Jon Reed Interviews Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant

An Historical View of the SAP-CRM Consultant:
Jon Reed Looks Back on His Interview with SAP-CRM Consultant Chris Benson
 

An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part One

September 9, 2001

Ask any SAP hiring manager who's been around for a while, and they'll tell you a story about a naive young college graduate who was placed on their SAP project by a large consulting firm and presented (and billed) as an "SAP expert." As the story goes, these cocky young college grads were supposed to be the first ones on the chopping block when the SAP market tightened up.

Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales/CRM consultant, seems to fit the stereotype of the young college grad who lucked into SAP and got in over his head, and yet he is nothing like that. Chris's story is really about a consultant who has taken an active role in his own career path and has worked hard to put together the "total package" of skills that the best consultants have. True, he did have the good fortune of hooking up with Price Waterhouse when the SAP market was hot, but he also has the good sense to acknowledge his good fortune.

Chris' eventual move into SAP-CRM also involves some lucky circumstances, but he would not have broken in without his commitment to continued training and skills development. And there are many consultants who started in SAP much sooner than Chris who have yet to venture out on their own as an independent. Chris is also the first person I've ever interviewed about their SAP career who went out of his way to thank the team leads that played a role in his own technical education. Clearly, success in SAP consulting is a combination of ingredients that you don't just pick up by working for a Big Five firm, and Chris Benson's career is proof of that.

When we caught up with Chris, he had just rolled off his third SAP-CRM project. Chris' expertise is in configuring the Internet Sales module - a niche that suits him given his SD-Pricing background. We took the opportunity to ask Chris everything we thought readers would want to know about SAP-CRM. During the interview, Chris tells us about how he broke into CRM for the first time, and about the roles he has had on CRM projects. We ask him a number of questions about the SAP-CRM consulting market, and Chris shares his advice for SAP professionals who are trying to transition into SAP-CRM consulting. Chris also tells us about his experience as an independent consultant, and how his current experiences fit into his long term career plans.

SAP-CRM is still in its infancy, and Chris' perspective is just one look at a product that is going to impact many SAP careers. But his comments are a great starting point in our effort to get a better understanding of what SAP-CRM is all about and to learn how consultants are finding these kinds of opportunities.

In part one of the interview, Chris tells us about how he found out about SAP-CRM and how he was able to capitalize on his R/3 skills and break into SAP-CRM.

Jon Reed: Chris, tell us how you got onto your first SAP-CRM project.

Chris Benson: My first SAP-CRM project was at Osram Sylvania. The project itself was initiated back in February of 2000. Essentially, after having a powwow with some of the higher-ups over at SAP, Osram Sylvania decided they wanted to be on the leading edge of SAP technology and go with the SAP-CRM system. I think there have been some interviews with Osram's CIO, Mehrdad Laghaeian. about the project - he's been in some publications here and there to elaborate on what Osram decided to do. But essentially they decided to put in the SAP-CRM system and focus on the Internet Sales component.

Internet Sales is one of the four components out there. There's also Mobile Sales and Service, Marketing Planning and Campaign Management, and the CRM Contact Center. That's the latest information I could get out of SAP anyway. There's a lot of marketing hoopla to sort through when it comes to SAP-CRM, so by the time your readers see this interview the product information might have changed a little. :)

At any rate, Osram decided to do the Internet Sales portion and try to jump into the B2B marketplace arena - that was their main focus. They talked with some of their main B2B customers who expressed some interest in the project, so Osram said, "Let's go with this." Then SAP came in to form the project team, so in addition to the Osram employees on the project, there was a team of SAP folks, a team folks from TSC, and also some independent consultants.

I happened to be contracting on the Osram SAP project at the time. I was doing some enhancement and support work from their last go-live. So I lucked into getting involved with SAP-CRM, since I had done some relevant work on the Internet side of things at Compaq here in Houston. I was on the Compaq team that enabled online ordering. So as soon as Osram ran into manpower issues, I just told them, "You know, I've done some of this in the past, so if I can help out let me know," and they said "sure."

Reed: Let's just make sure we get the details right, since our readers will be very interested to see how you broke into SAP-CRM. You were already contracting on the Osram project when this whole thing happened?

Benson: Yes. Actually, unbeknownst to me, Osram had already chosen SAP-CRM. At the time, I was already on the SAP project - I had been there since April of 2000. I had been recruited to do some SD functional work along with a little bit of ABAP support. But sure enough, when I got down there, I found out that they were looking at the CRM module. Before I took the contract at Osram, I had interviewed for and turned down a full time position with a company called Intellicorp, which was doing a lot of IPC development work, so I knew that SAP-CRM would be a great area to get into. But it just so happened that the luck of the dice was there, and Osram went ahead and started doing CRM.

Reed: When Osram pulled the trigger on the CRM project, did they approach you and say, "Get involved in this," or did you really have to get in their faces about getting involved?

Benson: They were running into manpower issues, and I made an offer. I think they only had a handful of Osram Sylvania full-time employees on it, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 at the most, and they ran into some turnover issues with some of the employees leaving the project. One of the guys that I was pretty good friends with was assigned to the product catalog portion of the project, on the Internet Sales side of things, and he started running into trouble. So I asked him if there was anything I could do to help out. He said yes, and told me that he would get formal approval from management to get me assigned to the project. He did that, and it worked out well.

I ended up spending 50 or 60% of my time on that side of the fence helping him out. Eventually, as a team we pulled together all of the products that they wanted to pull up online, and did the configuration within CRM. We also had another couple of ABAP developers that worked with us to build some of these interfaces. That's how I got involved.

Reed: That's pretty impressive that you were able to pull off moving into SAP-CRM while you were working as a contractor. Many times, that's what contractors have the hardest time doing. They want to get into something new, but they have a particular niche they contract in. They find that it's hard to break out of their niche when the client is paying them specifically to do that one thing. But you pulled it off.

Benson: Yes, it worked out pretty well. I was definitely happy with the way things worked out. It happened to be a "right place, right time" kind of thing.  

