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Is SAP losing the CRM usability race?

At last year's Sapphire conference, SAP announced a revamped user interface, but it is still not widely available. Meanwhile, CRM competitors continue to focus on usability.

ATLANTA -- A year ago, at its Sapphire user conference in Orlando, SAP AG announced 2006s, the next milestone in its CRM platform, highlighted by a revamped user interface.

Since then, and at the Sapphire user conference being held here this week, there has been little discussion of CRM amidst the German software giant's announcements about the success of NetWeaver and Duet, its partnership with Microsoft.

"[Users are] a little confused as to SAP's CRM roadmap," said Rob Bois, senior analyst with Boston-based AMR Research. "2006s was released last year and there's been no information since then. And we're past the point they'd be releasing it broadly."

In fact, SAP has released 2006s to just five or six select customers to work with the interface and develop corresponding CRM processes. In addition, all users of SAP's on-demand module, released last February, are operating on the new user interface (UI). That's a total of about 40 or 50 customers working with it closely, according to SAP executives.

One of those customers is Siemens AG, the $100 billion global electronics and engineering company, which is in the midst of a massive 10-year project to eliminate 500 disparate CRM systems in its global operations and standardize on SAP CRM. @35597

"None of them connect to ERP and the supply chain, and they're from every vendor you've ever heard of," said David McCaulay, corporate senior vice president at Siemens. "A year and a half ago, we changed our approach. Our customers needed to be more than a series of transactions."

Part of that approach, with the CEO's backing, is rolling out SAP CRM with the new UI to 3,000 users. That will ramp up to 10,000 users in July, 2008. Ultimately, by the end of 2009, the company will have 33,000 users running off one instance of SAP CRM, with three physical instances in Vienna, Georgia and Thailand, McCaulay said.

One of the attractions of SAP CRM, and something Siemens is collaborating with SAP on, is Outlook integration.

"Our view is sales and marketing shouldn't use Outlook as an icon," McCaulay said, "they should use it as a part of CRM."

For others, the new UI is reason enough to move to the latest CRM version, even if there hasn't been a host of new functionality.

"We're very excited about that," said George Rears, applications manager for Oki Data Solutions Inc., a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based printing solutions company. "The UI is beautiful on 2006s."

The one-year anniversary of Oki Data's rollout of SAP CRM 4.0 came last week, but executives there are ready to move on already. That's primarily because of the UI. Oki Data does not use the current SAP CRM interface at all; in fact, it runs the application through the SAP Enterprise Portal.

"Nobody uses the SAP UI," said Maggie Reed Dominguez, project manager at Oki Data. "When people come in to the company, they love it. They say, 'It's way better than that Siebel system I was using.' We stripped it down."

Issues remain with the enterprise portal, however, and chief among them are connectivity problems with the company's virtual private network (VPN). Oki Data must use a Web-based system because its sales team is remote, but problems with the VPN have led to a lack of confidence in CRM, leading it to 2006s.

Jumping the gun?

While Oki Data has seen the demos of 2006s and is eager to make the switch, it's going to have to wait. The application won't be generally available until December, leaving the company waiting. So, did SAP announce 2006s too early?

"Yes, and I think SAP would admit that," said AMR's Bois. "They probably wanted to get some news out about CRM at Sapphire last year. The flip side is they don't have much this year."

SAP didn't go quite that far.

"What we announced last year was the strategy," said Angela Bandlow, vice president of CRM Solutions marketing. "I think it was critical to announce the strategy when we did."

While SAP claims market leadership in CRM, one frequent source of criticism has been that many CRM licenses sit on shelves unused. And usability has been a barrier to CRM deployments, Bandlow said.

"I put a premium on usability, with CRM especially," Bois said. "I think sales and marketing are the toughest audiences to reach in enterprise software. We suggest to our clients [that] they put usability at the top."

Meanwhile, usability has emerged as a major area of focus in CRM development. The latest release of Siebel 8.0 features a new, task-based UI, and Salesforce.com built its business thanks partly to an on-demand deployment model that eased implementation, but also for its UI.

In fact, it was Salesforce.com reaching out to Oki Data that got the company interested in revamping its CRM in the first place. However, Salesforce.com couldn't deliver on a core forecasting requirement, according to Rears.

"I do give SAP credit because it's important to get this right," Bois said. "Relative to their traditional UI, it's easier to use, but SAP's competitors are doing that too. It's a race, and SAP is not ahead."

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