NetSuite Beefs Up E-Commerce Services

January 16, 2007

By Richard Morochove

One of the difficulties that any small e-commerce business faces is integrating the flow of information to and from its Web site, which is typically hosted by a service, and its accounting software, which usually resides on a local PC or server. You can periodically upload new inventory data and download new sales data to keep things in sync, but that approach doesn’t work as seamlessly and efficiently as it should.

One solution is NetSuite, a venerable online service that handles business accounting and financial management and can also host a financially integrated e-commerce Web site. While NetSuite boasts impressive accounting capabilities, until now it did not offer much flexibility for handling high-end e-commerce needs.

The latest round of improvements to NetSuite significantly enhances its Web site creation and management capabilities. I looked at a beta version of NetSuite version 11, which adds feature after valuable feature for e-commerce businesses, particularly those that sell through different channels, such as retail and wholesale, and those that target international markets.

However, these improvements come at a cost. Feature-rich NetSuite isn’t designed for a budding business on a tight budget. You will spend $1100 per month or more to gain access to the broad range of services that it offers.

Multiple Sites Supported

NetSuite now lets you manage multiple e-commerce Web sites, each with its own domain if necessary. Each site is capable of providing multilingual product descriptions and handling payments in multiple currencies: For example, a site visitor from the United States could read product descriptions written in English and price them in U.S. dollars, while a visitor from France can click on a menu and choose to view descriptions in French and prices in euros. You can establish one site to target consumers, while another aims at wholesale dealers with lower prices and higher minimum purchase requirements. All sites can draw from the same product inventory data.

Every e-commerce app can show you what you sold, but NetSuite now lets you see what you almost sold. NetSuite tracks shopping cart abandonments, so that you can view what products shoppers selected but ultimately opted not to buy. You can then try to capture this lost business by offering the shoppers a special coupon or another incentive.

If you’re a budding Amazon.com, you can use some of the same tools as the big guys to boost sales, such as the automated upsell/cross-sell that recommends related products and ones that previous buyers have purchased.

NetSuite now supports digital downloads for electronic products, a useful feature for sellers of e-books, software, and digital music.

E-commerce sites are often heavily dependent on visitors referred by major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. NetSuite tracks which search terms are most productive in attracting both visitors and sales. The reports can distinguish between the results from free, natural (sometime called “organic”) search referrals and pay-per-click search engine ads, which cost you money.

From NetLedger to NetSuite

NetSuite is now almost unrecognizable from the original service launched years ago, when it was called NetLedger and was marketed as a $10-per-user-per-month basic online alternative to Intuit’s QuickBooks. NetSuite has moved so far upscale that there’s little overlap between their markets now. Today’s NetSuite might appeal to QuickBooks users at the very high end, who are probably running QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions.

NetSuite’s new international e-commerce and Web site creation and management services are currently in beta testing and should be available to NetSuite users in the second quarter of this year.

NetSuite’s base price is $499 per month for a single user. Additional users cost $99 per month. The Site Builder and Site Analytics services cost an additional $299 per month each, regardless of the number of users. That sounds like a lot of money, but it includes accounting and finance functions, Web site hosting, and other capabilities such as calendar and task management. A free trial is available.

NetSuite is overkill for a mom-and-pop operation selling a couple of thousand dollars worth of merchandise per month. However, if you sell at least $20,000 per month and are looking for a platform that would support your business revenue growth to $200,000 or $2 million per month or more, then NetSuite could be just the e-ticket.

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Microsoft Office Live Puts Your Business Online

January 8, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Microsoft’s Office Live offers a mix of services for the small business looking to establish an online presence. In addition to Web site and e-mail account management, some editions of Office Live also deliver business services such as contact and time management, and facilitate sharing documents with customers.

Office Live is now a commercial product for U.S.-based users, following a prolonged beta test phase. But while Microsoft’s offering is a good first attempt to better serve the online needs of small businesses, it has a few rough edges.