Reed: At the time, were you intentionally trying to break into SAP-CRM, or were you just looking for something new and exciting to do on the project.

Benson: Well, I first learned about SAP-CRM more than a year earlier. When I was at Compaq, some of the other folks on the project were talking about it. One of the guys on the project actually worked for Intellicorp. We were pretty good friends, and one day he said "You know, if you get bored -" I told him, "I don't really know what I want to do next." And he said, "You should get into CRM." My first response was: "What are you talking about? What the heck is that about?" I thought Siebel ran the show in CRM.

Essentially, this guy said, "SAP is making a CRM offering that's going to be one of the top products out there, and you should come and work with us on that endeavor and help us out on the pricing side of things." It was a tough decision for me to tell him "No" and instead take the Osram project. But later, when I heard that Osram was planning on doing an SAP-CRM project, I said to myself, "Man, I've got to get in on this thing."

Reed: So when you initially took your position at Osram, did you have any idea that they would be moving into SAP-CRM?

Benson: To tell you the truth, I hadn't even heard anything about it. I had no clue that Osram was actually going to use SAP-CRM. I was talking to Intellicorp about SAP-CRM long before I even knew anything about what Osram was doing.

Reed: So you walked away from an SAP-CRM opportunity with Intellicorp, only to later get another chance at Osram?

Benson: Yes, that's pretty much what it comes down to.

Reed: Chris, you really lucked out on that one! You must realize that the odds of getting another shot at SAP-CRM weren't very good at that point in time. Did you turn Intellicorp down because they were pitching a permanent position to you and you wanted a contract?

Benson: Yes, they wanted me to go perm, and they wanted me to relocate out to San Jose. But my wife and I just got married, and we weren't looking to relocate. Overall, Intellicorp looked like a really good company. It just happened to be perm versus contract.

Reed: And the contract dollars beckoned. It's interesting, because a lot of people get faced with exactly that choice: "I could maybe go perm and get this new exposure, or I could go contract and do something that's a little less cutting edge." Which is sort of what you did. You opted for the contract, but then you pulled an end-around by actually getting CRM exposure while on contract at Osram. So you got the best of both worlds, and went against the grain of the advice we give people so often. We tell folks to chase the skills, not the money, but your story is making us look bad. :) You took a chance but it seemed to work out for you.

Benson: Yes, it worked out pretty well. I know that Osram would have liked to house the new knowledge in-house by staffing only with perm employees, but I think they were just under deadlines and pressure. They're a great company to work with, and they weren't overly hesitant to put a contractor in that role.

Reed: So once you completed that project at Osram - and we'll talk more about what was going on at Osram later - at that point, did you think to yourself, "I'm going to go out and get another SAP-CRM gig"? Were you now thinking of yourself as an SAP-CRM contractor?

Benson: Yes, that's what I tried to do. Osram was slowing down, and although the project was in the Boston area, my wife and I are from Houston, so we wanted to see what else was out there. And after cruising around some of the job boards and talking with some headhunters, folks like you at mySAPCareers, I figured, heck, rather than just going back to the R/3 mainstream and doing standard SD or ABAP, it'd be pretty cool to be able to stay in the CRM realm. I also knew that Osram, according to SAP, was just about the first company in North America to actually go live with SAP-CRM Internet Sales. So I knew that there wasn't exactly an abundance of SAP-CRM talent out there. The next project I found happened to be ExxonMobil down here in Houston.

Reed: In your hometown? Your hot streak continues -

Benson: Yeah, that worked out pretty well. Initially it was going to be a long term project, but then some corporate politics got into play there. There were a couple of consulting companies vying for the control of the project, and the consulting company I was with pretty much got shut out. So I did some design work at ExxonMobil, and did some analysis with some of the product catalog, and was out of there pretty quickly.

But as soon as that was over, I got another SAP-CRM project through Accenture at Millennium Chemicals outside of Baltimore. They were also doing CRM Internet Sales, and they must have been the first chemical company to actually embark on the adventure of installing that component. They ran into some gaps and some issues between what the product actually did and what they were looking for, so they needed some people to come on board and fill those gaps in functionality, using their CRM knowledge and custom ABAP development experience.

Reed: And so Millennium is where you are now?

Benson: I finished up the project last week.

Reed: So now it's time to find a new CRM project?

Benson: Exactly. I know CRM version 3.0 is coming out soon, and I've been talking with Brian Trout at mySAPCareers about the upcoming functionality and the kinds of project opportunities that might be out there. So I'm in the process of trying to line something up.
An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Two
September 23, 2001

In part two of our interview, we start out by asking Chris about the upcoming 3.0 CRM release. Then, we retrace his career steps and learn how Chris was able to leverage his SD-pricing background and break into SAP-CRM.

Jon Reed: Chris, you actually haven't worked in 3.0 yet, because it's only been available on a few sites. Is that right?

Chris Benson: I don't actually know that it's available on any sites. As of last week, from what I understood from the SAP folks that were working with us at Millennium, SAP was still in the process of doing some prototyping on 3.0 in Germany. So I don't know when it's going to get released. But I do know that Brian Trout went to a 3.0 demo.

Reed: Yeah, and he was under the impression that a general release date was coming up pretty soon.

Benson: A month or two ago, I heard that they weren't going to do any pre-releases. No "first customer ship" was planned, and that they were doing all their testing internally. But that's just hearsay from SAP, so I don't know exactly what's going on, and I haven't talked to anyone who truly does. But as far as I understand, after chatting with some of the top people in their CRM department, I don't think it's ready, and it's not released to any customers at this time that I'm aware of. But it might be in the mail right now, who knows?

Reed: Okay, we'll just expect to hear from SAP soon on 3.0. Let's talk a little bit more about your CRM project responsibilities. I guess we should backtrack a little bit first and note that you were one of those "young upstarts" who got involved with SAP right out of college, because you did an internship with Price Waterhouse while you were still in school, and then pretty soon after graduating in 1997 joined them full time. Is that right?

