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Partner relations test for Salesforce.com

Is having a hosted solution enough in itself to crack the PRM opportunity? Salesforce.com's own partner relationship management skills may be just as crucial.

When I interviewed Marc Benioff back in January, one of the things he talked about was The duality of AppExchange: "not forgetting we’re still in the CRM business, so whatever we do with AppExchange has to make our core product better."

On Monday, Salesforce.com announced Partnerforce, its most powerful example yetLong-forgotten ASPs said much the same about PRM back in 2000/2001 of how AppExchange enhances the core CRM product, extending it into the partner relationship management (PRM) field (Dan Farber even grabbed a screenshot).

The decision to offer PRM was taken some while before the launch of AppExchange, I learnt last week from Phill Robinson, chief marketing officer of Salesforce.com:

"This is a big category with a lot of underutilized potential," he told me. "A lot of customers have asked us for this." AppExchange comes into the picture because it lends itself to customizing the look, feel and functionality of partner portals. "It works the way your channel model works."

So AppExchange provides a lot of the necessary infrastructure without people having to learn a whole new environment. The killer benefit, though, is the ability to integrate all the lead tracking, collateral delivery, training and market development funds (MDF) going through the partner channel with a company's own internal sales automation data within Salesforce.com, giving sales managers a consolidated view of what's happening through the direct and partner channels.

Traditionally, this kind of visibility has meant a lot of custom integration and professional services, leaving PRM "blighted with the same sorts of failure as CRM," Robinson told me. An on-demand offering takes away that heavy integration overhead and is especially relevant in channel landscapes where every partner operates their own individual IT infrastructure and, typically being SMBs, don't have much internal IT resource anyway.

However I couldn't help recalling some long-forgotten names of ASPs that I remembered had said much the same kind of thing about PRM when they'd targeted it back in 2000/2001. Names like Ten North, Allegis and Partnerware made waves at the time but subsequently faded away into oblivion. Maybe having a hosted solution wasn't enough in itself to crack the PRM opportunity? This is one area where verticalization is a big issue — having PRM software that's tailored to the specific needs of the sales channel in a given industry. That may mean that Salesforce.com will itself be more dependent on channel partners to crack the PRM opportunity than it has needed to be in the core sales automation space. There's a certain irony there. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.