Open source bridges customer info gap

Athenahealth Inc. is reaping the benefits of open source CRM.

Athenahealth Inc.'s sales management system, Salesforce.com, and Web-based customer portal, athenanet, couldn't talk to each other, and that communication gap often put customers on hold. That's why Bob Gatewood, CTO of the Waltham, Mass. physician revenue-cycle management services company, had to find a way to marry the two.

A chance meeting with the CEO of open source CRM vendor SugarCRM would eventually lead to the solution Gatewood needed.

"We provide a service to physicians, and we're interacting with customers all day long," said Gatewood. Much of that interaction takes place on the athenanet portal. The portal makes it possible for Athena Health's lean staff to service over 450 customers.

Salesforce.com was used for sales and support management for four years, during which time Athenahealth grew from $2 million to over $38 million in annual revenue. On its own, it worked just fine for the company's 200 users, Gatewood said.

Without integration between athenanet and Salesforce.com, however, service response times weren't up to par. There was no replication or synchronization of data between the two systems, so service reps could not use athenanet to track the sales record of a doctor who'd called about a problem. The rep would have to search for that record in Salesforce.com. That task was often complicated by the fact that Salesforce.com sometimes had the doctor's name filed under the name of his or her practice group.

"We needed one system that contained all the purchasing history," said Gatewood.

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Lack of integration also made it hard to find service response bottlenecks.

"Salesforce.com's data structure made it hard to track case routing issues," Gateood said. The tracking process called for downloading sales data into a local reporting database a few times each day and comparing the reports.

"We would have had to build our own auditing system to understand the flow of a customer's question through our company," Gatewood said.

Gatewood's team was pondering what it would take to achieve integration between its two islands of customer data when that chance meeting provided another option. Athenahealth's CEO, Jonathan Bush, met SugarCRM CEO John Roberts at a conference. Bush told Gatewood about SugarCRM, an open source customer relationship management system.

In January 2005, Gatewood downloaded a free version of SugarCRM and immediately saw its similarities to Salesforce.com. There were some differences, mostly in reporting, "but it was pretty close," Gatewood said.

Being able to test a free version was an immediate plus.

"You can't log in and do a test with enough products," Gatewood said. "I might have had a different reaction to SugarCRM if a salesperson had contacted me."

The open source foundation of SugarCRM opened the door for customization and was a key reason for choosing it. With a closed system, Gatewood figures he would have had to build an intermediate system and set up a data interchange between the applications.

In January, Gatewood's team began development of an integrated SugarCRM/athenanet system.

"SugarCRM gave us the code for the enterprise version, Sugar Professional, and we got heavily into modification," Gatewood said.

Support was not a problem. SugarCRM's principal engineers were available for phone consultations, and nearby consultants from Blue River Associates proved to be experts in SugarCRM and open source development.

On April 29, the integrated system was rolled out. It runs on two production servers running SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, Apache application servers and the MySQL database. Within a couple of weeks, the system was rolled out to 200 users.

"We went live with a couple of known issues, but we quickly resolved those and did some cleanup," Gatewood said. "We achieved our goal of getting our people on the platform and matching features with what we had before."

Just weeks after implementation, athenahealth has already seen measurable benefits of using SugarCRM and integrating its customer service systems. Licenses of Salesforce.com have been reduced from 300 to 100. The cost of customizing and deploying Sugar Professional was equal to the cost of three months of cancelled Salesforce.com licenses. Sugar Professional licenses are far less than Salesforce.com's, Gatewood said, and the savings will fund further CRM customizations.

Athenahealth's developers are now working on improving the way they handle case routing, so less time is needed to locate customer records.

Besides improving service to existing customers, the integrated CRM system will help Athenahealth win and service a new set of customers. Using SugarCRM as a base, Gatewood's team is building a do-it-yourself purchasing application for small medical practices.

Half of U.S. physicians are solo or in small practices, and Athenahealth's current sales model can't support groups of that size, according to Gatewood.

"This app will allow prospective clients to enter information about their medical practice and get prices. All that data flows through SugarCRM," he said. "This is a huge market opportunity."

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