Collaborative selling in the on-demand era

In the Internet era, collaboration is an essential component of customer relationship management (CRM). Yet few CRM suites incorporate more than rudimentary collaboration. Internet-based selling demands more engagement with the customer than this.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Is collaboration an essential component of customer relationship management (CRM)? In the Internet era, it seems ridiculous even to have to ask. Any vendor that ignores the new-found voice of their customers — expressed through blogs and discussion forums and then amplified through powerful echo-chambers such as Technorati, Digg and Techmeme — does so at their peril.

Yet conventional CRM applications include only rudimentary collaborative capabilities.Central Desktop is best known for picking a fight with Google They are designed on the assumption that the enterprise uses a separate application stack to orchestrate communications with its customers. Perhaps the imposition of this unnatural demarcation between communications and relationships is one of the reasons why conventional CRM has so frequently harmed vendor-customer relationships instead of making them better.

Leading on-demand CRM vendor salesforce.com does no better in this respect than the established conventional vendors, mainly because it has modeled its functionality (although emphatically not its architecture) on what went before. However one of the reasons for introducing its extensible Apex architecture and AppExchange marketplace is to make it easy for others to extend functionality in innovative ways. It was perhaps significant that the most successful of the first wave of third-party applications on AppExchange was DreamFactory's DreamTeam, a project management application. Today, the collaborative capabilities of the platform are extended further with the announcement of Central Desktop's arrival on AppExchange.

Central Desktop — best known for picking a fight with Google (and apparently winning, at least for the time being) after its CEO Isaac Garcia blogged that Google's own Web applications were consistently winning the top AdWords spots — is a wiki-style enterprise collaboration suite. I say 'wiki-style' because although it has all the functionality of a wiki it dresses it up in business-friendly templates so that even people who've never heard of a wiki can quickly get productive with its collaborative capabilities.

Its pitch to AppExchange users is the ability to add 'collaborative extranets' to Salesforce.com. Although the formal announcement is today, Central Desktop has already been live on AppExchange for a few weeks and some customers have already signed up as a result of searching for that functionality, an encouraging sign of demand for the service.

Garcia told me last week that the majority of customers are using the software to support deploying professional services after completing a sale. To me, this is a classic illustration of what's so novel about Internet-based business transactions. The entire vendor-customer relationship, from interested prospect all the way through to satisfied user, can be much more of a dialog thanks to the Internet, while at the same time being much more cost-effective. As a prospect, the customer can look up much of the information they need on a self-service basis. Once they become seriously interested they progress to one-to-one interaction with a sales contact, probably via web conferencing as well as email and chat. After the sale is concluded, the implementation is managed via a shared extranet.

I was reminded when thinking this through of some of the earliest B2B web selling experiments. Dell in 1998 set up personalized web pages that customers could use as a contact point with the company to configure and place orders. One of the early flameouts of the ASP boom was Agillion, a company that sought to bring Dell's web pages concept to the small business market. As an isolated concept it didn't have legs. As part of a continuing end-to-end sales and customer relationship process it demonstrates how the Internet is redefining the way business gets done. Selling ceases to be a one-off act and instead becomes a continuous process of collaborative engagement; not so much a one-night stand as a committed, long-term relationship.

Editorial standards