Without a doubt the most prevalent hosted customer relationship management (CRM) package, Salesforce.com boasts more than 9,500 customers--and for good reason. This online application has strong features for tracking contacts, leads, and customer inquiries. It can also be configured and managed by the people who use it, rather than demanding the attention of IT staffers. Because the application is hosted on the Web servers at Salesforce.com's data centers, small businesses won't need to invest in up-front software licenses or new machines. Salesforce.com Professional Edition is reasonably priced, starting at $65 per month. Also available are Team Edition, which is limited to five users, and Enterprise Edition, which is targeted at larger companies. All Salesforce.com sessions are SSL-encrypted for security.
Salesforce.com is not perfect, however. Its flexibility is also a liability, in that its many options can be overwhelming. And although outsourcing critical infrastructure to ASPs (application service providers) has generally proven effective at mitigating TCO (total cost of ownership), your mileage may vary. According to research firm Gartner, "The longer you use ASPs and the more users you have, the more expensive it becomes." Perhaps worse, you lock your data into hardware and software that you don't actually own. Nonetheless, your small business will also get more features, ease of use, and reliability out of Salesforce.com than it probably could afford for full-time, in-house support. To set up your company on Salesforce.com, you begin by selecting your country and language (Salesforce.com supports 11 languages). After entering basic contact information, you select one of the application's many templates--for example, Manufacturing, Professional Services, Media & Advertising--to further customize your installation. These templates are based in part on mature business processes developed by Salesforce.com's past customers--a nice feature.
Once logged in, you'll arrive at your business's home page, a collection of personalized, customizable information grouped under headers such as Calendar, Tasks, and Accounts. Across the top of the page is the tabbed navigation system. First-time users may panic at the vast list of navigation tabs, but you can easily customize the view and remove the tabs you don't need.
The system is designed to accommodate a variety of typical small-business users, from sales and marketing to customer support, and the navigation tabs--including Campaigns, Leads, Accounts, and Opportunities--support all the CRM functions you would expect. You can edit the names of existing tabs and add custom tabs for processes not already built into the system. The customization features are manageable by someone who is not an IT professional, although the flexibility of the system may be a little daunting. Nonetheless, after you spend a little time in Salesforce.com, you'll get the hang of it.
If you don't, there's help. We recommend that you take advantage of Salesforce.com's online tutorials, which will help you put the puzzle pieces together. Since the ultimate value of a CRM system is its bird's-eye view of your sales process, it's best to understand the interactions and dependencies before you get too deep into configuration. We evaluated the Professional edition of Salesforce.com, which would be the right version for a company of about 12 to 15 users. The Team and Enterprise editions support fewer and more users (and features), respectively.
Salesforce.com's features have been carefully thought out. Most of them are available in packaged CRM software, but no other hosted service offers as robust a feature set. The system includes modules for:
- Integrated sales force automation: This module includes lead management and helps define a sales process for your entire organization to follow.
- Customer service and support: This component takes you from initiation to resolution in managing a customer contact.
- Marketing automation: This is a strong module that helps manage marketing campaigns and analyze success.
- Document management: This is a common document repository for customer materials.
- Contract management: This is a central repository for your customer contacts. It also helps create and track contracts until they are signed.
- Product catalog management: This lets you update and manage your product portfolio.
- Analytics: With these tools, Salesforce.com provides useful insight into your sales data.
If the off-the-Net version of Salesforce isn't flexible enough for you, there's sForce, an open Web services API that allows developers to write code that links existing applications to Salesforce.com. Salesforce.com also sells Studio, a customization platform for the Salesforce.com interface. Additionally, there is an offline edition of Salesforce.com that is useful if you want access to your system when you are not on the Internet. Finally, Salesforce.com can sync with Outlook or the Palm Desktop, though we didn't test-drive those features.
But there's a caveat. Despite Salesforce.com's excellent business tools, it became clear to us after using the system and talking with other customers that to take full advantage of the application, you'll need to plan ahead and map out your business processes before tinkering with your Salesforce setup. One customer we spoke with said that he had abandoned the application for a while because the processes were not set up correctly the first time. Another said that he had changed processes and didn't know how to alter Salesforce.com to match. Salesforce.com's online tutorials are great primers. Free, live training is available on a variety of topics, and you can purchase training geared toward specific product features. You can also call for customer support at no extra charge (which makes sense, since you pay for the product monthly). Finally, if you are really struggling, you can consider hiring Salesforce.com's Services group to come in and customize the system to match your business needs.
Salesforce.com should provide excellent uptime. We experienced no outages, although verifiable figures were not made available for this review. The company also has mature storage and backup procedures.