Why Customer Service Is Moving To The Cloud

People used to pick up the phone to call “the experts” in customer service. The major innovations there have been about using technology to make knowledge accessible to these experts and to cut costs. The latter effort has been the most effective part and the cost savings have been far greater than the improvements in customer satisfaction.

The result is that people now try Google before picking up the phone. Communities spring up around products and services and often answer questions better than the experts. That’s because customers have more experience using products than customer service does. And, this fits well with my belief that communities own brands, not companies.

Now that communities are helping themselves, how can companies add value and help out? They have to listen to the conversations in the cloud (i.e. all the communities), harvest the insights, and report them back to the community so they’re easy to find using tools like Google. The problem has been that the call centers and internal customer service operations have been siloed from the communities. That’s changing.

I hate to sound like poster boy from Salesforce, but they’ve figured out how to connect internal knowledge bases to communities through cloud services. That’s what my previous post was about here. Now that they’re well on their way to cracking that nut, they’re gotten better at explaining why the Saas (software as a service) model is uniquely suited to this environment. Here’s a great video they put together that explains it better than I can:


Salesforce IS The Foundation

I’ve talked at length about the importance of building a marketing foundation that allows companies to capture data and insights from their communities, analyze it, report on it, and channel it into development. This information also comes in handy when you’re ready to return value to the community. One problems is that there has been a proliferation of tools to communicate with communities. As companies figure out which ones will work for them, they struggle to get them to work together. It seems the Salesforce is leading the way with respect to solving this marketing problem.

For the record, I’ve written about Salesforce before, and conduced research on the customer relationship management tool landscape (CRM). While selecting a CRM depends on your specific needs, I’d say Salesforce is way out ahead for most companies. They’ve also announced some new services that really reposition their brand as a solution for connecting cloud services.

For example, Google Docs is fully integrated. And now, they’ve moved one to integrate many other services in the cloud such as Twitter, and Facebook. And, they’ve made a great video introduction which explains better than I can. So here it is:


CRM Analysis Redux

This is a follow up to my earlier post on customer relationship management (CRM) tools. Thanks to all who responded and provided feedback. I’ve followed up on many leads, and am writing to provide a high-level update on what I’ve learned.

Discovery Summary

The landscape for CRMs is quite diverse in terms of business model, price, and development approach. On one end of the spectrum there are open source tools, which are supported by development communities, such as SugarCRM and OpenObject. These can be inexpensive from a cash outlay perspective but you’ll need a developer to install and manage them on an ongoing basis. They can be hosted by a service provider or on your own, and there are even service options available through partners. Then there are proprietary tools like SageCRM and Goldmine, which position themselves as turnkey solutions that can be hosted or not. They are priced at mid-market and do development internally. SalesForce offers a hybrid approach where they offer a basic turnkey solution that is highly extensible through third party partners, available through their AppExchange. While it is not open source, APIs allow developers to build on the platform. SalesForce is available only through the web and cannot be hosted, and can cost a bit more than the proprietary options depending on the configuration you choose. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, there is NetSuite. This service goes well beyond CRM as an enterprise solution for running your entire business. From payroll to inventory management, marketing and sales tools, NetSuite is your one stop shop. As a former NetSuite client, I’ve gotta say it’s pretty impressive but it’s also expensive and set up for larger businesses.

Other CRM tools that were sent my way after my last blog included: Zoho, Prophet, Infusion CRM, CiviCRM, Oracle (Sieble), Leads360. Sugar and SalesForce seem to rise to the top if you’re in a small or medium sized business, design consultancy, or consulting practice. To be frank, it’s hard to imagine how the proprietary tools can keep up with the design communities and partners that support these two options.


  • The cost of switching CRMs is very high, so if you have something that works, and that is extensible for your needs then you should seriously consider sticking with it. This is why I’ve invested the most research time in SalesForce.
  • Make them give you a prototype. This is REALLY important, CRMs are very complex and have to get in there and use the product to be able to evaluate it. I had to twist arms and invest a bunch of time to get a prototype running in SalesForce, but it was worth it. Without doing this you can’t know how well the AppExchange integrations really work, or what the user experience feels like.
  • Pick something that’s going to be around for a while, and that has solid partners. Once you’re into a CRM is hard to get out without significant data integration consequences. The CRM provider is a partner, so select carefully. Make sure to look carefully at their roadmap for product upgrades, and work with them building a prototype to get a sense of their service team.
  • On pricing, there seem to be three levers they you can negotiate with including, payment terms (monthly, quarterly, annually, or contract term – the latter offering the best price), length of contract, and number of users (there are price breaks to consider).
  • Also, if you are a non-profit pay special attention because SalesForce really wants your business (one might say they are artificially deflating the market for non-profits by doing this)!  They are giving away a 10 license subscription FREE, and major discounts additional licenses. And these are enterprise level accounts with all the bells and whistles. More info here.

