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

All in all, Salesnet delivers a robust solution worthy of consideration by companies looking to address sales force inefficiencies. Remember, however, that Salesnet is for all intents and purposes SFA-only. With a price tag starting darn close to that of more comprehensive solutions, you’d better need the unique workflow capabilities that this solution offers.

Salesforce.com Winter ’05 Enterprise Edition

With the release of Winter ’05 Enterprise Edition, Salesforce.com builds on its position as the market leader. Enhancements include analytics integrated with historical trend data, added support for delegated administration, and a much-appreciated asset management tracking facility. Most of all, however, Salesforce continues to build out a framework for total CRM integration.

The sforce platform, which supports Web services toolkits for both Java and .Net, continues to deepen, providing endless integration and application development possibilities. For example, sforce 5.0 now sports an updated API -- including a telephony toolkit and new metadata API that improves application accessibility for mobile devices.

Salesforce’s nonintrusive, robust, browser-based interface is well thought out, with no data ever more than a click or two away. The customizable home page puts dashboards where you need them. And I liked the capability to customize multiple list views on a page, making it easy to sift and sort cases and opportunities quickly.

One quibble: I’d prefer to see more inline visual queues, such as high priority or aging service cases flagged in red on the main Case tab. Also, a built-in, real-time alert system -- not just e-mail notification -- would be welcome.

Forecasting is highly customizable. Although I liked NetSuite’s worst/upside/best-case input, which captures numbers and an agent’s impressions, Salesforce does even better with customizable views, rolling target periods, and pipeline status summaries that go a long way toward improving visibility.

Salesforce provides good offline opportunity, with both an Offline Edition and Outlook Edition that drops Salesforce tabs into your Outlook folders. Outlook Edition works only with Outlook XP/2003, although you can also sync contacts, calendar events, and tasks in Outlook 2000 with Intellisync. Within Outlook, e-mails can be used to create tasks and cases just as Salesforce contacts and leads can be used to address outbound communications.

Salesforce does well with workflow, offering automated case assignment and updates through e-mail alerts, although assignments fire off only when a record is created or updated. Salesforce also provides case escalation rules for customer support. But the interface for defining filtering criteria needs an update, with better Boolean logic input and pick lists for value types -- similar to what Salesforce offers for analytics.

The included service and support interface does a stand-up job of tracking service issues, maintaining historical data, and managing interactions with customers. Agents gain access to the central knowledge base and solutions finder -- now supporting a hierarchical layout for quick browsing -- so your entire organization can learn from itself.

On the downside, ready-made features for RMA (return materials authorization) and defect tracking may send you shopping for a third-party solution. In this instance, I found that RightNow provided a slightly more concise toolset for managing b-to-c service calls. Also, Salesforce does not currently package upsell BI utilities, whereas NetSuite and RightNow do.

I found Salesforce’s e-mail wizards for bulk support broadcasts and lead follow-ups a good addition for novices. I would prefer to see more selection criteria for list parsing, however, as well as the ability to customize message templates on the fly.

Overall, outbound e-mail marketing remains a little light by today’s standards. Although campaigns can be tracked using Salesforce, there’s no mass-solicitation service here. So the entire campaign must still be exported and executed external to Salesforce. I had to run a list-generation report, export names to a CSV (comma-separated variable) file, where they could be forwarded to a bulk-mail house, for example, and then reimport my list back into the associated campaign for tracking.

That said, Salesforce does provide very good response tracking and cost-justification tools, revealing not only delivery and response feedback but ongoing historic correlation to actual opportunities won and lost over time.

Despite a few foibles, Salesforce still leads the pack as a killer CRM solution, thanks to its feature set, usability, and extensibility. By packing a lot of value into a plug-and-play offering, it helps level the CRM playing field for small shops and enterprises alike. Companies in need of a broad CRM feature set with decent workflow and deep extensibility will find an excellent choice in Salesforce.com.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Integration (15.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
NetSuite 10 7.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.1
RightNow CRM 7.0 5.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 6.0 8.0 7.0
Salesforce.com Winter '05 Enterprise Edition 10.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.7
Salesnet Extended Edition 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 7.2
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