Data integration projects are just like in any software implementation projects: so much easier if you get it right the first time. But when you have never tried it before it is difficult to know how to achieve your goals. You might not even know how to get ready nor what questions you need to ask to get there. In this article, I'd like to share some learnings and best practices from many of the cases my team and I have been involved in. I'm confident that it will shortcut your considerations regarding integrating Salesforce with your ERP.
Know why you are integrating your systems
When companies want to integrate their Salesforce with an ERP, they always have a good reason to do it, a crucial need to solve a time-consuming and/or expensive pain and a hope to make their organization more effective. Typically, they want to:
Achieve a full, 360-degree customer overview.
Streamline processed and increase efficiency.
Remove all manual re-keying of data.
Boost user adoption.
Do they achieve their goal? Yes, and often even more than what they had foreseen. Ask yourself why you want to integrate Salesforce with your ERP. Make the list comprehensive and make sure to prioritize your goals. This will make it easier for you to measure the effect and ROI of the integration.
Anchor your integration project in a long-term strategy
Many ERP or CRM vendors have developed a one-off integration between systems for their customers. Some companies have done it for themselves. Although this might seem as a good idea in the beginning as they have a good understanding of the company’s processes and data models, this can prove to be a mistake in the long run. Why? Because in reality, these integration solutions are rarely developed with a full long-term future consideration. What will happen when the integrated systems get upgraded? What if you wish to extend the use of your integration tool and integrate with other systems? When you choose your data integration solution, always make sure that it is future proof and can keep being used when the integration constellation changes. Custom-made interfaces generally require development, which makes upgrades and maintenance less flexible and more expensive.
Get management and board involve
Political resistance and a lack of executive involvement are some of the most common reasons for data integration project failures. Data management can be a touchy issue and some pisions of your company might believe that they own the data in their part of the system. As a result, they might be unwilling to allow another system to access (let alone change!) what they consider to be their critical information. This is where a broad executive support comes handy. Although IT has a leading part in your data integration project, it would be a huge mistake not to involve more of your executives. Executive level buy-in drives cooperation with data owners, user adoption and is simply vital. Why? Because your data integration project will not only affect IT, it will impact broadly in your organization. Remember that the implementation is about sharing data and automating processes. In my experience for example, the best CRM-ERP integration projects involve a CIO or IT director, but also include CEO-level support and involvement of Sales and Marketing top management.
Data quality is important for your organization because you/your employees need:
accurate and timely information to manage services and accountability
good information to manage service effectiveness
to prioritize and ensure the best use of resources
reliable reports that can support your decision-making processes
Data cleansing is often the first thing mentioned when we start talking about data quality, but frankly it often end up being a never-ending maintenance. It is fairly easy nowadays to find tools that keep your account and contact information clean. But what if the problem is not that records are outdated or incomplete? What if they are a real mess? You need to find out where the messy data comes from. It often comes from manually created records without doublet control first so a record duplicate is created. It can also be a merger of companies where for instance all customers are merged into one database with an intention to clean up later which never happened. Doublets are just adding to the complexity and there is more to the story. For example, you may have created manually customers in both you ERP and CRM system. In short, you need to kill the data quality problems at the source. Good quality source data is crucial at all time and to achieve that, it has to be anchored in your work processes, as a “data quality culture. Users must commit to a high data quality, or it will not happen. Measure, reward and celebrate high data quality.
With today’s technologies, setting up Salesforce-ERP data integration projects is a seamless experience, one that can be done without changing a single line of code in your programs. No need to fear that your company will lack bandwidth to implement the integration thoroughly. For example, in most cases, when we implement a Salesforce – Microsoft Dynamics integration for our clients, the entire work is usually done within 3-8 man days in total depending on the scope, so it’s much easier to implement than most people think. In fact, the trickiest part is probably to decide what you should integrate! In the past 25+ years, Rapidi has worked on Salesforce-ERP integrations, and, based on this experience, we have defined a list of most common transfers – we have actually even developed pre-configured templates that cover these specific transfers out-of-the-box. Typically, the most common transfers concern data related to:
One of the biggest challenges when you are transferring data from Salesforce to your ERP is to have full transparency on the data transfers. This is absolutely essential, especially if something goes wrong. If you have tried to build up your own custom interface between systems, you probably know that one of the most common mistakes is to forget to consider what happens when an error occurs. And when an error happens (because it always does), you might find that you have planned for the system to import data and not to handle a data or connection error. Then what? Your systems might be setup to provide you with some additional information in regards to what went wrong, but it is still up to you to figure out how to solve the problem, and more importantly, it is up to you to figure out how to bring back both systems in sync. Now, it might not be a major problem if you are only syncing a few fields from one table, but if you are transferring all information related to a customer or an order… then the task is somewhat bigger and trickier unless your system does it for you! This is why you need to choose a system that has an easy and efficient way to deal with data transfer errors. There are different ways to facilitate the handling of data integration errors. For example, the RapidiOnline solution provides an automated error escalation and handling system which in its basic form shoots out an email to the integration administrator(s) when an error has occurred. It contains the exact error message from the system that has created this error and a direct link to the data transfer that contains the error.
Apply a structured approach to your data integration project
Some years back, it was quite common to handle data integration by building direct batch interfaces where data was extracted to a file that was sent to the target system and imported also via a batch job. It required a lot more work upfront, both in terms of programming and in testing. Some of the pitfalls of that method were that 1) you had to figure out how to deal with incorrect data and 2) you had to be able to keep the systems in sync afterwards. If the systems remain untouched, then this could run for years. Now, when it comes to more agile systems like and Salesforce systems, it is more cost-efficient and a lot more robust to use a data integration platform where most of the work is reduced to simple a configuration and mapping of data.
So, how do you set up your data integration project in a structured manner? It is quite simple:
STEP 1: Define business processes and data integration scope
STEP 2: Connect the systems via the data integration platform
How to choose the best Salesforce-ERP integration solution? Not an easy one, especially because in reality, this is often an even broader question, because many companies have more than just one integration, so even though there is an import/export framework in the ERP system, how does this play together with all the other integrations? Choosing the best integration solution to connect your ERP and Salesforce systems is not just the icing on the cake. The integration is the missing link that can take the use of the two systems to a new, higher level and guarantee the return on your investment. I like to say that a good data integration solution have the following characteristics:
Proven solution, successfully implemented numerous times, preferably at companies having similar needs to yours or within your industry.
Stable and reliable solution that synchronizes data fast and seamlessly.
Solution that can be implemented fast and easily, for example by providing pre-configured transfers out-of-the-box.
Solution made by a vendor that has a deep understanding of both Salesforce and your ERP, because this is the only way you can be sure they will understand the details of your databases and the issues that could occur.
Solution made by a vendor that has a good business understanding and whose domain knowledge will deliver a solution matching your needs.
If you have tried integrating Salesforce with an ERP system, you can probably recognize some of the challenges I mentioned above. Maybe you have others? Do feel free to leave me a comment and share your experiences and best practices. Or contact me if you want to learn more.
About the author
With over 25 years’ experience in strategically propelling businesses forward, Henning is considered a business development entrepreneur with a passion for transforming businesses, sales and marketing operations through out-of-the-box thinking, concepts building and process automation to improve overall performance and scalability.