You would think that growing at 100 percent per year would be a good problem to have for Bid4Spots, an online auction house that caters to radio and TV advertisers. But in our case, the ability to continue to track and sustain this growth through technology presented a challenge for us when it came to choosing a systems integrator.

We were in search of a comprehensive customer relationship management solution that would provide a window into all aspects of our business. We knew the direction we wanted to take and the technical requirements to achieve our business goals. We knew we needed to engage a knowledgeable partner to carry out our plans. As it happened, our selection of an SI became an experience we learned from and one you might learn from too.

Bid4Spots holds weekly online auctions that enable advertisers to buy radio and cable TV advertising airtime on short notice from broadcasters with unsold inventory. To help stations make money on unsold minutes, we hold weekly reverse auctions in which the broadcasters bid against one another to offer ready advertisers the lowest rate.

Our U.S. and U.K. businesses were lacking an analytic solution to connect our activities to the success of our auction customers. This led to our search for a CRM system and an SI to put it in place. Ideally the SI would help identify, select and implement a system that would give us a 360-degree view of all our business operations, including our marketing and sales activity, our use of specific vendors and our auction strategies.

It's one thing to realize you need analytics and CRM to make your company and clients successful. As we found, it's quite another to find an SI that can transform business requirements into technology solutions.

Like any growing company, we relied on referrals from advisers and colleagues and conducted a capabilities evaluation of likely candidates. As a small startup, we initially selected a first-generation SI, figuring they'd fully understand where the company was and where we wanted to go.

The consultants we selected had previously worked in the business analytics and CRM space, but we soon discovered that their technology expertise fell short of our needs. We also noticed a revolving door of consulting employees who would leave the integrator just as we were gaining traction.

As a result, we turned to a second SI. This firm showed a solid grasp of our business and technology needs, but it was unable to deliver a strategy that would enable us to scale our business. In many ways, it felt like Bid4Spots was providing the to-do list and the SI was following orders. It didn't feel like we had a partner dedicated to our long-term success.

At this point, a lot of companies might have given up and returned to antiquated lead tracking and client campaign analysis. But we were determined to keep on our path of making technology a critical part of our business strategy and not fall back on our old limited spreadsheet metrics of profitability.

As it turned out, our patience was rewarded. A third SI helped us realize our business goals through our CRM system and remains a solid business partner today. Based on what we learned, I offer the following nine recommendations and criteria to consider if you find yourself on a similar path.

  1. Seek in-depth technical expertise. A long list of customers and awards doesn't always equal a qualified SI. The true measure of success will largely be in the execution. A potential customer should ask the SI the length of their client engagements and their client retention rate.
  2. Check references. While this may sound like an obvious item on the checklist, it can trip people up in their haste to get moving with their new system. Ideally, backdoor reference checks are the best way to evaluate the SI. Remember, the SI will always present their best clients as references.
  3. Align monetary goals with milestones. Use benchmarks so the SI's objectives are met beyond a good faith policy.
  4. Have a clear understanding of the SI's role and breadth of expertise. Systems integration is a broad term. Companies employ many different systems, so you need to be sure that your SI is familiar with more than just the system you're implementing. For us, this meant the SI needed in-depth knowledge of CRM and business analytics as well as the back-end of our Web site and accounting system, because that is how the company drives and analyzes traffic, leads and revenue.
  5. Find an SI that will act as a true business partner. We needed an unbiased third party to evaluate the tools and systems that were right for our business, not one that would advocate a system that would give the SI the biggest margin. In fact, we were close to purchasing a leading CRM software package. But after careful evaluation, our SI partner pointed us to an alternative that turned out to be a better choice.
  6. Pursue customization. Nearly any SI can install a system and train the staff to use it. We needed a solution that could be molded to fit our business needs. Trying to force-fit existing processes into the prescribed boxes and forms designated by the system is counterproductive. We were determined to work with an SI that would customize the system for our unique needs.
  7. Establish training programs. Make sure you select an SI that will help your staff help themselves. Otherwise, you will run into expensive, multiyear contracts while your staff is frustrated and unable to use the system autonomously.
  8. Set reality checks. The basis of a good partnership with an SI is rooted in honesty. We had ideas that would have been very expensive to build and implement. Based on our budget, the SI recommended a path that was scaled back from the original idea, yet equally successful. While an SI will likely accept a contract extension, you should be guided by the most cost-effective ways to realize your business goals.
  9. Realize the value of industry knowledge. An SI that is familiar with the systems that are right for your business should also be familiar with the operations of the vendor. The SI's knowledge of the CRM publisher's financing options and ability to help us navigate the terms was key to the successful implementation and our continued growth.

CRM has brought value and insight to all aspects of our business. Many people mistakenly believe that CRM is solely focused on the customer service, sales or marketing functions, but the reality is that when combined with business analytics, CRM is able to capture the heartbeat of the organization at any point in time. This helps a company to better understand its pipeline, the satisfaction of its clients and how its overall business processes are contributing to the bottom line. It enables adjustments and course corrections that have smoothed out rough business cycles. But none of this would have been possible had we not found the systems integrator we knew we needed to reach our goals.

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