Interview With James Wong, CEO of Avidian (Full Transcript)


James Wong, CEO, Avidian Technologies

James Wong, CEO, Avidian Technologies

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You can listen to the recording here: Interview with Avidian CEO, James Wong

Avidian Technologies is the developer of Prophet CRM software, which is designed to enhance Microsoft Outlook and turn it into a robust marketing automation tool. This is the transcript of our interview with Avidian CEO, James Wong.

Marketing Automation:
First I want to say thanks for calling. I did have the opportunity to briefly look at the Avidian product. One of your representatives introduced me to it. We are always interested in products and services that help businesses to grow. Our perspective is to help small and growing businesses to find solutions that they can leverage to get to the point that they are one day an enterprise company. The playing field is somewhat difficult for these people so that’s one of the reasons we carry on these interviews and these calls.

MA:
I’d like to ask you James, if I may, to give us a little introduction to Avidian and probably your most important product which seems to be Prophet your CRM solution.

James Wong:
Avidian Technologies; we’ve been around for eight years. We are the creator of Prophet, the easiest CRM software built into Outlook. We do business in one-hundred-forty-three countries, and we have over forty-five-hundred companies using our product around the world right now. We are the world leader in having an easy CRM software built for small and medium sized businesses.

MA:
One of the things I did like the most about this product is that it seems to be very integrated into Outlook and certainly from a small business perspective or somebody starting with CRM; that’s kind of important because of the ability to work within an environment that they’re used to. So I’m curious, how did that idea come about? Did you work with Microsoft?

James Wong:
I’m a serial entrepreneur. Building businesses is what I do, and technology businesses at that. At my last business, we were one of the early Outlook and Exchange Microsoft partners, who specialized in Outlook and Exchange Servers. Exchange Server is the backend of Outlook. When we rolled out Outlook and Exchange Server to different organizations what struck me is that from the Administrative Assistant up to the CEO, they all made Outlook a big part of their day. That business; we were an e-business consulting company, and I ran that for about five years and we were acquired by a national company. So I had to decide: what do I want to do next? I always liked Outlook and liked how people made it part of their day, so I said ‘You know what? The next business I want to start, we want to build a software product inside of outlook.’ So instead of looking at Outlook as an application we at Avidian look at Outlook as a platform with about five-hundred-fifty-million users around the world. We said that was probably the largest untapped platform with massive user loyalty. Outlook is an application that people are in all day long. Are you an Outlook user now?

MA:
You know, it’s funny, there was a time I hated Outlook but I have truly become a convert and I definitely love it today. So yes, I am.

James Wong:
Yes, good. And what’s the first application you open in the morning?

MA:
Well, I have a product that I use that’s sort of a spam filter to dump all spam before I even open up my Outlook, but Outlook is number two.

James Wong:
And Outlook is probably the last program we close at night, if we even close it at all, right?

MA:
Exactly.

James Wong:
Most people are in Outlook all day long, and we figure for CRM, Customer Relationship Management, that’s their way in. For CRM people, they’re probably in there touching their customers all day long within Outlook like creating contacts, appointments, definitely emailing their clients back and forth, and then creating reminders/tasks. So what they’re doing, is they’re doing about fifty to sixty percent of their sales activities or customer touching activities inside of Outlook already.

So then it’s natural to say I’m doing these CRM features inside of Outlook, well now I need a CRM application. There are other CRM vendors out there, but what they do is they force you to create contacts within THEIR CRM application to be useful; you have to create contacts in there. You have to start interacting with your clients inside of another application. What it does is it creates a disconnect with what I want to do, which is to track my client activities better; what I’m already doing. I’m already doing those sales and customer touching activities inside of Outlook. What would really make my day is if Outlook had the CRM features built inside. And that’s precisely why we created Prophet. We turned Outlook into a full CRM application. That’s what Prophet does.

MA:
Ok, that brings up our next question. What are some of the features? For example; I can set reminders, I can do many functions in Outlook already. What am I getting when I add Prophet to my Outlook? What are the additional features that I can look at acquiring?

James Wong:
Great question. When Microsoft designed Outlook it was designed as a PIM, Personal Information Manager. It was never really designed for a full contact management or CRM application. So here’s what we do to make it so. Right now the way Outlook works is I create a contact, I have an email, I create calendar items, appointments with those contacts, tasks. They’re all disparate items inside Outlook, there’s no relationship with them.

And then if you create multiple contacts from a company, they’re all again separate items as well. There’s no relationship between those contacts. So what we’ve done with Prophet is first and foremost we turned Outlook into a full contact management solution. So what we do is now all of those things that you do like emailing, creating contacts, appointments and tasks, all of those are related to a contact or company. And if you have multiple contacts within a company, we link them all together as one entity. Am I making sense so far?

