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Message Perspectives: Sage and Nimble

(Disclosure: Sage is a former client of mine.)

A theme running through the CRM industry’s discourse lately is that of social CRM. This is a good thing because it means I’ve started my practice in a hot market space. It also means there’s a lot of hype and hoopla coming from all corners of the vendor community. The old guard are adding social components to their CRM offerings, defending their honor as the vendors that have survived the Darwinian meat grinder of enterprise software;  the newcomers are starting from the premise that old-school CRM has earned its supposedly negative reputation and it’s time for a fresh approach, hitching their wagons to the social trend.

Not long ago, I took a briefing with Larry Ritter, senior vice president and GM of CRM solutions for Sage North America, about the company’s plans for ACT! in 2011 and beyond. I thought I’d written briefly about it here, but it appears I was in error—apologies to Ryan Zuk, Sage’s PR ace, for my oversight.

Also not long ago (Monday, in fact), I took a briefing with Jon Ferrara, the creator of ACT!’s long-time rival GoldMine (now owned by FrontRange), and now the CEO and founder of Nimble. Nimble is one of the new wave of CRM vendors, while ACT! (and GoldMine, for that matter) represent CRM’s roots. The opportunity for me to compare and contrast is just too sweet to pass up.

Let’s start with Sage. As you can read here, the company has been doing a good job of following the will of its audience by adding more Web services, improving (and changing the name of) workflows, and keeping the design easy to use. ACT! is more of an entry-level CRM product than a premier suite—that distinction in Sage’s catalog fits better with SalesLogix—but it provides a good range of functions and customizability for its price and target market. The product has been around for more than 20 years in one form or another, and Sage knows better than to mess with success.

It is possible to integrate social networking features into ACT! if the customer desires, but it’s not something that comes in the yellow ACT! box. You’ve got to customize for that, which helps drive business for Sage’s army of partner-resellers. The message here is that Sage expects the typical ACT! user to be a small business that either doesn’t understand or isn’t likely to derive much value from social CRM, but there’s enough meat on ACT!’s bones for most SMBs to get an okay meal.

I should probably fault Sage more for this, but I just can’t work up a whole lot of indignation. While I am excited by the possibilities of a social approach to CRM, I know that not every business is ready for it, not every business can really exploit it, and the ones that fit those descriptions don’t want to pay for something they won’t use. Sage is saying, “We’re the same we’ve always been, and we’re here for you. We’ll let you move at your own pace.” This is a comforting message for an SMB executive who isn’t striving to push the business into the Fortune 500.

In the destinationCRM article I linked, CRM godfather Paul Greenberg makes an important distinction describing ACT!: “It’s as close to CRM as it ever will be,” Greenberg says of the contact management solution. “It will never be full-blown CRM — but do they provide business value to small businesses? Oh, God, yeah.” He is, as usual, right. ACT! is still very much a contact manager—one that can do some really neat things to be sure, but it’s still not a CRM suite. It can be turned into one, and the e-marketing module added to ACT! 2011 blurs the line a bit, but what we have here is one of the progenitors of modern CRM trying to remain viable (and succeeding, I think) by providing a safe, easy, entry-level option that can grow for a while with the user. At worst, I wonder why a contact management-plus application isn’t doing more with social networking contacts, but there doesn’t seem to be much grumbling about this by anybody other than curmudgeons like me.

Which brings us to Nimble. Jon Ferrara got out of the contact management business about 10 years ago to concentrate on building a family instead of a company. He’s back with a reimagined approach to CRM, built from the ground up to account for and take advantage of social media.

In our briefing, Jon hit a lot of the best talking points about social CRM. Businesses always need to attract and retain customers, and the old methods are becoming outdated. Companies must get as social as their customers, listen to the conversations, and participate in kind—and a company can’t be social externally without being social internally as well. So, if most of the CRM systems deployed today are used primarily for contact management and SFA anyway—a claim that rings true even if I don’t have any data in front of me to back it up—there’s a need for a system built to combine social networking and basic CRM.

Ferrara contends that Nimble is that product. When it becomes available, Nimble Core will give individual users the “3 Cs” of Contacts, Calendaring, and Communications by providing a single environment for viewing and sending emails, tweets, Facebook updates, and pretty much everything else, and will do it for free. The design of Nimble is as comforting as ACT!’s, in its way; it looks a lot like any of the current social networking tools in use by the general public, as well as more business-focused things like Yammer. There’s lots of white space, the view can be easily customized, and all the immediately relevant info (and only the immediately relevant info) is up front.

After Core, there will be more. For $9 per user per month, Nimble will provide a Team edition. For $19/u/m, the sales functionality shows up. If you go for the full $39/u/m, Nimble reveals its full CRM capabilities. Mind you, I have no idea what those are; all will be revealed at a later date.

No matter what I say about Nimble, it’s important to remember that the product is still in private beta. The higher-end functions—teamwork, SFA, and CRM—are a long way off yet. I haven’t touched the beta yet, though I will be doing so in the very near future.

When a veteran like Jon Ferrara fronts a product like Nimble, it says one thing: “It’s time for a change.” He’s got a point. GoldMine was one of the products that changed—nay, created—the CRM software industry, and Nimble is going to try to serve the same purpose for social CRM. The new discipline is composed of older, proven CRM apps augmented by new tools that only enable the social components, so a social CRM app designed to be a social CRM app would be a great start. The message is there’s a new wave in business, and you’ve got to surf it with a new board or get swamped riding the old.

My fear is that there will be too much focus on social and not enough on CRM. People like to say that CRM fails, or even that it is a failure. I disagree with the notion that a $12 billion industry, complete with innovators and success stories, is a failure. A change is necessary, because the behavior of customers has changed. But there are still things that a CRM system has to do that aren’t about social media, and there is danger that the move to social CRM will go like a political campaign: So much time is spent hearing about what’s wrong with the incumbent that we never get a handle on the challenger’s qualities.

Both ACT! and Nimble will have a place in the CRM world, and I’m not about to recommend one over the other (especially because one isn’t available yet). But you can start making your decision based on the language each company is speaking. Is Sage following a careful and sensible agenda, or is it in denial? Is Nimble the next game-changer, or is it a box of hype? Your answer to those questions will say more about your needs than about the products, but that’s good. If your choice doesn’t reflect your needs, you’ll have a failure on your hands no matter which way you turn.