SAP puts a Web 2.0 spin on CRM upgrade

SAP on Tuesday announced an update to its customer relationship management software with a Web 2.0-style interface that could help to increase usage rates among workers.

Companies often report that usage levels for their business software is lower than they would like, with salespeople managing accounts in Microsoft Outlook instead of their more expensive CRM software, for example. SAP hopes to address that with CRM 2007, an update to its CRM (customer relationship management) product that will be widely available early next year.

People accustomed to using easy-to-use Web applications in their personal life are starting to expect that same ease of use in their business software, said Stefan Haenisch, SAP's vice president of CRM product management.

"We're trying to bridge the gap between a cool, user-driven Web application, and an enterprise software application," he said.

SAP competes primarily with Oracle in the market for broad CRM suites, which include tools for managing sales, marketing and customer service. Other rivals include Salesforce.com, Chordiant Software and Infor.

Oracle probably has the broadest set of CRM capabilities, thanks to its acquisitions of Siebel and PeopleSoft, said Vuk Trifkovic, an analyst with Datamonitor in the U.K. "But I don't think that reflects badly on SAP, they have good tools with a lot of features, and they're a natural for anyone in the SAP ecosystem," he said.

CRM 2007 has a portal-like interface that workers can customize with information from within the CRM system, such as reports, or from external sources, such as publically available newsfeeds and maps. They can change the color and "theme" of the interface by clicking through different designs, or skins.

The idea is to make the software more appealing to work with, but also to provide information that might increase productivity. A salesperson might add a feed showing news about companies he plans to visit that week, Haenisch said.

The software also looks different inside. The content is laid out in task windows that users can drag and drop to rearrange. The interface is built on SAP's NetWeaver and uses AJAX (asynchronous JavaScript and XML), a popular interface technology on the Web.

There are also new CRM tools, including a pipeline management tool that can run "what if" scenarios on upcoming deals. A salesperson can view quarterly sales in a bar chart, and then move deals from one quarter to the next, or push expected targets up or down, to see the effect on the quarterly totals, Haenisch said.

CRM 2007 will also include telephony software that uses Internet Protocol, a technology SAP acquired when it bought Wicom Communications last May. The software lets companies set up a virtual call center that could include workers in remote locations, without having to invest in specialized telephony hardware, Haenisch said.

There is also an updated trade promotions management tool, which can help marketing departments manage hundreds of concurrent programs with retail stores.

The base pricing for the software hasn't changed, Haenisch said, but customers may have to pay for the new features, like the telephony software, depending on the type of SAP license they have.

SAP's last big CRM update was CRM 2005, two years ago. Some of the new features in CRM 2007 were offered in interim releases this year, but SAP expects most customers to adopt them with CRM 2007. The software will be rolled out gradually starting this month, with widespread availability scheduled for the second quarter next year, Haenisch said.

The global CRM market is growing quickly, according to Datamonitor, pushed along by organizations that recognize the benefits of creating a positive experience for their customers. The analyst company expects worldwide CRM sales to hit US$6.6 billion in 2012, up from $3.6 billion in 2006, with a compound growth rate of 10.5 percent per year.

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