MA:
Yes, it does. But doesn’t Outlook already do that?

James Wong:
It doesn’t. It has categories where you can categorize contacts from the same company into one, but there’s really no relationships between an appointment or a task or an email related to say contacts. So the first thing we do is we turn Outlook into a full contact management relational database. Second, now that I have contacts I want to put date stamps, time stamps, notes, and have a log and a history of all that. Outlook doesn’t provide that. It does have a nice notes field I can just type in. But a simple date stamp, time stamp, notes, and a history and log, Outlook doesn’t do that, and so we do that so that you know when the last time you talked to them, what did you talk to them about, and tracking activities and things.

Then, we also add opportunity management. Or if you’re in support: support management. Or if you’re in client services: project management. What we do is we add opportunity management right inside of Outlook. So now I have a contact: I can create an opportunity related to that contact. Now I can track what status it’s in. When am I going to close that deal? How much is this opportunity worth? What sales stage am I at? These are things that Outlook doesn’t have, and so what we create is this whole new concept of opportunity right inside of Outlook.

Then what we do is accessibility for teams, for small businesses who might have an owner or sales manager or VP of sales; they probably have multiple sales people or customer-touching people, what we allow you to do is allow that manager or anyone to share and look at those opportunities and share sales with each other.

MA:
I noticed you have a ‘permissions’ tab and a ‘sales management’ tab.

James Wong:
Yes. So we can set different permissions so that only owners and sales managers can see everything, whereas the sales reps can only see their own things.

MA:
So that’s set up in the original integration?

James Wong:
Yes, when you set up the product, it’s very easy to customize your own permission levels.

MA:
That sounds like a function that you’d only be able to do in Exchange. Let’s say a company has twenty employees, and they’re not using Exchange and they’re using Outlook on their clients. Does that matter?

James Wong:
No, it doesn’t matter. You can use Prophet with or without an Exchange Server.

MA:
And you still get the sales management function?

James Wong:
Yes. Having Exchange Server will give you additional features like calendar sharing, being able to share a consolidated contact folder, public folders so that everyone is looking at one folder for contacts. Having Exchange adds features, but it is not required to run Prophet.

MA:
Now, I see a tab that you call ‘Work Flow Automation.’ I’m curious to know what that does or what it allows you to do.

James Wong:
For salespeople, when they talk to a customer and they say “I’m not ready to buy anything yet but can you follow-up with me every sixty or ninety days?” So then what we do is allow you to create campaigns: email campaigns, tasks, meeting reminders or whatever. You can set those and say “Ok, I want to touch this customer every sixty or ninety says,” and within Prophet you can set it and forget it. You can create a campaign, choose which campaign you want, and every sixty or ninety days or whatever timeframe you set, it will send that customer that sales automation campaign.

MA:
So let’s say I had a campaign sequence, my process is… I call a client, I qualify that client, I find out that they are the type of company or person I’m interested in following up with, but I’m not going to make a sale the first time I speak with them. If I prepare ahead of time a sequence of five to ten emails that are to go out over a period of days, weeks, or months; can I preload those separate messages into this software and then when I click one button after my first contact I can have confidence that those emails will be sent according to a schedule? Is that how it works?

James Wong:
Absolutely. And the cool thing is that before it gets sent out, every day as you come in before it gets sent out, you as your Outlook user, a screen will pop-up and ask do you want to send all of these out? Do you want to process all? Or you can say let me read it before it sends in case something has changed, and then it gets sent out. Or you can say “Oh, well I already closed the business I don’t need to send them emails number five and six” and then you can delete them. So you still have control before they’re sent.

MA:
That makes a lot sense. An auto-responder can get out of control if you’re not at least reminded about where you’re sending what. Now the Quote Generator, I’m curious about that. What’s that?

James Wong:
When you’re a sales rep, after you meet with a customer who is interested in learning more about what products are you selling and how much does it cost, you’ve got to go back and create quotes for them. And so within our opportunity you can click on that Quote Generator button and it creates an Excel form that you can customize and it pulls all the contact information and gives you a quote for that client.

MA:
So these are pre-prepared quotes that you’ve created that simplifies the quick generation of new quotations?

James Wong:
Absolutely, you got it. In some sales philosophies the more you quote, the more you sell. Of course you want to qualify that customer, but the more time I can save a sales rep, the more they can quote clients and the more opportunity they have at closing that deal.

MA:
Right, that makes a lot of sense.

James Wong:
Those two features that you just touched on, the Sales Automation and the Quote Feature, those are what our clients tell us that help them make more money.

