Learning from our customers – ThomasNet

July 20, 2009 Appirio

Learning from our customers: ThomasNet’s migration to the cloud

Inspired by what Marc Benioff said at Structure 09 last month, we’ve begun a new series on learning from our customers. We are kicking off the series with Brian Makas, Manager of Business Intelligence at ThomasNet. Brian helped ThomasNet move sales, marketing, support and recruiting to the cloud over the past few years. ThomasNet is the leading online industrial marketplace and business-building site connecting buyers and sellers worldwide.

Brian is a frequent speaker on marketing and cloud computing. He spoke at a marketing ROI panel at Dreamforce last year and also presented the ThomasNet story (with us) at a recent salesforce.com executive event in Falls Church, Virginia. In his spare time, Brian is an NHL and UFC fanatic. He shares his thoughts on all four of his interests (marketing, cloud computing, NHL and UFC) on Twitter (@brianmakas).

What problem was ThomasNet looking to solve that lead to using salesforce.com?

We had two very specific problems to address: managing existing prospects and distributing new leads. For prospect information, we used to print out massive book directories that were created once a year. These were then mailed out to regional sales representatives who used that information for the year. It was a nightmare, as we had no centralized place to store prospect information and of course the information would get stale pretty quickly. When it came to distributing new leads, our previous process was based around a “fire and forget” mentality – after we distributed a new lead to a sales representative we really had no way to enrich that record, that is to add more contacts, activity history, etc. that we might acquire after it was first sent out.

In order to solve these problems, we evaluated a number of CRM solutions and salesforce.com’s solution had a strong functional fit. The fact that Salesforce is in the “Cloud” was more of an afterthought at the time, but turned out to be critical. We have an independent sales organization; worse than just not being on a single active directory, each office has their own preferences for what computers they use and how they set up their network. Not only would it have been complex and expensive to rollout an on-premise application but the burden of maintenance (especially with an application that needs to be upgraded several times a year) would have severely limited our ability to focus on actual business needs.

What were the results of the rollout?

Once we rolled out Salesforce, our prospect management and lead distribution processes changed completely. Salesforce gives us one place to maintain our prospect and customer information and track all our touch points with them. This is incredibly powerful because we’re all working from the same information, can get a full view of the customer and can eliminate inefficient manual processes like our annual prospect book creation process. One very tangible example of this was something that happened recently. I needed to filter all our prospects by a specific set of criteria and get it out to our reps in each region. In the past, this
would’ve been an extensive process starting with collection of data from multiple different silos, to the development of numerous Excel sheets used to segment data by territory and ending with hundreds of emails flying around to the sales reps. With Salesforce, which already includes all of the relevant information, I was quickly able set the criteria and create reports by region that I could send directly our reps. What would’ve taken weeks took me hours – start to finish. Salesforce’s reporting and built-in filtering capabilities are a lifesaver, in this and many other instances.

One of the interesting things that happened within our company is that the success we had with Salesforce in Sales and Marketing became infectious. Other departments saw how successful the Salesforce effort was and were begging to be a part of it. I’ve done my fair share of server-oriented programming in my career and I’ve never been part of a project that people begged to be a part of! We now use Salesforce across many of our core functions including: Sales and Marketing, Sales Resource Helpdesk, Telemarketing, Web Solutions and Recruiting.

As we’ve expanded our use of Salesforce internally at different departments, we’re able to close the loop in terms of customer interactions: “Web2Lead” forms / Force.com Sites / Telemarketing / Helpdesk / Updates from the Editorial team … Nearly every time a prospect or customer is touched by a member of the ThomasNet team, it’s documented in Salesforce.

Salesforce has helped us generate a lot of savings but it also enables us to do things that we couldn’t have done before. A great example of this the careers page that you guys built for us Without salesforce.com, we couldn’t have built that careers page. Like most of us, our recruiting manager already has a full plate, the last thing he wanted was more work and managing content on a website certainly falls within that category. What really made http://careers.thomasnet.com a success is that is it is not only an applicant tracking system, but also a content management system. What this means is that as our recruiting manager manages current openings, the magic of Force.com Sites not only takes this structured data and auto-populates the website but the applications to those openings are automatically associated as well. With this detailed information, our qualified resume submissions went up 5X and it’s transforming the way we recruit.

