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CRM unplugged: SFA finally ready to go wireless

CRM vendors are making announcements of mobile capabilities left and right. The hype surrounding mobile CRM two years ago may finally be turning into reality.

A few months ago, Symetra Financial in Redmond, Wash., went to its CRM vendor looking for wireless capabilities for its external sales force.

Not so coincidentally, that vendor, Onyx Software Corp. in Bellevue, Wash., was preparing to release an employee portal optimized for the BlackBerry wireless platform from Research in Motion (RIM) Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario.

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Onyx isn't the only vendor stepping up its wireless CRM efforts. Today, PeopleSoft Inc., in Pleasanton, Calif., revealed plans to offer its Enterprise 8.9 CRM system on the BlackBerry.

"Wireless CRM has really been dead for the last few years," said Erin Kinikin, vice president, enterprise applications, with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "There were a lot of announcements and hype in 2000. Frankly, everyone's been focused on demonstrating the basics of CRM, not what devices people use it on."

The recent announcements from Onyx and PeopleSoft show that CRM is now maturing past the basics, and companies can now worry about things like how to support traveling employees, Kinikin said.

At the beginning of the month, Best Software, in Irvine, Calif., a division of The Sage Group plc, also joined the mobile party by introducing SalesLogix for Pocket PC.

CRM in the hand is worth two in the bush

Prometheus Laboratories Inc., a San Diego pharmaceutical company, is an early customer of the SalesLogix device.

"People wouldn't carry their laptops into the field," said chief information officer Brian Littlefield. "This became the more reasonable way to provide CRM in their hand."

While PeopleSoft will provide an automatic wireless "trickle synch" with the BlackBerry device, which allows it to constantly update data, Prometheus users synch up with the central CRM system through their home office or on their laptop, Littlefield said.

Symetra was having the same issues with a sales force reluctant to bring laptops into the field. The roughly 50-person external sales team began using Onyx's wireless platform at the beginning of October and now has access to the most up-to-date numbers. They can be a little more responsive when they go into meetings with investors and broker dealers, said Lisa Gardner, manager of information technology.

Both Symetra and Prometheus have had to do some customization for their project, but the early returns are better than expected. The sales force has quickly seen the value of the system.

"It's been very positive," Littlefield said. "It wasn't necessarily put out there as an optional thing to use, but people have found it very compelling."

Wireless device or the software first?

Symetra had already purchased BlackBerries for their sales force before turning to Onyx for help. That's a wise approach, according to Kinikin.

"Don't let the CRM vendor drive your wireless device strategy," she said. "Make sure you've got the device that makes the most sense for your user. No one is going to buy a new CRM system just because it has wireless support. But if you believe in CRM, wireless is a great way to get the sales force to buy in."

Palm once dominated the market for handheld devices, but others have made significant gains in recent years, Kinikin noted. For example, sales divisions in the pharmaceutical industry -- which was an early adopter of wireless CRM -- are heavy tablet PC users. And BlackBerry devices are favored by many sales teams in high-tech and financial services.

Appealing to the gadget lovers

PeopleSoft's offering, in conjunction with RIM, should be available over the next couple of months and is part of the company's focus on usability and performance, said George Ahn, PeopleSoft's general manager for CRM. It is a Java-based application for BlackBerry with ongoing synchronization, analytics that can be delivered to the device, and call reports and tear sheets to organize data into a single view.

Onyx has several early users rolling out its system this fall. It includes capabilities such as contact management, pipeline management, quick search and e-mail integration.

SalesLogix for Pocket PC is based on Microsoft's .NET framework and offers contact management, handwriting recognition and activity management. It starts at $295 per user.

Users can expect more announcements from other vendors as well.

"My prediction is we're not going to see a wireless explosion, but we're definitely going to see a bigger and bigger trickle of companies who have already invested in wireless and want to add CRM," Kinikin said. "These devices just proliferate, especially in sales. Salespeople love having the latest device."

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