Four-way CRM shootout

We fire up the top hosted CRM solutions from RightNow, NetSuite, Salesnet, and Salesforce.com and put them through their paces

Hosted CRM solutions, which deliver SFA and more through the browser as a service, were once considered upstarts. But the failure of first-generation, server-based CRM software -- and the stunning success of Salesforce.com -- has ushered CRM into the mainstream. Proof can be found among traditional vendors, who have scrambled to deliver hosted versions or to slap a Web-based front end on their CRM software.

With much lower costs of entry than those of on-premise solutions and feature sets that rival those of in-house applications, hosted CRM solutions no longer seem risky or second-class. Yet, not all hosted vendors can capture the triple crown of sales, service, and marketing excellence. With customer satisfaction and touch-point management intrinsic to the success of every business, the InfoWorld Test Center decided to kick off 2005 by sorting hype from substance in hosted CRM.

To that end, we rounded up solutions from the most notable vendors -- at least those that weren’t afraid to show their wares. NetSuite, RightNow Technologies, Salesforce.com, and Salesnet, each of which released updates in the final quarter of 2004, offered hosted CRM solutions for us to put through the paces. We also examined a CRM solution from Entellium but found its capabilities were not in the same class as the other products reviewed.

RightNow CRM 7.0

RightNow has built a solid reputation on the service and support side of CRM. Its outbound marketing tools have also proved more than capable. The new RightNow CRM 7.0 fills out the offering with an SFA module for sales channel management.

The basic tools for good SFA are all there: opportunity and pipeline management; contact and account detail; and tools for managing quota, forecasting, and approval routing that are near par with competitors -- although automated lead to opportunity management would be a plus.

The workflow capability in RightNow -- perhaps the best in this roundup -- combines impressive features with top-notch usability. I liked the simple interface for customizing conditions and actions. And support for multiple process threads spawned from a single threshold trigger provides a superb grade of automation.

RightNow’s workflow engine enforces sales methodologies and listens across customer channels, including live support chat. The engine also assigns rules-based tasks in real time that escalate priority, involve managers in important events, or push follow-up e-mails.

The RightNow interface is not browser-based; rather, it requires a client-side download of support libraries and ActiveX controls. Albeit very sluggish, the result is a usable GUI with the look and feel of a native desktop application, with right-click menus to improve usability. The sales agent console, however, would benefit from better customization capability. And the application lacks built-in provisions for calendaring -- a unique oversight among these vendors.

I found the dashboard interface within the SFA console lackluster -- truly nothing more than a duplication of its analytics page. Dashboard reports don’t refresh dynamically, so I needed to manually re-generate them. Plus, I couldn’t combine multiple dashboards on a single page to create a comprehensive overview.

The overall analytics engine is impressive, however, generating reports that can be sliced and diced without requiring exports to Excel for basic tasks. And the ability to schedule and send reports at predetermined intervals is a nice touch.

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Creating data sets for my reports was somewhat tedious and would benefit from wizards to improve accessibility. Complex filters, however, can be built based on a variety of criteria and data from across the CRM database for valuable insight into pipelines and operations. RightNow’s integrated product catalog and basic multicurrency support also help manage tasks such as quote generation.

When it comes to customer service, RightNow is inspired, providing a dependable console for managing inbound queues and customer inquiries. Self-service features allow customers to log in and check trouble tickets, browse the knowledge base, and chat with support agents. They can also subscribe to e-mail notifications on relevant support issues.

RightNow offers effective CTI (computer-telephony integration) support with pop-ups and scripting options that guide sales reps through calls. Tools such as Offer Advisor showed me rules-based, real-time upsell opportunities that could help support staff top off the sales coffers.

The outbound marketing tools are also superb. Using the graphical editor, I constructed my campaigns and interaction schedules, along with triggers that fully automated the process of executing my marketing campaign and response follow-ups. I liked how easy it was to build and test list segmentations and communication templates that can be drafted without using an external word-processing app. Campaign response data offered good analysis with tracking and analytics, such as ROI and cost per lead.

A notable downside to this product, however, is its limited capability of integrating with back-end systems. Without Web services support or an extensive API, the integration options for RightNow users are dismal. Furthermore, the lack of an offline client or more comprehensive Outlook integration hurts RightNow’s prospective usefulness with mobile sales teams.

Nonetheless, the SFA module represents a step in the right direction for those who want to boost sales revenue through automation and efficiency. For companies focused on bolstering customer service and marketing requirements in multichannel scenarios, RightNow is worth a serious look.

NetSuite 10

NetSuite 10 differentiates itself from the hosted CRM pack by incorporating ERP-like functionality, bundling tightly integrated accounting, banking, vendor management, and inventory tracking capabilities. HR functions, such as payroll and expense reporting, are also included. For smaller businesses, NetSuite provides a fairly complete suite of hosted front- and back-office solutions, ensuring that companywide dependencies and interactions are managed collectively.

The interface is slick and accessible -- impressive from a browser-based offering. Each navigation tab is outfitted with DHTML drop-down menus that allow access to any subscreen. It was refreshing to jump directly to a specific report, setup screen, or activity list paging through multiple screens.

