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Do-it-yourself software: Salesforce.com takes customization one step farther

CRM software isn't just for CRM anymore -- at least according to Salesforce.com.

Consider the following:

  • Edstrom Industries, a Waterford, Wis., maker of laboratory equipment, relies on Salesforce.com's subscription-based sales and CRM software to help keep track of nonconformance reports in Edstrom's products.
  • Magma Design Automation, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based maker of electronic design automation (EDA) software, also uses Salesforce.com -- for tracking bug fixes and feature requests in its applications.
  • New Jersey home health care provider, Patient Care, uses Salesforce.com as its system for admitting patients into its home health care organization.

Of course, these three companies also use Salesforce.com for sales force automation (SFA) and CRM.

But it's the non-traditional uses of the software that have piqued the interest of some in the CRM industry. The three firms are incorporating Salesforce.com screen tabs, data fields and workflow into applications that have little or nothing to do with sales or CRM.

Bill Edstrom Jr., chief technology officer and the manager for research and development at Edstrom Industries, said he found many generic aspects of Salesforce.com that could be used in almost any application.

"It is really a general purpose business platform for handling databases," Edstrom claimed. "The tabs in Salesforce.com represent some of the most common workflow patterns that exist in business processes. So we figured it would be fairly easy to implement a nonconformance tracking system in Salesforce.com."

In fact, it took Edstrom Industries only two weeks from decision to implementation -- and half of that time was spent on training employees to use the system.

"Most of the customization was a matter of business process analysis. The actual work was just going in and picking fields and naming them," said Edstrom, noting that the price to subscribe to, and modify, Salesforce.com is about the same as buying an off-the-shelf product conformance tracking package, with the benefit that they don't have to worry about hardware upgrades or server maintenance.

Software any way you want it

This notion of easy customization is one Salesforce.com has vigorously promoted over the past year. Last autumn, the hosted heavyweight introduced its Customforce.com toolkit, which helps customers quickly customize and re-arrange the data fields, screen layout and workflow of Salesforce.com. For more extensive customization and integration, developers can use Sforce, the Web services application programming interface that Salesforce.com makes available to customers.

Other SFA and CRM application vendors provide tools for customers to customize their software -- PeopleSoft offers PeopleTools, for instance -- but Salesforce.com is unique in that it is not licensed software, but a subscription service. Another difference: Customforce is so easy to use that virtually anyone with some Salesforce.com knowledge, not just developers, can use it to tweak or create applications, the company claims.

"Customforce gave me the ability to create brand new records in half an hour," said David Brooks, director of CRM for Magma Design Automation.

Unlike other CRM and SFA software vendors, Salesforce.com does not provide vertical industry versions of its product. There is no "Salesforce.com for government" or "Salesforce.com for health care" as there is for Siebel Systems and Oracle-PeopleSoft products.

Adam Gross, director of product marketing for Salesforce.com, said vertical industry versions are a relic of the client-server era and are not useful in an age when customization is much easier to do and customers want highly specialized features.

"In the client server era, companies took the customization work out of customers' hands and pushed it into the actual code base, because it was too difficult for the customer to do," he said.

The majority of people who use Customforce are not technical but business managers, typically CRM project managers or sales directors, Gross said.

Some customers are doing even more elaborate integration and customization work on Salesforce.com with the help of third-party tools. For example, Martin Howard, chief information officer at Patient Care, bought Above All Software's Studio to create an interface overlay on the Salesforce.com graphical user interface. The overlay applies business rules to data and screens, and also takes care of routing information into the correct back-end system, be it Salesforce.com's or Patient Care's billing and ongoing patient management applications.

Howard said the resulting composite interface saved Patient Care the cost of buying an integration broker or other enterprise application integration software. In Howard's view, most software packages look pretty much alike, so changing a sales application into a patient registration application is no big deal.

"I've always been frustrated by the fact that, even though application needs are very similar, you have to go buy different applications just because one package calls an element a 'dining room meal' and another package calls it a 'nursing visit,'" he said.

Erin Kinikin, vice president of enterprise applications at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said Patient Care is a good example of why CRM applications should be easy to customize.

"It points to why these frameworks are important in CRM, which is that everybody's customers are different," she said. "You need programmability to get generic CRM to recognize your customers, whether they're patients or business partners."

But she is wary of extending such customization into fields completely foreign to CRM. "If your processes don't have anything to do with CRM, then you're not going to get a lot of benefit out of [customizing Salesforce.com]. You need some kind of synergy in the type of data and processes," she said.

Salesforce.com would do well to take the extra step of creating vertical versions of its application, she said, to provide customers with a ready-made package that fits most of their needs without customization.

"Many small companies are not going to be in a position to do a lot of customization, for instance," she said. "I think the right answer is to be customizable and vertical -- not either/or."

In Brooks' view, however, vertical applications are nowhere close to being sufficient for his needs.

"People don't want the EDA industry vertical package from Salesforce.com," he said. "They want their own application. This empowers me to do the things I want to do easily and quickly."

Sue Hildreth is a contributing writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at sue.hildreth@comcast.net.

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