SaaS CRM vendors get serious about Web self-service features

Oracle, Salesforce.com and RightNow all took significant steps toward beefing up their customer service capabilities with customer communities and self-service features.

More and more organizations are finding that, while a dedicated customer service staff is still an integral part

of any company, customers can do a fine job answering questions and service issues for themselves and for one another.

In the past two days, a number of CRM suite vendors have taken steps to provide software to help customers help themselves. All of them are Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors.

Yesterday, RightNow Technologies announced it was acquiring HiveLive, a customer community platform vendor, and Oracle announced it was integrating Oracle CRM On Demand with InQuira's Web self-service applications.

And today, Salesforce.com unveiled the second release of what it's calling the Service Cloud, adding knowledge management and a customer question-and-answer feature. Salesforce.com also made generally available its integration with Twitter, allowing organizations to deliver customer support via the popular micro-blogging service.

The rapid rise of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and customer communities, developed both internally by a company and on neutral third-party sites on the Web, has created both a challenge and an opportunity for customer service organizations. While social networking sites have provided a marketing opportunity, they're rapidly showing value as a customer service channel.

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"We always said it would be just one more channel," said John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research with the Service and Support Professionals Association. "This is a really good point that there is something that's a support forum separate from a marketing forum that people want."

Vendors seem to agree. Salesforce.com first released the Service Cloud in January, touting integration with Facebook and Twitter. Today's announcement, Service Cloud 2, highlights Salesforce Knowledge, a knowledge base built on top of the Force.com platform with technology from Salesforce.com's Instranet acquisition. Instranet, originally an on-premise application, now operates via the SaaS model including automatic upgrades. It allows companies to push their knowledge base articles to their website and make it searchable by engines like Google, said Kraig Swensrud, vice president of product marketing.

Salesforce.com also touted Salesforce Answers, a service similar to Yahoo Answers in which customers can ask and answer questions and vote the more helpful questions to the top. Traditional discussion forums are organized by the date and time posts go up, pushing potentially helpful content further down the page.

"This long tail escapes most companies, which is why customers are driven even further out onto the Internet," Swensrud said.

The best answers and resources can be posted to Salesforce Knowledge, allowing customer service agents to leverage the content. It can also be posted via API to a corporate Facebook page, allowing organizations to leverage communities they've built on the social networking site. Customers can ask and answer questions right from the Facebook page, which can then be pushed back to the knowledge base, according to business rules set up by the organization, Swensrud said. For example, an answer that is "voted up" 50 times by the Facebook community could automatically be added to the knowledge base. All Facebook responses are stored in the Force.com database.

While the Salesforce for Twitter application is now available, Answers and Knowledge are a long way off. Answers is in pilot and scheduled to be available in the first half of fiscal year 2011. It will be part of the Service Cloud offering. The Salesforce knowledge base is priced at $50 per agent and is scheduled to be available in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2011.

While research commissioned by Salesforce.com found that Service Cloud customers have been able to deflect inbound service calls, don't necessarily expect call volume to go down.

"What I think this has highlighted for me is there are a lot of support needs of customers that have gone unmet," Ragsdale said. "That is why you see huge participation in forums. The phone calls don't necessarily go down. It's not that you're deflecting questions to a different channel, it's that you're answering questions that weren't asked before."

SaaS CRM vendor RightNow buys into community

Yesterday, it was Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow leading the charge toward self-service applications, acquiring HiveLive for $6 million. It will integrate HiveLive's configurable platform for building customer communities with its CRM software suite. HiveLive will serve as a company's method for creating and managing communities internally, and its Cloud Monitor will serve as the method for companies to monitor external networks like Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, CEO Greg Gianforte said.

Meanwhile, Oracle Corp.'s integration with San Bruno, Calif.-based InQuira expands the integration from InQuira and Oracle's on-premise CRM system to the SaaS offering. InQuira serves as the knowledge management piece of Oracle CRM On Demand and allows customers to move from self-service to agent-assisted service seamlessly, according to Oracle.

The announcements this week have helped to level the playing field in some ways, according to Ragsdale. Oracle CRM On Demand was able to compete with Salesforce.com for sales force automation business but was losing out to RightNow for customer service deals because of a lack of multi-channel and knowledge tools.

"This partnership gives Oracle On Demand a 'best of breed' end-to-end claim for CRM," he said. "Salesforce and Microsoft have proven you can be a successful CRM vendor without a sophisticated module for service and support. What I hope the Oracle-InQuira announcement shows is this is now changing, and successful service and support means multi-channel, not just incident tracking. It is great news for InQuira, which is one of the few U.S.-based vendors still investing in innovative knowledge and search tools."

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