CRM triple play


Reliance Home Comfort delivers mechanical systems and services to ensure home comfort. Based in Oshawa, Ontario, the company employs a large mobile sales (100 person) and service (350) workforce that installs and supports a range of furnace, air conditioner and water heater equipment brands across Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario, as well as 400 call centre staff, half of which are home agents. Over the past couple of years, Reliance has launched a number of programs to provide these groups with the electronic tools and information needed to improve productivity and to make their work more customer-friendly.

Key issues driving technology adoption

Celso Mello, CIO, Reliance Home Comfort
Celso Mello, CIO, Reliance Home Comfort

Over time, Reliance had deployed several technology solutions to bolster sales and service processes. For its services business, for example, the company had deployed a Banner billing system, Dynamics SL for financial and inventory management, as well as Oracle’s Mobile Workforce Management solution for route optimization and dispatch of field resources. According to Celso Mello, CIO, Reliance Home Comfort, the very fact of three different systems to support a single business process – i.e. customer request for service through the call centre and dispatch of the appropriate technician – created issues: “to create a simple service order, a call centre agent would have to go through six different screens and 20 mouse clicks, and this is done about 350,000 times a year. So every second we could save out of that process would represent significant savings for us from a productivity perspective.” In addition, Mello noted, if this time could be retrieved from the systems operations and delivered back to the agent, it would enable a better conversation with the customer, and provide opportunity for upsell and additional revenue generation – an important goal for all services oriented businesses.

On the sales side, the challenge was different. As Mello described it, the sales process was a “very manual, very brochure oriented” two hour on site process with “heavy use of pens, paper and calculators” to estimate customer needs and ultimately sign a contract, which would then be forwarded to a branch administration person for validation, allocation or order of inventory, customer credit check, installation scheduling and data entry.

To cloud or not to cloud

To innovate solutions for the field force and the call centre, Reliance opted to install Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Microsoft was chosen (Reliance had already implemented Microsoft software products, including Dynamics SL and Dynamics Nav, which runs at a company subsidiary) because the company is “right sized for a company like Reliance,” Mello explained, and he offered three reasons: Microsoft provides products ranging from user technology to data centre infrastructure to applications that all integrate with each other, facilitating technology usage and removing complexity and cost from support activities; the company has a mature ecosystem of affordable developer and other specialist resources to draw on; and Microsoft offers seamless migration between cloud and on-premise solutions in terms of customer experience (as it is largely the same product), and from an investment perspective as licenses may be transferred back and forth with some minor fee additions. These three factors, he argued, produce a TCO result that is more important than licensing costs, and compelling for a medium sized business like Reliance.

Surface Pro 2
Surface Pro 2

This last criteria proved instrumental in decisioning around the sales force solution. Essentially, Reliance issued Microsoft Surface tablets running cloud-based, Dynamics CRM, opting for a cloud for a pilot deployment as this could be up and running very quickly, without a lot of investment in infrastructure or staff resources. With growth, however, the company moved to an on-premise solution that was more economical. Mello explained: “there’s a point [around 55 users in Reliance’s case] at which the cloud becomes not economical anymore as you are paying monthly subscription fees for a certain number of users. From a financial perspective, it makes more sense to bring things back in house where you pay one time license fees and you’re off that monthly payment.”

An on-premise solution was also better suited to implementation of Dynamics CRM for the services business, a project that was being driven by the need to integrate information from three onsite legacy systems. According to Mello, an onsite deployment was preferred due to interface and customization requirements – “you can use the vanilla product when you don’t have any customization and when you’re not integrating it with other systems that are on premise” he explained. But because these were key challenges for the services business, Reliance adopted CRM on premise from the outset.

