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Service firms prep for front-office battle

Services and consulting companies are busy padding their front office practices to prepare for the coming war in that lucrative market.

Services and consulting companies are busy padding their front-office practices to prepare for the coming war in that lucrative market.

CSC, for one, this week announced a partnership with Siebel Systems intended to help their clients install Siebel's front-office software systems. As part of the deal, one of many Siebel has struck in the industry, CSC said it will add 300 Siebel-trained consultants to its ranks over the next year.

CSC's announcement is among a slew of front-office deals throughout the industry over the past several months. For example, KPMG and Cambridge Technology Partners both inked alliances last week with Epiphany, an Enterprise Relationship Management (ERM) software company. KPMG has also forged a partnership with midtier front-office vendor Pivotal. Services company Keane bought call center software integrator Fourth Tier in October and Andersen Consulting has continued to benefit from its equity investment in Siebel, as one of the company's marketing and development partners.

"It's definitely a very, very hot market," said Bill Martorelli, analyst at Framingham, Massachusetts-based Hurwitz Group.

Front-office software is used to manage marketing, sales force, and customer service departments. A study by AMR Research in Boston predicts that the front-office software market will reach $11.5 billion in the next four years, up from $1.2 billion last year. Within this area, known as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), AMR expects a flurry of mergers and acquisitions within the coming year.

While the Big Five consulting firms all began bulking up their front-office services over the past year, rivals, including EDS, CSC, Cambridge Technology Partners, and IBM Global, have also been on an ongoing pursuit of partners to round out their offerings. With a complete front office package--one that ranges from call center integration services to data warehousing--consulting companies are able to sell one-stop shopping to clients that have hired them to do other business software jobs.

"What we see with a lot of customers is that after they finish their ERP implementations, the front office is the next set of applications they're looking at the next big push," said Judy Andaloro, analyst at AMR Research.

But AMR Research analyst Rod Johnson said the front office companies can't do it alone so they partner with service companies that can meet customer demand for highly customized systems.

Johnson said front office is one of three areas that service and consulting companies are most aggressively trying to grow. The others are supply chain and e-commerce services.

Kirk Arnold, a vice president of CSC's consulting group, said the company's deal with Siebel is its most important front-office partnership to date. However, CSC also is looking to a host of other vendors, including e-commerce software maker Open Market, and front-office vendors Vantive and Pivotal to meet specific customers demands.

Front-office projects differ vastly from ERP installations, mainly because they require a great deal more customization and because the software typically is used by many more employees within an organization. The return on investment also differs from the typical six-month return on an ERP project, Arnold said.

"Front-office projects are not cost-reduction plays," Arnold said, but are instead meant to improve sales and marketing strategy and boost customer loyalty.