Oracle offers a CRM appetizer

Many industry analysts foresee a promising future for service-based CRM (customer relationship management). According to International Data Corp. estimates from May 2001, worldwide revenue from CRM outsourcing will jump from US$32 billion in 2000 to more than US$66 billion in 2004.

These astonishing figures suggest succulent profits for CRM service providers and software vendors. Obviously, your company can benefit from CRM as a service because it 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 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 SFA (sales-force automation) 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. 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 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. 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 reps 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. 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.

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 reps should have easy access to a customer’s pending support issues: Using Oracle’s offering, they 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 reps to follow a predefined flow of activities. An enforceable flow should be an option.

Oracle Sales and Support offer 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.

Apicella ([email protected]), an InfoWorld (U.S.) Test Center senior analyst, covers enterprise applications.

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