Web-based services give CRM sample

Many industry analysts foresee a promising future for service-based CRM. CRM as a service minimizes capital expenditure on new hardware and software and cuts ongoing IT-support costs dramatically.

Choosing the right service remains an intimidating challenge. For many companies, 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 Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc., 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 Oracle Support, the free sales-force automation (SFA) and customer service components of the vendor’s CRM offering. Both products warrant consideration because they are a well designed, although 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 suite, which 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 warrant consideration as being the starting pieces for a more complex, Oracle-branded jigsaw puzzle of applications. An unlimited number of users can fire up the GUI via their browsers and access customer data from virtually any location. Moreover, sales reps can beam contact and opportunity data to their WAP (wireless application protocol)-compliant devices. Administrators can flexibly assign users’ rights according to their roles.

One might wonder if the freebie from Oracle is a knockout punch for fee-based CRM solutions. But 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, because Oracle has not yet implemented import features of the product database.

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.

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.

Apicella is an InfoWorld (U.S.) Test Center senior analyst.