CRM extending to more than just customer relationships

Microsoft with xRM, Salesforce.com with Force.com, and others claim that their CRM applications can be extended to manage more than just customer relationships.

For years, field associates with Comag Marketing Group LLC used bubble sheets and a No. 2 pencil to gather data about magazine sales at airports, stores and newsstands nationwide, which they then had scanned and sent to the central office.

By the time it was accumulated, analyzed and provided to magazine publishers, the data was anywhere from 45 to 60 days old. Learning about sales more than a month after the fact was not particularly effective for a product with a 30-day shelf life, according to Sean Poccia, director of information services, during a presentation at the Microsoft Convergence conference this month.

Comag, a subsidiary of the Hearst Corp., knew it needed to improve its data collection system. And while its needs were a far cry from the standard sales pipeline tracking and customer records of a typical CRM system, it wound up purchasing CRM software anyway.

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Comag developed its own specialized application based on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform, using what Microsoft is terming xRM (as in 'any' relationship management). Its mobile workers now use a customized CRM application to enter specific data about total magazine sales and promotions, valuable information considering that the magazine publishing industry, already facing deep cuts in advertising, shreds almost 30 million returned magazines every month, Poccia said.

The C in CRM can be about more than the customer

Microsoft is not the only vendor pushing its CRM application as a development platform for other applications.

"xRM is essentially Microsoft Dynamics CRM with the direct CRM taken out and functionality put in, so you can manage any resource or relationship you want to," said Chris Fletcher, analyst with Boston-based AMR Research. "It doesn't have to be a customer."

Salesforce.com, with its Force.com platform, is pushing a similar message, offering customers the ability to build their own on-demand applications or use applications built by independent software vendors for specialized needs, all based on Salesforce.com's CRM application and using its on-demand delivery model.

"I think it makes a lot of sense," said William Band, vice president and principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "We do get inquiries from organizations that have relationship management challenges and want to create a solution, but the sales, marketing and service module doesn't quite match up."

Care Rehab, a maker of medical devices for the rehabilitation industry, had some specialized needs for its CRM system when it became a Salesforce.com customer in 2005. Because Care Rehab's devices are treated as drugs, they are FDA regulated and must be tracked at the clinics around the country where they are in use. That meant salespeople had to enter their accounts and contacts, as well as all their activities and where a device was at any given time.

Before Salesforce.com had launched its Force.com platform, Care Rehab changed a number of fields within the application and used the opportunities tab in the Salesforce.com application to inventory.

"The very important thing for us, both for the FDA and accounting, is it allows us to take a snapshot of the inventory and where has it been in the past," said Ed Barrett, vice president of marketing with McLean, Va.-based Care Rehab.

At the time, the company knew it needed a CRM system, but it also needed more than that.

"We needed an inventory system that could accommodate CRM needs, not the other way around," Barrett said. "We found Salesforce was pliable enough to customize for our needs -- it's kind of an open box."

Care Rehab's implementation took about three months, including the customization.

"We did use the Salesforce.com professional services to do some additional customization," Barrett said. "Now, if we were to do it over again, we wouldn't require any assistance altogether."

Comparing and contrasting Microsoft CRM and Salesforce.com customization capabilities

The development requirements and capabilities are very different between Salesforce.com and Microsoft, however.

"At a general level, I think Microsoft has better overall development facilities when you include C++, .NET, SharePoint and Azure," Fletcher said. "On the other hand, Salesforce is a $1 billion company and put a lot of resources behind Force.com. Whatever the shortcomings they have in a development environment, they may be able to overcome that."

"[Microsoft] is more taking the core CRM functionality," Band said. "The parallel is that you're kind of working in the platform and the solution at the same time. The Microsoft idea is they'll give you the core functionality, the elements of it, but with Microsoft BizTalk and .NET capabilities that you can mold this thing into."

The North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety considered Salesforce.com for a case management system but ultimately ruled it out because of the lack of an offline client. The department, which runs investigations of businesses that request a liquor license or those applying to sell lottery tickets, selected Microsoft CRM instead, in part because it wanted to develop its staff's .NET programming skills, said Greg Jones, chief technology officer.

It took four months and the help of a partner to install the system, but the agency was able to keep end users satisfied and engaged by bringing into the automated system the familiar manual forms that were required by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, Jones said. The agency even calls it the CRM system, only it stands for Case Relationship Management.

CRM takes the lead in PaaS

It's not just Salesforce.com and Microsoft, either. This month, NetSuite detailed plans for its Suite Developer Network, an online community to help extend its CRM, ERP and e-commerce applications to ISVs and industry-specific functions. Similarly, SugarCRM, a Cupertino, Calif.-based commercial open source CRM company, has launched SugarExchange, a site where developers can create, share and review applications based on the Sugar code. Nor is it just CRM providers. While Microsoft's application can be housed on-premise, the idea of Platform as a Service (PaaS) is catching on.

"Amazon, with some of their environments, is going to be there -- Google, to a certain extent," Fletcher said. "IBM has been vocal with some of their cloud initiatives. But Microsoft has been stressing that Dynamics CRM is one resource available on the Azure Cloud. I assume you can do the same things with xRM you can on your own server."

Yet CRM applications, like those from Salesforce.com, Microsoft, NetSuite.com and SugarCRM, are often the foundation of PaaS.

"You think of the ways CRM applications are used, basically to manage people, resources and information," Fletcher explained. "It's also more collaborative in nature as opposed to ERP and supply chain."

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