Looking at SMB Integration With Enterprise Eyes

Assemble Connect may be a small company — but because it is a distributor of custom-manufactured products, its operations are complex enough to rival the largest of manufacturers.

That means just about every aspect of its business must be customized — down to the software that manages the operations, says company president Eric Wendt. Finding such software, though, has not been easy. Standardized, off-the-shelf accounting packages, for example, do not work well for his company because hardly any of the fields correspond to its business categories.

In short, Wendt has been dealing with a dilemma that is becoming increasingly common among small businesses: how to implement and integrate enterprise-like software on an SMB budget.

Wendt opted to go with NetSuite, which offers suite functionality and can be easily customized. The firm has been able to double productivity since its adoption of NetSuite software, he claimed. “I am glad we found it; we were looking at having to spend some serious money with the other options we had been investigating.”

Similar Needs, Vastly Different Budgets

To be sure, there are thousands of execs that have taken the same route as Wendt: Companies such as NetSuite, SAP Business One and Sage have all excelled in offering SMBs flexible and integrated suite applications.

SAP Business One, to cite one example, recently announced it was going to enhance its SMB offering with new e-commerce and CRM functionalities that it gained from its acquisition of Praxis Software, a privately held SAP Business One partner whose software allows users to set up online stores.

It is not a seamless offering yet, but SAP will roll out a completely integrated product sooner rather than later, Sanjeev Aggarwal, an analyst with the Yankee Group, predicted.

Yet not all SMBs have found these choices to be sufficient; depending on their competitive circumstances, they might well need higher-end functionality. This has been a problem for SMBs for many years, Aggarwal says, but few vendors have sufficiently addressed it.

“To compete effectively, they have to have similar back-end business processes and functions as a larger company,” he tells CRM Buyer. “The problem up until now has been the availability of affordable software and related options.”

Not Perfect

While vendors continue to introduce new functionality, SMBs can still find it difficult to afford the features they need. Wendt, for instance, says that he looked at Salesforce.com’s AppExchange as a possibility for Assemble Connect several months ago. “At the time, it was all third party and was supposed to be integrated to Salesforce.com, which we were using for our CRM application,” he noted.

Integrating the applications, he said, looked to be as difficult as tackling a typical legacy integration project.

Assemble Connect, though, stands apart from many other SMBs that are not opposed to such integration projects — whether they involve AppExchange or legacy software.

“I do see some mid-market companies decide that complex integration projects are the best suited for their circumstances,” Aggarwal says. “It depends on many factors, of course: their core competencies, their market needs, how easy it is to automate their business processes, where they are in the overall automation cycle.”

Selecting a Systems Integrator

Addressing these problems will take some time, clearly — but progress is slowly being made as new providers enter the market and as the software-as-a-service model continues to develop higher-end functionality. At the same time, smaller firms are finding that if they conduct their search properly, they can in fact find a systems integrator (SI) to work with a company their size.

Selecting a systems integrator for such projects is important — although not necessarily a given for many SMBs. Some will opt to implement and integrate complex enterprise systems in-house based on the theory that they can save money and that no SI would bother with their budget anyway.

Neither assumption is necessarily true, says Robert C. Hamer, chairman and CEO of Primitive Logic, a systems integrator. SMBs should go through the same vetting process as larger companies do to find the best fit, he told CRM Buyer. “For them, it is even more important than larger companies to get ‘quick wins’ in their implementations, because they cannot afford to spend a great deal of money on these projects.”

Among the advice he offers SMBs — and other firms as well — that are seeking a systems integrator:

  • Look for a smaller team that is more flexible and can add incremental value to the project in chunks of 30 or 45 or 60 days.
  • Look for a company that has a low level of staff attrition. Continuity of tech talent is very important throughout the project.
  • A good SI is always technically unbiased. “You don’t want to hire an integrator that has a tech solution in mind before it understands what the requirements are,” he says.
  • Test drive your top choice with smaller projects. “Typically there are several small tasks at the front end of any new project. Give those ‘small engagements’ to the SI and see how it performs. That will give you a chance to evaluate its abilities and to get those tasks completed.”

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