From the small-business-technology perspective, the glory days of business process companies such as San Francisco-based Salesforce.com are fading. The game-changer here is not some high-flying, aggressive business software startup like, say, a BatchBook or Capsule. Rather, it's the slow but inexorable rise of features and capabilities found in standard, off-the-shelf office software.
Business systems company Salesforce faces challenges even from social media and standard, off-the-shelf office software such as email programs.
After several months of testing the latest versions of not only
Office 365, but the business utility of consumer tools including Facebook and Twitter, it is clear that the battle between these giants has revolutionized what business users can expect from even entry-level software.
With a just bit of tinkering -- and I mean just a bit -- even a tiny firm can build powerful sales, relationship and business process tools. And what you end up with won't just rival what you can buy from a company such as Salesforce.com, it will outperform it.
A "simple" spreadsheet ain't so simple anymore.
Competition among business software providers has evolved so that even a base-level spreadsheet has become almost absurdly powerful. Widely available no-cost tools now range from the once-unimaginable -- such as the Gadgets feature found in Google Apps Spreadsheets, which can enable any business function I can imagine -- to the super-useful. I find real-time, multi-spreadsheet collaboration and data sharing in Microsoft Excel running in Office 365 to be solid. Now sure, third-party apps such as Salesforce make such functions as collaboration and sales pipeline management simpler. And Salesforce, no question, looks great and is easy to use, and many sales organizations know and rely on the code. But dig into the features found on Google's or Microsoft's latest spreadsheets and you will be shocked to see what you can do -- and how little sense third-party business tools now make.
Social collaboration tools are becoming work collaboration tools.
Facebook, Twitter and chat apps such as
Instant Messenger and Google Talk have become the base-level communication tools not only for Americans, but for the American office. And though companies including Salesforce try to keep up with social media products with Chatter and other products, these add-on platforms are simply no match for real social media. More ominously for Salesforce, even basic business email programs are adding project-management and lead-tracking tools. Google, for example, now adds a robust "tasks" and "contacts" tool to its free Google Apps Mail package. This service makes tracking sales relationships as easy as entering some basic search terms. And contacts can be shared across a group with no effort. Or cost. Salesforce can't touch this.
The mobile future lies elsewhere.
At least for now, third-party business apps are struggling to keep up on mobile devices. Yes, Salesforce makes some darn slick apps. Group collaboration and how it quantifies and shares qualified leads are as impressive as they've always been. But not a week goes by that a new bell or whistle isn't added to Windows Mobile, Google Android or
Mobile OS, each of which offers fabulous integration with user email, contacts and other business data. Factor in that critical social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter work far better in their native apps on mobile tools, and I am not sure working a particular relationship on the go via a Salesforce app makes sense.
If your firm is using, or considering, a sales automation tool, you owe it to yourself and your shop to do reassessment of the new features found in basic spreadsheet, email and document-creation applications. If you approach these with an open mind, you should find that you can build your own surprisingly effective business process tool with just a reasonable amount of effort.
Your do-it-yourself CRM may not look as fancy. But it will almost certainly cost less, be tailored to your company's need and be under your direct control.
Which, trust me, after a half-decade of wrestling with cloud-based business apps in my business -- for better or worse -- that's really what you need to stay competitive in this brutal digital age.
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