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SaaS CRM services in greater demand

SaaS CRM was once touted for the ability of customers to simply "flip the switch" to implement it, but a growing number of services firms are now emerging around the model.

For years, CRM vendors that delivered their application via the Software as a Service (SaaS) -- or on-demand -- model, preached the gospel of quick deployments and easy operation as a stark contrast to packaged applications that are stored and managed by the customer on site.

While it is, by most accounts, simpler to deploy and manage SaaS CRM, the model apparently does have something in common with traditional enterprise software -- it still demands services to go with it.

A number of SaaS CRM services operations have emerged in recent months, demonstrating that running the application takes more than just flipping a switch.

Last month, for example, San Mateo, Calif.-based NetSuite Inc. rolled out SuiteSuccess, a program of professional services, training and customer support services for its SaaS CRM, ERP and e-commerce applications.

"Since it has been tagged as utility computing, everyone expects to flip the switch and get up and running," said Mini Peiris, NetSuite's vice president of product marketing. "You really do have to look at how it will affect your processes. It's a complicated product because it's still ERP."

SuiteSuccess is based on an SaaS implementation methodology that NetSuite developed over years of working with its customers and with the assistance of chief customer officer Tim Dilley, who joined the company a year and a half ago, Peiris added.

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Customers can contract with NetSuite directly for services, get help through a NetSuite partner or manage the implementation themselves with information NetSuite makes generally available.

NetSuite offers two types of services. The guided service, typically used by its smaller customers seeking to save on spending, involves NetSuite's services team providing business process skills and walking customers through the methodology -- but customers do the hands-on work themselves, Peiris said. The shared service has NetSuite doing some of the more complicated work.

IBM also got into the SaaS CRM services game last month. It created a Center of Excellence for CRM SaaS to help IBM Global Services clients evaluate, implement and derive value from their applications.

"We have been doing a number of SaaS evaluations and implementations over the last year to 18 months," said Daniel Hirschbuehler, global lead CRM service line, with IBM Global Business Services. "We saw a lot of similarities as well as things that were different from traditional on-premises implementations."

There has also been some over-promising about the ease of implementation, Hirschbuehler said.

"In the larger enterprise, where you have lots of seats and fairly complex business processes, standardizing the enterprise on the SaaS business process is an area that often takes more effort than what is billed in the industry," he said.

So, why are vendors that were once boasting how easy it was to get their software running now offering services? Part of the need for SaaS CRM services is that larger companies have warmed to the idea of running applications over the Internet.

"Earlier on, we were dealing with smaller customers and there was the perception that SaaS is easy," Peiris said. "Yeah, sure, we take away the overhead of hardware and network infrastructure, but there's still the business process piece of it. Because it's attracting bigger companies that have an understanding of how it impacts their business, there's more of an understanding that this will reduce maintenance costs, but you still have to look into how this impacts how your business works."

However, midsized companies are finding they need help as well, as are smaller companies that may not have the budget for it, according to Jeff Kaplan, managing director with Wellesley, Mass.-based THINKstrategies.

"There are relative shades of on-demand," he said. "Some you can click and buy and start using immediately, others take time to implement and get up-to-speed on. The more complex enterprise-level applications are going to require more time and more help."

Organizations considering on-demand need to evaluate not only the application but their own level of in-house expertise to determine whether they need services help. That includes considering underlying requirements for integration, data migration and possibly some reconfiguration to modify the look and feel.

"The more this market evolves, the more it mirrors some of the fundamentals of the traditional software industry," Kaplan said. "The nice thing today is there's a greater transparency in the way the vendors have to provide a preview or a sneak peek of their applications either through a try-and-buy approach with the free trials or, at the very least, an opportunity to get some demo capabilities prior to making an acquisition."

Whether a customer goes to his new SaaS CRM vendor, a consultant or a traditional systems integrator depends on the application, the cultural fit and his own needs.

"[Customers have] to make some judgment about whether they feel comfortable with supplied services [from the vendor] or whether they're looking for vendor-independent sources," Kaplan said. "This is what is common in traditional software. The more things change, the more they stay the same in some ways."

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