Benson: Yes, that's exactly what happened. I was an MIS major in school and then had an internship with Price Waterhouse. As soon as I went on the internship, the first three words they said were "S" "A" "P." That sounded pretty good to me, so I started doing ABAP development during that internship. As soon as I got out of school, I went on board full time, and attended some of the ABAP development training courses.

Reed: So you were one of those classic college grads who gets hired by a big consulting firm and gets thrown into the SAP arena.

Benson: Exactly. Before I went to that internship I didn't know what the heck SAP was. I knew Java and all this other junk, but SAP, what the heck was that? I found out soon enough. But yes, I was probably a classic example of the direct hire out of school getting pushed into the SAP market.

Reed: You started out on the ABAP side, and then over at Compaq you started doing some of the pricing interface on the ABAP side, and then you moved into the functional/configuration side of pricing as well - .

Benson: Pretty much. As you said, I started out at Compaq doing ABAP. Pretty much everything that I was doing in ABAP related to interface and conversion work within SD, namely pricing, customers, and sales orders - those type of things. As that project moved along, I got more and more knowledge about how SD actually worked, especially in pricing. When I finished that project, I expressed an interest in getting more training at Price Waterhouse - specifically I told them that I wanted to do SD functional. And they said, "OK, that's fine."

At the time, it was a tough decision between going in a functional direction or staying on the technical side, working on Java and Internet-type stuff related to SAP. But I said, "OK, I'll go ahead and teach myself the Internet skills on the back side, but since I can't really teach myself all the SD functional skills, I'll go into SD functional training." Anyway, I got certified and then went back to Compaq in a pseudo-hybrid role, focusing about 70% of my time on functional work, but still doing some of the coding, because I had done ABAP for a year and a half. The folks at Compaq said "Here's your ABAP developer's key, keep it, and you can stay and do your own ABAP coding when you need to."

Reed: So you were able to wear both hats. That's interesting, because in college you definitely leaning towards a technical career, given your MIS/programming focus. What made you want to go in a more functional direction? Was it because you wanted to time the market and you thought the functional rates were better? Or did you just have that you had a general interest in that area?

Benson: It was somewhat of an interest. After doing a lot of ABAP, I figured that I wanted to try to become a more well-rounded consultant. And as far as the ABAP work was concerned, I definitely enjoyed doing that; I had no issues with that whatsoever. Looking back on it now, I realize that I had only done a small portion of what's feasible in ABAP, but at the time, the opportunity to "go functional" was out there. Price Waterhouse basically said to me, "It's time to go to training, what do you want to do?" And the answer was obvious: "I'll do SD functional."

I actually had a couple of mentors at Price Waterhouse, and they both suggested that I try it out. When I discussed it with my mentors, they pointed out that I could stay in the ABAP realm; but then again, if I moved into the functional side of SAP, I'd understand what was happening on the back-end side of things a lot better. At the time, I was doing all this interface conversion work, but I had no clue as to how pricing conditions really affected the back-end. So I was somewhat intrigued when they started showing me some of those pricing screens. Eventually I said, "Hey, I'd like to learn the functional pricing work if possible."  

Reed: And you ended up spending a fair amount of time in the pricing area on future projects. And the best part is that the pricing skills were the key to your transition into the Internet pricing area.

Benson: Exactly. The pricing skills pulled me into many new areas. In my second role at Compaq, I actually worked on a team with two other guys, and the team lead, Ben Collier, pretty much taught me everything I know about pricing. We were actually a three-person Internet architecture team for SAP. The project was important to Compaq - they were trying to keep up with the likes of Dell and other companies with a strong e-commerce strategy. So it was up to our pricing team to interface with the back side of things, and one of Compaq's greatest needs was to be able to have online pricing portrayed accurately on the Internet. So we got asked to do that, and we made a pseudo product catalog, and at the same time we also worked on the RFC, the API to accept orders back into the system.

So that's how we got involved. It was pretty fun at the time. Plus, it sounded pretty good when I was shooting the breeze with my friends (laughs). Little did I know that I'd be working on that for the next six months. :) We did a rollout for the North American business unit, then we did a rollout for the Asia Pacific unit, and then we went and did some of the government businesses; and by the time we were done, we wound up pretty much doing their entire worldwide implementation of all the pricing catalogs. So that was a good challenge, and when I was at Osram I was able to use that experience and move into the CRM side of things.

Reed: So do you think that your pricing expertise is what got you the invite to get involved in Internet Sales?

Benson: Yes, I'd say that, and also maybe the knowledge I'd accrued on the ABAP side of things as well as the SD functional. But I'd say pricing was probably the key.


An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Three
October 8, 2001

In part three of our interview, we dive into the details of the Internet Sales implementation at Osram - one of the first ever done. Benson explains the challenges involved in using the IPC. We end this installment of the interview with Benson's take on how Osram has benefited from the CRM implementation.

Jon Reed: When you started working in the Internet pricing area for Osram, did you notice the differences in how the Internet pricing functionality was going to play out, versus the classic approach to SD pricing? Was it the kind of SAP "next generation" functionality where you didn't have to worry as much about SD pricing anymore, or did you still have to worry about that, and also deal with another CRM layer?

Chris Benson: When you go with the SAP-CRM solution, the IPC (Internet Pricing Configurator) component is essentially supposed to replicate all of the R/3 pricing data onto the e-commerce part of your web site, so the IPC downloads all the condition records and the procedures from R/3. So yes, you still had to rely on R/3 pricing data, because you wanted R/3 to be the system of record, but you were hoping that the IPC could work on autopilot, and just re-price everything automatically for the web site. Well, in some situations that worked and in other situations it was a little troublesome, and you had to do some custom work in order to get the correct R/3 pricing data to show up on your web site.

Reed: So just to break this down in terms of how Internet Sales can help a customer - is it the kind of scenario where a company has an e-commerce web site up for their customers or partners, and they have a problem because the pricing on the web site doesn't reflect dynamic pricing conditions, so the latest prices on some items are inaccurate?

