The Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market is heating up, with most of the major software vendors touting their own solutions.
Most businesses face a similar challenge -- how do you manage the volume of information surrounding your customers? Since computers were first introduced in businesses, they have been used to gather and store information about customers, their purchases, etc. It has only been in the last 20 years that businesses have realised the potential in this information and have actively started marketing to their customer database, using all of the demographic and purchase history details they have available to them.
And as businesses saw the value in storing customer information, a number of packaged software applications came on the scene and the term -CRM" was coined. CRM or Customer Relationship Management software is a customer-centric view of the business world. Where older business systems looked at customers in terms of invoices or product sales, CRM focuses on the customer as an entity and can be used to store information about that entity to help improve customer service, increase sales and customer satisfaction.
A number of software vendors have jumped on the CRM bandwagon, offering either standalone CRM applications (like Salesforce.com) or adding CRM offerings to their existing product suites (SAP, PeopleSoft, etc.) These applications fall into two distinct categories depending on the method used to deliver the application to users. The first category is hosted CRM applications, also known as -on-demand" applications. Some examples include Salesforce.com and Salesnet.
This type of CRM application is hosted on a central server and provided as a service to multiple businesses and other organisations that require CRM capabilities. The advantage of on-demand applications is that businesses don't need to worry about maintaining their own servers and software -- they can simply access their CRM application through the Web. Another advantage to on-demand CRM is that there is no client software to install and configure, as anyone with a Web browser and an Internet connection can access the application.
The second category of CRM applications is the installed application, where an application server is installed on servers maintained by businesses or organisations. Access to this application is provided either through a Web interface -- so users can interact with the application using their Web browser -- or through a -fat client" application that is installed locally on each user's PC. Examples of installed CRM applications include Act!, GoldMine, etc.
Installing an application server or client software locally has a number of advantages, most notably the fact that you have complete control over how the product is deployed and configured, including the ability to customise the application to suit your own purposes.
And for installed applications that can be accessed through a Web browser, there is little or no setup required on the client side to get the application up and running. Fat-client CRM applications provide more ways to integrate with desktop applications (like Microsoft Office, etc) and as a rule provide a richer user interface than Web-based applications. The downside, however, is a client-based application needs to be installed for every user.
In this review, we compare two CRM applications: one from veteran RightNow Technologies and Microsoft's latest version 3.0 product.
How we tested
Both vendors provided a hosted version of their applications for testing purposes. The modules were run through simulated real-world usage.
We looked at how easy it was to create and edit contacts and organisations, as well as find a particular record within a contact list. We also looked at the suitability of the product for use in the sales cycle, including entering and tracing opportunities, as well as reporting on sales pipelines and providing forecasts.
On the marketing side, we considered the ease in which a marketing campaign could be created and managed, including the ability to market to customers via e-mail and other methods, as well as track the results of the campaign.
Finally on the service side, we looked at how easy it was to create and manage support incidents, including managing the flow and volume of incidents from a customer service point of view, as well as the tools provided to both customers and customer service representatives to manage support incidents.
RightNow Technologies was one of the first vendors to deliver on-demand applications, and made a name for itself with products aimed at improving the customer experience on the Web. From those humble beginnings, RightNow's CRM offering has grown to include modules for Sales, Service and Marketing.
On the initial login to the system, there is a download dialog that appears and a blue bar that shows the progress of various components being downloaded. This can take a few minutes when the application first loads, but as you login a second or third time, the dialog only blips by.
[Click to enlarge] RightNow Support provides a flexible knowledge base where you can store answers to questions your customers commonly ask.
When you login to RightNow CRM, the session console provides an at-a-glance view of what is going on in the system, with messages, message queues, outbound marketing e-mails, recent marketing e-mails, and more. From there you can launch any of the RightNow modules (Sales, Service, Marketing) to enter customer information, track opportunities, sales, amongst a list of activities.
The Sales module provides a number of different areas to explore, including organisations and contacts, where you can enter information about your customers and individuals within each customer organisation. The user interface is intuitive, with a task bar down the left-hand side and even the most novice user should be able to navigate through their contact list, add entries and lookup contacts.
In addition to maintaining customer information, the Sales module also provides the ability to manage sales opportunities for each customer. These openings can then be managed to provide an up-to-date view of what is in the sales pipeline.
Switching to the Marketing module, it feels like the marketing toolset is actually a number of different tools or applets put together on the same menu. Where the other two modules have a slick interface that brings all of the information into one spot, there are multiple areas and tools for tracking outbound e-mail and managing documents, for instance.
There are also a number of powerful tools included in the Marketing module, so Web-savvy organisations can take advantage of the contact opportunities that the Internet provides for building campaigns, generating out-bound e-mails and tracking results.
[Click to enlarge] RightNow's reporting capabilities provide a comprehensive suite of reports and analytics, but the presentation of data and formatting could be better.
