NJ Transit implements, customizes hosted CRM

CRM SaaS applications aren't just for sales anymore, and new customization tools are also making them more adaptable.

A year ago, anyone contacting New Jersey Transit to ask about a late train or raise an issue about a bus route

faced the possibility that their comments would get lost amidst the organization's chaotic customer comment system.

Email comments were tracked through Outlook from a solitary address, phone calls were tracked by an in-house system and letters went into a manual filing system. So, when Dennis Martin came aboard as senior director of customer service, one of his charges was to put the customer at the center of the agency's decision making.

"Most of the input we were getting from customers was scattershot and anecdotal, and it was very hard to accumulate that data and parse it to give us meaningful analysis," Martin said. "I wanted to get all of our customer input into one centralized database."

The agency ultimately selected San Francisco-based Salesforce.com and its Service and Support application for its new system. NJ Transit represented a shift from Salesforce.com's traditional strength in selling sales force automation (SFA) technology.

"They continue to be an SFA application, but they're improving their [customer service] capabilities," said Liz Herbert, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

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Salesforce.com does not break out its Service and Support users separately from SFA (both applications come packaged together with its professional edition), but the company recently announced it reached 500,000 paying subscribers, and one customer, Citrix, is doubling its deployment, adding 500 Service and Support customers.

The New Jersey Transit deployment also represents a shift in purchasing of Software as a Service (SaaS). Customization has historically been an argument against on-demand applications because they were considered too difficult or incapable of adapting to specific business processes. Yet, New Jersey Transit was attracted to the easy point-and-click customization capabilities of Salesforce.com's application through its development tools.

"We looked online to avoid incurring the capital costs of putting servers in place and concentrated on the product," Martin said. "IS [Information Systems] did an analysis, looked at several products and went with Salesforce because it had a unique niche in the industry and the product was something we thought we could work with and develop to our needs."

SaaS applications have made inroads into customization, though they still lag behind traditional application vendors in that area, according to Herbert.

"It's not matching on-premise," Herbert said. "You can go fairly deep with the customizations they support. They've made significant progress toward closing the gap."

Large organizations intent on using SaaS applications are turning to Indian outsourcers and some firms in the U.S. for additional customization, while smaller deployments, along the lines of NJ Transit, are attracted to the on-demand customization tools, Herbert said.

"That's one of the appeals of SaaS; because the tools are more point-and-click or wizard-like you don't need that development expertise," she said.

NJ Transit used AppExchange Builder to create custom tabs for contacts, issues, operations responses and a special tab that allows managers to request an anonymous investigation.

Using a Salesforce.com application program interface, NJ Transit connected the Service and Support system to a back-end program that takes care of processes the application can't handle, such as updating records or checking data quality. The agency was also able to map its existing Oracle database to populate existing records into Salesforce.com so the agency can check for historical comparisons.

NJ Transit's customer service agents work out of 10 satellite offices at the organization's major rail stations, plus four phone and Web specialists. The agency worked with an integrator to customize Salesforce.com, and everyone in the organization was involved in establishing the new system.

"We rolled it out and got input from all user groups in such a way that it went very smoothly," Martin said. "Historically they've been resistant to change. You really have to work with the user groups and gain their buy-in."

The differences between the new system and the old are significant. For example, an Amtrak train was stuck in one of the NJ Transit tunnels a couple of weeks ago, disrupting the agency's regular service. Naturally, a customer contacted NJ Transit about it via the Internet portal. That notice was sent to the representative in charge of that particular area, who in turn sent an inquiry to the head of that rail division, who then provided an explanation of what happened and what the agency did about it. This information was then sent back to the customer.

"Before it was faxes, phone calls, letters, email -- it was very labor-intensive and there was no way to keep it in order," Martin said. "Now it's on the desktop."

And it's all being tracked. NJ Transit can now track twice the information it did before and is using that information to make business changes. The agency runs monthly reports and managers have real-time views of dashboards that point to problems within the organization.

Before the system was implemented it was a chore to even track average response time. When the system went live in July of last year, average response time was four days (incidents often require a fair amount of research and follow-up), and NJ Transit has reduced that to an average of three days in the last month.

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