In the Trenches with Offline CRM

The advantages of online CRM applications, such as those offered by Salesforce.com, UpShot and Salesnet, are easy enough to see: They are pay as you go, with fees hovering in the neighborhood of US$100 per month. Although the price tags may seem relatively modest, the applications themselves have become quite robust, according to Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone.

“Two years ago, everyone said integration and customization would be impossible with an online service,” she told CRM Buyer Magazine. Today, Salesforce.com, UpShot and, to a lesser extent, Salesnet have started landing high-level, large-seat deals that Kingstone termed “pretty significant.”

The downside for this particular business model? Until recently, it was a big one, as any roving sales rep at the mercy of local dial-up services could tell you. To use it, one had to be online.

Electronic Briefcase

Over the last year, Salesforce.com, UpShot and Salesnet have addressed this issue by providing offline versions of their products. In theory, the new apps work like an electronic briefcase. For example, a sales rep can download a contact list or to-do list onto a laptop and work with it while on the road. Any changes made offline are later uploaded and reconciled with any changes or additions made to the online data.

Beyond these fundamentals, however, the technology and user interfaces of the three new offline editions differ from one another just as much as their online counterparts do.

Patent Pending

Salesforce.com’s offline edition is built on browser-based technology pending patent approval from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. It uses XSLT (extensible stylesheet language transformation), a lightweight data store and XML (extensible markup language) to recreate Salesforce.com’s online interface in an offline environment, company CEO Marc Benioff told CRM Buyer. A synchronization process allows data to be imported from the online database in the form of XML documents.

“It has never been done before so that the online and offline experiences aretransparent to each other,” he said. With Salesforce.com, “You basically hit a button, go offline, go back online, and reconnect almost immediately. The user interface is completely the same. You don’t use Excel — you use the browser with the same Salesforce.com your users already know.”

Modeling Excel

Meanwhile, UpShot’s offline version is based on Microsoft Excel. “This way, users can work on an application that is familiar to them but has UpShot’s look and feel,” UpShot CEO Rob Reid told CRM Buyer.

Changes made to offline data are sent to the server via XML. Once uploaded, the system makes a field-by-field comparison to minimize the probability of conflict between offline and online data.

“It compares the new value the sales rep wants a certain piece of data to be, the current value on the server – in case changes were made while he was working offline – and the value it was when it was pulled offline. The system presents it to the user and asks, ‘Which do you want it to be?'”

The .NET Path

Lastly, Salesnet’s offline product is based on a .NET strategy that mimics the client side in the online version, the company’s chief technology officer, Richard Perkett, told CRM Buyer. While offline, data can be modified and updated, and appointments can be scheduled.

“It allows users to subscribe to a subset of information inside Salesnet, launch the offline app, and perform a synchronization when it is time to go back online,” Perkett said. At the same time, he added, new opportunities that were assigned in the interim can be pushed down to the rep. “This is not a read-only sort of tool,” he remarked.

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