And finally, the Support module is really where RightNow CRM shines. The tools for logging, managing and solving customer issues are intuitive and provide a -one-world" view of what is going on, both from the business and customer point of view. For example, a customer service rep and easily manage all of their incidents logged through calls, e-mails, etc. and then use the knowledge base to build up a number of articles to solve common user problems and hopefully cut down on the number of incidents in the first place.
RightNow's CRM offering can also be easily integrated into your existing web site, which is another selling point for the product. A customer-centric view of the world means that you need to be able to easily interact and communicate with customers and increasingly, the web is the way to go.
In our testing of the different RightNow features and functionality, the only thing that we found lacking was the reporting capabilities included with the product. Their focus on the reporting side of things seemed to be on-screen presentation and analytics. While the product suite does provide a comprehensive suite of reports and analytic tools, the presentation of the data and formatting could be improved.
RightNow Sales, starting at AU$82 per user for two-year licence.
RightNow Marketing, starting at AU$12K for a two-year licence.
Microsoft's efforts got off to a rocky start with the first two releases of its CRM suite. From the beginning it was complicated to install and configure and was designed more as a contact manager, rather than a true CRM offering. With the release of Microsoft CRM 3.0, the tables have turned with Microsoft spending time and effort to make it easy to install, configure and use.
[Click to enlarge] You can easily view customer account details using the Outlook add-in for Microsoft CRM.
There are two ways you can deploy Microsoft CRM -- through a browser-based application that requires no additional software to be installed or through an add-in to Microsoft Outlook. The Web version of Microsoft CRM looks more like a Windows application and looks like it was built from the lessons learnt from Microsoft's own Outlook Web Access application. It features the same clean, consistent interface across multiple areas and the standard task bar on the left-hand side.
Creating contacts and accounts within Microsoft CRM is quick and easy, and most users will be able to navigate around the application and perform basic functions without training. There is also a -Workplace" which consolidates all of the user's activities, quotes, calendar, and others into once place, making it easy to for new users to enter and manage customer information.
The sales features in Microsoft CRM provides the ability to track leads, opportunities, sales literature, orders, and invoices, as well as competitors and marketing lists. Most forms within the product include a toolbar with the option to print the information, export it to Excel or print a report related to the details.
[Click to enlarge] You can quickly create a new marketing campaign using a wizard-based approach.
On the marketing side of things, Microsoft CRM comes up short compared with other products in the CRM mix. While the basic functionality of creating a campaign, assembling lists of contacts, options for campaign delivery (e-mail, phone, etc) is there, the functionality provided is not as sophisticated as the tools you would find in other CRM applications.
There are a number of wizards to help you get started with creating a campaign and tools to report on the outcomes, but the ability to perform detailed analysis on the campaign, including advanced costing and tracking of multiple responses, is missing.
In terms of service, Microsoft CRM's offering seems like an afterthought rather than a fully-fledged feature. You can use the service tools to create a case, add activities to be completed, and track the history of the case, but you don't see the level of sophistication or feature set you would find in other CRM or support applications.
So if you are considering replacing your existing help desk or customer support product with Microsoft CRM and have a complex support requirement, you may need to perform some customisation or augment the product with a third-party offering.
[Click to enlarge] Reporting for Microsoft CRM is provided through SQL Server Reporting Services.
In addition to the Web interface for accessing Microsoft CRM, there is an add-in you can install for Microsoft Outlook and it is here that you will find CRM 3.0's biggest advantage over its competitors. The Outlook integration is tight and seamless -- for users who are already Outlook users, you can keep training down to the basic workflow of how to use the CRM system.
Reporting within Microsoft CRM 3.0 is provided through SQL Server Reporting Services, which provides a good platform for report development, including any custom reports you may consider essential to your deployment. The reports produced are easy to use and comprehend, and provide a number of export options should you require further analysis.
Microsoft CRM 3.0
Starts at around AU$700 per user, excluding other costs such as operating system, database server, etc.
As with most decisions, there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer when considering RightNow's product offering and Microsoft CRM 3.0.
Looking at the features and functionality in both feature sets, it appears that RightNow has a strong Web focus, with tools that you can integrate into your existing Web site. In addition, RightNow has a stronger toolset for managing support incidents and providing self-service options to customers.
On the other hand, Microsoft CRM features an easy-to-use interface and a tight integration with Outlook, which should cut down on training costs. And as with most installed applications, installing and configuring your own server provides more control over the application and its environment. It will also mean increased initial and on-going costs over a hosted solution, but you will need to run the numbers to ensure that the cost provides the same benefits of a hosted solution over the long-term.
It is also important to point out that the market for Microsoft is larger, so you also may find more third-party add-ins and complimentary technologies to Microsoft CRM if you are looking to integrate multiple IT systems with your CRM application. However, as a smaller player, RightNow has focused on innovation and feature set so you may find that it can provide a richer feature set without being tied down to cumbersome product cycles.
Which CRM application you choose is up to you, but one thing is for sure -- on-demand customer relationship management is here to stay.