Many industry analysts foresee a promising future for service-based CRM (customer relationship management). International Data Corp estimates from May 2001, worldwide revenue from CRM outsourcing will jump from $US32 billion in 2000 to more than $66 billion in 2004.
Choosing the right service remains an intimidating challenge. For many, it translates into making an almost blind selection based on marketing demonstrations or other people's testimonies rather than on direct experience with the product.
But this is about to change, thanks to vendors such as Oracle and Salesforce.com, which are making their products available free of charge as Web-delivered services. Getting started takes just a few minutes - point your browser, register, and begin challenging those applications with your own data and business rules.
We took an in-depth look at Oracle Sales and Support, the free SFA (sales-force automation) and customer service components of the vendor's CRM offering. Both products warrant consideration because they are a well-designed yet limited-in-scope entry point to CRM that can easily expand into a more comprehensive implementation.
Sales and support, as well as marketing, are all modules of Oracle's gigantic E-Business Suite Online. The suite also includes integrated functionality for front-office and back-office applications, manufacturing, procurement, supply-chain management, BI (business intelligence) and project management. Oracle offers discrete implementation of selected modules, which makes it easy for a company to start with the most needed functionality and add more later.
In this somewhat complicated scenario, Sales and Support warrants-consideration as being the starting pieces for a more complex, Oracle-branded jigsaw puzzle of applications. You can count on a well-designed UI that makes both applications easy to use without requiring much training. An unlimited number of users can fire up the GUI via their browsers and access customer data from virtually any location. Moreover, sales representatives can beam contact and opportunity data to their WAP (wireless application protocol)-compliant devices.
Administrators can flexibly assign users' rights according to their roles. Depending on which rights they are granted, users can easily import existing databases such as users, customers or contacts from their Web browser. Sales and Support representatives share an excellent customer database, capable of handling multiple office locations for each prospect, and they can independently add contact information or support issues for a client.
A common calendar helps people keep track of private and team schedules. Managers can create basic sales forecasting reports, but don't expect to see any charts unless you export your data to an Excel spreadsheet.
One might wonder if the freebie from Oracle is a knockout punch for fee-based CRM solutions. Yet it is important to understand that the currently free SFA and customer service applications from Oracle have a limited scope.
For example, the embryonic product database carries only a description of each product, and there are no fields for basic data such as price or product code for each item. Even worse, we had to enter those product descriptions manually, as Oracle has not yet implemented import features for the product database.
Some of those roadblocks, such as lack of import for the product database, will probably disappear in future versions. Indeed, we found a few instances where clicking on a button would trigger a "coming soon" message.
Other issues can be resolved if you add fee-based components from the rich portfolio of the E-Business suite. Obviously this will cost you, but these components can open the door to much-needed capabilities such as integration with inventory or accounts-receivable systems.
Certain aspects of Sales and Support do not compare well with those of competing CRM products. For example, sales representatives should have easy access to a customer's pending support issues. Using Oracle's offering, sales representatives have to hunt for them using a support-capable account.
Moreover, although administrators can create sales stages consistent with company rules, the system does not force sales representatives to follow a predefined flow of activities. An enforceable flow should be an option.
Oracle Sales and Support offers a solid starting point for managing interactions with your customers via the Web and from the field, and you should consider both for your company. In a feature-by-feature comparison with solutions from rivals such as Siebel and PeopleSoft, Oracle may not always come out ahead. Nevertheless, the prospect of an integrated, outsourced suite of e-business applications may be an offer that your company will find too good to refuse.
The bottom line - Oracle Sales & SupportBusiness Case: These Web-delivered services manage basic customer interactions and promise built-in integration with a large suite of enterprise applications. Using Sales and Support can save significantly on capital investments and operating costs.
Technology Case: The Oracle Sales and Support clients require no installation and are compatible with Microsoft and Netscape browsers. Data migration from existing databases is possible as an offline activity for a fee or via online-activated wizards for no-fee trials.
+ Good integration of sales and support around common customer data.
+ Well-designed, easy-to-use GUI.
- Additional products required for some basic functions.
- Some features under development.
Cost: Currently, applications and support are free for an unlimited number of users.
Platform(s): Netscape or Microsoft browser or WAP-enabled devices.
Oracle Sales and Support is currently available in Australia.
Oracle: 1300 366 386,www.oracle.com.