The deployment process

IT support at Reliance is made up largely of business analysts, and the company outsources development work. Its primary development partner is Egyptian-headquartered ITWorx, a global software services provider with presence in Ottawa, which carried out development for Reliance’s CRM solution based on technical specifications provided by IT business analysts working in collaboration with the company’s subject matter experts. To customize the services solution, the CRM software was modified by ITWorx to produce the screen layout and format designed by Reliance. For cloud deployment of mobile CRM for the sales force, the company initially used the vanilla version of Dynamics, adding features later, such as reminders for the sales staff to attach documents during different stages in the sales process. So over time, the company customized this tool as well to better align with business processes. According to Mello, Microsoft CRM adapts well to customization: “the architecture of Microsoft’s CRM allows you to create your own customized solution files that sit on top of the base product – it’s a very customization-friendly architecture, which is another one of the reasons we chose it.”

While phase one of the CRM implementation involved tablet deployment, phase two entailed integration of Dynamics CRM with backend fulfillment systems – “probably the biggest challenge of the project,” Mello noted. Specialists from the CRM and Dynamics SL side, ITWorx and additional Microsoft resources were marshalled to carry out the integration, which required retake of a few pieces: “integration is always where things tend to break, and where you spend your grey matter,” he added.

With onsite testing complete, the software was deployed with simple spin up of additional VM resources in the Reliance data centre, though Mello explained that the company is constantly in the process of adding server infrastructure to support growth, and likely added soon after CRM deployment. ITWorx has responsibility for software upgrade, support and maintenance on an ongoing basis – the ITWorx group acts as an extension of the Reliance IT team, though Mello maintains a CRM specialist, as well as SharePoint and Dynamics SL specialists on site, who are “system owners” and access ITWorx support as needed.

On the hardware front, during its initial cloud pilot, Reliance experimented with a number of tablet models, but quickly discovered that the cost of an outage was much greater than any benefits flexibility in choice of tablets would deliver. BYOD support for several systems would make the likelihood of outages much higher, the team concluded, and the business could not support the cost of outages, in the case of critical application like sales in particular. “Standardization was critical for us to get the stability we needed,” Mello explained. Reliance also needed a tablet that could support an offline version of its customized CRM as the sales force on occasion needs to travel to rural areas that lack connectivity. At time of deployment, this requirement restricted the company’s choice of tablet to the Surface, and specifically the Surface 2 Pro, which the sales force was happy to receive in order to shift from manual processes.

All told, work to support business processes and change the sales experience consumed approximately two and a half years, including six to eight months spent on development of the concept, a year needed to bring the first users online, and a further eight months for branch to branch roll out of the solution and change management across 20 locations. In Mello’s experience, gaining user buy in early on in design of the solution (in some cases incorporating their input) – especially users who can form opinions and influence their peers – is key to success of this type of project and can be very helpful during roll out. “Get a big stakeholder on your side, and articulate what is in it for the end user,” he advised.

Productivity, growth and customer satisfaction triple play

“This project is not only a play on productivity, it’s also a growth play,” Mello explained, as the goal was align technology with business processes carried out by the sales and technical field workers, the call centre agents and administrative staff.

With consolidation of information from different systems onto a single, first screen through implementation of Dynamics CRM, Reliance was able to save approximately 40 seconds on each customer service conversation in the call centre. Mello explained: “Those 40 seconds represent a fair amount of savings from a cost perspective, but we put that time back into the call to allow the call centre agent to better understand the customer expectations and needs so that we could provide solutions that are more applicable, and upsell when it’s appropriate.” Already, the company has seen an uptick in this type of direct, conversational “one and sewed” program, which Mello attributes to the CRM implementation.

Additionally, deployment of CRM has helped to integrate the work of the mobile sales force with back office processes. For example, customer request for a sales visit that is scheduled by the call centre now immediately appears on the calendar of the sales person’s mobile device. And using the tablet onsite, the sales person can access an error free, back office calculator application to instantly share with the customer what the best options for equipment purchase might be. To ensure privacy, information on a specific customer and transaction only is available via the mobile device for a very short period of time (the billing system remains behind the corporate firewall) – risk is minimized by sharing only what is necessary and wiping information like credit card numbers once the transaction is completed.


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