Systems Integration: Not Sexy, But Very Important
One of the biggest barriers companies face trying to improve customer experience is the challenge of systems integration.
All the wonderful tools we have now to help us do more effective marketing need to share data quickly, easily and reliably. But how do you get them to do that?
In today’s interview with Robin Smith, co-founder of Virtual Logistics, we discuss:
- What a systems integrator is
- The process your company should go through in deciding what technologies you need.
- What to look for in choosing new systems and tools to be sure they’ll work with the rest of your software.
- What to ask a potential systems integration partner.
It Starts With Strategy
As with everything in marketing, before you can decide what you need, you have to start by deciding who you are. What does your company want to be known for? What makes you unique? What sorts of experiences do you want your customers to have?
Once you know the answers to those questions you can start figuring out what types of data will be important so you can deliver the desired customer experience. That means thinking through your entire process.
Chris Hadfield, in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, talks about a question that he and his fellow astronauts ask constantly during their training and missions:
Well, in planning your processes, you need to keep asking what could go wrong? What will we do if that happens? How can our system be set up to handle that automatically?
So if, for instance, a product ends up out of stock, how will you notify the customers who had ordered it? How will you keep them informed if it is backordered? How will your payments system deal with the need to delay charging their credit card? How will your accounting system deal with that?
Dealing With Ever-Changing Technology
Often, says Robin, companies get into trouble by adding bits and pieces of software and connecting them “point to point” as needed. In other words, setting up direct links between, say, your online shopping cart and your inventory management system, but not connecting them to your shipping or accounting systems.
The problem is that with technologies changing so quickly, and especially if your company is growing, those ad hoc connections can quickly become a “spaghetti of links”.
Instead, argues Robin, it is better to use a “hub and spoke” model: have one central source of data and connect all other systems to it. Then if you change one spoke (e.g. your shopping cart), you just unplug it from the central data source and plug in whatever new one you want.
If Only Tech Firms Would Use Plain English!
Yes, technology is complicated, but it is too bad that most tech firms, especially those who handle the difficult things like systems integration, make it sound scarier than it is. And the result is that too many of us avoid dealing with it, or are swayed by less competent companies that are smoother talkers.
Here’s a non-techie explanation of some of the common jargon:
EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) – Software that transfers information and data from one sytem to another.
ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) – Software that can serve as a hub in the “hub and spoke” model; it is the central place where data is stored. Other systems can draw on the data in there, but if it is the hub, you can make sure that your data doesn’t get out of sync across systems.
API (Application Program Interface) – A set of rules that lets one program be connected to another. So, for instance, you can use an API to get your emailing software linked to your Google analytics or to your CRM system.
CRM (Customer Relationship Management) – System that stores all data on your interactions with your customers (and prospects). Salesforce is an example of a CRM.
Any Other Technology or Marketing Jargon Got You Confused?
Tell us in the comments section what terms you’d like an ultra-simplified explanation of, and we’ll do our best to answer!