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Salesforce.com: The CRM 'Hot Ticket'

October 17, 2007
By Maria Trombly

Salesforce.com, like many technology pioneers, started out on the periphery, serving smaller firms' traveling sales representatives. No matter where they were--a hotel business center, borrowing a customer's desktop, or even on a Web-enabled PDA--the reps could access all their customer data and track sales progress. The system proved robust and scalable, and soon was racking up awards for its innovative technology and attracting customers with its reliability, customization and fast-expanding functionality.

In 2005, Salesforce.com introduced AppExchange, an online marketplace with over 720 on-demand applications. United Capital has tried the service: "We're using Conga, a document management tool, and looking at several others," Roth said. Conga is a paid product, but some applications on AppExchange are free, developed by customers and shared voluntarily with the user community, or created by third-party vendors to help their products work better with Salesforce.com.

Salesforce.com on Sept. 17 introduced its Visualforce technology, which allows users to easily customize their on-demand applications. "You can make it look like a portal page, or work on an iPhone," said Tien Tzuo, the company's SVP of financial services. "We're becoming the standard desktop that's being used in the financial services industry."

A number of major vendors have been offering their applications through the Salesforce.com platform. Dow Jones, for example, offers software that, for a monthly fee of $75, aggregates information from more than 60 publications, matches it with the investment interests of individual customers, and presents the top 10 or 20 articles that the adviser needs to read. Gryphon Network Corp. offers a do-not-call appliance. "There are over two dozen applications in our financial services section," noted Tzuo.

And Wall Street firms are doing more with Salesforce.com than just tracking sales, he said. Morgan Stanley, for one, uses the platform to help with recruitment. "There's a database of all registered stock brokers that you can get in the U.S. They use that as a lead source and identify the people who fall into their sweet spot. They track the entire recruitment process through Salesforce.com," he says.

For clients that use Salesforce.com for know-your-customer compliance, security is key, added Tzuo. Amid increasing instances of information theft, Salesforce.com hasn't lost any customer data, he said.

The ability to customize the platform's interface was an important feature for Roth's firm. "We have some specific roles for our users, and we want them to just be able to see and focus on the area of the system we want them to see," he said. The firm also likes that customizing interfaces is as easy as designing a My Yahoo page, Tzuo said, with a point-and-click configuration interface.

On-Demand vs. On-Premise

Salesforce.com's primary competitor is Oracle's Seibel, which runs on a company's database system and requires up-front investments in both hardware and software. "They do have an on-demand service, but it's really behind our product--about six to seven years behind us," said Tzuo. "Oracle really focuses on pushing their on-premise product."

Salesforce.com has a different approach to CRM, noted analyst Alois Pirker of Boston research firm Aite Group, which is also a Salesforce.com user. "Seibel has to think about their response to Salesforce," he asserted. "They're competing head-on for business, and Salesforce has proven that they can do large implementations--and the Merrill Lynch deal has proven that they don't mind having their client data hosted externally."

The mainstream CRM systems are targeted at the biggest enterprises, Pirker said, noting that installation and implementation can take years. An online product like Salesforce.com can be set up instantly.

"The attractiveness of Salesforce is that it appeals to a range of clients," he said. "That includes our firm with 18 people, and Merrill Lynch, with thousands of people."

Vendors are following financial firms in adopting the system. "Technology providers in the wealth management space see that Salesforce.com is common and it's become an asset to create an interface," Pirker said. "All the major Wall Street vendors have interfaces set up or are in the process of setting them up, and it's growing rapidly. At the moment, they're the hot ticket."