Y Combinator Challenge #6 – More variants of CRM

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first     

6. More variants of CRM. This is a form of enterprise software, but I’m mentioning it explicitly because it seems like this area has such potential. CRM (“Customer Relationship Management”) means all sorts of different things, but a lot of the current embodiments don’t seem much more than mailing list managers. It should be possible to make interactions with customers much higher-res.

My Idea – MRC

Now this is my kind of idea.  About three years ago I was in charge of building and launching an internal CRM system, so this is probably the one time on this blog that I’ll be posting about something that I’ve thought about for more than an hour or two.  To start, here are a few personal observations I’ve had about what works for a typical CRM system.

What Works:

  • Be flexible – if your system can’t support a new field or minor business requirement within a very short window (1 week is about the max), users will be frustrated and resort to their old CRM system (namely pen/paper, Excel, rolodex, filing cabinets, etc…)
  • People work primarily through their Email inbox – use that to your advantage
  • Provide a very clear “what’s in it for me” explanation for your two main user groups – the day-to-day users and the execs who rely on the underlying reporting
  • Make it look good – simple things like having a few slick visual reports or extra user-centric “wow, cool!” features available for a demo/training session can heavily influence the initial impressions of any new system and help with the critical issue of early user buy-in and adoption

The simplest explanation of my idea is “Xobni for CRM” (MRC, get it?).  The idea is to work within a user’s inbox to pull structured CRM-style data from their unstructured daily communications.  Instead of relying on a centralized independent database to store all of this information, all of the data would be stored within the users inboxes and a few special accounts created on the corporate mail system.  This enables online/offline scenarios, eliminates typical privacy/security concerns, reduces the need for separate hardware, and allows the system to be as reliable as the corporate Email servers (which are arguably the highest-priority boxes in a company). 

To best illustrate how this could work, here’s a typical scenario:

Scenario – Account Manager following up on a lead

The Account Manager (let’s call her Shirley) attended a conference and has a business card from a lead (let’s call him Frank).  Shirley opens up her inbox to fire off an Email to Frank.  Now, instead of writing an Email from scratch, she clicks on the “Templates” section of her MRC plug-in and finds a fantastic pre-written Email that she’s used with other leads before.  Note that this is a plain-text (or HTML) Email, which can be modified and personalized as needed.  The one difference between this mail and any standard Email is a small check-box in the header that says “Track This” – this is checked by default, but can be unchecked if Shirley wishes to keep this mail private. 

Shirley clicks send, and two separate Emails are sent – the original mail to Frank, and a behind-the-scenes mail that is sent to the MRC system account.  This mail provides structured Email back to the master system with information about the communication – the fact that Shirley is mailing a potential lead, the Email address of the lead, the fact that Shirley sent it, the time the mail was sent, etc..  The system also scans the mail to see if Shirley made simple minor updates to the Email that can be used to further understand the lead.  For example, imagine the template had a line that said “I’m interested to see if we can meet to discuss your company product product from company name this week.  I’m available on insert times here to discuss in more detail.”  If Shirley entered the info into the template, the system would pull it out and store it – if not, though, no big deal. 

MRC workflow

The next day Shirley has a message in her inbox from Frank.  When Shirley opens it, the system would recognize Frank’s Email address and the sidebar on the right-hand side of her inbox would be populated with key information about Frank, including his name, his company, previous Emails, the status of the lead, any upcoming appointments, etc..  In addition, the system would reach out to professional networking sites like LinkedIn to pull in additional details about Frank, his current position, and his company.  Shirley could go in and easily edit any of that information (or enter new information).  Also, if someone else in Shirley’s company had previous contact with Frank or someone from Frank’s company (via Email domain matches), the system would pull up that account manager’s profile and interaction history.

In Frank’s Email message, he responded with a new date/time for the meeting.  The system would recognize this date/time combination and add a button to the MRC sidebar to “Create a new meeting”.  By clicking on this button, Shirley would open a new template – if Shirley was free at this time, it would be a calendar invite with Shirley’s phone number/online meeting place info.  If Shirley was busy at this time, it would be a new template that included several open times on Shirley’s calendar (similar to what Xobni does).  Again, if Shirley accepted the privacy agreement, the meeting would automatically be tracked as part of the engagement history with this lead.

