Salesforce.com updates hosted CRM

Winter ’04 edition builds strong workflow automation and alerting features into flexible offering

Long the leader among hosted SFA/CRM solutions, Salesforce.com continues to raise the bar for competitors. With the Winter ’04 release, SFDC (Salesforce.com) packs improvements that truly put the “automation” into SFA. In addition to improvements in reporting, customization, and contract management, the new edition extends rules-based workflow and task routing throughout the application, helping to jump-start sales efforts by placing leads, opportunities, and customer service issues in the right hands at the right time.

Solid pipeline management tools, which make it easy to create leads from campaigns, convert them into opportunities, and turn opportunities into contracted customers, are backed by real-time alerts and a graphical dashboard that instantly shows the status of any customer process. SFDC also provides tools for forecasting and tracking quota levels, and post-contract retention tools including case management, customer service knowledgebase, and automated contract renewal.

I was impressed by the application’s ability to bend workflow to mirror existing processes, rather than forcing staff to learn its way of doing things. On the downside, at no time did I forget that I was working in a Web browser; this might be an instance where a thin-client interface could further enrich the user’s experience.

Tools of the Trade

SFDC provides each member of your sales team with a personalized home page, which serves as a jumping-off point for all activities. Users can view appointments and tasks, and access information based on their position or role. I easily tailored employee log-on pages to give support managers access to customer service issues and contract details, and sales reps access to their leads and pending opportunities, for example.

SFDC’s tabbed interface offered quick access to information. The intuitive interface also eased the conversion of my qualified leads to full-fledged customer accounts, building a complete record set with contact, account data, and opportunity details as well as launching next-step tasks. The clean layout showed all key milestones associated with an account, such as pending meetings, contact logs (e-mail, phone calls, etc.), and external support documents, which I was able to attach to any record.

A new dashboard feature allows you to turn any report metric into an easily digested graphic or chart. Dashboards can incorporate elements from across the spectrum of sales and service tasks. A quick inspection of pipeline status (from lead to close), pending support cases, or the status of key accounts can provide staff with a real-time snapshot of what’s hot and what’s not.

In most cases, but not all, I was able to drill through graphics to underlying data elements for closer inspection. It would be useful if SFDC extended this drill-down capability to data throughout the application. Also helpful would be the ability to include dashboards and other custom elements in users’ log-on pages.

Administering SFDC is a snap. I easily imported leads and contacts generated by external sources such as a direct marketing campaign or Act!. Building new forms and work screens was as easy as dragging and dropping fields into place. The highly customizable interface presented granular control over every aspect of the user’s experience, down to which page and data elements were displayed. And, although I was unable to import an external user list during initial setup, SFDC facilitated access control by auto-generating passwords and e-mailing new users their log-on credentials.

Go With the Flow

One of the most important advances in the new Winter ’04 release is the addition of workflow process management. Nearly everything, from assigning prospective leads to launching inquiries when high-profile accounts change status, can be managed using triggers and rules-based automation. This extends, too, to managing customer service cases and Web-initiated solicitations as well.

I used the text-based workflow interface to build rule sets for standard business practices. Rules could be built on criteria such as geographic location or revenue potential, for example, to ensure that a new lead on a prime account didn’t end up in the lap of a newbie. Even changes in the status of an opportunity or existing contract could be used as a trigger. So, as a deal moved closer to completion, alerts and workflow tasks could be fired to call in the expertise of big guns to finesse the final closing.

The rules development interface would benefit from a graphical layout to help managers better visualize and test workflow processes. Also, the ability to include relational, date-based rules would be helpful. SFDC does allow you to implement new rules on existing records. And relational, date-based rules are available in task creation, where I could define a trigger date as “current date plus x-number of days,” for example.

The Winter ’04 edition also steps lightly into contract management by automating approval routing. SFDC won’t replace your primary contract repository. It lacks integrated quote development, as well as many other features of a full-fledged contract management system (really an ERP function), but its audit trails can benefit support staff, and expiration alerts will allow sales reps to identify potential opportunities for renewal revenue.

In or Out?

Outsourcing CRM has always been viewed as a trade-off between reaping immediate benefits and satisfying ongoing flexibility requirements. With SFDC you gain the best of both worlds. And because SFDC mitigates hardware, storage, and security requirements, as well as the burden on IT staff, it becomes possible to accurately predict the true cost of your CRM system.

SFDC combines a rich set of CRM features, an intuitive interface, superb help and support services, strong reporting, extensive customization, and the tools to meet the challenge of most any advanced application or legacy integration requirement. In addition to a new Web services API, Winter ’04 offers advanced integration through its SForce on- demand application server and an in-house TIBCO Integration Server that can directly extend your backend applications with CRM functionality.

Any company in all but the most vertical of industries would do well to consider SFDC Winter ’04. Its potential for building more productive, cost-effective sales teams and ensuring customer satisfaction is unmatched in a hosted solution, and one lead well worth your time to qualify.

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