Benson: Yes, sometimes when you put in the IPC, fixing that is the whole idea: to ensure consistent pricing across the system. When we were doing the development back at Compaq, we ended up replicating the R/3 pricing procedures and spitting out our final pricing conditions in an attempt to be as accurate as possible. It turned out to be pretty good, usually within a couple of pennies. But yes, the whole concept of the IPC is not just to be a stand-alone implementation where you then have to somehow tie the IPC in to your R/3 system. I think that's what Hewlett-Packard might have done, I think they used the stand-alone implementation of the IPC for their pricing conditions.

But the ideal use of the IPC is when you can completely integrate it with your R/3 system, and essentially replicate the pricing data and assure that there's consistency no matter how the pricing data is accessed. You see, the IPC is written completely in Java, so there's an indirect correlation - it's not exactly a perfect replication of the logic of the ABAP-based R/3 system, so it can get a little complicated. In some situations, there's quite a bit of Java custom development work, which you have to do to ensure that the R/3 pricing conditions and the new routines that people might have implemented in R/3 are reflected out there on the web.

Reed: So integrating the R/3 with the IPC is not necessarily as simple as flicking a switch, there's often some custom enhancements that need to be made.

Benson: Exactly. You need to take a look at that going in. And there are some other issues. The IPC isn't quite as robust as R/3 when it comes to group conditions and scale values and things like that. You're talking about a couple of complex concepts in R/3 pricing. In order to make the IPC capable of handling those things, some custom development may be in order. One of the biggest questions we asked across the board on the CRM side was: how are you going to get the data from R/3 out to the CRM system? Well, SAP's got the middleware transactions all set up and built into SAP-CRM. Essentially what they do is use BDOCs, Business Documents, which are similar to IDOCs, and what they try to do is feed the data down from R/3 back into CRM.

Well, sometimes all that communication needed to manage the data from R/3 to CRM can be troublesome, and a lot of data can get lost here and there. That's one of the big issues we ran into with the IPC. We'd start finding missing condition records in the IPC. You see the data plain as day in R/3, but you're wondering, "Where the heck is this in this IPC system?" But I think they've made some adjustments to deal with this in the newest releases, in 2.0C and probably in 3.0 as well.
Reed: You weren't doing a lot of the hard coding on these SAP-CRM projects, were you?

Benson: No, not on the pricing side. I did a lot of the work with my colleague Rick Donlon at Osram on the product catalog side of things. The Internet pricing work I did at Compaq got my foot in the door in the CRM project itself. Once I was there I said, "We really need some help in this product catalog area in order to retrieve the right information from R/3 from material masters and be able to display it in an accurate and logical format." Of course, when you're navigating through a product catalog you want to see the prices, so there's the integration into the IPC there - that's where I got an understanding and some knowledge about what exactly the IPC requires.

Reed: So you balanced between the pricing expertise and the technical. You filled the role between those types of people.

Benson: I tried to do something similar to that.

Reed: As the Internet Sales install came to a close at Osram, could you see what they had gained from the project? Was it obvious to you, or was it one of those "let's wait and see how it worked out" type of projects?

Benson: I thought it was pretty obvious. After everyone walked away, I was impressed with the install. And to this day Osram is still doing enhancements and new releases, and I would think that they'll probably go on board with 3.0. But honestly, when Osram's first B2B customers did online ordering, some of the orders were processed fairly slowly, and not many B2B customers used the system. But before long, Osram started getting a respectable volume of orders coming through the system.

And now, instead of just having a hard-coded product catalog that some businesses have, where they try to manage online ordering as well as faxes and emails that they have to retype into R/3, Osram has a legitimate system for online ordering, fully integrated with R/3. I definitely saw that as a huge plus, perhaps even a competitive advantage for them to exercise if possible. I think the benefits are definitely tangible. Anybody who takes a look at the stuff they've done will realize that it's worthwhile. But it wasn't exactly easy getting it all set up.

Reed: So in the case of Osram, even with version 2.0, it wasn't like they were working with a vaporware release that really didn't offer much functionality until an upgrade came along. It was something they could already use.

Benson: Yes, it was. Granted, at the time the product was still in its Beta stage. It was a co-development effort between Osram and SAP in an effort to jump over some of the hurdles that they were expecting. And so that was a lot of the work we had to do - to go in and try to understand exactly what the product was all about and identify whatever issues we could find. But it was a product, and it was workable. I think prior to Osram, SAP had mostly worked on SAP-CRM from the demo side of things, with small-scale systems, and when Osram wanted to ramp it up they ran into issues as far as data loads and performance. But it was a product that you could open up, install, turn it on, play with it, and have it work.


An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Four
October 29, 2001

In part four of our interview, we continue with our discussion of Chris' CRM project work, and he gives us an inside view of some of the issues that consultants face with the 2.OC release. We're all eager to learn more about version 3.0, and Chris tells us what he's learned about 3.0 and some of the enhancements he'd like to see from SAP on the CRM side. We end this installment of the interview by asking Chris how he sees SAP stacking up with Siebel and how version 3.0 might help SAP to be a big player in the CRM market.

Jon Reed: On your next CRM projects with ExxonMobil and Millennium, did you encounter any new developments? How did those implementations go for you?

Chris Benson: At Exxon it was just a design-type thing. Our project team didn't get into the actual development work. Our focus was more of an analysis and high-level design role. But up at Millennium I played much more of a hands-on implementation role, and I definitely saw some advances in the product itself. The 2.0C release was a lot more stable. On the pricing side, 2.0C had some additional functionality to try to alleviate issues such as lost condition records. In version 2.0B, the IPC condition record database is housed in a completely separate database from the CRM system. In 2.0C, one of the major revisions SAP did was to incorporate the IPC condition record database into the SAP CRM database that is used to house other data, such as customer and material records. So we helped them to pull the condition record database back into the CRM database, and that seemed to help the stability as well as some functionality enhancements within the catalogs themselves.

After looking at the latest release, it looks like it's more B2C tailored, something like an Amazon.com. Talking with some of the SAP people, I think that they agree. It takes a little bit more of an effort to push it into a B2B realm, where you have partners out there who need to get into the system quickly and be able to get to their specific products, rather than navigating through 3,000 books or something like that. That said, I think that with each release they've enhanced the B2B functionality. I think the B2B side is where the big market of the future really is: trying to automate and maybe even replace some of the EDI from the past.

