Sweeten your Customer Relationships with SugarCRM on IBM i

SugarCRM Logo

While technology improvements have lowered the cost of building and deploying business solutions, until recently, the software and implementation cost of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems was unaffordable for most small to medium businesses who rely on their IBM i for their line of business applications. CRM is a strategy for managing a company’s interactions with customers, clients and sales prospects. It involves using technology to organize, automate and synchronize business processes—principally sales activities, but also those for marketing, customer service and technical support (Source: Wikipedia).

A CRM system should provide at least basic information about the companies or organizations (accounts) and the people you work with at those companies (contacts). Accounts can be your customers (or leads), but they may also be your suppliers, your partners, or your subcontractors. While highly extensible and customizable, a CRM cannot be everything to any and all businesses. It also has its limitations, and not acknowledging them upfront often leads to frustration or poor user adoption rates. In turn, this usually translates to a business never fully realizing the benefits of a CRM system.

CRM Feature Set

As CRM tools have matured over the years, a set of functionality has evolved based on well-known sales methodologies, marketing best-practices and other popular trends and processes from the business world. A CRM system should support the following:

Sales force automation (SFA) – the ability to capture lead (potential customer) information separate from actual customers; the promotion of leads to opportunities and sales forecasting tools.

Opportunity management – tracking of revenue opportunities, including attributes, such as the sales stage and likelihood of winning the business.

Sales pipeline tracking – graphical representation of the sales pipeline, offering drill-down from the bar or segment of the chart to the data that underlies it.

Definition of sales teams and territories – helps to manage information sharing and tracking sales performance by territory.

Marketing automation – tools that automate the execution of marketing campaigns, such as bulk email.

Lead source analysis of sales and opportunities – analytic tools providing insight on the return from differing marketing efforts.

Activity management – ability to hold and schedule all the appointments, meetings, scheduled calls and planned tasks.

Quoting – allows a sales person to generate quotes pertaining to products or services offered by your business.

Flexible reporting – analyzing CRM data from differing perspectives is critical to track the effectiveness of business practices and sales and marketing efforts, identifying issues and other trends within the business.

Service case tracking – service or support capabilities such as tracking product defects, managing support contract renewals and tracking service inquiries from customers.

Activity management – this can be used for arranging meetings, scheduling calls for customer follow-up, or setting reminders to perform other tasks.

Employee directory – simplifies communication among fellow employees.

Interface consolidation – helps eliminate data silos within your business. Consolidating information and data from disparate systems or sources makes it easier for everyone in the organization to know what is happening with any given customer and, in turn, provide a better customer experience.

Document management and revision control – helps in managing and retaining reference copies of important documents, such as company policies.

A well-conceived CRM must also have a truly outstanding user interface, as the whole purpose of the system is to make the organization’s information accessible quickly, easily and naturally. If users do not utilize the system because it is too complex to access or use, it will be difficult to realize its potential benefit.

SugarCRM stats screen

Do you need a CRM?

A CRM may not relate well to all types of organizations. Some of the questions to consider are:

  • Is the sale made to an other business (B2B) or an end-consumer? This impacts the structure and relationship between accounts and contacts.
  • Are products or services sold? Services typically involve an ongoing relationship over a period of time with an income stream.
  • What is the average value of a sales transaction, the length and complexity of a sales cycle and the likelihood of repeat business? Marketing campaigns have more value when tied to customer loyalty mechanisms, and leads and opportunities have more significance.
  • Size and location of the business. Where are sales made? From an office,  at the client’s premises, or over the Internet? Is the staff in the office or in the field selling? How complex is the organization, and how is sales information shared or protected from other team members?
  • Internationalization. Do non-English users and data need to be handled? Are differences in date and local currency entry and presentation and timezone important?
  • What is the cost and availability of  technical and project management expertise needed for the CRM installation, customization and implementation, training and ongoing support?

Should I feel comfortable with an open source application in my organization?

SugarCRM is unique as an open source application, meaning that the source code of the application is available to any user, developer, or customer of the product — including all source code to enable developers to customize and build on the product with ease.  The current version as of August 2011 is 6.1 and is available in 5 versions from the freely available Community Edition to the Ultimate Edition. The Community Edition does have a strong developer ecosystem with both a free add-on available at Sugar Forge and free online training and documentation at Sugar University.

