Salesforce.com expands call center support

Hosted CRM (customer relationship management) evangelist Salesforce.com began a new branding campaign this week to draw attention to its customer-service support functionality, launching a new Web site at Supportforce.com and announcing a batch of partnerships with top call center infrastructure vendors.

Supportforce.com highlights San Francisco-based Salesforce.com's existing call center integration and features, rather than adding major new functionality. The most significant product advancement associated with the campaign is Salesforce.com's newly released Telephony API (application programming interface) toolkit, which allows its sales automation software to integrate with products from partners including Avaya, Cisco Systems, Alcatel, Aspect Communications and Genesys. The goal is to enable customers to connect software for autodialing, call routing and other functions with Salesforce.com's repository of customer contact and history information.

Patient Care Chief Information Officer Marty Howard selected Salesforce.com last year to power a call-center centralization project at his home health care agency. The West Orange, New Jersey, company opened in May a central facility for fielding customer calls from its 25 branches. Howard said he considered CRM systems from vendors including Siebel Systems, Microsoft and Onyx Software, but went with Salesforce.com because of the low capital investment required. He then picked hosted call center White Pajama Inc. and data integrator Above All Software, both Salesforce.com partners, to round out the system.

"It turns out we were a Supportforce customer before I knew what that was," Howard said. He's pleased with how well his centralized contact center system is working: "I'm very happy, and it's unusual for me to be very happy with a vendor."

Howard declined to comment on Patient Care's budget for the center, but he said he's spending less on the hosted software's monthly subscription costs than he would have on the maintenance alone for a traditional, on-premise system. He's also spending less on administration. Patient Care has around 180 users on its Salesforce.com-based system and spends less than four IT hours a week working on the system. By contrast, it spends 55 IT hours weekly maintaining homegrown operations software supporting a similar number of users, Howard said.

Supportforce.com is available now and is included in Salesforce.com's core product suite, which starts at US$65 per user, per month.

Even though Salesforce.com and Supportforce.com share a licensing fee, they will develop as two distinct applications, according to Salesforce.com Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff. "It has the roots of Salesforce.com, but it's a whole different type of layout for the customer," he said.

Salesforce.com's strategy is to continue selling per-user licenses granting access to all of its functionality, but to steadily add new offerings to the core product to expand its user base, according to Benioff. Supportforce.com grew out of Salesforce.com users extending the platform to integrate their call-center operations, he said.

"We let our customers work it out," Benioff said. "When we get to the point where we feel like it's a major initiative, we break it out. Supportforce.com now has its own brand and a bigger team here at the company supporting it."

Benioff said Salesforce.com will continue expanding Supportforce.com's customer-service features for handling functions such as case, ticket and e-mail management and service agent desktops. His goal is to compete with SAP, PeopleSoft, and Siebel, which bought hosted call center software maker Ineto Services early this year to expand its offerings. Also competing in the hosted market is RightNow Technologies, which supports around 1,000 companies on its customer support and e-mail marketing software.

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