MA:
That’s really one of the things I’m most interested in: things that allow my follow-up to happen whether I remember it or not. And I think it’s a delicate balance to create a product that’s easy enough to use, yet allows you to accomplish those objectives. I’ve used other software products; these were web-based auto-responder products where it was kind of nice to get an inquiry that I didn’t even solicit because it was part of an auto-responder process that I put in action three months earlier and suddenly someone writes to me ‘Yes, I am interested now,’ and I don’t remember sending the last follow-up because it was done for me.

James Wong:
Trust me; our sales people love that when that happens. Our sales people say that they can’t live without Prophet in helping their sales. They love it when a customer responds saying thanks for that email, I’m ready to buy now.

MA:
Now, I have a couple of question related to your target market. I’m a small business, I want to look at solutions, and maybe I have a couple sales people: at what point do I become somebody that can use this Prophet software? What is my minimum entry point? What is your sweet spot? What are the types of prospects that benefit most from your product in their growth?

James Wong:
Prophet was designed for the end user: the sales people, the customer service reps. It wasn’t designed whereas some CRM have been designed for management tracking activities and to track how the sales team or customer service teams are doing. Prophet was designed to help the end users to be more effective and efficient with their customer touching activities. Our goal was really to help sales people make more money and help customer service people improve their customer experience. So, what the target audience is, we are focused on the small/medium sized businesses: anywhere from an individual sales professional up to a team of say one or two hundred people. Our sweet spot is around ten to fifty users.

MA:
Is your product web-based or client-based?

James Wong:
We have both. We do have an On-Demand version which is now the majority of our business. When we started out we started as an on-premise product. We are an Outlook plug-in. You install the product and it works right on top of Outlook. Then the business evolved. When you are an individual user, you install Prophet on your own laptop or desktop, it’s a plug-in into Outlook, and installs right onto your computer. Then, if you want to use our team edition, which is about eighty percent of our business, you would install that onto your back-end server just like you would install Exchange Server. Then you can share and look at all that information amongst your team. That’s what we had been running our business on. Then in the last two years we created our On-Demand version. That’s our cloud version where you would still install a plug-in into your Outlook, but all of your data resides on our cloud so you no longer have to install anything on the backend server. No new hardware required, works with all of your existing infrastructure.

MA:
So, if I have Outlook 2007 on my computer, a client based system, and I want to use the web-based version of your product; that’s not a problem?

James Wong:
No problem at all. We support Outlook 2002, XP, 2007, 2010, no problem at all.

MA:
I know, in having to manage sales persons over the years, that there is generally a lot of resistance in using reporting tools and CRM in the beginning. It’s hard to get them to adopt it because it takes time and they’ve got to enter data and that type of thing. I can see how almost everyone uses email so this makes it a lot easier. I’m going to give you a stumping question, and maybe it’ll work, or maybe you’ll meet this challenge. How about a mobile version? Is there anything related to that yet.

James Wong:
Absolutely, we have our mobile version that works with Blackberry-

MA:
I was waiting to hear that. You hit a sweet spot with me.

James Wong:
Good! Most businesses they’re on Blackberry, and we also have a Windows version, and we are launching our iPhone and Droid versions shortly.

MA:
Let’s say I’m using your Prophet On-Demand, or any customer is using Prophet On-Demand. Can they enter prospects into their system via their Blackberry?

James Wong:
Yes.

MA:
And this will end up in their Outlook in their home or office?

James Wong:
Yes. Wonderful, right?

MA:
Yeah, that’s a very intriguing aspect of it.

James Wong:
We’re getting more and more mobile, we as an organization, especially with all the smart-phones like Blackberry, iPhone, Droid or Windows phones. Here’s the cool thing about using Prophet that’s compared to other applications: all the phones, one thing they do really well is sync to Outlook so you already have your contacts with you. You already have your calendar. Sometimes you have your tasks with you. So you already have your Outlook stuff and of course your email. What we do is then is our mobile version allows you to access your Opportunities and look at all your notes and interactions with your clients.

MA:
That’s really nice. I’m getting to a point where I’m almost not carrying a notepad anymore as I’m keeping my notes electronically now. Even to the point besides getting a business card, very often I will enter prospects into my Blackberry contacts and when I sync with my Outlook they all come together. So I think that is a pretty valuable tool. I’ve asked a number of questions and I may have missed some things. I’m curious, do you have any specific features, benefits, or services that you want to bring up that I haven’t touched on.

James Wong:
The Sales Automation again, that’s a big one. But the Work Flow, Work Flow is an interesting one. I might have different sales stages when I’m working with my prospects. I may have initial contact, presentation stage, then a proposal stage, then a negotiation stage, and finally a closing. Those are some typical sales stages. With Prophet we have what we call a ‘Work Flow’ feature. When you’re at a different stage of the sales process you can activate different actions to touch that client.

