor offer? A vertical vendor may offer a lot more than just the software. Expertise on industry best practices and benchmarks for example may be of considerably more value than the software itself, and these probably won’t be available through a mainstream supplier.

Is your mainstream vendor able to deliver? Successfully customising a generic CRM application to your specific needs demands a set of skills many vendor don’t have. It requires excellent requirements definition capabilities as well as the ability to deliver quality code into testing. Get these wrong and you can be bogged down in rounds and rounds of testing and changes before you get it right.

Are you ready for a ‘development’ project? The demands of a development project are significantly higher then when you are implementing largely ‘out of the box’. The resources – internal and external – the timelines, the complexity and associated risks, are much higher if you choose to extensively customise a package.

The flexibility of mainstream CRM software offerings has enabled them to encroach heavily on many vertical markets. The ability to rapidly customise systems has meant that users have been able to benefit from the functional richness of the mainstream offerings while satisfactorily addressing their industry specific needs. These decisions need to be made with care however. It’s easy to underestimate how complex development projects can prove to be and it’s easy to get mired in an implementation that overruns or fails to deliver the original vision. Boringly, perhaps, these risks are generally best addressed through effective planning and requirements gathering, and (forgive me mentioning it) independent CRM advice if you need it.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil Benson March 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Another thoughtful and useful article, Richard.

I’m customising a mainstream CRM package for a dept in a large enterprise that was considering buying a niche industry solution. But the IT dept’s strategy is to standardise on one CRM application and use it as a platform for departmental solutions so that they can reduce the 700 or so ‘best of breed’ applications in their estate that need to be replaced over the next ten years. There are now three apps for very different depts running on the mainstream CRM platform so the operating and support costs have been reduced as the enterprise grows its skills and experience with the mainstram CRM package. Sometimes worth looking at the bigger picture rather than one department’s requirements.

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Richard March 19, 2011 at 9:20 am

Neil, thank you for your comments. That’s certainly a trend we’re seeing, organisations consolidating systems within the CRM platform. A great topic for a future post I think!

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