I could go on with more scenarios around the executive reporting level or other scenarios around creating mass Emails or adding/removing custom fields, but it would all revolve around this concept of having awesome templates, easy access to valuable data about people/companies, and using a design-first UX philosophy that makes using the CRM system…dare I say it..fun?  At the very least, visually pleasing and not painful. 

Speaking of cool CRM solutions, one of my favorites is Rave – great example of using design to drive adoption of an Enterprise product. 

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14 responses to “Y Combinator Challenge #6 – More variants of CRM

  1. Bernard Devlin

    Er, this technology has existed for some 15 years or so. It’s called Lotus Notes. Notes datastore is a free-form textual database. You can add fields at will (it’s schema-less). Notes was doing web 2.0 tagging for at least the last 10 years – documents can be added to as many categories as you like, even hierarchical categories (e.g. Sales\Europe\France\Paris).

    Notes basic programming language looks like Excel formulas (for the sake of end-user familiarity), but actually is a text/list-processing language. (Notes is also programmable in Javascript, Java, VB, C). For the first 10 years or so, it was assumed that end-users would do their own programming in Notes, and professional developers would only be necessary for more complicated full-blown applications.

    It is no joke that a new application can be built and deployed in Notes in a matter of hours – and the deployment could be multi-server and international. Also, any changes required can be implmented and rolled-out via scheduled replication (on as little as a 15 minute replication cycle).

    It’s trivial in Notes to create an application that can respond to e-mail: when an e-mail arrives at the destination application, the application can parse out salient text from the e-mail. Of course, it has all the calendaring features you could want, only it’s proprietary, so both parties need to be using Notes. Of course, since it is the replication platform bar none, it has the best online/offline features you could want. Morever, it is probably the most secure application in widespread commercial usage.

    Such a shame to think that this technology has not only been available for so long, but is also quite cheap (unlimited servers within an organization for an initial outlay of approx $150 per user). You’ll almost never hear of IBM advertising Notes, but for the past few years their sales have been going up by approx 10% a year, and overall they’ve sold 140 million licenses for Notes. Not bad for software that most have never heard of, and those that have heard of it think it’s dead.

  2. Except for the fact that Lotus Notes is a bloated, unusable POS. The only people recommending LN are Lotus Notes developers, ostensibly rooting for it to recoup their investment from having to learn how to use it.

    There is not a single *USER* of LN on the face of the planet that enjoys using it.

  3. Sterling Wise

    Mark: I have worked at a couple of places that use Notes and if the app part is taken advantage of, people really love it. But I think the main problem is most companies don’t really take advantage of that part of Notes well.

    Kevin: Have you seen ClearContext? That is what we use for this in our sales group. They automatically pull some of the structure you talk about from the email in Outlook. Then for stuff to share with the team, we create a shared ClearContext project folder. They don’t have a lot of basic CRM functionality so it’s not a replacement yet, but email related stuff is what takes the most time anyway. Pulling in information like Linkedin and maps will be a big help too.

  4. Bernard Devlin

    @Mark: bloated? More bloated than Office? POS? Define POS. Unusuable? In what ways? Thanks for actually contributing something positive to a discussion. Your asinine and childish behaviour says plenty about you. FWIW, I haven’t worked as a Notes developer for 6 or 7 years. And clearly Sterling was able to refute your ridiculous opinion.

    @Sterling: I agree that as an email client, there are too many extraneous features which get in the way for email users. Notes really shines as an distributed application environment. Email is simply 1 application that uses the features Notes offers. But for 10 years or so, IBM has just seen it as an email product to rival Exchange.

  5. I heard that every time you install an instance of Notes, IBM kills a puppy.

    @Sterling – just got a chance to check out ClearContext, looks very cool! Thanks for the tip.

  6. “More bloated than Office?”
    Who’s talking about Office? I wasn’t.

