The Google-ization of CRM

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For Abilene Christian University, the decision was easy—and involved a measure of fate. Associate Vice President of Operations Kevin Roberts happened to be attending a Google presentation at the annual EduCause conference when he got a call that made that session suddenly relevant: ACU’s email administrator had quit. Concerned about the effect of a new hire, Roberts listened to the Google information and did a bit of research with his team. Given ACU’s infrastructure, the email administrator position was a laborious one—but Roberts was being told that the job itself wouldn’t even have to exist if he moved the school’s Sun Microsystems–based system to the cloud and let Google take care of the details with its Web-based email application, known as Gmail. Why not forgo the administrator position altogether and let the cloud take over?

“We started digging around and realized this has a lot of potential,” Roberts recalls, but he says that even then he knew it had to be campuswide or it wouldn’t happen at all—no point converting just students to Gmail and keeping faculty and staff on the legacy system. So the decision was made: ACU offered Google Apps to students in April 2007, setting a September deadline—the start of the school year—for shutting off the old email client.

Eighty percent of students opted into Gmail the first day, Roberts says, and they offered zero pushback. The only resistance was with faculty members who had years and years of messages archived. Yet, by the end of autumn, the entire university was Google-oriented. Roberts says that he couldn’t be more pleased. “[Usage] has taken off very quickly,” he says. “It’s ingrained itself in the culture of how we do things at ACU.”

The technology department originally had email as its top-of-mind priority. Yet, as ACU experimented with Gmail, Roberts says the other benefits of Google Apps became clear. Essentially, the university replaced the email administrator with a developer capable of creating custom university applications for Google Apps. Professors now share Google-hosted presentations with students. Students share Google Docs with teachers. Faculty members use the collaboration capabilities to share budget documents with one another. All told, Abilene Christian saves nearly $100,000 a year.

“It’s like what Apple has done…in elementary school[s] to disrupt the PC market. It’s the same thing at the application layer with Google,” states Jeffrey Kaplan, founder of software-as-a-service (SaaS) consultancy ThinkStrategies. “Education is the best place to change long-term behaviors.”

But the classroom is only Step One. In what many are calling the “consumerization of business technology,” there has been a noticeable willingness to consider business adoption of consumer-oriented technologies.

And who’s driving this push? Consumers, of course—the ones who work for you. A new wave of employees is entering workplaces with iPod headphones in their ears, Facebook profiles on their computer screens, and smartphones in their hands. This generation, more adept at technology than even senior-level executives, is making demands for computing in the workplace to be on par with the sophisticated computing they have in their homes.

Kaplan draws a comparison: “Three to four years ago when I asked CIOs about the use of [instant messaging], which was a consumer phenomenon, they said no way would they allow that kind of stuff in corporate environments.”

Kaplan matches that example up with recent “consumerization” movements toward social networking and cloud computing. While some organizations seem willing to open enterprise doors to Facebook, Amazon Web Services, and Google, others are slow to capitalize on the benefits—still worried about security and married to traditional computing. Some vendors have endorsed integration with Google AdWords and Google Apps; others are competing with Google, positioning themselves as a more-secure option.

Within CRM, Salesforce.com has perhaps the tightest Google Apps integration, the result of a relationship dating back to 2003. The cloud superpowers announced the SalesforceCRM for Google Apps product in early 2008, and at a subsequent December event called Cloudforce, revealed that 5,000 customers have started using the combined offering. The previous integration of Google AdWords and Salesforce.com has helped, as well, but the significance now extends far beyond search, according to the keynote delivered by Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com’s cofounder, chairman, and chief executive officer.

“Cloud computing brings us all together because it’s a model that adapts regardless of the size of implementation or the size of the company,” Benioff said. “We’re not an island—we realize there are other clouds emerging.” (That may be an understatement: The very same day, open-source CRM provider SugarCRM released an updated edition that trumpeted new access to cloud-based third-party data.)

But Google remains the biggest cloud in the sky, as Salesforce.com knows firsthand. Chuck Ganapathi, Salesforce.com's vice president of product marketing, estimates that the number of leads being generated each month by his company's Salesforce for Google Adwords offering has reached 300,000—leads that get fed directly into participating Salesforce.com accounts when a sponsored Google listing is clicked. Ganapathi describes the output as a "tremendous amount...of marketing…that will at some point get converted into customers."

It’s the “at some point” that’s causing some grief. In February 2007, software and platform provider Etelos was one of the first to board the Google bandwagon, with Etelos CRM for Google Apps—essentially a CRM tool available on the iGoogle landing page. When monetization became an issue, Etelos refocused its vision, spending more on developing its platform.

“There are definitely some constraints you get when you start running many versions of an application within someone else’s framework,” says Danny Kolke, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. “There are some issues there with trying to provide an optimal experience inside someone else’s interface.”

Kolke says that developers originally saw lucrative potential in the Google Apps platform, but it hasn’t panned out. “Most of the users are iGoogle users and iGoogle is free,” he says. “They’re looking for an app that’s free so they can do light lifting, and aren’t interested in using heavy CRM.” For many months, he says, Etelos was known as the “CRM for Google” company, and getting partners to look beyond that nickname has been a struggle.

