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Message Perspectives: RightNow Technologies

[Disclosure: RightNow flew me out to its annual summit and paid for my meals and lodging. The following represents my informed opinion, provided without request by the organization or anybody else.]

There are a few really huge names in CRM, but sometimes it’s the not-quite-as-huge names you need to look out for. While it would be disingenuous to suggest RightNow Technologies is anything other than big, the company is often overshadowed in the media by certain others (I’m thinking of Salesforce.com) that are more adept at controlling the conversation. I’d like to evaluate the offerings and the messaging of RightNow, divorced as much as possible from comparison to its rival.

I’d really like to do that, but I’ve got to be honest—I’d probably have to give up the attempt at some point. While RightNow doesn’t define itself in terms of Salesforce.com, and its messaging places Salesforce as one of many competitors depending on the specifics of the engagement, Marc Benioff’s billion-dollar-plus concern is the first name most people think of when considering CRM in the cloud, socially enabled or otherwise. If there’s any company to compare to RightNow, it’s that one.

If time weren’t a factor, I’d delay this post until after Dreamforce—Salesforce.com’s annual convention—early this December, and put the two companies head-to-head the way I did with Sage and Nimble. Waiting six weeks or more isn’t a great plan either, and it would let my fresh thoughts go to waste in the interim. I want to be fair to both companies, so here’s my plan: I will tell you about RightNow as planned, and revisit the topic after Dreamforce to provide updated insight on Salesforce.com. Both teams get a turn at bat, and players on either one are welcomed to comment and argue.

RightNow comes from a contact center background, and it shows in its approach to CRM. The message is about customer experience as enabled by CRM; CEO Greg Gianforte says the company’s mission is “to rid the world of bad experiences.” He doesn’t shy away from the CRM moniker, though, as many other vendors have done. Customers spend most of their lifecycle in the hands of customer service (what a surprise!), so it seems natural to base a CRM effort there. I respect this approach, though the history of CRM is sales force automation (SFA), something that’s clearly in Salesforce.com’s DNA. If businesses exist to sell products and services to customers, SFA is what you want. If businesses exist to serve customers, then you start in the contact center with customer service and support.

I need to check my dates and figures to be sure, but I think Salesforce.com was the first company, at least in this group of two, to make social media part of its message. The AppExchange is a community-driven marketplace, there are Salesforce integrations with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and much of the newer functionality of Salesforce CRM uses a social networking model for internal communications. RightNow followed soon after with CX Suite, which integrates social media with everyday customer-facing processes. The companies have similar capabilities if you pick the right modules and options, with RightNow providing more reporting depth but Salesforce having the edge in dashboard presentation.

That said, the two companies have a very different approach to integrating social CRM. Salesforce has, for a long time now, presented itself as a toolbox or model kit. If you want live integration with your customers on Facebook, there’s a module for that. Want to rank and discuss enterprise content? You can do it. And if it isn’t available as a core piece of Salesforce CRM, you can get it on the AppExchange. RightNow CX Suite is also a toolkit, but it assumes you want to get close to your customers from the outset. Where Salesforce says, “You can do this if you want,” RightNow asks “Why aren’t you doing this already?”

One of the places the difference between RightNow and many of its competitors is clear is their customers. Now, everybody has great customer success stories—if you can’t get that in the CRM industry, you won’t last long—but RightNow’s feel different, in a good way.

With Salesforce.com, and every other vendor for the most part, the customers we get to interview feel like they’ve been prepared. They all have bullet points to hit, and specific ROI results they want to mention. (Note: When a writer is planning a case study, these things are important, so it’s not like I dislike specifics. But in a general purpose interview, it’s not as necessary and can even be distracting.) In Salesforce.com’s case, it’s important to have this kind of preparation, as that company tends to announce a lot of new features and options multiple times before they’re generally available, and then there will be follow-up press releases to remind us that module X has been out for a while. If Salesforce doesn’t vet its reference customers, there’s a fair chance the interview will go off the rails because we’re talking about different things.

RigtNow’s customers aren’t prepped much, if at all, because RightNow doesn’t have a never-ending list of preannouncements. I spoke with two great RightNow customers at the recent summit, Kim Rundleof Organic Valley and Rich Brecht of J&P Cycles. In both cases, the conversation was as natural as if we’d just met at a networking event and decided to talk about CRM. Well, it felt kind of like that, but with way more enthusiasm. This is how it is whenever I talk to a RightNow customer; I had an informal chat over lunch with Boyd Beasley of Electronic Arts, and it was a very similar experience. Each representative had things they liked, frictions with some stakeholders, and hopes and plans for what to do with their RightNow system in the future, but it all felt natural.

This difference in RightNow’s and Salesforce.com’s approach to customers is indicative of deeper differences in how the two companies deal with messaging. I’m going to come right out and say that Salesforce.com controls the conversation when it comes to SaaS CRM. They announce constantly, keeping their initiatives fresh in our minds. The press releases are usually worded dynamically, so you won’t dismiss them right after you start reading. And Salesforce.com is at the stag where each announcement is for a discrete element of the overall solution, so you know what you’re getting.

By contrast, RightNow is very low-key about its announcements. Typically, there’s an announcement that something is in development, and the next time you hear about it is the GA press release. Whatever the new item is, it’s always presented as an update to the existing RightNow suite, since users of RightNow seem more likely to use the whole thing than the typical Salesforce mix-and-match approach. RightNow also has terrible luck with timing, because its announcements are usually either preceded or followed immediately by a piece from another vendor. It’s usually Salesforce, so I think that’s a matter of strategy and a loud voice combining to good effect. This means that the RightNow story—both the specific product-related one and the “company narrative”—can become lost if the journalist or analyst doesn’t stay focused on it. I’ve found it difficult to do, and I’m aware of the issue; others who aren’t as clued in have little hope.

That’s it for Part One. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Salesforce.com’s side of the story this December.