Integrated biz suite

NetSuite 8.0 combines front- and back-office apps, ease of use, and customizability

EVERY COMPANY, regardless of its size, must maintain good relationships with customers, suppliers, and partners; adhere to consistent and lawful accounting practices; and, typically, manage both online stores and brick-and-mortar warehouses.

The Oracle and NetLedger partnership was the first to release a comprehensive and integrated hosted ebusiness suite, Oracle SBS (Small Business Suite). Others are following in that space, including Accpac with its eCRM suite, and Microsoft, which has pulled together Great Plains, Navision, and Solomon applications in the ERP space.

Oracle and NetLedger's initial release of Oracle SBS addressed most e-business requirements for small companies, providing a comprehensive and integrated mix of hosted applications, including general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, payroll, inventory management, and an online store.

Now the partnership is offering a more full-featured suite for midsize companies. NetLedger NetSuite 8.0 goes a step beyond Oracle SBS, providing back-office and front-office capabilities in separate CRM and accounting applications, dubbed NetLedger NetCRM and NetLedger Advanced Accounting, respectively. We found NetSuite so easy to use and well-integrated that we awarded it our highest rating of Deploy.

Customers can subscribe to NetCRM only, Advanced Accounting only, or to both. The combined, NetSuite package starts at $4,800 per year, covering a limited number of users and transactions, and can be extended for additional fees.

For customers with many users and high transaction volumes, there is an enterprise edition of NetSuite, which costs a hefty $45,000 per year and requires a stiff $25,000 setup fee.

NetLedger NetCRM provides comprehensive CRM features such as marketing campaigns, customer support, SFA, and a knowledge base that provides a searchable repository for customers or company reps. NetLedger Advanced Accounting adds much-needed features including the ability to manage multiple shipping and billing addresses, track product inventory from multiple warehouses, use electronic fund transfers for direct deposit of employees' wages or to pay bills, and sell products in foreign currencies.

Retail companies will appreciate the automatic calculation of UPS shipping fees for online or sales-rep-managed orders, and the automatic insertion of tracking information in related documents and e-mails.

In comparison to SBS, the new suite also offers more sophisticated customization capabilities that customers can take advantage of without hiring a programmer. In addition, you can add JavaScript code at specific points to further extend customization.

NetSuite has a number of predefined user roles -- administrator, sales manager, and support rep, for example -- that you can modify to fit your company structure. The role-driven screen layout can be easily personalized by changing field names and content in each form.

An obvious first step for a new customer is to adapt the suite to work according to company policies and processes. If you are using the whole set of NetCRM and Advanced Accounting modules, this activity can keep you busy for a long time -- not just assigning users and defining their roles, but also configuring automatically numbered transactions, defining billing terms and finance charges for late payments, defining rules for handling leads and support cases, creating an inventory structure, and setting up your online store. Powerful customization features were one of the highlights of Oracle SBS, and these have been further improved in NetSuite.

An obvious concern if your business applications are hosted outside your company premises is the ability to easily move data back and forth. NetSuite allows you to import current data from formats such as QuickBooks, Quicken, comma-delimited text, and XML. Furthermore, at any time you can download the whole company database, for instance to feed local applications or simply to synchronize contacts with PIMs such as Outlook Express, Goldmine, ACT, or even handheld organizers.

Those are all nice features, but NetSuite's most important characteristic is that all its modules work together seamlessly to help your company keep its eye on the business ball. For example, after starting but eventually aborting an online purchase as a customer, we almost gasped with pleasure when logging back in as sales rep: A new lead on our home page pointed to our previously attempted transaction. Opening the lead, we saw the prospect name, e-mail address, and the catalog items of interest.

Obvious due-diligence for a sales rep at this point would be to prepare an offer, including a special discount to sweeten the deal; we were able to accomplish this in just a couple of minutes. We also had the opportunity to check that those items were available in our warehouse. Next, we emailed the offer to our prospect, again easily and quickly done from NetSuite.

In minutes, we had turned a prospect's casual visit to our Web site into a sales opportunity, and possibly added a new customer to our portfolio. This is an example of the power that the tightly integrated modules of NetSuite can put to work for your company. Further, we found similarly consistent behavior in the accounting and inventory management features.

With properly configured roles and business rules, NetSuite can guide employees to pay attention to the bottom line in just about any business-related activity, including purchasing goods from suppliers, managing books and inventory, reimbursing expenses, creating paychecks, and assisting customers online or via traditional channels.

In addition, NetLedger NetSuite has an appealingly affordable entry price, although the actual cost will depend on the number of transactions that your business generates. For small and midsize businesses, the cost of NetSuite should compare favorably with the cost of the IT infrastructure and personnel required to support CRM and financial applications installed in-house.