Reed: As you worked on this Internet pricing functionality, were you working on implementations where there were other SAP-CRM components in play, or were these all just pure Internet Pricing implementations?

Benson: No, every project was focused on the Internet Sales side of things, and both of them specifically used the IPC component. The other SAP-CRM areas like Mobile Sales were not implemented at those two locations. Mobile Sales itself has a lot more live implementations. I think it's been around for a little while, and SAP probably has two or three dozen implementations out there. However, at the particular locations I was working on, we were just trying to install Internet Sales as a baseline, and the idea was to do that first and then see what other CRM functionality was available.

Reed: So you have some feeling for these other CRM products, but you haven't had a chance to see how they work together yet?

Benson: Exactly. As far as the integration across them, no, I haven't had a chance to delve into that too much.

Reed: So tell us about discussions you've had regarding the SAP-CRM market as a whole, especially in regards to the upcoming release of version 3.0? Is that highly-anticipated on the part of customers?

Benson: Yes, I think so. SAP-CRM definitely has technology advances and some architecture changes in the 3.0 product that, from what I understand, are somewhat anticipated by customers. I think all of us involved with CRM are expecting and hoping that it will take off, and give SAP a foothold so they can compete strongly against Siebel and some of the other competitors. At this point, I think everybody is holding off until 3.0 comes out just to see what it's like. Hopefully it will be successful and be implemented at a lot of places.

Reed: Any enhancements in particular that you'd really like to see?

Benson: From what I understand, it's going to be a bit more logical as far as the presentation and the communication between the web and CRM. There are some rumors that they're going to get rid of the ITS (Internet Transaction Server) in 3.0. I don't know how public that is. But the rumor is that there's going to be some ITS changes, and also that they're going to move towards Java server pages for presentation on the web, rather than relying on some of the custom business HTML that developers might be familiar with when they're doing IACs (IACs are Internet Application Components, which provide the ability to link an R/3 transaction to the web by creating a front end web page. RFCs are used to transfer the data to the page).

So that's good too, and I'd really like to see the additional push into the B2B world - I'd like to see some additional functionality as far as customer-specific product lists. I think they're really working on that, and they've already done some of that in 2.0C. I also think they've come a long way as far as the automation of some of the maintenance and the stability in the system. So those are the big things that I would hope will be a part of 3.0, and I'm sure that many of them are included.

Reed: Has there been any talk amongst your colleagues about SAP versus Siebel and other CRM players? Obviously there's Oracle and PeopleSoft to consider as well. It seems like there's an opportunity for SAP to close a bit of a gap with Siebel, at least in terms of selling to their own install base.

Benson: Yeah, I would think so. I think Siebel definitely has a good head start, but it seems like SAP is catching up pretty fast. There are always the wisecracks that they're going to put Siebel out of business, but I'm sure there will probably be a happy medium with both of them, and they'll both find different areas of expertise. As far as friendly competition goes, I haven't really heard too much "SAP-CRM can do this but Siebel can't do that." I understand that Siebel is more customer call center and customer support focused, whereas it appears that the SAP-CRM offering is going to be more focused on the sales side of things. But that could just be a reflection of my experience so far.

Reed: Well, that's interesting information. At mySAPCareers, we still consider Siebel a serious player, but SAP is definitely playing catch up as the economy slows. Siebel got off to a powerful head start when they recruited a bunch of ex-SAP executives, captured a big buzz, and won some CRM projects from high-profile SAP clients. But it seems like the low hanging CRM fruit is gone and there are still a lot of SAP clients that haven't gone with a CRM solution yet. Those folks seem to be waiting to see what SAP can offer them. That gives SAP a chance to make a real splash in the CRM market if they can come through with the functionality.

Benson: Yes, that's what I heard. The rumor a year and a half ago, even before SAP-CRM was even released, was that a lot of the SAP customers were waiting to see the SAP offering before they went ahead and committed to the Siebel product. They wanted to try to have an integrated solution, and that's definitely what SAP-CRM provides. Even though there are some headaches here and there trying to integrate, that's nothing compared to what it would be like to try and integrate Siebel or some other CRM vendor's CRM product with R/3.

Reed: Integration looks good on paper, but it's not that easy to integrate R/3 with any of the leading CRM systems.

Benson: I haven't been on too many of those types of projects, but I've heard some horror stories.

Reed: So it's an interesting window of opportunity for SAP.

Benson: Yes, absolutely. I think they can maximize the opportunity, especially with 3.0, by bringing a solid product out to the customers that are waiting. I know the economy has to be factored into the whole thing, and it's surely affecting whether companies are going to invest in IT, but hopefully in conjunction with the release of 3.0 some of the larger SAP clients will go out on a spending spree. I haven't seen too much of the 3.0 functionalities, but from what Brian Trout told me about from the demo he saw, it sounded like it was a pretty solid solution. It will probably tighten up SAP's grip on the customers who haven't made a decision yet to go ahead with CRM.
An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Five
November 12, 2001

In part five of our interview, Chris offers his take on how SAP professionals can break into SAP-CRM and keep their skills current. We take a look at the issues facing both functional and technical SAP professionals as they try to move in the CRM direction. Chris has advice for both ABAP and Basis folks, and his in-depth advice to ABAP programmers is relevant to all ABAPers who are committed to keeping their skills current with the latest releases of SAP. Any SAP consultant who wants to keep their skills in step with where SAP's technology and architecture is going will find this part of our discussion quite interesting.

Jon Reed: Chris, Let's take a look at the consulting skills needed to get involved with SAP-CRM. Obviously you're more focused on Internet Sales, but when you look at different types of SAP consulting backgrounds, how do you think people can get involved in SAP-CRM work? What kind of skills and strategies would you advise for people?

