A rich dollop of CRM

CRM products are likely candidates for hosted applications. Companies signing up for such services benefit from reduced deployment time and costs. As an added bonus, some vendors such as Oracle, Upshot, and Salesforce.com are offering free online evaluations that give companies the opportunity to try the various solutions without making any commitment.

We examined salesforce.com's like-named Web-based CRM offering. The service offers SFA (sales-force automation), customer service, and marketing functionality that you can control via a browser.

Throughout our testing, we found the application to be responsive, easy to use, and adaptable to various business needs. We recommend taking advantage of the free evaluation to challenge salesforce.com with your own requirements. If it meets all your needs, deploying this affordable solution can help you take better care of your customers.

Removing CRM complexity

Among salesforce.com's most appealing characteristics is its simplicity. You can set up an account online by filling out a simple registration form. There, you can create a parent account for your company headquarters and subordinate accounts for other locations. The company does not charge for the service if you limit the number of users to five. Each additional user will trigger a US$65 per month fee that covers the cost of service, training, and technical support.

After we completed the registration process, we were able to start populating our salesforce.com database with data entry and online imports, such as contacts, accounts, leads, and schedule information. The solution can import data from standard formats, such as comma-delimited files, and from Outlook Express.

For a trial run, this do-it-yourself approach should suffice. For massive or more complex data transfers, however, the vendor can assist for a fee between $5,000 and $10,000.

After we imported sample data, we began exploring the service. The GUI of salesforce.com is intuitive and helpful, and it works seamlessly with Microsoft and Netscape browsers. A tabbed format gives sales reps immediate access to managing sales leads, accounts, contacts, and opportunities. Separate tabbed windows let users handle customer support issues, analyze sales forecasts, or create numerous reports.

Other features suggest that the vendor put a lot of effort into making the service's GUI intuitive and user-friendly For example, clicking on tabs opens windows that are consistently marked with different colors. Additionally, deleted items are moved to a recycle bin and easily can be restored to the original database.

Moreover, users can personalize the GUI so as to hide unnecessary data. For example, a support representative can create a custom view limited to contacts and support issues. This flexibility makes working with the product more pleasant and effective.

Also beneficial is the way the service minimizes data entry by allowing users to clone information such as contacts or leads and to automatically create a new copy.

A business perspective

Using salesforce.com, companies can collect new leads and support issues directly from customers by creating specific Web forms, which a Web administrator can easily add to your site. When a customer fills out a form, an entry for a lead or a support request will automatically enter the salesforce.com database and will be assigned to a representative according to criteria specified by the administrator. This easy-to-implement and elegant approach creates an instant bridge between your customers and your CRM applications and should spark your interest in the solution.

An outstanding feature called Enterprise Links lets users exchange data between CRM pages and other Web applications. For example, an administrator can create a link to automatically insert in a lead a product description from another application. Enterprise Links is a very flexible option that companies can implement easily for various integration tasks: It requires only a URL to access the Web application and some simple code to locate the information. The vendor is working to extend interoperability with Web services in future releases.

All in all, we were very impressed with salesforce.com. The solution has powerful data management tools, it can be easily customized to various company requirements, and it offers significant timesaving features. Our only disappointment is that the service does not offer a product database. As a work-around, you can store product information using, for example, custom fields in the opportunity database, but for companies that sell thousands of different items, this will not be a workable solution. Aside from that, salesforce.com is a flexible CRM service that can bring your customers closer to your business objectives and to your sales forecasts, all at an affordable cost.

Mario Apicella covers enterprise applications for the InfoWorld Test Center. Send comments and questions to mario_apicella@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE: DEPLOY

salesforce.com

Business Case: With this Web-based service, companies can easily and affordably add CRM functionality to online applications. Browser-delivered features and training ease implementation for both centralized and distributed organizations.

Technology Case: Usable via most browsers, salesforce.com offers numerous data import and customization options. Traveling reps can easily swap data with Outlook Express and Palm devices.

Pros:

+ Easy to use and customize.

+ Extensible to existing Web applications+ Powerful data exchange tools.

Cons:

- No product database provided.

Cost: $65 per user; typical implementations cost $5,000 to $10,000.

Platform(s): Netscape or Microsoft browser.

Company: salesforce.com Inc.; www.salesforce.com.

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