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The handoff between sales and accounting can be tedious, to say the least. In decades past there was no affordable, safe way around using disjointed business systems. Executives had to rely on communication between sales and accounting as well as other departments such as field service.
Time and time again, we have all heard this before:
I want my sales team to see billing data for each of their accounts in real time.
Today the options for integrated business systems are vast and overwhelming. Do you go with the all in one business management platform that is far from best in breed, but contains all business data under one roof? We vote no.
There is no reason that your team can’t use best in breed business applications that talk to each other. Your sales team needs the most mobile-friendly tool to sell effectively on the go. Your accounting department needs its standards-compliant accounting platform with all of its bells and whistles. Your field service team needs something that connects with the latest and greatest GPS technology.
So now that we've decided that we want to go with the best in breed approach, we need to decide whether or not to invest in integrating the systems (via API or data warehousing) or if we can get by using an off the shelf business intelligence tool.
Integrating can save your team a lot of time and money, but it’s expensive. There are basic ‘mashup’ programs out there like Zapier that have a wide variety of connectors for today's cloud (and premise, in some cases) business applications. These mashups work, but they are far from robust. If you need to sync multiple levels of data (i.e. relationships), look elsewhere.
You can also use an ETL or data warehousing approach. Many ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) tools also have connectors for today’s business applications (both cloud and premise) which can greatly speed up your development timeline.
(Example: Create a sales order or contract from a quote)
If so, you should probably consider an integration. Dual data entry is not an efficient solution. If not (example: sales reps needing to view each of their accounts' credit status), you might want to consider a BI tool. There is simply no reason to copy sales orders or invoice records over to your CRM. You can easily bridge the data in a BI tool with the peace of mind that it will all look beautiful on a report or dashboard. BI tools are exceptional when it comes to data visualization.
Many BI tools are very strong in the mobile arena, so if you are frustrated with your accounting system’s lack of mobile capability a BI tool may be a logical extension for this data.
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Many of today's BI and integration platforms alike offer close-to-real-time data synchronization. When striving for the ever-elusive real-time data integration, you should consider the impact on your business. Real-time integration is not cheap from a computing resources perspective. Make sure your servers or cloud vendor can support it.
Many BI tools support premised-based data sets. The advantage of using a BI tool for synchronization – especially applicable for cloud-based BI tools – is that you don’t have to procure the extra server space to host the tool. You can install a connector on a local server (which does consume computing resources, but typically less of them than hosting a full blown integration on site) and point your BI tool to your cloud application and you're off and running.
This one is typically difficult whichever way you go. For an integration, you would likely want a validation before a sales order being created in accounting. Perhaps it needs to go through a departmental head first for signoff. Most of this you can get around with by filtering your data. For example, say you only want accepted quotes with manager approval to be sent over to accounting. A query is your best friend here.
Another challenge both in data integration and business intelligence is developing cross-system keys. Do you want to store your customer numbers in your CRM system? Do you want to trust your sales reps not to create duplicate accounts, and spell their names correctly? When selecting a cross-system sync key, ensure that it is foolproof or you’re in for a world of trouble.
At the end of the day, there are pros and cons to both scenarios, and sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. Seldom it even makes sense to use BOTH approaches. Say that you integrate two premise-based systems, but you hate their reporting engine which isn't mobile compatible. If both approaches make your team more effective, I'd say go for it.
The goal of an integration is to reduce the data entry burden and provide safeguards and validation for synchronization. The goal of a BI platform is to consolidate business data and display it intuitively. With a hybrid approach, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Integrating and using BI are monumental decisions. We've been there before, and we'd be happy to help you optimize your business.