    “Unusuable? In what ways?”
    It seems to me that every time I was forced to use LN, every step of the way, LN tried to stop me from being productive in any way. Arcane commands, bizarre UI choices (I have to click that empty square in the top-left corner of the mail view to check for new mails? OK that makes sense!), slow UI to the point of unresponsiveness (even on decent hardware, with maybe 5 users, and our servers being right next to me), a downright laughably bad search, especially in email searching, that gives you search results that have absolutely NOTHING to do with my search query, the list goes on and on…

    “Thanks for actually contributing something positive to a discussion.”
    Hey, don’t attack me just because I don’t happen like your favourite app.

    “Your asinine and childish behaviour says plenty about you.”
    Your ad hominem attacks against me say plenty about you, too!

    “FWIW, I haven’t worked as a Notes developer for 6 or 7 years. ”
    That’s great. You finally saw the light and moved on.

    “And clearly Sterling was able to refute your ridiculous opinion.”
    He did no such thing. All he said was that in his experience, if companies took advantage of the app part, LN is “really loved”. Too bad that in most companies, LN is sold by the IBM droids as a great groupware app, which it may or may not be, but at the end of the day, companies switch off all those “features” and use exactly two components: Mail and Calendaring, which happen to be the worst implementations in their respective fields, in LN.

    Using LN for email and calendaring only has been the case in 4 companies I’ve worked for, and Lotus Notes for me is now a red flag: If I see LN being used at a company, it’s a company I don’t want to work for. Furthermore, if the company I’m working for has decided in their infinite wisdom to switch to LN, I’m outta there.

    I’d take the mess that is MS Exchange & Outlook any day over the risibly bad, legacy-ridden Lotus Notes any day. And I’m an Mac user!

    (NB: My experiences with LN go up to the last release before LN8, I haven’t tried that yet)

  7. Pingback: » 30 Ideas that need to be Funded | StartupNorth

  8. Bernard Devlin

    “Arcane commands”
    examples?

    “bizarre UI choices”
    you want every UI to be the same? Even on products that are cross-platform?

    “I have to click that empty square in the top-left corner of the mail view to check for new mails?OK that makes sense!”
    Wow, that must really have made your work day so difficult. A new UI technique. I’ve got news for you: don’t try using a different OS (they all do things differently, you know), or don’t try using the vast majority of Java desktop apps (they won’t look the same as the native apps).

    “slow UI to the point of unresponsiveness (even on decent hardware, with maybe 5 users, and our servers being right next to me)”
    Well, something wrong there. The last company I worked at had 300 users on a single server, and that server had a 1 processor and less than 1gb of RAM. For 3 years I have used the R5 designer client and the Notes client inside VirtualPC on a Mac Powerbook G4. Even bearing in mind the emulation, it was _never_ unresponsive. I do not believe that you have worked in multiple environments where they have misconfigured something so badly that it is as slow as you described. I am calling you a liar.

    “a downright laughably bad search, especially in email searching, that gives you search results that have absolutely NOTHING to do with my search query”
    Clearly, you don’t know how to use the search provided by Notes (there is help included with the app). I have a 4gb database of useful technical articles. Every single time I search it the vast majority of the top search results are relevant. Name me another email client with full-text search. How well does the full-text search work in Outlook? It doesn’t. As one of Microsoft’s most prominent ex-employees says : “Search used to be horrible in Outlook. It was so bad that for all intents and purposes, you couldn’t search your old email. Instead, you were encouraged to carefully sort it out into a hierarchy of folders (shudder)… Theoretically, Outlook 2007 has search built in, although it’s not really built-in: it’s built on top of Windows Desktop Search, which comes with Vista” [http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2007/04/19.html] Does Groupwise have full-text search? (nope.) You complain that full-text search in Notes isn’t telepathic, cos you can’t be bothered to read the help.

    So your critique of a piece of software that has survived 20 years, a piece of cross-platform software that has outlived some of the platforms it used to support (and now supports new platforms), a piece of software with 140 million users, a piece of software that to this day MS is still failing to rival (even though they appointed Notes principal architect as their CTO)… because you do not like having to click on the ‘refresh’ view icon to display your recently arrived email.

