SAP has announced an update to its customer relationship management (CRM) software with a Web 2.0-style interface that the company said could help to increase usage rates among workers.

Companies often report that usage levels for their business software is lower than they would like, with, for example, salespeople managing accounts in Microsoft Outlook instead of their more expensive CRM software. SAP hopes to address that with CRM 2007, an update to its CRM product that will be widely available early next year.

The firm hopes to tap into users familiarity with web applications in their personal lives and says it is trying to bridge the "cool" gap between web and enterprise applications.

SAP competes primarily with Oracle in the market for broad CRM suites, which include tools for managing sales, marketing and customer service. Other rivals include, Chordiant Software and Infor.

Oracle probably has the broadest set of CRM capabilities, thanks to its acquisitions of Siebel and PeopleSoft, said Vuk Trifkovic, a UK based analyst with Datamonitor. "But I don't think that reflects badly on SAP. They have good tools with a lot of features, and they're a natural for anyone in the SAP ecosystem," he said.

CRM 2007 has a portal-like interface that workers can customize with information from within the CRM system or from external sources, such as publicly available newsfeeds and maps. They interface colour and theme is changed through different skin options.

The idea is to make the software more appealing to work with but also to provide information that might increase productivity. A salesperson might add a feed showing news about companies he plans to visit that week.

The software also looks different inside. The content is laid out in task windows that users can drag and drop to rearrange. The interface is built on SAP's NetWeaver platform and uses AJAX (asynchronous JavaScript and XML), a popular interface technology on the Web.

There are also new CRM tools, including a pipeline management tool that can run "what if" scenarios on upcoming deals. A salesperson can view quarterly sales in a bar chart, and then move deals from one quarter to the next, or push expected targets up or down to see the effect on the quarterly totals.

CRM 2007 will also include IP telephony software based on technology acquired when the companybought Wicom Communications last May. The software lets companies set up a virtual call center that could include workers in remote locations, without having to invest in specialised telephony hardware.

There is also an updated trade promotions management tool, which can help marketing departments manage hundreds of concurrent programs with retail stores.
The base pricing for the software hasn't changed but customers may have to pay for the new features, such as the telephony software, depending on the type of SAP licence they have.

SAP's last big CRM update was CRM 2005. Some of the new features in CRM 2007 were offered in interim releases this year, but SAP expects most customers to adopt them with CRM 2007. The software will be rolled out gradually starting this month, with widespread availability scheduled for the second quarter next year.
The global CRM market is growing quickly, according to Datamonitor, pushed along by organizations that recognise the benefits of creating a positive experience for their customers. The analyst company expects worldwide CRM sales to hit $6.6 billion in 2012, up from $3.6 billion in 2006, with a compound growth rate of 10.5 percent per year.