The industry may be reluctant to admit that some users are looking for “light CRM,” but it’s unavoidable. Small businesses, especially ones accustomed to running some level of CRM out of Microsoft Excel or Outlook, find Google Apps appealing. First, it’s hard to compete on price when something’s free. Second, Google Apps provide collaboration capabilities not found in Outlook and Excel.

Hunt Services, a small organization in Phoenix that serves as the go-between for physicians and pharmaceutical research, has used Google Apps for close to a year. Amanda Drake, Hunt’s director, says that not having to pay a fee was the main appeal—saving on overhead is a solid benefit for her small-but-growing company. But the centralization and collaboration efforts are the real payoff: Drake says that she used to spend hours in Outlook emailing Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets to coworkers, but those days are past. Google Calendar is now the hub of Hunt’s business—it’s where employees schedule events, set alerts and tasks, and store notes about different clients. All client contact information, in fact, used to be walled off on the main computer—not everyone had access, but now they do.

Having tried the Holy Trinity of Google Apps—spreadsheets, calendar, and documents—Drake got additional functionality by clicking the “What’s New” link at the top of one of the Apps pages: That’s how she found Google Sites—a Web-page creation application that’s now critical to Hunt’s relationship with clients.

“Every time I post an opportunity onto those sites, when I sign in, it’s in the form of a document—some kind of paperwork that the physician will have to sign. I post it directly to the site, share that with the doctors, and they click that link. They don’t have anything to figure out.” Drake says that sharing forms online reduces paper and mailing costs—and saves time, too. Above all, Drake says, the collaboration capabilities delivered by Google Apps have revolutionized Hunt’s workflow: Essentially, people can work from anywhere as long as they’re signed into Google.

Hunt has not yet transferred its email over to Gmail—dealing with the legacy system has been too much of a monster, Drake says, but she’s hoping to tackle it in the near future. Her only pain point involves Google Calendar: The “notes” section often won’t hold all of the pertinent information, requiring the creation of multiple calendar entries.

Still, Drake says she’s very pleased—and doesn’t expect to outgrow the solution soon. Neil Pearson, the controller of Hunt’s sister company Hope Research, agrees, but does report one particular snafu: “Every couple of weeks or so, [Google Apps] tends to go down,” Pearson says. “It’s a nerve-wracking 45 minutes.” Small businesses might be willing to weather such intermittent hiccups, but multinational conglomerates are less forgiving.

In fact, floating all that proprietary data around the cloud in the first place has some people justifiably nervous. The issue was best brought to light by enterprise software analyst Josh Greenbaum, who wondered in a series of blogposts last summer about the content stored in Google Apps. Depending on your interpretation of the company’s Terms of Service, he wrote, it could be argued that any data and information created, shared, and stored on those applications belongs to Google—not exactly what the average corporate compliance officer wants to hear.

“Fundamentally, I think Google is either being stupid or malicious: either way they’ve got to [do] more to protect their user’s [sic] content,” Greenbaum wrote in a September 24 post.

After Google unleashed its Chrome Web browser that same month, more security issues surfaced regarding how the browser’s search data is stored and what exactly Google does with it. Greenbaum wrote at the time that “this latest nonsense from [Google] is further proof that you get what you pay for—and if the loss of privacy and security are the price of free, I’m ready to pay for my Web-based services.”

And with more than 1 million companies having selected Google Apps to help run operations, including Google itself, the company has taken pains to address the security concerns. At a recent conference, David Girouard, president of Google Enterprise, emphasized the security built into Google Apps, including SAS-70 certification, third-party validation of its data protection, and the strength of its service-level agreements (SLAs). Those SLAs originally promised Google Premier Edition users 99.9 percent uptime for Gmail; at the end of October 2008, Google extended that SLA to include Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Sites, and Google Talk. The company’s $625 million acquisition of email specialist Postini in July 2007 is another sign of that commitment, adding enterprise-caliber messaging, archiving, and encryption technology.

Despite the positive security measures, hecklers continue to make noise. In fact, the SLAs themselves recently came under fire in the blogosphere, and the popular TechCrunch blog drew special attention to the SLA’s definition that “Downtime for a period of less than ten minutes will not be counted.” (Would your boss think it “counted” if you were the one who put into the cloud a mission-critical application that had nine minutes of downtime?)

And yet Google continues to make inroads. To highlight Google Apps’ success at enterprise-scale companies, Girouard cited biological engineering firm Genentech, which almost immediately ballooned from a single Google Apps user to 15,000—and slapped Google Analytics on top of that—all the while adhering to its own high data-security standards.

But if cloud-based productivity suites are simply replacing Microsoft Word, Excel, and so on, does that really change the playing field for CRM? It may not seem so at first glance, but “office productivity applications” happen to be where the day-to-day activities of any CRM-loving company take place. Once you successfully migrate those activities to the cloud, and enable them to interact, communicate, and share information with your CRM systems, a wonderful metamorphosis takes place: Suddenly, your office productivity applications become CRM applications.