    You’re an idiot with blinkers. I’ll continue using Notes until a tool with similar features and less drawbacks comes along. I keep looking round for something better, and it doesn’t exist. Perhaps you’d like to tell me what cross-platform tool you use that makes working with emails and text so productive? What cross-platform tool simply allows you to transparently keep copies of important documents in multiple locations, all using encrypted network transport and encrypted local storage? What RAD tool allows you to flick a switch and suddenly make your internal fat-client applications available through a web browser so e.g. you can monitor your sales or the status of your servers through a SSL browser connection?

  9. First off, Bernard, not that I want to moderate, but can you stop with the ad hominem attacks? It’s really unnecessary. As said, just because I DARE to not like an app you really like, doesn’t mean you have to spew invective at me. It comes across as childish, and it’s very troll-like behaviour.

    On to your questions:
    “examples [of arcane commands]?”
    Well, I have to hand it to you: After trying to remember some of the more egregious keyboard shortcuts, I couldn’t come up with one. That’s what I get for trying to forget this useless app. But wait! Let’s look at the keyboard shortcuts listed here:

    http://www-1.ibm.com/support/docview.wss?uid=swg21164659

    “F5″ to lock user ID. Of course. You’d be stupid to even think to forget that “F5″ locks the User ID.
    Also check the numerous multiple mappings. According to that document above, hitting the space bar when reading documents does the following:
    – Access embedded element in a document
    OR
    – Activate selected object
    OR
    – Expand or collapse selected section
    OR
    – Open selected link to document, view or database

    So easy, it’s child’s play!

    “you want every UI to be the same? Even on products that are cross-platform?”
    Preferably, in an ideal world, they would be the same (and I think you’d agree with me on that). And we ARE moving in that direction on all major OSes. Why *wouldn’t* you want similar UI and commands? It’s like you asking me, “You want all car manufacturers to have the pedals in the same order??”

    “Wow, that must really have made your work day so difficult. A new UI technique.”
    Thanks for not getting it. It’s not that it’s hard to do, it’s that there is NO way of knowing beforehand that clicking on that grey area does anything. Don’t you just love mystery-meat navigation?

    “I am calling you a liar [wrt LN unresponsivess]”
    Well, companies I’ve worked for include one of the largest Swiss banks, all the way down to SMEs with around 5-50 users. They ALL had similar problems: Updating the view in mail or calendar often taking ages.

    “Name me another email client with full-text search.”
    Apple’s mail.app? And I believe Thunderbird does full-text search, too. Mozilla’s probably, too. Oh, and Outlook (see next answer).

    “How well does the full-text search work in Outlook?”
    Just checked, works like a charm.

    “It doesn’t.”
    It does. I’m calling YOU a liar, Bernard!

    “Search used to be horrible in Outlook”
    Note that the person is talking in the past tense. Using Outlook 2003, I just found out that the search works as expected, leading me to believe that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft put one or three engineers on to that problem in the meantime…

    “You complain that full-text search in Notes isn’t telepathic”
    No, I don’t.

    “cos you can’t be bothered to read the help”
    Wrong again, but thanks for trying.

    In the end, I’m glad that there are more and more rivals to LN that do only ONE thing of LN’s stable of apps, but does that better than the previous 7+ iterations of LN ever could.

    The rest of what you wrote, Bernard, isn’t worth going into, as it’s just more of your childish, insult-laden misrepresentations of what I said.

    Note to self: I really shouldn’t feed the trolls.

  10. Hey guys – while I appreciate the comments and passion behind this conversation, please be nice! I’m pretty liberal around deleting comments and due to the open nature of this site around brainstorming and collaborative idea sharing, I definitely would like to encourage everyone to keep the focus on the issues at hand and not let it get personal.

  11. Kevin – OK, understood. Thanks for not deleting :)

  12. A little bird tells me there’s a start-up service that approximates this service pretty closely (much more than ClearContext) which should be getting some play in the next month or so… Kevin, I’ll drop you a line when I can say more.

  13. Ohhh, insider info – I can’t wait!

  14. Great post Kevin. We at Knouen have tried to solve some of these issues for Siebel and Salesforce users using Outlook as their UI

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