You've got CRM

Probably the most difficult question you can ask sales or marketing managers is to define what their companies' CRM requirements are. No matter how differently sales professionals may perceive their companies' business requirements, they share a common desire for simplicity in their CRM applications. Ask salespeople to interact with a keyboard and mouse more often than they feel is needed or to submit to some extensive training, and your CRM application is quickly doomed as your sales force will avoid it like a traffic jam during rush hour.

If this strikes a chord, you'll find Inc. -- a CRM solution from a startup of the same name -- interesting. BizAutomation is offered as a hosted application or for your own installation.

Using the easy-to-implement programming features of Outlook Web Access that Microsoft Corp. delivers with Exchange 2000, BizAutomation has created a low-cost CRM package for small sales departments. The solution delivers easy-to-use functionality for managing the most common sales, marketing, and customer service activities from any recent Internet Explore browser. Outlook's popular UI should require minimal user adjustment to a new computing paradigm and minimal training. Moreover, it offers tools to meet the most common CRM requirements of sales, marketing, and customer service reps at most companies.

The current version of BizAutomation offers only streamlined front-office, customer-facing activities, including launching marketing campaigns, managing leads, developing sales opportunities, and handling support issues. But according to the company, future versions will provide customers with built-in integration with QuickBooks accounting software.

When analyzing a packaged app, we focus on its business features and functionality as these facets are generally more important to potential customers than is the technical architecture of the solution. We made an exception for BizAutomation because it was developed using an innovative approach to leveraging Microsoft Exchange 2000.

Unlike other CRM solutions that build on the Outlook GUI, BizAutomation requires no client installation. You don't even need to have Outlook on your PC: The CRM application is accessed via OWA (Outlook Web Access), a browser-contained client that offers most of the features of the full client, including access to calendar, mail, and contact databases that reside on the Exchange 2000 server.

BizAutomation leverages another interesting feature of Exchange: the capability of extending the database schema to store additional CRM data such as lead, account, marketing campaigns, and customer support information.

The result of BizAutomation's alchemy, which blends .Net-based apps with Exchange 2000 and OWA, is a familiar GUI that salespeople can access from IE 5 or later. It has the familiar Outlook structure of shortcuts and folders that store their contacts, schedules, and e-mail. An additional private folder, predictably named BizAutomation, is the entry-point to the CRM apps.

For our review, BizAutomation provided the URL of its Exchange server hosting the application and an account ID and password.

After we logged in, we clicked on the BizAutomation folder to open the CRM menu in IE5. BizAutomation's simplicity is its best characteristic. Entering a new lead entails filling out a form with typical customer data such as company name and contact information. Alternatively, you can import leads from file formats such as Excel or comma-delimited files.

Whichever method you choose to enter leads, BizAutomation has an option to quickly convert that information to a prospect without further data entry. When we had a prospect in our database, we were able to add conversations -- such as e-mail messages or notes from phone calls -- with our contact and to add sales opportunities with the lead's company.

Another example of the interface's simple and effective interface: If your opportunity develops into a sale, BizAutomation will automatically create a customer record from prospect information, again without requiring further user input. Moreover, BizAutomation will automatically change a prospect's status to customer when an opportunity generates a sale. You also can enter customer service issues that BizAutomation will automatically number and track for that account.

After clicking on the marketing campaign tab, we were able to create a mass e-mail to a group of selected customers in just a few steps. From an initial menu, we chose customers to target according to criteria such as age range, ZIP code, or state. Then we wrote a standard e-mail message using BizAutomation's mail-merge feature to automatically personalize that message with data such as customer or contact name.

The BizAutomation GUI is very sleek and effective, but the absence of a few features disappointed us. For instance, the customer database provides no support for parent companies. Further, the solution doesn't offer an offline client, though that should become available in an upcoming release, according to BizAutomation. But among the more annoying shortcomings of this first release is its lack of a product database, which can become a major nuisance if your company sells numerous good or services.

Perhaps even worse, none of the BizAutomation screens have a field in which to store even a short product description. This is especially annoying when you enter opportunities, service cases, or leads because it makes it difficult to record that which is probably the most important information about your customer: the object of the sale.

Those shortcomings aside, we liked the simplicity of BizAutomation. It offers a shallow but extensive range of CRM functionality at a very reasonable cost. Although this version looks promising, you may want to wait for future enhancements -- especially if you find its shortcomings and lack of depth hard to swallow.

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