Limited Design Options

Office Live will appeal most to small businesses that do not have a Web site and want to establish and manage one. The design templates make it easy for neophytes to create and modify their own Web pages. Some interactive Web components, such as a forms submitter and a site search engine, are also included.

Unfortunately, I found the service’s Web Designer to be somewhat unreliable. It didn’t always save my changes when I moved to another page, even after saying it had. And a professional Web site designer would chafe at the limited template options available. Office Live’s Web Designer is far less capable than Microsoft’s FrontPage application, which has been discontinued.

Office Live’s services aren’t especially unique. You can get most of them, such as Web and e-mail hosting, elsewhere. However, Office Live’s suite of services does make an attractive bundle. The services are generally well-integrated, with the notable exception of adManager, an advertising service for promoting your Web site.

To use adManager, you must create a separate account and go through a sign-on procedure from within Office Live. It’s as though adManager doesn’t trust Office Live users, which is tantamount to Microsoft’s right hand being wary of shaking its left. Unlike Office Live, adManager is still a beta service. Presumably, Microsoft will eliminate these clumsy procedures when adManager graduates from beta testing. I plan to review the service at that time.

Three Versions, One Free

Office Live comes in three editions.

The free advertising-supported Office Live Basics provides a domain name along with Web site storage that can hold up to 500MB of data and e-mail management for up to 25 accounts with 2GB of storage each.

Office Live Essentials ($20 per month) boosts Web site storage to 1GB, allows 50 e-mail accounts, and adds online business contact management and workspaces where you can share information, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, with your customers. This edition lets you import HTML files–perhaps from an existing Web site–and use more sophisticated third-party Web design tools, which are not included. You can also access e-mail and synchronize your contacts online with Microsoft Outlook on your PC.

Office Live Premium ($40 per month) increases Web site storage to 2GB and adds more business applications to help you manage customers, employees, and projects. You can also use Office Accounting 2007 Express (a separate free download) to manage this business information offline and share it with your accountant.

The free Office Live Basics sounds tempting, but only a stingy business owner would permit Microsoft-supplied advertisements, possibly from competitors, to run on the company’s Web site. Basics could work for personal Web sites; but for businesses it’s really a come-on to promote Essentials, which offers good value for the money. As for Live Premium, I’m not persuaded that it delivers sufficient value to justify the extra 20 bucks a month.

Microsoft’s Office Live paid versions offer free 30-day trials, so you can evaluate the services before you commit.

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CRM Made Simple

January 1, 2007

Few pieces of tech jargon are as unwieldy as CRM–customer relationship management. But what CRM systems do is actually quite simple. A CRM system is like an electronic Rolodex souped up so that every entry yields not only a phone number but your entire business history with that customer. The systems also can scan data to spot trends, enabling you to refine your sales, marketing, and customer service efforts. Such systems traditionally have been expensive and complicated, challenging the skills of even the smartest techies. But that’s changing. Forrester Research (NASDAQ:FORR) projects that in 2007, companies with fewer than 100 employees will account for more than a third of the CRM market. In other words, systems are no longer a luxury; increasingly, you need one if you’re going to compete. Here’s what the major vendors are offering.

Best for… Getting it all in one place

NetSuite

What it is: NetSuite provides a collection of software tools to manage nearly everything a business does, from accounting and payroll to e-commerce and publishing. CRM is one of the firm’s signature offerings. Those tools, which handle sales, marketing, and customer support, can be purchased separately from, say, accounting tools. But the company’s strong suit is the breadth of its software operations and its ability to integrate all of those functions into a single system.

What’s cool: NetSuite is best known for its easy-to-use dashboard interface. Its CRM features make it easy for marketers to monitor and fine-tune their search-engine marketing efforts with a tool that tracks keywords and leads, from click to sale. A new feature called SuiteFlex allows people to tailor the software to specific industries, like retailing or maintenance. NetSuite Small Business is geared specifically toward companies with 20 or fewer employees.

