When you're starting a business there are any number of really important and, honestly, really expensive chores you have to do, and one of the most important is making a decision about how to actually keep track of your customers, your suppliers, sales leads, and so on. If you have a sales team you have to give them tools in order for them to be able to take all of this info and close deals. Oh, and then there's email. Hmmm… what about promotional tools like mass mailings, advertising, and all of the other bits that help further your business?
Back in the "dot com" boom Application Service Providers (ASPs) were suppose to fix all these problems by renting us applications and allowing us to outsource all of the nutty gritty of our businesses to them, and somehow we'd all just rake in profits. As we know it didn't quite work out that way, mostly because the ASPs of the late 1990s were focusing on all the wrong areas. They thought that it was all the desktop applications and other ephemera that needed outsourcing. Well, they were wrong and the ASP industry paid a heavy price for their miscalculation.
In the middle of all of the euphoria over the possibility of no-install software was a Sales Force that was founded by a former Orcale exec named Marc Benioff. SalesForce from the outset had figured out something that had eluded most of the other wannabe ASPs which is no one needs an outsourced word-processor or a remote desktop run on a server in Bangalore – what they need is tools to perform the real nuts and bolt of running a sales-driven business. Not only that, they need to be able to interact with it just like it was software they were running on their own systems, but also it had to be deliverable without the installation of even a single byte of software.
They started off slow in the early 2000s, but Sales Force has really taken off and it has gotten a lo of traction, a lot of very high visibility customers including Down Jones Newswires, Staples, AOL, Coldwell Banker, Avis, Commerce Bank, and hundreds of others.
Sales Force (or as most people seem to refer to it "Sales Force dot Com" or "S-F-D-C") is at its core a very generic Customer Relationship Management or "CRM" System. It consists of a series of modules for managing people (employees), customers, contacts, generating reports, scheduling events, modules for automating the sales work-flow process, email, tools for running marketing campaigns, keeping track of documents and contacts, and a lot more. Of course, all of this is accessible via and run though a plain, vanilla web browser.
SalesForce provides all of this at a variety of price points to meet almost the needs of a large variety and kinds of business. There are editions for "teams" (for 5 or fewer users), a Professional edition, and Enterprise and an "unlimited edition." Many of the differences between the editions center around 1) the number of applications available or 2) the amout of storage per user that is included in the monthly charges. SalesForce has a comparison chart but the pricing is typically about $50 per seat per month depending on the edition and any added services/features.
What makes SalesForce special is not the generic components but how many tools they provide on top of the basic system that make it easy to load your existing data into the SalesForce CRM system and then the literally hundreds of tools they provide to help you take advantage of the basic CRM underpinnings.
Putting SalesForce.com to the Test
SalesForce has put together a very well rounded collection of fields that represent all the major aspects of a generic business – and you can add more if you need to —- and stocks this basic database with a large number of reports, dashboards, and other tools that take a lot of the pain out of finding basic information about the operating characteristics of your business.
SFDC provides all of the background services your expect beyond the tools themselves: they provide all of the backup and recovery services on could need; they will also back up your data on-to-fly, which is very useful if you are about to make some large change to your data and want a clean way to back out in case something goes wrong. SalesForce also will provide you with a "test bed" copy of your data and applications if you want to keep your live production data separate from anything you are experimenting with. SalesForce also provide a number of tools to help you bring in data (say from an external database) or even aggregate 3rd party content into your SFDC data. There are also a host of 3rd party software vendors that make tools and utilities for manipulating data stored in SalesForce or for providing access to SalesForce from mobile devices such as Blackberrys and other PDAs.
One of the most interesting aspects of SalesForce's approach to providing a true hands-off ASP experience is their AppExchange service. AppExchange is where 3rd parties (or even other SDFC customers) package up tools and utilities and make them available to SFDC customers. For example, if you needed a compensation system to automatically figure out bonuses for your sales team (something that is not provided out-of-the-box by the SFDC tools) you could find several providers of such a service via the SalesForceAppExchange.
The tools that are available via the AppExchange cross dozens of disciplines and many industries. For the most part, thanks for a clear and well thought our API, all of these tools drop right into and know how to access and manage your data. Of course, if you need something that isn't even available via the AppExchange, both SalesForce and a whole ecosystem of ISV and VARs stand ready to help you extend the basic SFDC capabilities. Oh, and if your create some new SFDC capability, SalesForce will be happy to help you resell your new tool via the AppExchange as well.
The Right Tool for the Right Job
The tools that are available via SalesForce represent a whole new genre of applications — the truly mobile office. One company I work with, a very high-end boutique personnel/staffing firm has no "central office," rather they are completely distributed around the continental US, their work bound together by the Internet and the tools that SalesForce allows them to bring together to run their business. Their recruiters and sales people are out in the field generating business and solving customer needs. In general, they have no need for data centers or a large IT staff.;Salesforce hosts their data 24x7x365, backs it up; they can modify the system's operations and tools as often as they need by creating reports, dashboard and other tools to help them optimize their efforts.
For an increasing number of agile businesses, the secret to success is not in having the most IT toys, but in having the best services available and being able to use those service wherever and whenever they can best generate and service business. SalesForce is well worth looking into if your company's business is something other than the business of IT.