Online CRM Trending Away From Being a Silo-Specific Tool

Customer relationship management is a good fit for online technology, since it’s a process that requires frequent updating, benefits greatly from being indexed and searchable, and from being accessible on a variety of devices. But the role of CRM is changing, and online tools are changing as well, in order to provide enough flexibility to support enterprise-wide deployment.

CRM isn’t just about lead generation or issue resolution anymore; it’s about fostering professional relationships of all kinds, with customers both without and within organizations. As a result, companies are looking for tools that are easier for employees from a variety of educational backgrounds and skill sets to access, and ones that are easier to integrate with other facets of jobs across various departments.

SugarCRM CEO Larry Augustin spoke with BetaKit about how the CRM landscape is changing, and how that change is helping drive interest in his company’s product, which has quickly risen to take on some longtime industry leaders like Salesforce due in part to its open source nature.

“CRM was originally built as a tool for management to track forecasts and understand what the sales team was doing,” he said. “The direction we’re headed in today is a completely different view on what the goal is, which is to help the customer-facing professional be successful. The target user is not the manager, the target user is the salesperson about to talk to the customer. Or whoever it is that’s talking to that customer.”

In terms of meeting that changing need, Augustin says that SugarCRM’s emphasis on openness is a reason it continues to gain traction against larger players. “We’re definitely open, and the open platform is a big, big part of our differentiation,” he said. “It gives our customers the flexibility to go in a direction they need to go, without necessarily being dependent on us. They want to enhance it or create an integration, they don’t have to have us do it.”

New kid on the block Intercom is another company in the online CRM space, and it’s attracting a lot of positive attention for ease of use and integrations with existing social tools, and a user experience that makes introducing it to staffers who might not otherwise have been CRM users relatively easy. Intercom founder and CEO Eoghan McCabe told BetaKit in an interview that the idea behind his company is to provide web businesses with a better way to convert customers to paying customers, and since it aims businesses that might only have a few employees, it has to be a good fit for anyone who might be using it. He calls Intercom a “next-gen” CRM product, and contends that the company doesn’t really have any current competition in terms of its specific niche.

“It’s next-gen because it considers how this generation of web businesses work,” McCabe explained. “They don’t work on leads just to get them over the line. Rather they wish to nurture free customers after they’ve signed up, turning them to paying customers, and keeping them for life. Our CRM is integrated with the web product with some very simple Javascript. So the database is always live.”

McCabe thinks that appealing first to small shops that need easy, targeted access to customers (Intercom sorts individuals in its database based on client needs) is the key to truly disrupting the industry, and taking on larger players like Salesforce and Sugar.

“Classically disruptive companies start at the bottom of the market and get pulled up,” he said. “If we do our job right, we’ll gain increasing traction this way rather than stacking up directly against those big guys.”

Intercom’s approach could work a little like the iPhone, in terms of performing an end-around against more established companies with entrenched enterprise positioning. As employees become more autonomous, and more likely to operate in freelance capacities, or at least to change jobs with higher frequency than workers of previous generations, they’ll be much more likely to take their tools with them from role-to-role, which means easy, cloud-based offerings like Intercom will be more useful than advanced familiarity with any legacy systems that might be heavily firm-specific.

Online CRM has its share of heavy hitters, but it’s also an industry that’s currently undergoing a lot of change. The startups doing the most to capitalize on those changes are the ones that will earn fans among users in varying job descriptions, who will in turn act as evangelists and bring those new tools deeper into the enterprise.

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