The socialization of CRM

Seven years after it first launched, Salesforce.com has finally added customer collaboration into its CRM package. How has it taken so long after the advent of the Web for vendors to put the notion of relationships back into customer relationship management?

The Web is a funny old place, sometimes. Seven years after it first launched, on-demand vendor Salesforce.com has finally added customer collaboration into its CRM package — albeit only on limited release to start off with. How has it taken so long after the advent of the Web for vendors to put the notion of relationships back into customer relationship management?

The new feature, a Web 2.0 take on the notion of a customer portal, is the highlight of Salesforce.com's Spring '07 release, announced Monday:

"Appspace ... is designed to allow users to share content and ideas and collaborate on a Web page, much like an enterprise version of MySpace, said Kendall Collins, senior vice president of corporate and product marketing for Salesforce. Appspace aims to allow users to add applications to the space, as well as share documents and combine the technology to create new uses via 'mashups', hybrid software that combines content from more than one source."

At long last, a leader in the CRM space is enabling companies to have an open dialog with the customers and prospects they sell to. It's about time, isn't it? For too long, CRM has been all about managing customers rather than building relationships. For a majority of Salesforce.com's customers, their usage of CRM is even narrower, focused entirely on managing the sales force and its efficiency in closing deals. In this interpretation of CRM, customers are just statistics in a sales pipeline. Not much scope for relationship-building there.

Bizarrely, Salesforce.com's application designers have to take their cue from MySpace teenagers, the great unwashed of Digg and the raging crowds of the blogosphere before they begin to realize that the Web can become a platform for the socialization of the customer experience. Even though collaboration has been staring them in the face ever since they first started using the Web, they've kept it out of CRM, I suppose because somehow it didn't seem to fit in the same application category.

Other vendors have brought collaboration to the CRM space by different routes. RightNow Technologies prefers to talk about 'customer experience management' because large companies use its customer service platform to give consumers easy access to answers about their products and services both before and after sales. Earlier this year I wrote about Central Desktop, which brought its collaboration platform into AppExchange precisely because of a need among Salesforce.com users to engage in collaboration with their customers during and after the sales process.

When I wrote about Central Desktop, I was reminded of Agillion, an on-demand shooting star that flamed out in the dot-com era and which in its day used to get more media coverage than Salesforce.com. I got a similar sense of deja-vu about AppSpace. People close to Agillion often joked that no one really understood what exactly it was the company offered. Perhaps that was largely down to poor messaging and execution, but perhaps also it was because Agillion was offering a socialized customer relationship platform that people just didn't get that early in the evolution of the Web. Perhaps we have had to live through the experience of MySpace, Digg and the rest to really understand the appeal and value to businesses of Web-based social interaction and collaboration.

Salesforce.com is now beginning to bring those lessons back into the business sphere in its CRM application but the language it uses to describe AppSpace is uncannily like the language Agillion used in its heyday. Here's how Salesforce.com's Spring '07 home page describes AppSpace:

What if every department in your company could interact with customers in an engaging online space? Could you totally reinvent the customer experience? ... Spring '07 delivers this capability with AppSpace, which helps Salesforce customers:
# Drive greater customer loyalty through a unique, interactive, online space
# Get every department — from service to sales to operations — to engage with customers online
# Deliver relevant customer information based on data from any source
# Change content easily with the same administration tools you use for Salesforce
# Create a secure, branded destination for customers by leveraging the development capabilities of the Apex platform

And here's how Agillion described its service back in June 2001, as preserved by the Wayback Machine:

Agillion takes traditional customer relationship management solutions to new heights. It enables businesses of all sizes — from SOHO to SMB to enterprise — to empower customers with personalized, relevant information in one common view. With Agillion CustomerPages, companies can bring their customer relationships online in Internet time connecting their most important assets — customers, employees and partners.

With Agillion, any business can:
# Give their customers Internet access to customized account and other personalized information in an easy-to-use, quick-to-deploy common view
# Access real-time information to facilitate swift, thorough decision-making
# Leverage always-on collaboration and two-way communication tools to enhance customer interaction

For enterprise business, Agillion can:
# Provide a complete low-cost, scalable technology solution for accessing customer information from multiple sources — "trapped" legacy information, robust Web services and more
# Leverage current customer relationship management applications for immediate return on investment

Agillion's service was priced at $20 per user per month, for a minimum of 5 users. AppSpace is $995 per month for up to 200 users. 

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