Salesforce.com has clearly embraced Google productivity, but other CRM players have given nods to Google in terms of interface and development. Many have picked up on the trend of dashboards and homepages, either explicitly linking information to a module built for the popular iGoogle Web page or living up to its spirit with similar widgets.

Sage’s fall 2008 release of SalesLogix 7.5, for example, includes a dashboard full of widgets; users can customize the look and feel with familiar drag-and-drop moves. And, believing that many customers were using Google’s online email service, a few Italian developers created DolceGMail on SugarCRM’s SugarForge platform, allowing users to add Gmail contacts, emails, and attachments directly into SugarCRM.

Google Maps is a player, too. Outpacing pioneers such as MapQuest, it’s become a mainstay on cellphones, dashboards, and Web sites, and has found fertile territory at the heart of enterprise mashups to guide salespeople and field reps to customer locations, define delivery routes, and embed geolocation into operations.

The beauty of the cloud is that users don’t have to get stuck with one solution. Kaplan says that Google’s recent security upgrades affirm cloud computing’s viability. “The beta version just wasn’t up to snuff,” Kaplan says. “Now they’re beginning to demonstrate they have those capabilities.” He goes on, “One of the other things is the IT department is no longer seeing SaaS as just a threat, it’s seeing that it does satisfy their business users and can help with IT management.”

The cloud architecture itself is changing, according to Gartner analyst David Mitchell Smith. “What people tend to fall into is oversimplifications,” Smith said at a recent panel. “‘[The cloud] as the only answer’ is an oversimplification. There will be a series of platforms behind the scenes—and that’s going to be where disruption happens.” He went on, “Some companies are ahead of the curve, like Salesforce.com. Some that are not talking about the cloud may be losers.”

Whether the CRM industry sees Google as a threat or an opportunity is a complex question. “Google is a faceless entity people aren’t sure how to deal with,” Kaplan opines. “It will have to overcome that if it is serious about becoming more business-oriented.” He explains that, whereas a company like Salesforce.com in the B2B market is successful in creating a corporate culture and a public face to support that focus, Google’s approach results in a minimized public persona. The superpower is viewed differently for those reasons. People are less apt to find a support number for Google and call up a service rep.

It’s also difficult to compare Google to any other software company. In The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, author Nicholas Carr points out that Google’s founders were once quoted as saying that the company’s ultimate goal is to pursue artificial intelligence—and what some might call a pipe dream is an idea that only becomes possible in light of the data flowing through Google’s pipes.

 “As we spend more time and transact more of our commercial and social business online, that database will grow ever wider and deeper,” Carr writes. “Figuring out new ways for people—and machines—to tap into the storehouse of intelligence is likely to be the central enterprise of the future.”

Tapping into a storehouse of intelligence sounds like prime territory for CRM—and there’s little doubt that Google is helping to blaze that trail.

SIDEBAR: Microsoft Seeds the Cloud, Too
In the cloud-computing environment, this was the equivalent of a bolt of lightning: In early November, Microsoft made public its plans for Azure, an in-the-cloud platform strategy. The news not only made clear the company’s intent to join the cloud crowd—at a yet-to-be-determined date in 2009—but lent weight to all the cloud efforts industrywide. Once Microsoft begins taking something seriously, everyone does.

“The good news is [Microsoft is] endorsing this movement. They cannot afford to ignore it and have to do what they can to catch up,” Kaplan says. “The question remains if what they have to offer is technologically sufficient to meet the needs of developers. In turn, will it satisfy the needs of the customer as well as the consumer’s customer?”

Those who were out in front are quick to scoff. “Microsoft kind of understands that they are way behind on cloud computing,” said Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com’s founder, chairman, and chief executive officer, in an interview with MyCustomer.com in the aftermath of the Azure announcement. “They did not release technology with their latest announcement and it seems to be two years away.”

But there’s no denying that Microsoft, whenever it arrives on the cloud computing scene in earnest, will be a force to be reckoned with. “Microsoft is the largest software firm in the world,” Benioff said in the interview. “So if you are in the software market you are competing against Microsoft. You are if you are Oracle or if you are SAP. The reality is that you just gotta take ‘em on. What you have to do is create a more compelling customer proposition.”

SIDEBAR: Google’s Enterprising Acquisitions
Google may not be the most voracious predator, but thanks in part to a fat checkbook it’s certainly no slouch. Focusing mainly on startups, many recent purchases have played (or may soon play) a role in its push into the enterprise.

  • Upstartle (March 2006)—Web-based word processor, Writely.
  • JotSpot (October 2006)—Collaboration tools (wikis, spreadsheets, calendars, forms) are now offered as Google Sites.
  • Tonic Systems (April 2007)—Enables information from presentation software such as PowerPoint to be saved in an HTML page or PDF.
  • Postini (May 2007)—Enterprise-caliber email encryption and archiving.
  • Zenter (June 2007)—Online presentation tools.
  • GrandCentral (June 2007)—No specific product plans have been revealed, but telephone management software could be integrated into Google Apps for contact management.

Sources: CRM research, trade-radar.com

Contact Editorial Assistant Lauren McKay at lmckay@destinationCRM.com.

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