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SAP updates tools for managing customer relations

One analyst says the package is "nothing revolutionary" but notes the company may pull ahead of rivals anyway.

BOSTON--Enterprise applications specialist SAP has launched its newest customer relationship management system, placing an emphasis on expanded capabilities for specific markets and promising across-the-board improvements in the package.

The German software maker launched the CRM system on Wednesday at its Sapphire customer conference, being held here this week. The update, dubbed MySAP CRM 2005, is expected to feature a host of upgrades to the suite's core applications, including expanded marketing, sales force automation and customer service tools.

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SAP, which is ranked by many industry analysts as the leading provider of CRM applications in the world, said the new software system is designed to make it easier to install and use. To improve integration of the product, the company built it around its NetWeaver infrastructure software, which is meant to help SAP's customers blend the company's business applications with other technologies.

Among specific enhancements to the package are a revamped user interface, embedded analytical applications, and new tools for accessing sales force automation software from mobile devices. Also available are new offerings for the telecommunications, public-sector and financial services industries.

Bill McDermott, chief executive of SAP America, said in an interview Tuesday that the new system will help the company grab a larger share of the CRM market as its rivals deal with internal issues. Siebel Systems, formerly the top provider of CRM software, has struggled to meet earnings expectations and has undergone recent management changes, while database giant Oracle is in the process of digesting its $10 billion takeover of enterprise applications specialist PeopleSoft.

According to McDermott, customers are also moving away from the best-of-breed CRM approach backed by Siebel and other software companies, and embracing SAP's application strategy, which emphasizes integration with a range of other back-end systems such as tools designed to help with enterprise resource planning, or ERP.

"As SAP has developed this whole integrated suite of business applications, customers have seen the advantage of adopting this fully integrated business process approach to CRM," McDermott said. "If you want visibility into your supply chain or ERP system to have a 360 degree view of your customer, whether it's through the Internet channel marketing, field sales or service--to have that fully integrated without any customization out of the box, shipped in 28 vertical industries, seems like a no-brainer."

McDermott said that SAP has defied long-standing accusations from rivals and market watchers that the company boosts its CRM customer numbers by simply bundling the software with its other products. He said the company is increasingly landing standalone CRM deals, such as a recent call center win with Internet service provider EarthLink, in addition to successfully marketing the software alongside its other applications.

"It's pretty clear that the companies that wish to question our math are the very same firms that are downsizing, missing (obligations) to Wall Street, making management moves and talking about acquisitions, so their house is completely out of order," he said. "Whether that's the well-known best-of-breed CRM firm or the database company that's trying to be an applications provider by consolidating multiple organizations into one, both are doing very poorly in business applications and we're winning."

Industry experts observed that SAP has indeed cashed in on the ongoing changes at Siebel and Oracle and said that the company has reason to believe that it may continue to do so. Scott Nelson, an analyst with market research company Gartner, said that SAP's new CRM package is "nothing revolutionary" but indicated his belief that market turmoil will help the software maker continue to lure customers from its rivals.

"In general, we're seeing that SAP has a lot of momentum in the CRM space; they've been blocking and tackling well and taking advantage of the uncertainty in the marketplace created by the Oracle-PeopleSoft merger and some of the management changes at Siebel that have caused clients to wonder just what's going on," Nelson said. "They're making clients comfortable that (SAP) is a safe choice with adequate functionality and greater vertical markets coverage, which is always part of their strategy."

Despite SAP's assertions that it has answered doubts about just how many customers are fully embracing its CRM system, Nelson said there remain some questions about that and indicated that Siebel may still be the top provider in some parts of the enterprise market.

"Based on clear revenues, SAP is the market share leader in CRM, but as far as the actual users that are turning on the system, they're still way behind Siebel, and it's never quite clear what the actual user base is in any given quarter," Nelson said. "The question in CRM is always what shows market share dominance--revenue or the number of users--and we still tend to see Siebel in the very large sales forces and call centers and haven't seen SAP as much in that space."