Inline editing makes working with data much easier. Data objects are keyed to live data, making them directly accessible without jumping to a detail screen or popping up a lookup list. The one major flaw in NetSuite’s interface -- its lack of the guided, step-by-step nurturing found in other solutions -- could increase initial training time.

The homepage is fully customizable, with dashboard insight into pipeline status and key performance indicators definable across a variety of criteria. Comparative and threshold-based triggers can be set to draw managers’ attention to potential trends.

One unique feature allows dashboard placement on any screen. Changes to the date range are among the possible modifications you can make without having to navigate away and redefine the whole dashboard. The process for tailoring my interface -- simply dragging a screen element to a new location -- does away with fumbling, list-based screen formatters, too.

In addition to the usual SFA tools, NetSuite throws in basic customer support and issue tracking, a self-service portal, and outbound marketing, as well as a document repository for marketing collateral and product documentation -- plus a solutions knowledge base to help agents answer common service questions. Bells and whistles add to the appeal, including expectation management tools for quotas, forecasts, and commission payout, group calendaring, and multicurrency translation. On the downside, NetSuite comes up light on contract management, telephony integration, and comprehensive workflow.

A new component, Upsell Manager, helps create sales pattern analysis from which some BI and lead planning can be derived. Using the tool, I easily paired customers to potential cross-sell and upsell opportunities. Analysis can be seeded by either customer-specific criteria, such as sales history, or by inventory, which allowed me to push specials from warehouse overstock, for example. The upsell wizard generated a customer list that I pushed into the queue, where sales reps could retrieve and follow up on these potential moneymaking leads.

Outbound marketing campaigns can be directed fairly easily. The progress metrics, however, were lackluster and short on detail. Quick access to delivery stats, response rates, and click-throughs -- which RightNow provides -- would improve the campaign interface.

NetSuite’s reporting analytics were formidable, with a wide variety of reports across a swath of metrics. The NetCommerce Analytics engine can also be integrated with your customer portal or Web store to track and report on customer click-stream data, helping to distill data for issues or customer needs before they get away from you.

As did Salesforce.com, NetSuite allowed me to fine-tune reports with Boolean filters. But the process for inputting formulas was more cumbersome in NetSuite because I couldn’t simply type a formula as I could with Salesforce.com. Worse, NetSuite failed to check the validity of my filter definitions.

If you don’t need ERP-ware, NetSuite may not be for you. For one thing, NetSuite’s Web services API, although it exposes most CRM functions, provides less ERP and inventory accessibility. Pricing on this hosted solution also bears scrutiny: Low thresholds on storage and e-mail, as well as on add-on modules, can quickly escalate the total cost. That said, NetSuite makes a very good choice for SMBs looking to address CRM, ERP, and inventory tracking in a single, integrated suite.

Salesnet Extended Edition

Although Salesnet Extended Edition navigates a narrow channel of expertise (effectively SFA only), it does a respectable job. The strength of Salesnet is in its capability of setting up and directing the workflow of sales agents. Its Process Builder offers a very usable, Web-based interface for constructing flow control to drive sales efforts through the pipeline.

Actions are defined with next steps, due dates, prioritization, and agent responsibilities and are fully customizable. I was disappointed when I could not trigger multiple actions from a single control event, however. And a graphical interface would help users visualize process interactions.

On the other hand, features such as a navigation checker allowed me to detect errors by stepping through conditions and viewing outcomes. I easily bound processes to my sales methodologies as well as specific agents and groups.

The customizable interface made for a concise, descriptive layout that will benefit novice users, making this a great tool for smaller, less tech-savvy shops. I even tested layouts prior to deployment to see how specific users would be affected by a change.

Team-based selling is attainable using definable hierarchies and interteam disciplines that govern communication, access, and information sharing. Administration for group management was a bit light for effecting changes en masse, however.

The visibility and insight provided by Salesnet’s executive dashboards are excellent, although I would have preferred the ability to consolidate a mix of dashboards into a single view. The use of Adobe’s SVG Viewer run time supports mouse-over details on charts and easy drill-through to underlying stats.

External customer data can be captured from your Web site and fed into the system, allowing for proactive routing and follow-up. Although Salesnet is essentially SFA-only, you can launch outbound communications using mail merge tools and basic contact list parsing. There is no real campaign tracking, however.

I worked on my accounts, contacts, and deal information away from an Internet connection thanks to Salesnet’s offline client, a Microsoft .Net application that includes the Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Desktop Engine. The calendar can come along, too, although certain features, such as adding a document attachment to an appointment, were not available as in the connected version. The platform also syncs with the likes of Outlook, Notes, and GroupWise, a necessity in the absence of real-time alerting through the hosted application calendar.

I was disappointed to find limited conflict resolution between the offline and online applications during resync. I was able to schedule two overlapping meetings without a warning. I also did not appreciate needing to re-enter my log-in credentials with every update during the same session.

Vertical industries will benefit from the availability of a number of extra-cost, preconfigured sales methodologies. The Salesnet price includes unlimited storage for building a document repository to support your sales reps with marketing materials, data sheets, and communication templates, for example.

Salesnet offers a fleet of prebuilt connectors to back-end systems such as PeopleSoft and Tibco at additional cost, and it exposes a decent Web services API that should satisfy most custom integration needs.

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