Chris Benson: I think there are two, maybe even three areas where people can get involved. First, there's the functional side of things. That's where a lot of the stuff on the sales side correlates with or is an extension of standard R/3 Sales and Distribution functionality. So a lot of folks who have pretty good SD experience could probably jump into SAP-CRM there fairly easily, once they see what exactly is going on. From the get-go, they'll be familiar with the concepts. As far as some of the other areas, such as Mobile Sales and Service, I would think that some people who are working in Service Management would probably be familiar with these types of things, and maybe even some of the HR folks. There might even be some R/3 folks who have worked on call center projects who could get involved. Any of those backgrounds could provide a fairly smooth transition into CRM. So that's the functional side of things.

As far as the ABAP side goes, obviously I've done a lot of ABAP development in SAP-CRM, and it's not a whole lot different than standard R/3. There is a little bit of re-thinking as far as some of the logic is concerned, and you'll run into a lot more object-oriented ABAP. They use these global universal identifiers, GUIDs, on all the tables, so all your old primary keys that you're used to are secondary keys in all the tables, and some of the logic behind all that would be different. I believe SAP thinks this will improve performance as far as table searching and indexing, and secondly, it will allow the product itself to be a true stand-alone product, so they can go out and sell it to customers that don't even have R/3. Before 3.0 it hasn't been feasible to do anything like that, because there have definitely been links back to R/3 systems.

But these GUIDs actually allow you to have one CRM system tied into multiple SAP systems, so if you've got two customer "123"s in your different systems, SAP-CRM can differentiate those two customers through these GUIDs, which are pretty much like a transaction-type number like what you've got on your credit cards, and that unique GUID is never going to be used again.

So the ABAP side is not too difficult a transition. If someone wanted to brush up on their object-oriented ABAP skills, that would probably be worthwhile. And then the other side is definitely the presentation side of things, such as through the web. SAP-CRM 2.0B and 2.0C essentially use the standard Business HTML for presentation which a lot of folks who use IACs would be familiar with. They also use the new flow file concept which essentially allows the web to control the different events and what gets performed at a particular time. But in 3.0, I think they're going away from some of those things. So I wouldn't really advise a lot of people to brush up on their business HTML, because in 3.0 I think they're really going away from the ITS and more towards Java server page functionality or technology. So if people want to put their Java server page and JavaScript hats on, then that's another area of opportunity I see in the CRM marketplace.

Reed: It seems like the trick here is to do it the way you did: get the opportunity to be on a project where you can segue to SAP-CRM using your relevant skills. But let's say that someone is unable to get that ideal transitional project opportunity, does it follow then that an ABAP person who can't land that dream CRM project should study up and work on object-oriented and Java-related programming so they understand some of that and are prepared for these types of openings?

Benson: Yes, I would say it would behoove them to do that, to work in that realm, and read some books or do some exercises or whatever it is that will help them advance their skills in those areas.

Reed: It might even be a matter of getting onto a project where you might get some exposure to those closely-relevant skills, even if you're not actually working in SAP-CRM.

Benson: Yes, exactly. That would be a good way to do it too. If you're on a project or you're at a company and you do SD or you do ABAP or whatever it might be, and there's another team across the hall that's doing some of the web work, go and hang out with them and see if you can help them out a little bit, or at least try and get an idea of what's going on. That would be a great way to try to break into that realm, because then you can actually sit down and discuss some of the web-oriented programming that you've done, and probably become a pretty good fit for some of these projects out there.

Reed: It might give you an edge if you're being considered against other ABAPers for an SAP-CRM position. The hiring managers might say, "Well, this guy's got some Java and object-oriented skills and he's worked with some JavaScript, so he's got the edge."

Benson: Exactly. From what I understand - and I don't know that I'm in the loop as much as yourself or some of these other consultants - I do get the feeling that Java/OOP is the way things are going with SAP down the road. A lot of people laugh at object-oriented ABAP, and I've been one of those people too, it's a pain and it's cumbersome. But at the same time, I think SAP's moving towards the Java side of things, and to beef up on some of those object-oriented skills would definitely be good. It probably could be the deal-maker rather than the deal-breaker, if you've got that skill in your past, and you can put that on your resume. That wouldn't be bad.

As you look down the road, ABAPers should keep in mind that soon there are going to be ABAPers out there who have been doing this for close to ten years. As you get more and more ABAP programmers out there, there's the potential for a glut in the market. If you're not focused on expanding your skills, then as the demand for particular ABAP skills declines, and the emphasis for web and Java skills is increased, you can find yourself out of a job. You want to avoid the "fish or cut bait" situation where your company says, "Well, instead of transitioning our ABAPers across, we're going to bring on a bunch of Java folks and we'll let the ABAPers go." So if you're talking about job security, there really might be a benefit for those ABAPers to look to expand their skills into Java and web-related technologies. Sometimes you're better off taking a perm job instead of a contract when you can get valuable skills.  

Reed: That makes sense. Have you seen any Basis-oriented, systems administration people get involved in CRM? What do you see them doing?

Benson: Yeah, actually, that's another growth area. I'm sorry, I don't mean to neglect the folks on the Basis side (laughs). Basis is definitely an area for growth. I think you actually identified that in some of your previous writings and articles on CRM. Basis is a huge area for growth as far as managing the ITS or additional CRM servers and trying to work on the ties between R/3 and CRM. I know it's driven a couple of our Basis guys mad in the last couple of projects, but there are definitely quite a few opportunities out there. I'm not a Basis all-star or anything like that, but I think a lot of the concepts are really similar between administering R/3 and administering the SAP-CRM system. And then there's kind of a pseudo role as well, like a middleware role, which we alluded to earlier, getting all the data in between the two systems to go where it needs to go. I think that's going to be a huge area. That's one of the largest opportunities that we had in the various projects I've been on.

If you're trying to get involved with SAP-CRM, it really helps to understand how data flows between SAP-CRM and R/3. Once you get a handle on that, you might be able to spot a role for yourself. Essentially, SAP is looking to transmit information from R/3 into SAP-CRM. Actually, the data transfer is back-and-forth, because you're also transmitting e-commerce sales orders back into R/3. To price your products on the web, you need to get all the master data down from R/3, and much of that data is transferred through BDOCs, as well as IDOCS, which a lot of people are familiar with, especially ABAPers.

