Community and collaboration tools are coming to CRM.
During the past six months, Salesforce.com and Oracle have delivered new features and products that allow organizations to identify the hottest ideas faster, improve team productivity and enhance large organizations' ability to deliver more personal customer service.
The tools shed light on the likely direction this industry will follow in the next year.
Indeed, the Internet and the Web 2.0 phenomenon have enabled a level of customer engagement that previously wasn't possible or expected. A plethora of alternative information sources have changed the vendor-customer relationship from being highly vendor-centric to one in which customers and vendors each may have relationships with one another, with partners and distributors, and with other customers.
Listening to the Customer
Web 2.0 technologies enable CRM users to capitalize on these changes in profound ways. Salesforce Ideas, for example, allows users to suggest and then vote on new ideas, enabling organizations to identify the best ideas contributed by their employees, customers and partners. It's a personal version of Digg, adapted to the needs of the enterprise.
Salesforce's own implementation of Ideas, Salesforce Idea??ÃExchange (ideas.salesforce.com), has recorded thousands of ideas-some 7,600 as of June 11. According to the site, many of those ideas will be implemented in Salesforce.com this summer, including enabling the insertion of related object data into a formula field, allowing in-line editing for views and filtering on lookup.
Dell has also deployed the Salesforce Ideas technology-as Dell IdeaStorm (dellideastorm.com)-enabling customers to suggest and vote on new concepts and feature changes in Dell products.
CEO Michael Dell has charged his direct reports with monitoring the forums and taking responsibility for implementing the best ideas. Almost 10,000 ideas have been introduced since the service went live last year, generating more than 65,000 comments.
Recently implemented ideas offered on the service have been as mundane as adding a new tag to the IdeaStorm site and as high-level as adding higher-resolution screens to the Dell XPS 1530 laptop and offering RAID 5 on Dell XPS desktop PCs.
While Salesforce ideas allows organizations to mine the brain share of their customer and employee base, Oracle CRM On Demand Release 15 empowers sales and support personnel by consolidating information into personalized views and enabling team members to readily share that information with one another.
At the heart of R15 is a customizable home page and sidebar. The sidebar provides easy access to key portions of R15, including favorite records and lists, search, and key tasks. Also on the sidebar is the Message Center, where individuals can view any messages or comments left for them in R15. Both the sidebar and the home page can be customized through Widgets, applications that deliver custom content using RSS or HTML and require no custom coding. For example, Widgets demoed with R15 enabled access to Visual Path's eponymously named product, which scans e-mails and other company sources to develop an anonymous, companywide map of trusted relationships. Credit reporting agency Experian is a current Oracle CRM customer and is evaluating R15 for sales pipeline management. So far, the company has been impressed with the flexibility that R15's Widgets provide.
"In many cases, our lead times might be measured in months," said Nigel Hodges, head of global CRM strategies and platforms at Experian. "So, providing our sales executives with industry and company news is important for getting a sense of the client, while VisualPath would be a good way to find out network context of those clients."
The use of RSS feeds in Oracle CRM On Demand R15 and other products is important for more than just updates on the latest news.
"We have developers who work in two systems, and they don't want to log into On Demand to learn the latest project requests because it represents a third system," said Onyeka Shakur, project manager at ADP's Tax Credit Services. "Now we can just add a queue list to their desktop so they never have to log into a third system."
RSS also improves communications among members of sales teams, allowing them to receive updates made by team members on customers, projects and events.
Salesforce.com and Oracle provide a complete CRM ecosystem, but a number of smaller vendors-including Communispace, MarketTools and Think Passenger-are providing solutions that can help companies interact with customers more effectively. Used with social networking applications from vendors such as Jive Software, Lithium Technologies and Prospero Technologies, these customer collaboration applications can help companies lower support costs by empowering customers to solve one another's problems. While none of these customer collaboration apps provides the same Digg-like capability to promote ideas as Salesforce.com's does, they do address similar market niches.
A direct competitor to Salesforce Ideas is Spigit, a provider of idea generation and crowd-sourcing technology with a twist. Like Salesforce Ideas, Spigit enables participants to promote and demote ideas. But Spigit adds the ability to factor in the reputation of participants to weight opinions and give greater credence to the views of people who have demonstrated expertise in a particular area.
This kind of reputation-based ranking of ideas might have prevented the problems Starbucks had with its MyStarbucksIdea service.
When Starbucks tapped Salesforce Ideas to help it go online and engage its customer base in a dialogue, the organization had no idea what to expect. The Starbucks brand was a huge success in the brick-and-mortar world, of course, but online lattes were few and far between.
Since its launch MyStarbucksIdea has drawn strong community involvement. Although statistics aren't shown on the site, its 4,137 pages of ideas-at 10 ideas per page-add up to more than 40,000 ideas as of early June.
And, yet, there seems to be more noise than productive suggestions.
One blogger at mystarbucksblog.com noted problems with multiple instances of the same idea, the lack of ability to vote against an idea and the degeneration of discussion in general. "The comments have really descended to the level of a grade school argument over who is faster between Superman and the Flash," the blogger wrote. "[A] post about tipping has some really nasty comments by more than a few individuals. I don't think that removing the tip jars is a good idea, but the concept of My Starbucks Idea is that all voices are heard in a respectful manner."
Spigit and other vendors may close these gaps, but few enterprise IT managers will want to glue a complete solution together from many separate products. IT pros know that purchasing discrete products can often lead to higher implementation costs.
"I can buy forum software and idea generation software, but they all have separate authentication systems, and that's a big barrier," said Paul Schmitter, head of process management at RiskMetrics, a Salesforce.com customer considering Salesforce Ideas. "The more different things I need to log into to build an internal or external community, [the bigger the barrier becomes]," he said.
Ignore the Customer
Companies should not ignore the benefits that apps such as Salesforce Ideas can provide, but sometimes they should ignore their customers.
CRM 2.0 allows companies to gain significant efficiencies in their pre- and post-sales processes by more effectively marshaling customers and employees. It also allows organizations to keep in closer contact with their customers. However, the challenge is to determine how to align customer feedback with corporate mission.
In their book "Made to Stick," Chip and Dan Heath recount a story about guidance provided by Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher on how to run a company.
"Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entr??«e on the Houston to Las Vegas flight," Kelleher is quoted as saying in the book. "All we offer is peanuts and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say? You say, -Tracy, will adding that chicken caesar salad make us the low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn't help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we're not serving any damn chicken salad.'"
Balancing customer interest with corporate mission may just be as important as knowing what customers want in the first place.