The Real Value

  • Here is an overview of some of the benefits CRMs can offer. Many of these allow you to work more efficiently, and other’s offer insight into your business.
  • Keep track of all communications with your client in one place. This makes things easier when you want to check in later to see if there are new opportunities to work together. This can also help prevent people on your team from stepping on each other’s toes.
  • Organization charts make it easy to understand who reports to whom on the client side. Who is your financial buyer? Your sponsor buyer? Your user buyer? And, where are they within the organizational landscape? This can really help when coordinating your internal team, or when partners roll on and off projects.
  • If you send out a newsletter, or other online communication, you can see if a potential client has received, and read it, from within that contact’s record. This can help get conversations started, and keep them going.
  • Link case studies, deliverables, testimonials, media contacts, contacts, clients and projects together in one place. This makes it really easy to find and share information that a prospective client might be interested in.
  • Follow up reminders. Ding, it’s time to get back in touch with a past client. In a busy practice it can be really hard to remember to do this kind of work but it can have a profound effect on smoothing out your pipeline.
  • Reporting dashboards show you how your sales process is working in real time. Where are incoming calls trending? How is return business trending? What about outbound sales efforts? Besides saving time (building and updating excel spreadsheets) this makes reporting more accessible, which in turn makes it easier to spot potential opportunities or issues.
  • Finally, for those interested in SalesForce, the new Google Docs integration seems to have a lot of potential. It allows folks to work on the documents at the same time, chat inside SalesForce, capture e-mail chains, and more. This is definitely something to keep an eye one, and you can learn more here.

That’s just an overview, and which tool you use will effect which benefits apply most to your business. Ultimately, these tools are about making the client experience better by being able to get them the information they need faster, following up with them in a coordinated way, and staying on top of the details. Of course, it can also make your experience better by saving you time, and providing insights into your business. For example, if you tracked most of your business as coming in through your blog, you might adjust your marketing mix with this in mind.

A Final Word On User Experience.

Many of the tools that I’ve explored could use some help on the user experience front. Considering that user adoption is probably the single largest barrier to the success of these tools, this is a major issue. It seems the software as service industry has been growing so rapidly, and has been so focused on feature sets, that they’ve overlooked the power of user experience to support adoption. CRMs have something of a bad name from this perspective because there is a legacy of clunky and hard to navigate interfaces. At the same time, the real value of CRMs can only be tapped into if people are engaging with the tool and using it regularly. Of the tools I’ve used SugarCRM and SalesForce seem to be the best, but there is defiantly lots of room for improvement.

Sales & Marketing People – tell us about your CRM!

I’m writing to ask you about the CRM tools that you use, so that we can make an informed decision and share some knowledge with the community. As I’m also doing some due diligence for Adaptive Path, I can also share some of what I’ve learned as an introduction to the conversation. The CRMs that I’ve looked at thus far are: Netsuite, Sage, GoldMine, Sugar, and Open Object. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a Netsuite customer before while working at a great beverage company called Adina.

At Adaptive Path we’ve been using a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool called SalesForce to manage our client relationships, and we’re considering upgrading to a higher level of subscription so we can access features like the new Content offering, and so that we might integrate e-mail fulfillment for our newsletter, and our registration database for our conferences.

One important feature of CRMs that I’ve picked up on is that there is quite a range of development models. For example, Sugar and Open Object are open source options that have development communities adding features and functionality. There are also third party development partners available to build what you need on the platform. The issue here is that development can take significant resources if what you need isn’t already out there, though the base service costs less than the proprietary options. With Sage and GoldMine you’re essentially buying a turnkey system (GoldMine is not hosted and runs on windows, Sage can be hosted online or on your own server). These two seem to be hangers on from a previous generation of CRM and it’s unclear how they’ll keep pace moving forward, though they can be less expensive if you’re just using the base service. SalesForce seems to offer the best of both worlds because they’ve opened their API to higher level subscribers, and have many third party partners who are working directly on their platform to add functionality (e-mail fulfillment, event registration, project management, accounting, etc). The challenge with SalesForce is knowing in advance if you can get what you need through their base tool plus the AppExchange. Also, while SalesForce is definitely going to be around in 5 years, some of their partners may not be. Lastly, Netsuite has gone for the kitchen sink approach. Their product is fully integrated beyond CRM to include accounting, supply chain management, e-commerce and more. They do have some partners as well, but that is happening mostly behind the scenes. While it has the highest subscription fees, the nice thing about Netsuite is that you can do everything in one place. The not nice thing is that the user experience isn’t so hot.

Actually, the user experience for all these tools is dissapointing. Because we use SalesForce currently it’s started an internal conversation about how much we’d like to improve the experience. We think there is a real opportunity for the right CRM to stand out by providing a great experience. There’s obviously lots more to say about these tools, but I really want to hear from you. If you work in client relations or marketing and I know you’re out there. Tell us: what CRM do you use?What are the challenges? How do you use it? What advice do you have some firms that are just adopting a CRM?

Thanks  -Roland