From Paper and Spreadsheets to Automation: How the World Trade Centers Association Streamlined Business Operations With CRM


Quality data is critical for any enterprise, especially when you are an association providing services and programming to a membership comprised of a wide range of businesses, and serving each member in the context of its individual needs. But the greatest challenge can often be internal systems' readiness to centralize, gather and segment key data. It is important to easily access, share, and update information that can revolutionize your operations. At the World Trade Centers Association (WTCA), this was one of our biggest challenges.

We are a 501(c)(6) with headquarters in New York City, but our team extends to regional development operations in Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Together, we serve a diverse membership of more than 300 World Trade Centers in around 90 countries. Made up of independent real estate developers, economic development agencies, and corporations, our members deliver a combination of real estate, real estate services, trade development, and foreign direct investment promotion. WTCA grants membership licenses and provides tools to assist members to develop their real estate facilities and trade services, as well as how to connect with and leverage our existing network.

Seven years ago the database, processes, and procedures we used to manage our member information wasn't as efficient as they are today. 

Paper and Spreadsheets Create Silos

When I joined the WTCA seven years ago, there was dissatisfaction with our way of managing member information. From an internal perspective, the data was siloed and it was time intensive for staff to manually update their respective files or run custom reports. Our members also couldn’t easily update their information, which involved several exchanges in person, over the phone, or via email for a staff member to then modify the information on behalf of the member. On top of that, we wanted more key data on our members. A revamp of our member information management system would be crucial to our success. 

I was tasked by WTCA to select, implement, and manage a database. At the time, the organization had launched several new initiatives and started to consider a CRM to achieve a single source of information. We sought out a system to collect and organize member information, as well as manage our sales, communications, accounting, legal, and member services. A CRM would allow my colleagues to input their interactions with prospective, current, and former members, and allow management to generate reports on these activities. We were looking for an online solution that would allow remote database access for our regional operations and our executives while traveling, and one that was hosted and provided technical support. 

Laying the Digital Foundation

When I was drafting our CRM proposal, one path was a completely custom-built solution. But to build a solution from scratch would be a huge undertaking in terms of funds and time. WTCA didn’t have either approved for this project.

Another option was to go with an out-of-the-box solution. There were a lot of bells and whistles that came with the big CRM players—but frankly, we didn’t need them. 

Considering the usual suspects in a software product? Think if you need all the bells and whistles.

Instead, we went back to a familiar name. Our team already had been somewhat accustomed to a mid-sized software—SugarCRM—which had been previously implemented. But the timing just wasn’t right for it to take off. Now, though, the appetite existed at WTCA for a solution like this. We wanted to start small and then scale larger in the future. Sugar was a platform that wasn’t filled with features we’d never use, but it could certainly handle all our current and future requirements. Sugar seemed well tailored to our size, budget, and timeline.


For our initial roll-out of Sugar, we focused on getting key people into the system and assisting them to feel comfortable with its functionality. My interns and I began with data imports of about 325 members and 400 contacts, and manually keyed in updates, which transferred information from our hard copy files and various other inward-facing systems. Little by little, we grew the fields and the capability of Sugar.  


After several training sessions, even our less technologically savvy staff had become familiar with navigating the system and entering in information. Sugar’s ease of use facilitated the adoption rate. Our employees’ comfort with the system and the speed with which I could tailor it as an administrator changed everything. 

Diving into Sugar's Capabilities

Another area of focus was the WTCA digital platform. Having correct, up-to-date information on the website was crucial in enabling our members to effectively communicate with each other. The old way for members to update their information was cumbersome, and we knew we had to make it quicker and more seamless. 

A self-service platform would mean members could easily provide details about themselves, as well as query whom they were interested in getting in touch with. This information promotes partnerships, where our members are looking to expand their international reach and growth.

We’re presently using Sugar to better serve our members through a tool called the InfoShare Online. It’s a digital form that collects information for each member, such as facilities and service offerings, contact information, and sector specialization, and enables us to build self-service tools for users on top of that data to power collaboration.

Now, our members are able to view and update all of their own information, which is pulled directly from Sugar. Members no longer have to send emails or phone us when they need to make changes. They can verify all of their own information and modify it if appropriate. This information then gets vetted through an internal approval process before getting committed to Sugar.

Our members want to leverage the network to uncover mutually-beneficial market opportunities and to take advantage of reciprocal services. WTCA would like to provide the tools, programming, and networking possibilities that deepen the connection between members. With the new InfoShare Online, our members, head office, and regional outposts have more reliable information at their fingertips.

Best Practices for a CRM Adoption

Over the past six years we have used Sugar, there are a number of best practices that have helped us throughout our adoption strategy and that can be implemented at almost any organization:

1. Develop a multi-year plan that is realistic to follow. You should plan for the longer term. This type of implementation tends to fall flat if it’s not given enough time to flourish and be modified.

2. Start building small and then increase the complexity later. Control costs and balance your bandwidth at the beginning, measure the results, and then enhance with additional functions in future versions.

3. Ensure training. Give formal and informal training and continue to support your users with coachings and refresher courses.  

4. Integrate, integrate, integrate. Synchronize your CRM with all of your other systems to automate the flow of information, reduce duplicative or multiplicative work, and store the entirety of updated information in one location. 

5. Connect with other users of the CRM. Sugar launched its Sugar Insiders community at an ideal time to help me improve my performance as a Sugar power user and administrator. Engaging with users from other organizations is often the most advantageous way to learn best practices. 

A Big Year

This past year was a pivotal one for the WTCA in terms of our focus on the data and the prioritization of Sugar within the organization. It truly became more elevated in the eyes of everyone on our team.

When rolling out a CRM, go with a multi-year plan to ensure success.

The momentum to build on our early success with Sugar was strong because our staff and members  saw value in the database and expanded member information. Sugar is an ever-evolving system. Both our internal teams and our members voice their requirements, and we use Sugar’s scalability to help meet their needs.

Our use of Sugar has grown from Professional to Enterprise level, and we've definitely made use of the Enterprise customer access to email and phone support. Our staff, as well as our members, have benefited through the saved time and energy that comes with access to the information they need. 

Now that we have a track record of success with Sugar, we are exploring other ways to integrate. We’ve decided to implement a document management system and one that was integrateable with Sugar. We chose Uplevl and have recently launched it. We also switched our accounting software to Intacct, which we will have integrated with our Sugar instance. Finally, we're on the lookout for new e-marketing and event management softwares that better suit our needs. A factor in new software purchases is whether they can be integrated with Sugar. 

We're keen on developing our CRM to accommodate much more of our account management process along with our sales pipeline process. This latter entails tracking our leads and membership applications in the CRM and integrating it with the external site from where this data originates. The progress we've made with our data and database has been remarkable and we continue to move our association forward thanks to Sugar.