How to Make Accounting and CRM Systems Play Nice

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It's a natural request: Integrate CRM with expense claim, accounts receivable and other accounting systems. It's also a bad idea, because accountants are from Mars and salespeople are from Venus.

Last week, I submitted an expense report to a client. The accounts payable representative made me revise the report four times to put things in the right buckets and correct a $1.04 error. (Really.) Of course, I can't charge anybody for his or her time, and the A/P department is really busy because it's "understaffed." (Uh-huh.)

Something hit me, though. The behaviors rewarded in accounting are almost opposite to those of sales and marketing. Accounting and CRM systems provide a stark study in contrasts.

Accounting systems typically contain high-quality data, and it's essential that all the rollups "foot." Users are detail-oriented and don't mind process, conformance checks or even audits. They take pride in precision. As with anything professional, there are judgment calls and room for interpretation – but once you set up the chart of accounts, the revenue recognition VSOE rules and a few other standards, there's only one right answer for the financials. Any time financials have to be restated, Wall Street punishes your stock price.

Meanwhile, CRM systems typically contain pretty sketchy data, once you get beyond the name and basic contact information. The sketchiness comes both from erroneous entries or simply blank fields. Most of the time, low-level users don't care and have few incentives to improve the quality. Add more data-quality checks to your CRM system and users will start whining about how they can't do their jobs any more. All too often, they get away with it – they (and their chain of command) aren't process and precision people; they're persuasion and politics people.

[ Related: Why CRM Implementation Is So Political ]

In this oil-and-water situation, trying to seamlessly integrate a CRM system with accounting applications will irritate each set of users by putting the proclivities of the other team right in their face.

  • The accounting types will be very frustrated by the semantic sloppiness and incomplete, unreliable data from the sales and marketing teams. This only gets multiplied with more channels, more territory overlays and more business units.
  • The sales and marketing folks will hate the clunkiness and intricacy of the accounting features. All those extra mouse-clicks drive them nuts, resulting in requests for very expensive custom applications in the name of ease of use.
  • The more tightly integrated the systems, the greater the likelihood of process conflicts and confusing, conflicting end user reports.

The most painful examples of integrating accounting-esque applications into CRM systems include configure-price-quote (CPQ), order management, commissions and incentives, referral fees, expense claims and credit card disputes.

Provide Data, But Make Sure Sales Knows Who It Belongs To

The business need for these is obvious. Rather than seamlessly integrating the systems, though, I recommend mash-ups and purpose-built mini-apps. You actually don't want the crossover app to look like the CRM system or follow its user metaphor. You want it to be perceived as the other department's app. Pop-up Rails windows or small Java apps are OK.

[ Be Careful: How CRM Data Updates Lead to Data Corruption ]

Of course, you need solid foreign keys and cross-references that support integration and reporting, but that's infrastructure. From a user-experience point of view, there's a virtue to us vs. them.

The meta-lesson here: CRM is a representation of user culture. To serve its business purpose, it must have high adoption by sales and marketing users. Mixing in the process discipline of accounting into the culture of sales, where "it only has to be good enough to make the sale," will undermine – at least in the short run – the effectiveness of your CRM system.

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