So… you’ve just implemented a cloud-based application to solve a specific problem, for example a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) solution to build structure into your growing sales team. The project was promptly delivered within budget, and you see it as a success. However, since this new CRM has its own customer database, you’ve realised all too quickly that the same customer information exists in both your financial system for billing and in your support/query management system to manage complaints and support queries. Since all three systems share the same information they must be manually updated with any changes – which, as we know all too well, never happens. This has ultimately left your organisation with incomplete, untrusted data and an ineffective system. Adding to this inefficiency, your sales team needs access to real time support and financial information in order to have a full view of the customer and their activity (i.e. outstanding customer queries or complaints) so as to not to be blind-sided in a sales meeting, or access to invoice information to ensure customers have paid for relevant products and services.

So, what needs to happen?

INTEGRATION – the industry’s “dirty” word.

Why? Because Integration is where the hidden costs come in. The misalignment in expectations is usually based on the perceived “relatively easy” exercise of getting one application to talk to another application. Those in the know will tell you that this is where projects get very complex, expensive and will carry the highest risk in maintaining systems.

Why is it so difficult to integrate two products? Because software vendors don’t play nicely with each other. Let me elaborate.  The processes that define how the data is captured and stored, and the governance around who accesses this data differs from vendor to vendor.  Existing and new technology elements vary in their operation and design, as well as in data and processes. There is also the lingering risk of who is responsible for the data when unifying systems, so the topic of integration can be extremely complicated. For this reason, discussion about integration is normally avoided at all costs in the sales cycle. It is typically only in the post implementation period that you become aware of the issue and when you turn to your trusted SI (Systems Integrator) to help you solve the problem. They present you with development and licensing costs that are sometimes in the region of 10x the cost of the original project. This is unfortunately where your digital transformation journey stalls and your operational inefficiencies and admin overheads start accumulating.

Fortunately, this is where Microsoft has been quietly solving the problem in the background with the Common Data Service (CDS). In layman’s terms, CDS is a universal database that all Microsoft applications simply plug in to and which can be centrally governed. There has been no big announcement, no flashy transcript, but I believe it’s one of the biggest game changers for the industry, because it ultimately succeeds in making life easier, faster and more cost-effective for the customer.

Let me explain with this simple example:

Imagine you select Microsoft Dynamics as your CRM solution for your sales team and – voila! – you end up with the trouble described above. Sure, it may not integrate into your other legacy systems, but now at least you have cost effective alternatives available to you. Instead of trying to get your new CRM system to “talk” to your Customer Support System, you have the option to adopt the Microsoft Customer Service solution at a fraction of the cost of integration.  Since both utilise a shared data model, it’s faster to implement, easier to manage user access of data and processes, and you get a platform on which to continually innovate.

This is better explained with the following example. Consider a scenario where you add a new, unique piece of information in one system, for example a favourite sports team, which your sales representative can use to send tickets for a game in appreciation for the previous year’s business. This may not seem particularly new – but put yourself in the shoes of a disgruntled customer. Imagine you are about to lodge a complaint and the customer service technician opens with “How good was that win on the weekend…?” to diffuse a tense situation. Additionally, he has the full sales, invoicing and service history at his fingertips to provide you with quick answers without having to transfer you to another department or put you on hold.  He is even able to change your address details, order new consumables and extend warrantees if required.

The benefits and scenarios of shared data are countless but, combined with the addition of increased transparency (with PowerBI) and flexibility in user experience (PowerApps), the platform unlocks both powerful insights and innovation that will enable you to respond quicker to market conditions and customer demands.  Additionally, included in the platform is the option for infused Artificial Intelligence that will enhance your service offering to provide your organisation with an even greater competitive advantage.

Now that customer acquisition and loyalty is the new battlefield, and data the new currency, how is your organisation poised to take advantage of the ever-changing digital landscape? At this stage you may be asking yourself where to start. I’m hoping to shed some light on this in the coming weeks with some further articles showing some surprising and exciting insights.