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Seeking to diversify beyond its sales-force-automation roots, on Wednesday introduced a new on-demand call center and help desk application service called

The new service will allow companies to set up call centers, contact centers, help desks and other customer-service systems without installing and maintaining software at their own headquarters. Instead, customers will log on to the Internet to access these applications running on’s servers. has been working over the past two years to develop the customer-service applications, CEO Marc Benioff said. The service has gone live over the past two months with the first seven production customers, he said.

The move to online customer-service applications was a natural progression of the company’s business plans, he said.

“Our customers want to have customer agents working in the office and working at home,” he said.’s mission is to provide customer service and support applications “that are built for the Internet, that are easy to use, low cost, low risk and provide fast time to value,” Benioff said.

He claimed that companies can implement online call center and contact center applications for about 10 percent of what it would cost to install and maintain the typical client-server applications at their own sites.

“Companies are looking to us to expand our role into the customer-service area because we have done a great job of managing their sales forces,” Benioff said.

Five telecommunications companies are providing the contact-center telephony infrastructure: Avaya Inc., Alcatel S.A., Aspect Communication Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc.

The five companies together represent about 70 percent of the global telecommunication that support call-center customer-service applications, Benioff said.

Click here to read an in-depth interview with CEO Marc Benioff and learn why he is bullish about his company’s future.

This is an important move for because it advances the company’s goal of becoming a full-service CRM (customer relationship management) service provider, said Sheryl Kingstone, program manager with the Yankee Group in Boston.

“That really is their vision. They want to be a real CRM player and not just a sales-force-automation player,” she said.

Next Page: Appealing to the midmarket.

Bringing this new service to existing and potential customers was particularly important to keep them from moving to customer-service applications offered by RightNow Technologies Inc. or Siebel Systems Inc., Kingstone said.

While it “might not amount to a huge new revenue stream for them,” it will broaden the market opportunity for, Kingstone said.

The service is likely to appeal in particular to midmarket customers for whom traditional customer-service applications were too costly, too complex and too difficult to maintain in-house, Kingston said.

Larger enterprises are more likely to have some kind of in-house customer-support application, such as those offered by Siebel or PeopleSoft Inc. But the service also could appeal to larger enterprises if they see it as a way to cut costs, she said. recently posted doubled revenue. Click here to read more.

The service is starting with seven production customers: Anystream Inc., Imceda Software Inc., Magma Design Automation Inc., Phoenix Technologies Inc., Polk Automotive Intelligence Inc., Neoforma Inc. and VF Imagewear Inc. online applications include broad customer support, help-desk functionality, knowledge management, Web self-service and performance metrics to enable companies to gather, manage and share customer information within the organization, Benioff said.

Each company that subscribes to the service can create its own customer-service applications with a specialized user interface, workflow and data model. has also extended its “Custom Tabs” interface to the applications to allow companies to create specialized applications such as contact-center staffing.

Supportforce also provides its own sforce telephony API toolkit to link customers’ contact-center applications with the telecommunications service of their choice.

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