So if I’m in the presentation stage I know I just made a presentation, I’m on that sales stage, there might be three things that I’m doing after I present to them, like following up a week later or sending them some marketing material to follow up on the presentation. That might be over a period of say two weeks. You can actually set different work flow for different sales stages, and when our client starts using that they start seeing the power of our product to help them close more deals and serve their clients better. That’s one: the Work Flow.

The second one is reporting. I don’t think we’ve touched on reporting yet but Prophet comes with forty predefined reports already, and if you take the different kinds of variations it’s about two-hundred different kinds of reports that you can run within Prophet to track your activities, track your pipelines, and tell your forecast like how much business am I going to be doing in the next thirty, sixty, ninety days. Then you can port all that information say as a PDF or Word document or as an Excel sheet or CSV file and you can manipulate that data however you see fit to help you analyze and run your business better.

MA:
Your website has a number of nice demos and videos; I’m kind of browsing them as you are explaining this. It’s good that you have those videos as it gives you an idea of what you’d be able to see.

James Wong:
Thank you. And the way that we do our demo, we don’t spend a lot of time doing fancy marketing PowerPoint slides because we have such a powerful product and because we’re built in Outlook which is such a familiar interface we actually just showcase the product a lot, so if you go to our demos we go right into the product to show you how easy it is to start using Prophet.

MA:
I do appreciate that because very often you’ll find more of a sales demonstration rather than a product demonstration when you’re just trying to learn how to use something.

James Wong:
Maybe another thing to touch on; in the CRM industry, Garner says that seventy percent of all CRM implementations fail. The biggest reason why they fail is because of adoption. It’s like pulling teeth trying to get people to use the applications. They’re using something to interact with the clients already. What is that? Guess what they keep going back to.

MA:
I think I’ll be able to answer this: Excel? Is that what you were thinking?

James Wong:
Well they do use Excel, but they go back to touching their customers with Outlook.

MA:
Oh right, Outlook. I see what you’re saying. In other words instead of adopting a new solution, whatever it might be, they still end up using Outlook.

James Wong:
Exactly. It’s like pulling teeth trying to get people to use this new CRM application that this company has spent tens of thousands of dollars and many months of planning trying to roll this CRM out trying to get more sales, improve customer service. In the end, people go back to using Outlook to interact with their clients. So why fight that battle? Prophet adds the CRM features right into Outlook so the battle’s not even there. And that’s why we’ve been growing. Every year since we’ve been in business we’ve been growing, even in the last three years in spite of the economy.

MA:
I noticed one of your customers is Microsoft.

James Wong:
I know. It’s a bit ironic and funny.

MA:
Another question I’d like to ask you is a little bit about your future direction. It looks like you’ve developed a product that’s pretty robust, it has lots of features, and it’s easy to implement which I think is very important, especially for small businesses. There’s a lot of CRM companies that are starting to integrate social networking into their products, for example, lead development, things like that. What is your direction in terms of new features and ideas?

James Wong:
Our philosophy is “easy CRM software inside Outlook.” There’s a lot of companies adding features to their product to make it bloat ware. It becomes unusable after a while. So we are very set in our vision, set in our mission, to create easy CRM software inside of Outlook and we spend a lot of resources on how to decrease seven clicks into three? How do we decrease three clicks into one? We spend a lot of time and effort into making the product easy to use. Relating to social networking, we’re built into Outlook so there are a lot of third-party plug-ins that leverage social networking right inside of Outlook. We move and integrate with that as well because we’re built right inside of Outlook.

MA:
So this is something you’re planning to do?

James Wong:
It’s in our product road-map to develop a social networking component and integrate with third-party apps out there. Right now you can actually click on a contact and see what somebody has updated in Facebook or Twitter.

MA:
This is on your road-map?

James Wong:
Yes. There are vendors out there, I can mention some, but there are vendors out there that provide those types of integration with Outlook.

MA:
I looked a product today, I can’t remember the name, I want to say… I’m sorry, I’m not remembering. Basically, and sometimes these things are a little spooky, but I trusted it enough to do it, It connected to my LinkedIn and it brought all of my LinkedIn contacts into their system and then I was able to see what relationships there are between my contacts and other people I’m interested in meeting. I’m not going to mention the name because I don’t think it’s really worked, but it sounds like a good idea to me. Listen, I thank you very much and before I turn the recording off where can people learn about Avidian and Prophet Software?

James Wong:
You can go to www.prophetcrm.com or you can go to www.avidian.com. We get a lot of press coverage out in the marketplace so if you just Google ‘CRM in Outlook’ or ‘CRM Software’ we come up very highly in Google, and in Bing and Yahoo.


I’ve been intrigued by the use of automation in marketing since 1996. I started this blog to write, discuss, and review programs, applications, and ideas with others. If you’d like to contribute articles, ideas, interviews, reviews, or a how-to about a product or program, please contact me. I can be reached at (951) 313-7200.

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