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Data integration: Where do I start ?

Data integration project: I am not a Techie, where do I start ?

Whatever the size or industry, most organizations work with several tools, be it CRM, ERP, mass mailing tool, email client and so on. Striving for efficiency requires that these system are interconnected and give a 360 view on the organization’s data.

Let’s take an example: you are managing a Sales Team who uses a CRM on a daily basis and they need visibility on Invoicing Data – stored in an ERP – in order to stay up-to-date with client’s status and be relevant when talking to them. Unfortunately, you cannot give ERP access to the Sales Team for several reasons:
  • Giving licenses to the Sales Team would be costly
  • Using an additional system will be an administrative burden for them
  • Onboarding new users on the ERP would imply security & access challenges
You cannot ask the Finance Department to enter invoicing data in the CRM either, as this double entry would be a pain, and manually copying would certainly incur errors. As a non tech savvy, the ideal solution could be to send information from the ERP to the CRM, and synchronize the data in an automated way. Theoretically speaking, this sounds easy, but as a Sales Manager your technical skills are limited. Don’t worry!


Your Integration Journey

What should you start with and what questions should you ask yourself in order to initiate the project based on properly defined requirements?


Why?

The first thing to do is to make sure the business need is real. Are you sure that linking invoicing data to CRM data would bring added value to the business? Or is it just a “nice to have” that would incur irrelevant costs?


Where?

Although it can look simple, it is critical to identify the systems that will talk to each other. On the one hand, this will help you design the information flows and confirm which system is the “master” and which system is pulling / receiving data.

Where should the data be taken from and where should it go? On the other hand, a list tools and systems will help prepare you for further technical discussions when you need to assess feasibility.

Some basic questions can include: As a user, can I easily export data from the ERP in a csv format? Does the ERP have APIs, which are “doors” that easily allow systems to exchange information?


What?

Once you know what tools need to be interconnected, you need to understand what kind of information needs to be taken from the ERP and sent to the CRM. If you simply ask the question to your Sales Team, they may answer “as much as possible” or “everything”, which may lead to complex situations.

The purpose of this step is to identify key information that needs to be transferred and to prioritize the data.Then, the data format is very important, as it has to be consistent and matched across systems.

It also needs to have a unique identifier (ID) that will help both systems match & “speak the same language”. In case you need to synchronize invoicing information, you may want to refer to a Client Number which would be present and identical in these two systems.

It is also critical to have visibility on the volume of data that needs to be taken care of. 100 records per month will be different from 1 million per month, and this will impact the technical solution to be implemented, since the certain tools or technical approaches may have limitations (i.e. number of records processed per day, in real time, etc.).


When?

Real-time is not the answer to everything. Although it looks ideal, a real-time approach could be very complex and costly. If we talk about invoicing, is it enough to have updated figures on a weekly basis? Monthly? Or should it be real-time?

This will of course have an impact on the option implemented, but it will also help avoid an overkill in the selected solution, that do much more than what is needed and that would overload your systems.

Every business is different so there is no real best practice to follow when it comes to frequency. Once you go further in the discussions you will notice that the “when” is also linked to another aspect: if a data sync fails, what should happen? How would you manage errors? When would you like the system to retry (if at all)? How many unsuccessful attempts should stop the sync process?


Who?

Getting data from one system to another is great, but who should have access to this newly synchronized data? Should it be visible to everyone? Is there any restriction that should prevent some users from accessing invoices? Can users modify or delete synced data? Data visibility and alterations are very sensitive topics that should not be ignored. This is linked to the very first question: Why are we doing this integration project? Who will benefit from it?


How?

Well done ! if these aspects are clear to you. You are ready to write specifications and pass them on to developers that can implement the best solution for your organization.

Generally speaking, there are 3 main types of integration approaches that can be considered.


Flat files

Pros Cons
  • No business logic to implement
  • Can handle big volumes
  • Usually cost-effective
  • Limited flexibility
  • Relies on tool’s capabilities
  • No real-time sync possible

Webservices

*note that you may also discuss if the data should be triggered by the sending system (push) or by the receiving system (pull).

Pros Cons
  • Maximum flexibility
  • Can support complex business logics
  • Data can be formatted / processed
  • Direct interactions between systems, no intermediary
  • Supports real-time sync
  • Requires development
  • Requires technical skills
  • Takes time, not an on/off solution
  • Error handling can be complex

ETL Tool or Connector

Pros Cons
  • Does not require technical skills
  • Does not require custom development
  • Straightforward to implement & test
  • OpenSource solutions available
  • Robust with maximum flexibility.
  • Flexibility may be dependant on the tool.
  • Third-party app (limitations, contract, etc.)
  • Licensing costs (if applicable)
  • Hosting of tool (where is it installed?)
  • Selected tool may have an extended learning curve.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, do not forget that data integrations always start from a business needs and technical discussions come at a later stage. Once you know what you want / need to do and why, things start to become easier. There is no need to be an engineer or developer to initiate the discussions and design project specifications. Techies will be there to help you select and implement the right solution, and might also challenge some of your ideas.

CRMs like Salesforce.com can support the 3 types of integrations we mentioned above, and the requirements phase is always key in the process. This is why at Nexell we also help customers identify and refine their needs in terms of integrations, and implement the most suitable, scalable solution that will meet their needs and expectations as well as budgets.

Contact us to find us more about your integration journey!
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Nexell GmbH mit Sitz in der Schweiz ist Ihr offizieller, zertifizierter Partner für Salesforce.com und Salesforce.org, Pardot und Fonteva.

Seit der Gründung im Jahr 2002 unterstützen wir unsere Kunden und non-profit Organizationen im Bereich CRM (Customer Relationship Management). Unser Dienstleistungsangebot und unsere Technologien greifen auf langjährige Erfahrung mit kleine wie grossen Firmen, lokal wie international, zurück. Diese Erfahrung führte zu einer Reihe von Best Practices, welche wir heute auf jedes Projekt anwenden, ob gross oder klein, national oder international.

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