Customization comes to low-end CRM

The knock against low-end CRM (customer relationship management) software has traditionally been that it takes a one-size-fits-most approach that does not work for businesses with complex processes. If you need customization, you're steered toward the wares of enterprise vendors -- with their correspondingly high enterprise-class price tags. But as vendors in the crowded market advance their technology and look for competitive advantages, sophisticated customization features are creeping into less expensive applications.

NetSuite Inc. took the wraps Thursday off a set of capabilities it dubbed "NetFlex," aimed at making NetSuite's ERP (enterprise resource planning)/CRM/e-commerce applications bundle a flexible, standards-compliant platform adaptable for custom business needs. The move parallels rival Salesforce.com Inc.'s preview of functionality due in June called "Multiforce," which will let users add new features and applications to run within their Salesforce.com system.

At the heart of both company's updates are tools designed to let users customize their systems without digging into programming code. Salesforce.com's point-and-click tool is called Customforce; NetSuite's is AppBuilder.

NetSuite customer Barry Friedman raves about the customization he's been able to do on NetSuite's system. Friedman is the chief executive officer of BizActions LLC, an e-mail newsletter technology company. While the company is officially headquartered in Potomac, Maryland, its staff is scattered throughout the country, thanks in large part to BizActions' ability to run operations through NetSuite's software.

Friedman has used AppBuilder to create a number of specialized applications within NetSuite, such as programs for tracking renewals and collections and a program that manages his company's telesales process via scripts.

"In my more than 30 years in accounting and technology, I've never seen software like this," Friedman said. "I literally manage the entire company from my dashboard."

NetSuite and Salesforce.com both offer their customization functions at no extra cost to customers of their full-featured editions. Both are hosted service providers which maintain and manage their applications on a subscription basis.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp. is preparing a major update of its CRM application, scheduled for release in late 2005, that will significantly increase its adaptability. Microsoft first released its closely watched Microsoft CRM software at the end of 2002 and has done one major update since then. But the current software has limited functionality, some frustrating glitches relating to software synchronization, and limited integration with Microsoft's Outlook e-mail and information management client. The next version will be a significant leap forward, according to Microsoft executives and those who have had early access to the new product.

Key to the update will be the ability to add "entities," records that carry throughout the system and can be customized, said Yankee Group Inc. analyst Sheryl Kingstone. She expects Microsoft's forthcoming integration, data management, and workflow improvements to put Microsoft CRM on par with its rivals.

One mystery still surrounding Microsoft's software is its name. Initially referred to as Microsoft CRM 2.0, the overhaul briefly became Microsoft CRM 2005 before reverting back to unnamed limbo, according to Microsoft CRM General Manager Brad Wilson. Microsoft promises that more information about the update, including its name and a detailed feature set, will be out in the third quarter of this year.

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