Visitar: New Kid on the CRM Block

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted October 24, 2006

It's a sign of growing maturity in the software as a service (SaaS) market that second-generation offerings are emerging to grab market share from pioneers such as SalesForce.com, the on-demand customer relationship management (CRM) service. Visitar, a relative newcomer with a slightly different marketing strategy, some evolved functionality and — according to one customer we talked to — a vastly different commitment to customer service, aims to give SalesForce.com a run for its money.

Savage Syndications LLC, a small Lexington, Kentucky firm that offers outsourced sales lead generation services, switched from using SalesForce.com to Visitar's 360° Care viaVisitar about five months ago. Tim Savage, the firm's president and CEO, must be a dream come true for Visitar. Naturally enthusiastic and given to hyperbole — a classic sales guy in other words — Savage is more than happy to provide a glowing testimonial to the service he now relies on to run his business.

The big issue for Savage was customer service. When SalesForce.com went down for two hours one weekend, essentially putting him out of commission, Savage tried calling the company's help line with little success. Irate, he then called SalesForce.com executives but never received return calls."SalesForce.com has a product," Savage says. "Visitar has a service. If you have a problem with Visitar, there's always someone there you can ask for help. It's also ten times easier to use and, to a sales professional, it just feels right."

Savage Syndications works with sales managers in client companies. The firm's three partners (all Savage brothers) and two employees make cold calls from lists the client provides. Cold calling is the task inhouse sales people are most apt to jettison when they get busy servicing existing customers, Savage explains, but the activity is essential to a healthy sales operation. His firm picks up the slack, guaranteeing clients a fixed number of qualified leads each month. It even sets up appointments for the client's sales people and reports on follow-up activity.

Finding the right tool to manage this process was essential to the firm's success. Savage, a sales veteran, started off using PC-based contact management tools, then graduated to SalesForce.com. At the simplest level, these tools are about ensuring calls are made, leads followed up, appointments kept — and that the pipeline is always full. CRM goes further, making it easy to monitor and report on all activity for each client.

Subscribe Versus Buy
SaaS offerings such as SalesForce.com helped make enterprise-grade CRM tools affordable and easy for small companies that lack the tech expertise and financial resources to purchase and operate server-based products. With SaaS, the software runs on a host system at the other end of a high-speed Internet connection. People often need nothing more than a Web browser to operate the software.

There are three main advantages. Customers pay on a monthly or annual basis — so software becomes an operating rather than a capital expense. They also don't need their own servers to run the system, another saving. And they don't have to worry about keeping the software up to date. When the developer upgrades the program, all subscribers automatically benefit.

SaaS software allows some customization but typically not as much as server-based systems. On the plus side, it's usually simple enough for non-technical people to set up and configure. Savage's brother Geoff, the firm's chief marketing officer, set up the system for their firm with little assistance from Visitar. "If Geoff can do it, anyone can," he quips.

Better Features
While customer service may have been the overriding issue, Savage says Visitar's functionality is also better. He first started seriously considering Visitar because one client wanted him to be able to record phone conversations with prospects, something SalesForce.com could not do. Visitar has an integral call recording function. "That was huge to that client," Savage says. And his preference is that he and his clients use the same CRM tool, although it's not absolutely essential.

Savage also prefers the calendar functionality in Visitar. When he was using SalesForce.com, he often used the free online Google calendar software instead because even the Google tool came closer to giving him what he wanted. Part of the problem was that that it took some configuring and add-on modules to get the SalesForce.com calendar to show what Savage wanted to see — a concise display of all the scheduled or outstanding activity required in the next seven days.

"To have all those things there on the SalesForce.com [calendar display] — it was very cumbersome," he says.

Even the simple act of setting up an appointment is easier in Visitar than in SalesForce.com, Savage says, although he's hard pressed to explain in detail how. "In Visitar, when you set up an appointment, it's just click, click, click and it's done. It's a lot faster," he says.

Streamlined Calling
The big thing he likes about Visitar is the way it streamlines making phone calls using his phone system, which happens to be a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service from Vonage. With SalesForce.com, he had to highlight the telephone number on the screen, copy it to the Windows clipboard, then paste it into a Vonage software autodialer. If he wasn't using Vonage with its autodialer, he would have had to dial the number manually. Horrors!

Now he simply clicks on the number in the Visitar display and waits for Visitar to connect the call. It means he doesn't have to wait on the line, twiddling his thumbs, until the person at the other end answers. When the call is connected, his phone rings, he picks it up and the other party is there. "It makes the flow so much faster," he says. And the Visitar process makes it easier for him to multi-task while waiting for calls to connect.

This is in fact Visitar's key differentiator and advantage over competitors. Visitar actually places the calls over its own VoIP network. When a customer clicks a telephone number on the screen, that sends a message to the Visitar server where a softswitch — a software-based telephone switch — places a call to the user's number. It puts that call briefly on hold, places a call to the other party and then bridges the two together.

This means that, unlike SalesForce.com and some other offerings, the Visitar service works with whatever phone system the subscriber wants to use. Savage uses it sometimes to make calls from his cell phone, for example.

A Better Price
Since Visitar provides the call connection service as well as the CRM functionality, it would be reasonable if it were more expensive than SalesForce.com, which only provides CRM. But it's the reverse, Savage says. His firm pays about $65 a month per person for the service. He can't remember what he was paying SalesForce.com, but it was definitely more — "by far," he says.

Visitar also allows him and his clients to pay monthly rather than for a whole year up front. That makes it more affordable for some of his small business clients, Savage says.

The clincher, though, is the superior customer service. "[Visitar] seems to be willing to do everything it takes to make sure it's right," he says. "When you're in sales, if you can't move [because systems are down or data is unavailable], it's the most claustrophobic experience you can ever have. These guys have repeatedly made it right, even when it was just something we didn't understand about the system. 'No problem! Here's how you do it.' And they'd walk us through it."

He rejects the notion that Visitar is providing such good service now because it's small and trying to gain market share, or that service will suffer as the company gets bigger. The differences between the two companies' approaches are more fundamental, Savage says. Visitar seems intent on entering into long-term business relationships rather than just selling more products.

"They're passionate about it," he says of the Visitar management. "They're passionate about the honor of it."

You just can't buy testimonials like that. But even if you're inclined to discount some of Savage's enthusiastic partisanship, it's clear that Visitar is something worth investigating if you're a small business looking for an affordable CRM solution.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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