Sales apps lack depth

eWeek Labs evaluates three sales force automation apps and compares them with each other.

Hosted SFA services require better integration with enterprise apps, data to meet CRM goals

The importance of sfa has not diminished along with the popular use of the term; businesses instead have realized that automating the sales force can be done successfully only when sales functions and goals are integrated into the bigger picture: CRM.

Add the "e" to the mix, as many companies are eager to do to cut costs and implementation time, and this integration becomes even more important. Unfortunately, the three hosted sales force automation services tested in this eWeek Labs eValuation fall short of this goal.

Oracle Corp.'s OracleSales On line.com and Salesforce.com's and UpShot Inc.'s namesake services provide the basics of sales management but have a long way to go before becoming useful tools for enterprises that want to empower their sales forces without investing in expensive client/server applications. In addition, these applications are far from the Siebel alternatives their vendors tout them to be.

Grounding this eVal in real-world concerns were eWeek Corporate Partners Thomas Miller, senior director of corporate information systems at genomics company Affymetrix Inc., and Dan Willis, principal consultant at Rainier Technol ogy Inc.

Willis has been "living in this space day in and day out," working with a number of clients to establish requirements for CRM (customer relationship management) applications, including sales management criteria. Affymetrix hopes to implement a CRM solution in a phased approach next year; the opinions about the products expressed by Miller are his own—based on early analysis of the market and Affymetrix's needs—and not those of Affymetrix.

While the three tools we examined in the eVal each have several features that will help sales teams increase productivity, all had significant shortcomings when it came to allowing sales teams to work offline and all failed to deliver the usability and performance most salespeople would expect.

Furthermore, the applications lacked the outward-facing capabilities and integration with legacy systems that corporations will need to integrate them into a wide-ranging effort to reach customers over the Web.

This greatly concerned Miller and Willis, who stressed the importance of integrating sales processes with both legacy data and other key business functions, such as marketing and support. In fact, Miller and Willis said, a key factor in evaluating SFA and CRM applications is a product's ability to either act as or work with an enterprise information portal.

At this time, none of the sales management services we tested provides the level of integration Willis and Miller are looking for. The services will allow companies to quickly and cheaply automate sales processes, but without the benefit of long-term return.

Selling companies short of synergies

Three hosted SFA apps offer mediocre customer, partner collaboration

In this evaluation of sales force management services, eWEEK Labs and eWEEK Corporate Partners Thomas Miller and Dan Willis measured not only the services' capabilities and performance but also their ability to help companies more effectively interact with customers and business partners. Both Miller and Willis stressed the importance of applications that will help align the goals of the sales organization with the rest of a company's goals for better managing customer relationships.

We tested Oracle Corp.'s OracleSalesOnline.com, and Salesforce.com's and UpShot Inc.'s self-named services —three hosted applications that vary in price from free (OracleSalesOnline.com) to about $50 per user per month (Salesforce.com and UpShot.com). These products are unique in that they are the first to offer the three-tiered, "off-the-shelf" hosted SFA.

All three applications are being pitched as cost-effective alternatives to costly Siebel Systems Inc. CRM (customer relationship management) implementations. And, indeed, the services can be set up for far less than the $1 million-plus that it costs to get a Siebel system up and running. But Oracle SalesOnline, Salesforce.com and UpShot.com provide only one piece of the CRM puzzle—sales force automation—and compete directly with client/server SFA products such as Goldmine Software Corp.'s Goldmine 5.0.

All three vendors promise modules that will build on the SFA applications we tested, but only Oracle currently has complementary products to enable that growth. Salesforce.com is expected to release a call center application by year's end. All three vendors boast short development cycles for these services.

Customizability is a key criterion for Miller, senior director of corporate information systems at genomics firm Affymetrix Inc., and Willis, principal consultant at Rainier Technology Inc.

The tested services allowed varying degrees of customization, but none was able to provide the level that Miller and Willis said they would demand.

For example, they said that, at the very least, the products should equip the sales force with a prioritized view of accounts and present critical information from other sources, such as Web sites. "You'd want a methodology that gave you a snapshot of the most important accounts—the accounts that mean everything to you," Willis said.

However, OracleSalesOnline.com was the only tool to provide customizable account and deal views, and only Salesforce.com provided customizable Web page links and messages for sales staffs. UpShot.com supports use of links, but only under customer information. It also supports Web site monitoring.

OracleSalesOnline.com allows users to focus on opportunities, while UpShot.com and Salesforce.com have a PIM-centric view. When users log on to OracleSalesOnline.com, they see a list of leads, opportunities and won deals, as well as shortcuts to typical personal information management data, such as customers, contacts, opportunities and to-do lists.

Salesforce.com presents a PIM-style view with a calendar, to-do lists and a log of important messages, along with URLs that the administrator can add. "It reminds me of [Symantec Corp.'s] Act 2000 with a Web interface," Miller said.

UpShot.com starts the user at the screen from which he or she last logged off, a feature we found disconcerting. UpShot.com was also relatively slow in tests.

Go with the flow

Integrating business processes requires choosing software and services that don't dictate how things get done. "Any package that immediately starts flowing you into doing things their way is a red flag," Miller said.

That red flag went up during tests because all three services locked us into a specific method of creating accounts and leads. For example, we easily imported contact information in UpShot.com, but account information could not be brought over from the contact list and had to be entered separately.

The data movement capabilities of these products fall short as well, allowing import of customer and account information only in comma-separated value form and export of data only to Microsoft Corp.'s Excel for reporting. Until these applications allow ready and easy movement of data, especially to and from back-end databases, they will have limited usefulness and longevity.

Both UpShot.com and Sales force.com synchronize with personal productivity tools such as Microsoft's Outlook and handheld devices. UpShot.com also provides untethered Palm access through the AvantGo browser. Oracle SalesOnline.com provides no integration with personal productivity tools.

Value proposition

UpShot.com costs $55 per user per month, and Salesforce.com costs $50 per user per month, with the first five users free. OracleSales Online.com offers its service for free but will charge for modules that will build on the service's functionality.

Oracle is on the leading edge with its pricing strategy (we would argue that UpShot.com and Salesforce.com are overpriced), and this pricing model aligns well with most buyers' ultimate goal of integrating with a CRM solution. The concept of selling hosted application components on top of a free service is just now emerging in other sectors of the hosted application market, such as accounting.

However, companies should also approach Oracle's pricing strategy with caution—the company may be giving away the car and selling the tires. For example, OracleSalesOnline.com does not include compensation tracking and campaign modules, while UpShot.com and Salesforce.com provide at least some capability in both of these areas. Oracle plans to sell modules to provide these functions, but pricing the modules higher than $55 per user per month will put Oracle's service out of this league of products.

When investigating any hosted application, security and service-level agreements should be prime considerations. All three apps are comparable in these areas, with only a few differences. All use Secure Sockets Layer and are password-protected, the standard level of security provided by Web-based ASPs.

UpShot.com performs scheduled maintenance late Friday nights into early Saturday mornings, which puts the service off line during that time. Salesforce.com guarantees 99.7 percent availability, regardless of maintenance. Organizations can buy 99.9 percent uptime from UpShot for $80 per user plus a one-time fee of $5,000. With this service, data is provided to the UpShot customer on a monthly basis.

With all three services, customers own their data, which will be provided to them on request.