Salesforce.com Tackles Customer Service and Support

Company expands focus from sales force automation to include customer service and support

Last week, Salesforce.com announced Supportforce.com, its first dedicated CRM customer service and support offering.

To date, analysts say, Salesforce.com has concentrated mostly on the sales force automation aspect of hosted CRM. Its new customer service and support offering catapults it into competition with prominent on-premise CRM purveyors such as Siebel, PeopleSoft Corp., and SAP AG, as well as with other CRM-as-a-service providers.

Salesforce.com positions supportforce.com as a more or less complete customer service offering—including call center, contact center, help desk, and other core customer service components—at a can’t miss price: free for existing users.

Much as it’s done throughout its history, salesforce.com also trumpeted an impressive list of supportforce.com backers, including customer contact center powerhouses Avaya Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Alcatel; customer service and support authority Aspect Communications Corp., and conferencing specialist Genesys. When the hosted CRM pioneer launched its sForce initiative last year, the company touted support from development powerhouses BEA Systems Inc., Borland Software, Microsoft Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc., among others.

There’s good reason for this, says Ian Jacobs, a principal CRM analyst with consultancy Current Analysis. “By getting all its ducks in a row before the launch, salesforce.com has gone a long way towards instilling confidence among prospective users of the system that the service will work with the leading contact center infrastructures,” he writes.

Salesforce.com has come a long way since it first shopped its proprietary XML-RPC API, which—until it delivered its Web-services-based sforce initiative –provided the only programmatic means for customers to integrate their own back-end systems with the salesforce.com CRM stack. While XML-RPC worked as advertised, it was designed for use by organizations with significant in-house development expertise. Sforce removed that barrier.

For supportforce.com, salesforce.com is also touting a new API toolkit, based—not surprisingly—on the sforce toolset, called the sforce Telephony API (STAPI). Officials say customers can tap STAPI to integrate their supportforce.com implementations with the telephony platforms of Avaya, Cisco, and other partners. In addition to APIs, the STAPI toolkit provides sample code and documentation.

Even with the STAPI toolkit, Current Analysis’ Jacobs says supportforce.com’s “free” price tag is something of a misnomer. For users with existing investments in customer service or support technologies, the integration and process changes associated with implementing supportforce.com could prove to be prohibitive. For other customers, Jacobs says, salesforce.com’s new offering could be ideal, however: “[F]or customers that have yet to really codify and automate their support processes, the big sign blinking ‘Free’ over this offering will certainly lure many of them to at least investigate the service,” he writes.

The truth, Jacobs says, is that salesforce.com hasn’t had any trouble attracting new customers—instead, “keeping them happy and using the service becomes the issue.” In fact, Jacobs, speculates that there’s probably a good deal of churn in the company’s customer base. By impelling customers to commit more fully to the salesforce.com stack, supportforce.com could change that, he says.

“This new service will help make customers more likely to become dependent enough on the salesforce.com suite of services to reduce churn,” he writes. “The greater the number of touch points salesforce.com has with the customer, the harder it is for that customer to switch CRM systems without major upheaval and significant cost.”

In launching supportforce.com, salesforce.com is once again trying to propel itself into the midst of a fiercely contested market. In addition to hosted players, such as RightNow Technologies and Qualte, on-premise providers such as Siebel and PeopleSoft Corp. also have healthy customer bases for their customer support applications. While salesforce.com’s hosted model has proven irresistible to many consumers of its salesforce automation software, Jacobs predicts the supportforce.com won’t have any staying power if it doesn’t deliver the customer service and support goods.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.