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SaaS CRM extends to remote support

Despite some initial security trepidation, Okuma Corp. has implemented a hosted remote support application.

Bryan Newman was always a skeptic when it came to Software as a Service (SaaS).

The senior manager of information systems at Okuma America Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based machine tool maker, always had security concerns. Despite this, he went ahead about two years ago with a pilot program of WebEx Remote Support.

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"Traditionally, I do not like running with a hosted solution. I prefer to have it in my four walls," Newman said. "As I started doing some research into WebEx and their history, I found they have a reliable network. They have higher security than I could do myself cost-effectively."

The fact that SaaS vendors could provide better security because their data centers were larger and better protected than those of their customers has helped hosted CRM clear the security hurdle -- as has some serious momentum for SaaS applications. San Francisco-based, a pioneer in the market, recently announced that it has reached 500,000 subscribers. It's not just SaaS CRM either. A recent survey by Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. found that more than half of the companies questioned were using or exploring SaaS applications in 2006.

In addition, a recent CRM market survey found that SaaS is driving the CRM market, growing 60% in 2005, up from 105% growth the previous year. It hasn't been just the high-profile CRM SaaS vendors, either. Traditional on-premise vendors SAP AG and Siebel Systems Inc. (now part of Oracle Corp.) released SaaS versions in recent years, and Microsoft plans to offer an on-demand CRM product next year. Santa Clara, Calif.-based WebEx Communications Inc., better known perhaps for its Web conferencing system, is in on it as well.

Okuma signed on with WebEx's Remote Support when it released a PC-based numerical control tool that runs on a Microsoft Windows and Intel platform.

"Prior to that, it was a proprietary Motorola system we wrote all the way from the operating system up," Newman said. "Moving to Wintel -- that opened up these possibilities. One of the first things we looked at was supporting customers remotely."

Okuma America staffs a call center of around two to four agents from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. They are now able to provide Web-based support for customers via the Internet rather than mailing out CDs or, even more time-consuming and costly, sending field service representatives to the customer's location.

"The machine tool industry has not been a highly technical industry," Newman said. "We have documented instances where we were able to fix problems in hours as opposed to days."

Okuma implemented a PeopleSoft call-tracking knowledge base to provide support agents with ready answers to frequent problems, but the company has not integrated it with WebEx and is considering deploying WebEx's recently released automatic call distributor function.

"Our intention is to be able to allow a customer to connect to the correct agent to start a chat session and have that turn into a support session," Newman said. "We have a grand vision of being able to collect a significant amount of data to pre-populate a ticket so a support engineer is better prepared to respond."

Okuma's customers have all been accepting of the SaaS model once Okuma had assured them of the security safeguards, Newman said. In fact, even a major security breach at one of the main SaaS vendors would not keep Newman from continuing to use the software. Of course, he'd want to sit down with WebEx and know what they're doing to protect his data, but he wouldn't abandon the model.

"All things being equal, I like having it within my four walls. I take more comfort," Newman said. "But don't be shortsighted in not considering the hosted solution."

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