Clientele banks on self-service strength

Epicor Software's recently released Clientele CRM.Net Suite 8.2 has a lofty goal: provide a backbone of customer support with sales-force automation tools that reduce costs and improve the art of the deal.

Clientele's standout features include its customer self-service Web portal and its Web services underpinnings -- built on Microsoft .Net -- that minimize the integration impact with service-oriented architectures. I was disappointed, however, that several key features, by today's standards, were missing from the suite, such as a well-integrated workflow automation, internationalization, and multicurrency support. But Clientele offers only limited deployment options. In addition, Epicor was unable to provide full access to the new Version 3.0 of its outbound e-mail marketing tools, a stand-alone application that integrates with the suite to provide proactive marketing opportunities.

The suite nevertheless offers good record-keeping capabilities and customization; small and midtier companies looking to shore up customer-support transactions and eventually to take advantage of Web services in their CRM practices should give it a thorough consideration.

Up and at 'Em

Epicor does not offer a hosted version of Clientele but made one available for testing. This let me avoid much of the complexity and lag time that could plague a typical installation, such as integrating with existing systems and setting up and seeding the database.

In both hosted and nonhosted setups, Clientele relies on a fat client interface to communicate with the hosting server, using SOAP to push and pull XML data and to update the interface and database. Although the fat-client approach typically helps to streamline client/server interaction, the text-heavy XML payload likely caused the somewhat sluggish performance I saw.

To start, I simply downloaded a 1MB client setup file. When I conncted the client, a new download pushed another 30MB of module-specific data to my setup. I was nonetheless soon up and running.

Customer-support functionality, the strongest feature in Clientele's aresenal, provides superb call management and case resolution, including easy access to customer and company records, product lookup, and the capability for agents to search the AnswerBook, Clientele's knowledge repository.

Although it lacks the direct TAPI (telephony API) phone integration of competitors such as ACCPAC, I was able to log e-mails and phone notes, build profiles, and attach relevant support materials to create a meaningful customer history.

Managers will appreciate the ease of administering support queues. I could get high-level overviews of active workloads, drill down to a specific staffer's queue, and easily reassign work to others or put it back into the queue to prevent bottlenecks. Automation tools catch issues that sit dormant too long, escalating the priority level of a call, reassigning a call, or triggering an e-mail alert.

I also liked Clientele's built-in timer for tracking billable hours. Its strong features for monitoring service agreements not only ensure compliance, but also drive revenue through lapsed contract renewal.

Helping Yourself

On the self-service front, Clientele keeps you fairly well covered with a customer-facing Web portal for customers to initiate support calls, review service agreements and RMA (return material authorization) status, and search for answers to FAQs.

Although it lacks some of the finer touches of e-service-focused vendors, such as auto-resolution suggestion and live chat, Clientele does offer polling, a document repository, and discussion threads. It also integrates nicely with existing Web site branding.

Unfortunately, administering the portal interface is a chore. The only way to accomplish the task was via a Web browser that, rather than make use of DHTML, required constant page updates and scrolling. Administration would be better served by a native client or, at least, better integration with the primary suite interface.

When it comes to sales-force automation, Clientele has the requisite record-keeping tools: contact management; lead and opportunity tracking; and easy access to historical references, which can include attachments, correspondence, and alert messages from co-workers.

I found that the suite lacks the degree of automated workflow and customizable alerting facilities standard in many of today's CRM offerings, but does allow manual routing. Also nice is the ability to manage sales structures that span multiple territories and the ability to create, preview, and generate quotes -- a real time saver.

Clientele's sales-force tools do offer pipeline and forecasting opportunities, but I found the interface rudimentary and lacking the graphical, heads-up insight found in competitors such as

Mining for Change

The one area that does sport graphical insight and metrics is the reporting facilities. Business Objects' Crystal Reports supplies reporting, and the tool comes prestocked with 30 basic reports.

The features for building new charts were clumsy, however, and lacked a database table column picker. Once built, the reports offer meaningful analysis and can be exported in a variety of formats including PDF and Excel. You can also customize report definitions using Visual Studio .Net or Crystal Enterprise.

In the end, I found that Epicor's database-centric tools performed acceptably, but it lacked the attention to detail that would improve usability.

For the price, it weighs in light on functionality. But its record-keeping prowess and the cost savings of a self-service portal will drop right to your bottom line.

With the addition of better inline usability features and some real-time insight, Clientele's extensible Web services platform could grow into a CRM market contender.

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