Sugar requires an open-source LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) application stack, and can run on Windows (using IIS and MS SQL Server or Oracle) and is also offered as Software as a Service (SaaS) on cloud platforms like Amazon EC2, IBM Cloud and Rackspace.

The platform and version focus of this blog post is running SugarCRM 6.x Community Edition on the IBM i alongside an organization’s other core applications. On the IBM i, Sugar uses the PHP language to build the browser interface running with IBM’s Apache Web server interacting with Zend’s open source Application Server and mySQL as the database server. Once these are installed, the Sugar Edition is installed over the top. IBM provides an IBM DB2 for i Storage Engine for MySQL, which allows seamless access to MySQL data from native IBM i-based languages like RPG, LANSA and Query/400.

Developer Features of the SugarCRM Platform

Modular Design – each part of the application is its own module, and the modules can interact with each other through data relationships. You can build on this base by customizing the modules – adding new fields, additional relationships and business logic.

Metadata Driven Views – the designer can customize metadata driven views and generate the resulting HTML content. This makes it easier to build and customize forms.

User Authentication and Access Control – user authentication can be tied to existing LDAP or other types of authentication. Each user can then have multiple role permissions applied with fine-grained control over the application modules a user can access. The user rights can also be assigned to record-level access.

External Services Integration – via Sugar Connectors (to LinkedIn ) or Microsoft Office and Outlook applications or the SugarSOAP API via Web services to the published API.

Ease of Administration – a simple to use interface that includes the Studio to add and edit fields, change layouts and add new relationships. A DropDown Editor allows the setup of drop-down values for existing and new fields.

Import Wizard – data from old CRM systems can be imported, mapped and validated during the import to Sugar  process. There are preset templates for users moving off popular CRMs like Salesforce.com™, Act™ and others.

SugarCRM search contacts screen

Implementation Lessons Learned

Having recently completed a Sugar implementation for a large CRM in the health products industry to support a worldwide multilingual salesforce and support the cycle from marketing, opportunity definition through lead tracking through to the conversion to an account — the functionality offered by Sugar via a browser interface accessed by the mobile salesforce on an iPad was a major step up from the older Windows-based CRM. In addition to the typical implementation management and user adoption tasks, there were some key criteria the project success was measured on:

Performance – the Linux/PHP/mySQL architecture is not native to the IBM i and needs to be monitored and optimized where possible. Sugar has released a set of recommendations on tuning and optimization.

Data Integrity – a CRM is a portal view into other systems that touch the customer relationship such as ERP, workflow and document management systems. Use Sugar’s modular architecture to ensure that data is validated on entry and key relationships are maintained between Sugar and the other critical systems so the user can seamlessly move between those applications.

Integrating Sugar with your core applications IBM’s DB2 Storage Engine for MySQL will allow native access to the Sugar database from your RPG or LANSA applications and allow the customer facing staff to use Sugar as a portal to seamlessly access everything required to give a 360° view of the customer relationship. On the IBM i, this can be achieved using:

  • Tools that support Web services, such as LANSA Integrator, which will use the Sugar API to control the Sugar actions based on external events, such as the process of converting a lead to a customer, or accessing other systems containing customer sensitive information.
  • Tools that provide programmatic control over 5250 screens such as aXes, which permits your AS/400-based screens that allow price lookup, customer order history and order creation to be available from Sugar.
  • Tools that standardize and report compliance with business processes, such as workflow and document generation, so customer case management and issue management and resolution are managed in a standard way — and dashboards in Sugar measure the improvements in customer satisfaction.
  • Making use of wireless and customer self-service interfaces, whether based on Sugar’s own offerings in the Professional and Enterprise Edition or custom developed using Visual LANSA for Web Development and native access to the Sugar database.

If you are looking for a inexpensive way to extend your application suite with a customizable low-cost CRM that has a large community of developers and consultants to support it — and runs on a diverse set of platforms including IBM i — you should evaluate how well Sugar can meet your needs.

Patrick Fleming

Author: Patrick Fleming

Patrick is the Modernization Practice Manager for LANSA in the Americas. Patrick has more than 20 years consulting experience with LANSA in both the Australian and Chicago office, and has worked on and managed projects across the LANSA product range, starting with LANSA Version 2.0. He has authored and conducted presentations and training at LANSA events. Patrick's recent success in our Modernization Practice area has helped LANSA customers and business partners get rapid business value out of using LANSA's modernization and integration tools and processes.

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