When you're implementing an SAP-CRM system, you might also have to deal with integrating custom enhancements. For example, an R/3 customer might have actually done some enhancements to their R/3 system. They might have changed the sales order processing procedure or added customer material or information records. If you can help your client go into the BDOCs and the middleware system and integrate that data with the CRM systems, then you have a foot in the door. If you can manage that custom data, that is a fantastic area to get involved with.


An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Six
December 3, 2001

In part six of our interview, we begin with a bit more discussion about the middleware and integration issues on SAP-CRM projects. Then Benson sheds some light on his own professional goals. He tells us about the skills he is concentrating on, why he is sticking with a contractor's role for now, and the types of projects he is looking for. He also has some advice for SAP professionals who are having difficulty making strides in a tight market.

Jon Reed: Are there any particular middleware solutions besides BDOCs that you've seen in use?

Chris Benson: No, the BDOCs are the preferred SAP method that transmit the data. So far I've not seen anything besides that. I think that's the key to the integration, the middleware side of things. If you take a step back and you say, "Oh my gosh, I've got millions of records in R/3, just to get them transferred down to CRM is a feat in itself," you can't expect perfection all the time. Just as when people are monitoring IDOC transactions, they are going to be periodic failures.

But on the middleware side, I really think there's a good opportunity for ABAP programmers. You can imagine ABAP folks out there who site there and say, "I don't even want to get into the web realm, I'd like to stay in R/3 in an ABAP role." But even in that case, they could get involved in third party integration and middleware applications just by playing around with some IDOCs. If you try to understand the structures that data is transferred in when it leaves R/3 and how that process works, it can really enhance your core ABAP skills.

I would say, however, that the middleware is not for the faint of heart. Some of them that we've worked with are pulling their hair out. It's pretty rough stuff. But I think that's also an area we're looking for in terms of improvements in 3.0. Most of the CRM data goes across with no problem whatsoever; but every once in a while you'll get a hiccup, and trying to find out exactly where that hiccup is, if it's in R/3 or if it's on the CRM side- trying to debug can get pretty hellacious.

Reed: In terms of your role on these projects, when you're saying "We want to install Internet Sales," are you thinking "I'm going to go configure this product for this client," or "I'm going to help with custom development work," or is it a bit of both at this point?

Benson: The main part I focus on is the configuration side of things, and trying to be map the functionality that's available in Internet Sales back into the client's R/3 system and their business processes. I would say that's 75% of the job. The other 25% is developing some of the customization that the customer might want. But that 25% can get to be huge on a project. Up at Millennium, they had a lot of different things that they wanted to pull into CRM that weren't supported in SAP-CRM, so we spent the majority of our time doing customizations. The regular R/3-to-CRM setup and the out-of-the-box CRM would work fine, but a lot of the things we needed to do, such as customer material info with different account status and order change functionality, required us to do a lot of customization.
Reed: When you think about your own career, what do you think about in the short-term and long-term? Do you see yourself as someone who would like to be an independent consultant for some time in the future, or do you want to eventually move into internal leadership roles?

Benson: I think in the next couple years I wouldn't mind staying on the independent consulting side of things. From a personal standpoint, with my wife and myself, we don't have any children, and being in our late 20's, it honestly feels like now is the time to move around the country and do independent work. But after a little while, I'd like to settle down into some type of leadership-type situation, or work with new CRM products or other so-called "New Dimension" products. I'd always like to stay close to the technology if possible, but maybe move into a coordination or management type role.

Reed: Do you feel that now you've gotten into an area of CRM where you'd like to stay focused if you can?

Benson: Yes, I would like to stay focused in Internet Sales. If someone gave me the choice between two projects, one with standard R/3 work and the other with SAP-CRM work, I'd definitely take the CRM role, just because I find it more challenging. There are a lot more opportunities to do a lot of things that people haven't done before. In R/3 you can get creative in ABAP and that's fine, and you can get creative in SD, but a lot of it has been done before. But within CRM you're blazing new trails all over the place, and you get a chance to do things that other people haven't done, and to test the limits of your skills and also to test the limits of the technology itself.

Reed: Any advice for people who are finding the SAP market slow and good opportunities hard to come by?

Benson: I would try to beef up on some of the skills that we chatted about earlier, object-oriented skills on the technical side; on the functional side, maybe take a look at some of the basic organizational management skills out there for SD. I'm sure everybody knows sales orgs and distribution channels, but you want to try to get closer to the web-enabled technology, paying attention to information you find on the web or through your SAP users groups.

I know there are some white papers out there that are publicly available on the SAP web site and in other places that describe some of the benefits of CRM. When you read about the IPC, anybody who really likes pricing can take a shot at that and get an idea of what it's all about and try to fill in the gaps. For this type of market, you want to try to give yourself a head start, maybe a deal-maker type thing that we discussed. It might be a situation where your extra training and skills give you a little bit of an edge over the other applicant. Try to stick through it this market and everything will turn around soon.

Reed: Let's hope so. And hopefully you'll find a project that keeps you going in the CRM direction.

Benson: I know there are plenty of things out there, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right people and not running into too many political interruptions I guess.

Reed: Yeah, politics is a big part of it these days. You think you're all set up on this new project and you just never know.

Benson: All of a sudden everything can change overnight.


An In-Depth Interview with Chris Benson, SAP Internet Sales CRM Consultant
Part Seven
December 18, 2001

In the seventh and final part of our interview, we ask Chris how he made the jump to independent SAP consulting. He tells us why he decided to leave Price Waterhouse, and shares his take on the advantages and disadvantages of "permanent" SAP positions. We wrap up the interview with a brief discussion about incorporation versus W-2 contracting.

Jon Reed: There are people out there - and this may seem strange to you because you seem to be very comfortable with the independent consulting role - who have wanted to get into independent consulting but have held back even though they have the skills. Did you struggle with that when you first left Price Waterhouse? A lot of people would have never left an established firm like that to go out on their own.

