Third-Parties Augment Mid-Market CRM with Analytics

Visual Mining and Tableau Software are established data viz specialists; both cite a hunger for analytics in the growing SMB CRM space.

When it comes to analytics, classic customer relationship management (CRM) offerings tend to have a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio: most can monitor and report on an abundance of customer data, to be sure, but when it comes to analytic insights, they frequently come up short.

That’s one reason the former Siebel Systems Inc. drastically expanded the scope of its own analytic ambitions, after all. When Siebel wanted to flesh out its analytic functionality, it revisited the BI and analytic assets it acquired from the former nQuire in 2001. Siebel’s rediscovery of its nQuire assets—which culminated in its first-ever BI Forum in late 2004—augured a major analytics push by the one-time CRM giant. (http://www.esj.com/business_intelligence/article.aspx?t=y&EditorialsID=7244)

Of course, neither of the two mid-market CRM powers-that-be—Salesforce.com and Microsoft Corp.—have yet had comparable come-to-analytics experiences. Never fear: a pair of third-party vendors market complementary solutions designed to beef up the analytic chops of both offerings. Both Visual Mining Inc. and Tableau Software Inc. recently unveiled analytic add-ons for Salesforce.com and Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM, respectively. Both companies are established data visualization and analysis specialists; both cite a demonstrable hunger for analytic functionality in the fast-growing SMB CRM segment.

Salesforce.com and Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM offering have had significant—albeit divergent—impacts on the customer relationship management (CRM) market, with Salesforce.com pushing its flavor of low-risk and low-cost-of-entry on-demand CRM to SMB buyers, while Microsoft trumpets its inexpensive—and putatively user-friendly—on-premises offering for the mid-market, as well.

Both solutions provide a wealth of CRM detail data, Visual Mining and Tableau representatives stress; but both are comparatively lean when it comes to delivering analytic insight, they argue.

Visual Mining—which is itself a Salesforce.com consumer—was the first to identify a pressing need for on-demand CRM analytics: the company developed its first analytic add-on for Salesforce.com in 2005, but didn’t formally offer it to customers until last September. At that time, the company—a visualization pioneer best known for NetCharts, its venerable Java-based charting engine—decided to expose its Salesforce.com add-on, dubbed Sales Executive, as a hosted software-as-a-service offering.

In this respect, says CEO Mike McDonald, Visual Mining not only consumed—but also helped taste test—its own proverbial dogfood.

“When we upgraded to Salesforce.com, we ourselves experienced what it was like to move from an on-premises solution to the on-demand solution. You get all your updates for free. You get in inexpensively. It’s low-risk. All the stuff that the SaaS vendors talk about happens to be the truth. But there were also these shortcomings [in CRM analytics] and we thought we saw an opportunity there. So we started looking at our own products and asked, ‘Does it make sense for us to try to provide an on-demand product for this market?’” McDonald explains.

Visual Mining’s inaugural SaaS entry, Sales Executive, consumes Salesforce.com data and provides an interactive dashboard view of user-defined KPIs. It’s managed by Visual Mining itself, which replicates user data from Salesforce.com into its own hosted databases. The key, McDonald says, is that users can intuitively transition back and forth between Salesforce.com and the Sales Executive service. “It actually opens another panel into Salesforce.com. We already have the login information, [and] because [the user] came to Sales Executive from salesforce.com when they clicked on our analytics tag, they passed along the session information from salesforce.com. So we’re able to keep it all in the session,” he explains.

Visual Mining, as its name implies, is something of a specialist in the data visualization segment. As a result, the Sales Executive dashboard interface—which McDonald says is based on a user-self-service, point-and-click development paradigm—features an array of charts, heat maps, diagrams, and other (often exotic) visualization niceties. It’s interactive, too: mousing-over a bar chart, for example, pops up the underlying data; users can drill down from there, McDonald says.

Nor is Sales Executive all sheen and no substance, McDonald contends. “A lot of data visualization is great to look at, but in terms of conveying information, it’s not as useful. One of the things I like to focus on is providing data that’s actionable, when you tie goals to things. So one of the things that we allow users to do is set goals and then they can actually for a particular goal specify who can see that goal—so I as a manager can specify this is the goal for the current fiscal quarter and go from there,” McDonald explains.

Right now, Sales Executive—which uses a Web browser-based, AJaX-powered user interface—is a Salesforce.com-only proposition. That will almost certainly change, McDonald promises: “We do have the capacity to pull in data from other sources, but right now, in terms of what people get out of the box, it just pulls from Salesforce.com.”

Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI Research, says Visual Mining and Salesforce.com together comprise a potent one-two punch. “What better way to consume Salesforce.com data than with an ASP dashboard? No installation, no mess, or exorbitant fees—just the data the way users want it. This can really turbocharge Salesforce.com applications,” contends Eckerson, an industry thought-leader in the dashboard and performance management segments.

Tableau Courts Microsoft CRM

Visual Mining isn’t the only data visualization vendor to suddenly have gotten CRM religion. Data viz specialist Tableau—which markets a full-blown data visualization suite (Tableau 2.0, with Tableau 3.0 currently in beta)—this week announced an analytic add-on for Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

Tableau for Microsoft Dynamics CRM—which Tableau unveiled Monday at Microsoft’s Convergence user conference—is slated to ship next month. It features a drag-and-drop interface that lets users create ad hoc pipeline analyses, sales trends, and won/loss reports, along with standard business performance summaries and dashboards. Like Microsoft Dynamics CRM—and unlike both Visual Mining and its SaaS-based Salesforce.com add-on—Tableau for Microsoft Dynamics CRM is an on-premises, or rich-client, solution.

It’s all about different application models for different kinds of customers, Brown says. “It will add value and connect to Microsoft CRM data and basically provide visual analytics and interactive dashboards to the Dynamics suite,” says Kevin Brown, vice-president of marketing with Tableau. “We’re evolving our stories to basically focus Tableau in certain verticals where there’s high value data that’s being under-analyzed or underreported.” Mid-market CRM is one such vertical, Brown indicates: “In the SMB system, the CRM system is the heart of the business; in a bigger company, obviously you’d argue that the financial data is [the heart], but even [in large enterprises], the CRM data is right up there, too.”

Microsoft Dynamics CRM ships with integrated reporting capabilities, and—to a degree—can yield analytic insights, Brown says. But Tableau itself specializes in both visualization and analysis. In this respect, he argues, Tableau’s add-on for Dynamics CRM—like the Essbase-only version of Tableau which Hyperion Solutions Corp. currently resells—provides targeted, best-of-breed visualization and analysis. “We enable a whole new level of visual analytics for the Microsoft CRM platform. By no means do we replace Excel or [Microsoft’s] own stuff, but basically out of the box, a company will be able to install Tableau for Microsoft Dynamics CRM and connect to the underlying data and basically start generating reports, and visual analytics, and even dashboards.”

Tableau, like Visual Mining, touts a new kind of interactive or “dynamic” dashboard. In essence, Brown says, users can take existing Tableau worksheets—i.e., sets of Dynamics CRM data—and expose them (by pointing-and-clicking through a few options) as interactive dashboards. Because Tableau’s add-on connects directly to Dynamics CRM, customers can rapidly get up, running, and dashboarding, he claims. “It works out of the box. This product only connects to Microsoft Dynamics data. It’s like the version of [Tableau] that only works with Hyperion Visual Explorer, which only connects to Essbase. It’s a companion product, and it’s priced accordingly. It’s directly targeted as a complement to the product, and [we position it as] a salesforce.com killer,” Brown concludes.