What has been your experience with Force.com, salesforce.com’s platform for building custom applications?

In server-oriented programming, you always had to worry about scaling, it wasn’t enough to know what the initial audience was, you had to predict what the audience would look like several years down the road, before development even started. With salesforce.com’s software as a service (SaaS) offerings, we can focus on the business problems first, rather than worry about servers, hardware restrictions, databases and networks. This reduces our development time because we can start small and work more iteratively with the business. This alignment significantly reduces upfront costs and time-to-market.

In addition, we’re almost “forced” into using best practices by using Force.com. When I previously approached business problems, I often found myself forced to treat each development request as its own distinct project, while this approach often met the stated needs of that project, it ended up putting both code and data into silos which didn’t meet business needs as a whole. With Force.com, while it will allow you to build silos and there’s very little you can’t do if you’re willing to bend the rules, there’s often a simple, point and click solution that meets most of your needs. The standardization on Force.com helps us define better solutions because we’re working with common development practices and a common set of business objects and workflows.

The other thing that’s cool about a cloud platform like Force.com is that it’s always improving and we get more and more new capabilities. It’s not like older platforms where you have to upgrade to get the latest functionality or apply patches to get the latest security. With Force.com, we’re always on the latest and greatest version.

My advice to anyone who’s looked at salesforce.com and discounted it in the past is that you have to reevaluate it again. With the addition of APEX Code, Visualforce, Force.com Sites and more, the salesforce.com of a year or two ago is barely a shadow of what the Force.com platform is today.

Which applications would you say are best and least suited to the salesforce.com platform?

There are a number of areas that I think are particularly well suited to Salesforce. First off, Customer-facing processes are an obvious place to start. Applications or processes that you’re currently using to interact with customers can typically be moved to Salesforce with great benefits. Sites has changed my philosophy about what Salesforce is suited for. Other than massive data processing, I’m not sure there’s much it can’t do. Any situation that requires an interaction between web and company data is now also a good fit, with the new Force.com Sites technology. Related to that, situations where you’re collecting information from your users and displaying it back to them are also great fits for Salesforce, e.g., customer surveys, applicant forms, etc.

The only application that isn’t particularly well-suited is large scale data processing. Salesforce is not a datawarehouse, or I should say, not yet anyway.

Please detail any unexpected benefits and challenges you came across during your implementation:

Unexpected benefits include how easy it was to expand Salesforce to different areas based on need – lots of synergy in terms of data and training, and automatic centralization of our key information. I also noticed synergy in our tool development, for example, a de-duplication tool we created for lead management worked seamlessly with our recruiting application as well.

In addition, salesforce.com’s AppExchange has been a lifesaver, allowing us to take advantage of generic de-duplication tools and lead nurturing applications as packaged programs rather than trying to build our own custom apps.

Unexpected challenges were around the limitations we faced having to follow salesforce.com’s development methodology since it’s very structured. In the long run though, this challenge is minimized and far outweighed by the benefits realized via abiding to these structures.

What were the initial concerns upon your rollout?

First thing people are afraid of is a loss of control. There are also worries about downtime, but quite frankly, it’s much less so than in a traditional IT environment. As much as I’d like to believe our IT department would respond to any problem 24/7/365, without a platform like Saleforce, it’s very rare to have that amount of support.

What would you recommend to those who are getting started with a transition to Salesforce?

(1) Getting started – You must have well-defined problems with well-defined defined solutions. Then you can move on to solving data management problems.

(2) Do the right things – Start small, pick a specific problem and solve it. Don’t worry about how big it needs to be, with Salesforce, size and scalability aren’t issues. Don’t over-engineer, keep adoption in mind as you move along.

Many thanks to Brian for a lively and insightful discussion. We’re excited about many more of these and learning from you, our customers! If you’d like to be a part of this series, please leave a comment below or contact me directly.

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