To Sell Better, Sell Smarter

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Companies that make other companies sell smarter are hot.

Customer relationship management, or CRM, darling Salesforce.com's sales jumped nearly 20% year over year. And software arms dealers Microsoft ( MSFT), Google ( GOOG), Oracle ( ORCL) and IBM ( IBM) all push CRM tools. And that ignores the smallish tickers like NetSuite ( N), Epicor Software ( EPIC) and CDC Software ( CDCS) that also angle for the small-business CRM dollar.

The news is, up-and-coming companies are aiming to roil the CRM market even further. One of the most interesting is privately held Providence, R.I.-based BatchBlue. Started in 2006 by two ex- Amazon.com employees, the company is bringing a social Web flair to CRM, with a product called BatchBook. (Plans start at $10 a month.)

And though major CRM players remain immune for now -- BatchBlue has all of eight employees and wouldn't disclose its subscriber figures -- I have been tinkering with the product for the past few months. And I, along with my sales and logistics colleagues Damon and Carter, got a full-on demo of the package.

And we all agreed BatchBook is one heck of an interesting CRM idea.

What you get: BatchBook is the CRM tool for the Web 2.0 world. What founders Pamela O'Hara, Sean Ransom and Michelle Riggen-Ransom have done is create contact management tools based around meta-tags. That's geek-speak for little bits of text that define Web content. For example, this story could be tagged "CRM," or "small business." But tags are tricky. Even simple tags like "pot" or "unit" can mean different things to different folks. So tags often don't organize, they confuse.

But in the restricted world of a small-business sales team, tagging has fresh merit. As long as all agree what a tag means, tossing on a simple term to define a contact as a client or vendor can be a simple, robust way for a business to figure itself out. After all, business lexicons like sales and invoice numbers are really just numeric tags. And in general, at least in my early testing, BatchBook makes good on the promise of tags as a sales tool.

BatchBook's interface is based on familiar tabbed browsers. Sign-up is super fast. As is uploading your contacts from Google Apps, Outlook or Entourage. Then simply start defining leads by tagging them as you go: "client," "deadend," "influencers," etc. And done right, slowly but surely, a logic will emerge about your sales process -- a logic that BatchBook enables to be shared, in real time, across your shop.

It's a good idea.

What you don't get: BatchBook is no CRM final solution. As with all CRM tools, BatchBook is no miracle. Yes, the code impressively syncs with Google Apps, FreshBooks, Twitter, Facebook and others. But it still struggles with many small-business tools. Most calendaring, project management and accounting packages -- most notably QuickBooks -- are not supported.

And then there is the cultural hurdle: Everybody really does have to agree on what the friggin' tags mean. Expect some serious small-biz kumbaya as everybody works out which tags mean what.

Bottom line: Cleaner, faster, leaner selling will be job No. 1 in 2010. Or you can expect not to make it to 2011. And BatchBook is as simple a way to fight that fight, as I have found. But just because BatchBook makes the sales process simpler, it does not mean it makes selling simple.

Going social with your sales process is smart. Just plan on real effort to get there.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.

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