Drawbacks: NetSuite’s free e-mail support can take up to a week to respond to questions, so you may need to pay for a support plan.

Price: $499 per month, plus $99 per user per month

Best for… Easing the learning curve

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0

What it is: The software giant’s product for sales, support, and marketing. It’s a licensed product that you install on your own servers rather than access on the Web.

What’s cool: Dynamics CRM appears as a folder in Outlook, and for many users it will seem like it’s another part of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Office. That means staffers will need less training–often the bane of CRM implementation. The system is especially good at managing contacts and creating account information.

Drawbacks: Microsoft is new to CRM and is still working to catch up to its rivals. For instance, there is not yet a sales-commission management tool.

Price: The Small Business Edition, designed for companies with fewer than 50 employees, runs $440 to $499 per user and $528 to $599 per server. The Professional edition costs $622 to $880 per user and $1,244 to $1,761 per server. Both versions include a year of support and maintenance.

Best for… Revving up the sales team

Salesforce.com

What it is: Salesforce.com is the original hosted CRM tool. Over the years, it has expanded from sales force automation to handle customer service, marketing, analytics, and more.

What’s cool: It’s flexible. The software’s latest version lets you customize the way data appears on your screen. Another new feature lets you slide your mouse over a contact name and bring up a pop-up screen filled with data such as current deals in process and service call status. The company also has established the AppExchange, a directory of more than 400 applications that integrate with and extend the capabilities of Salesforce.com (as well as other applications).

Drawbacks: Salesforce.com remains best at what its name implies: managing sales. It’s not as good at things like customer support and marketing.

Price: The Team Edition (maximum of five users) starts at $995 a year. The Unlimited Edition starts at $195 per user per month.

Best for… Coddling your customers

RightNow

What it is: RightNow started out as a Web-based customer service application, but has added marketing and sales tools, becoming a full-fledged CRM application. The company’s strong focus on support means it has added interactive voice response and analytics, and also has developed its own professional services team to help businesses figure out how best to use its products.

What’s cool: A tool that lets you automate responses to customer inquiries, no matter where they come from–the Web, e-mail, or telephone. Knowledge management tools keep your entire staff up to date on what’s going on with all of your customers; in other words, you’ll know not to make a sales call to a client who just spent an hour screaming at a customer service rep.

Drawbacks: RightNow’s customer base is now more than 50 percent large companies, and its software really isn’t meant for companies with less than $50 million in sales. It can be difficult for small firms, with small IT departments, to manage.

Price: Starts at $52 per user per month (two-year commitment required)

Best for… Exploring the possibilities

SugarExchange

What it is: A Web-based library of more than 100 open-source CRM products that visitors can sample and download for free. The site is sponsored by SugarCRM, a leading open-source CRM provider (see “Something for Nothing,” November 2006).

What’s cool: The exchange is a perfect way for CRM shoppers to get a sense of the range of free, open-source products available. Among the offerings: reporting tools to analyze customer data; contact tracking software; and tools to boost the efficiency of phone-based customer service operations.

Drawbacks: Because it’s stocked exclusively with open-source products, the pickings can be thin in some categories; only one application is available, for example, in list management. Implementing the software could require some in-house technical expertise.

Price: Free

Best for… Following the leader

Oracle’s Siebel CRM On Demand

What it is: Siebel helped invent CRM software, and is the largest company in the market today. (Last January, it was acquired by Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), which also owns CRM firms PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards.)

What’s cool: Siebel systems have great customer service tools, including a feature that automatically routes calls to the support person with the most appropriate skills, rather than just the next one in line. Siebel CRM On Demand also has strong data-reporting capabilities that make it easier to track sales performance.

Drawbacks: On Demand lacks some of the features common in other applications, such as real-time alerts to let sales and support staff respond immediately when a prospect has a question.

Price: $70 per user per month

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