Chris Benson: Call me stupid, I guess, I don't know (laughs). It definitely is a jump. But if you're confident in your skill levels, talk to some of the people that you know - maybe find an independent consultant who's a friend or who's on a project - and ask them if they honestly think you've got what it takes to hack it. If you can get used to the lifestyle it can work. Granted, you're going to try to find something in your hometown if possible, but being independent makes it tougher to dig through all the different projects and find something in your home town.

But then again, you have a lot more control about what projects you end up on, and that's one of the biggest benefits. If someone offers you a chance to go to Boise, Idaho for a six month maintenance project, you can turn that down and say, "No, I'd rather do something else." So being independent definitely has its benefits. But there's uncertainty out there in the market, and when you're a permanent employee, you definitely have a little more security in your situation. But then again, we've seen a lot of layoffs these days. So how much is that security really worth?

Reed: I've been encouraging consultants who I talk with to question whether security is a good reason for staying with a perm position. I think there are arguments for being in a perm role, but security is not a good one anymore, because that "security" usually comes at such a financial cost compared to your "independent market value," that you're not necessarily more secure. And as we alluded to earlier, when you're an employee with a consulting firm, you're beholden to whatever projects they can find for you; whereas if you're independent you can contact our firm, you can contact a lot of different people, and really expand your options. And you get to pick the project you're most interested in.

Benson: Absolutely. The reason I'd go back to a perm role would be to pursue career growth type goals - if I wanted to be a manager or direct a project for a good, reputable company. As an independent, it can be hard to get new skills, hot skills, and when you're an independent, it's going to be a lot harder to move into project management type roles, especially if you've never had those roles in the past. If that type of position is what you're looking for, I'd say that's more of a legitimate reason to go perm than security is. 

Reed: Definitely. Obviously the trick there, when you're looking for a perm position with good skills exposure, is to have a good BS detector, so that you can make sure you get a job with a company that really offers training and career development instead of just paying lip service to those notions. Some people at big consulting firms have not gotten good results in terms of access to training and certification, but then you talk about your own experience at PwC, and how you had these opportunities for future training in the hot skills areas that really helped you, and that type of opportunity would have been a lot harder to find on your own.

Benson: Exactly. PwC is a great company, but one of the reasons I decided to leave was because at the time they were cutting back on all the training, and so I had to ask myself, "Why am I here if I don't have access to the hot skills training?" When you look at the Big Five and other large consultancies, when they started trimming their budgets, one of the first things they looked at was training. But if you cut back on training you're just shooting yourself in the foot - sooner or later employees are going to backlash around that issue, especially when the company touts training as one of the first two or three virtues about joining their firm.

Reed: It can be really hard to sort out now, because you don't know who to believe. You have to ask yourself, "Are they really going to train me?" But I think you're right: there are people who really want to move into upper management roles and they need some credibility or company name recognition on their resume. But it's funny, even when you consider the name recognition factor, that isn't necessarily the best reason to go perm. You know how it goes with independents: once you get client engagements like Osram Sylvania and ExxonMobil on your resume, you don't need a blue chip consulting firm on your resume in order to have credibility.

Benson: Honestly, when people look at my resume and see Price Waterhouse, they say, "That's nice." But I don't think they think that much about it. I think the list of clients that I've been with is just as important, if not more. Your experience out there in the field, even if you've been with some smaller firms or companies, is what matters. Every now and then I'll get a comment about PwC, but I kind of discount that, and say, "Big deal. That doesn't mean I'm better than anybody else. As a matter of fact, a lot of the people I've worked with know a lot more than me, and they're working for XYZ Joe Blow Consulting Company." The big name consulting firm on the resume doesn't really prove anything to me.  

Reed: That is so true. Chris, are you incorporated?

Benson: No, I just do W-2, although I was hoping to talk to Brian Trout about incorporating because I've got a bunch of friends that did, so I've been thinking about it. During the last year and a half, I've been going ninety miles an hour, and I've also been doing my MBA online, so there haven't been too many spare moments.

Reed: Incorporating is appealing to seasoned contractors, because if you're independent for a long period of time, being incorporated can allow you to deduct a lot of expenses. You're running your own business at that point, and you're able to save substantially on some costs that you wouldn't otherwise be able to deduct from your tax return. But at the same time, the problem is that handling your corporation cuts into your time.

Benson: Yes, that's what I've heard. There are conflicting accounts from some of my friends. Some say, "Do it, do it, do it," and some say, "It's not worth it."

Reed: It's also a matter of what you're good at and how you like to spend your free time. Some people really like to do the business management. They come home on the weekends and do administrative work and crunch numbers and take pride in the money they're saving on their tax returns. Other contractors look at it differently. Their take on it is: "I'd rather focus on getting an extra 10 billable hours a week - just ramp up my hours and not worry so much about my taxes." After all, when you're making a good hourly rate, there's an argument for simply racking up the hours and not worrying so much about cutting costs through incorporation. So I think you have a lot of choices there.

Benson: I'm planning on taking a harder look at it during this time "down time" while I'm recuperating. I'm going to go on the Internet and research some of the benefits, but I know you've done a lot of research in that area so I figured I'd talk to you about it.

Reed: There are some firms that won't put contractors on a W-2 payroll, but most firms will. So it doesn't really exclude you from too much. I know of one firm that won't put people on a W-2 contracting arrangement because it interferes with their ability to provide certain benefits for their own full time employees, because there are certain laws that they're subjected to. And also making the rate work can be a little tougher for companies when you're going in as a W-2; but I think that's more of a concern if you're feeling like a rate mercenary. And some people are.

I think it's a misconception that there's one right way to do it. The "you have to incorporate" attitude is borne more out of the paranoia that some people have about paying taxes. I don't really subscribe to that myself, but as a business owner I have experienced the benefits of incorporation, and there are definitely benefits. Anyway, it's an interesting issue that you can explore from time to time between projects.

Benson: Absolutely.

Reed: Chris, thanks a lot for your time. You've given our readers an invaluable look at the emerging CRM market. You've also given us some great insight into what it takes to break into new areas and become an independent contractor.

Benson: No problem. I look forward to hearing what readers have to say.