CUNA Mutual's CRM Platform Wins National Recognition

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CUNA Mutual's gutsy CRM venture has entered the glory phase, bringing on national recognition, saving big bucks and revolutionizing the way the company builds and deploys software.

MemberFile is a "Bold Choice," a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform that is the result of "significant risk for the sake of great reward," according to the online journal CIO, which added CUNA Mutual to its "CIO 100" list for 2005, an annual award that recognizes the top 100 companies for excellence.

CUNA Mutual's MEMBERS Financial Services (MFS) division exercised "courage and imagination" in writing off its upmarket, one-year old CRM system in favor of building a platform from scratch, according to Sean Fallon, vice president of Solutions Group Technology at CUNA Mutual Group.

The former Siebel CRM solution was unplugged in March 2004 to make way for MemberFile, which took four CUNA Mutual programmers less than eight months and $1-million to build, Fallon said.

"The Siebel technology was getting in the way of establishing our position in the marketplace," Fallon continued. "We wanted to lead with people, but we were investing as though we were leading with technology."

The Siebel system was leading MFS by commandeering 75% of the division's budget, he added.

And Siebel's product was "overengineered" with features that MFS didn't need, yet lacked some desirable custom features, continued Fallon.

"We realized we could build our own, add necessary functionality, and stop when we were ready," he said. "What we did was to add significant capability but reduce the budget by 50% over a two-year period," he said.

"MemberFile is no longer just CRM, it now also allows electronic signatures and a financial planning tool," said Fallon. "We've quadrupled the functionality and taken down the cost significantly."

MemberFile saves big on seat licensing fees, which were heavy with Siebel, he said. "We don't have to be exclusive about who uses MemberFile because we distribute it through the Web in a low-cost manner. The interface looks just like Windows, using Microsoft .NET Framework smart client architecture."

Nearly 500 MFS representatives will use MemberFile, and the software is slowly being rolled out to about 130 Registered Member Services reps, who sell only mutual funds.

The glow at MFS will continue beyond the MemberFile project, said Rick Roy, CTO at CUNA Mutual. He related several ways that the effort has changed CUNA Mutual's thinking about software development at large:

* Save Some for Later: "If you can deliver incremental business value propositions on short time horizons, then you can build momentum with your user community," Roy said, referring to CUNA Mutual's decision to complete the first round of development as soon as top priorities were met. "The larger and longer the project, the more you test other people's patience on the business value."

* Keep it Coming: In-house development should remain "nimble," delivering functionality in months instead of the years it can take a third-party vendor, said Roy.

* Smart, not Rich: "A huge win for us on this project was learning to use smart client architecture to distribute the software through the Web" instead of having a rich-client installment on each user's desktop," said Fallon.

Too Much Information: CUNA Mutual spread out MemberFile releases every four months over one year. "That pattern worked well for us," Fallon explained. "Users could get their work done without a whole lot of training. Credit unions should learn that there's a tolerance for how much value you add to a product in one year."

Last year, CUNA Mutual was named to the "CIO 100" for marrying "IT agility with enterprise agility."

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