REVIEWERS: Sherri Thiel, deputy general secretary and Chris Smith, IT director of United Methodist Communications.

BACKGROUND: United Methodist Communications (UMCom) is an agency of the United Methodist Church charged with communications to the denomination's more than 10 million members worldwide as well as to the general public. The agency supports the mission of the church through extensive media campaigns, television and radio programming, Internet sites and e-commerce, video program creation and distribution, a news service, telephone information lines, and the production and distribution of program journals with a total circulation figure exceeding 270,000 subscribers.

PLATFORMS: Windows 2000 servers using MS SQL Server for the back end. Most of the client-level hardware is Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

PROBLEM SOLVED: UMCom had 13 separate databases within its organization; and frequently a customer was listed in every database. If that customer made a change during one of his/her buying transactions, the change was reflected in only one of the databases. UMCom did not have a means by which the change could be made across the databases. As customers became frustrated, it became a customer support concern in addition to a data management issue. While UMCom's initial motivation was to identify a CRM system that could offer a single, comprehensive database, they rapidly noted that StayinFront's Visual Elk CRM capabilities could solve issues elsewhere in the Church's operations. What started as a system intended to serve 1 million customers is now being expanded to serve the entire membership needs of the Church – more than 10 million members worldwide.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: The ability to customize our database was critical. The Visual Elk system could be customized on a Church, district and local level. Also, data could be retrieved in a variety of ways (e.g., by ZIP code or phone number). Over time, UMCom has come to rely on StayinFront's Visual Elk as a knowledgebase. With the support of Visual Elk, UMCom can field calls from people asking about the Church's beliefs or where a certain pastor was located 20 years ago. StayinFront's Panorama data analysis software gives UMCom the additional advantage of being able to truly "market" to customers – that is, share the work of the church. With Panorama, UMCom does not need to rely on its IT department for reports or the ability to view data. Panorama has helped UMCom gain a better knowledge of its customers and their purchasing trends.

STRENGTHS: With the Church's global membership of 8.4 million in the U.S. and more than 1 million outside the U.S., language requirements and the ability to handle multiple Web stores has been a proven strength of the StayinFront system. The Visual Elk system is already set up to handle multinational addresses; and its flexibility has made integration to other products, such as Microsoft's e-commerce server, very easy. Development is defined once and then can be used on the Web or in Windows.

WEAKNESSES: Our only challenge has been rounding up our Web stores and getting those teams involved with the Visual Elk method of customization. Developers need to understand how the application programming interface (API) works before they can access the system. StayinFront is the first company that I'm just as happy with today as I was when we started.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We did a lot of research before we selected StayinFront. StayinFront was substantially more flexible than other software packages. When you have a Korean, Spanish and English magazine plus the need to have contact management with resourcing and inventory management for the news database, finding one vendor to do it all is tough. StayinFront was the only vendor that had the underlying foundation that was flexible enough to handle contact management, e-commerce and subscription management.

DELIVERABLES: So far, we've done an entire enrollment cycle for our English magazine using Visual Elk, and we're happy with the results of that process. Our data management problems have been reduced, and we've been able to consolidate our databases.

VENDOR SUPPORT: StayinFront's international presence has always been helpful. Their developers in New Zealand can work on issues during the U.S. night and have things waiting for us the next morning. Plus, we're on a Great Plains financial package, and StayinFront has helped support the integration of Great Plains and Visual Elk to work together with our database. We can access all relevant information from one place to provide best possible customer support.

DOCUMENTATION: There doesn't need to be a significant amount of documentation – this is an intuitive software package and things are presented in a very well organized manner.

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