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Choosing A CRM System Is Like Buying A Garden Hose

Choosing A CRM System Is Like Buying A Garden Hose

The other day I went into Home Depot to purchase a garden hose. Ever do this? All I wanted was a simple garden hose. Except it wasn’t so simple. I found that Home Depot actually sold dozens of different types of garden hoses. There are fifty foot hoses and hundred foot hoses. There are hoses on wheels. There are vinyl hoses and rubber hoses. There are hoses made by Flexogen, Craftsmen and Teknor. And the prices range from $11 to $82. This is the problem with our society. There are too many garden hoses to choose from.

This experience taught me what it feels like when a small business owner is looking for the right hosted Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for his business. There are dozens of good CRM applications on the market today. Just like there are dozens of good hoses available for sale at Home Depot. Unless you’re a full time gardener you’re really not going to know which is the best hose for your needs. And unless you’re in the CRM business you’ll be just as clueless when it comes time to research CRM applications.

What is a CRM application, you ask? That’s the easy part. It’s a database. Of people and companies that do business with your company. A good CRM database ensures that nothing falls through the cracks and you don’t look like a dope.

By not falling through cracks, I mean that the database keeps track of anything pending for a customer, supplier or partner. Calls to be made. Appointments scheduled. Forecasted sales. Potential opportunities. Outstanding quotes. Open service issues. A good CRM system has calendars, activity lists and forms so that this kind of information doesn’t fall through the cracks. It has reminders and automatic emails. It has the ability to schedule follow-ups for others in your company. And all this information should be shared among your employees. Nothing gets forgotten. Nothing gets left out.

And you shouldn’t look like a dope either. Because there’s nothing worse than when a salesman innocently calls a customer to promote your new product yet he doesn’t know that the same customer is furious with an ongoing service issue. So your CRM system should be able to track a history of phone calls, appointments, emails and other activities with each and every person who does business with your company. You should be able to run reports on these activities. You should be able to communicate by mass letters or emails to a group of customers all sharing common data so that you can send them an alert when there’s a safety issue about a product they purchased or a group message to everyone who has blue eyes, green hair and lives in Michigan if that’s the sort of thing you like to track.

That’s what a good CRM system does. And if you’re looking for a CRM application for your company, allow me be your gardener here. So you won’t get hosed. I’m going to recommend my favorite hosted CRM applications.

Please remember that choosing a hosted CRM system is a cultural decision. The benefits of a hosted system are many: they are generally quick to get up and running, can be accessed from anywhere and require less cash up front to get started. But be careful – some of the business owners I know are concerned about the downsides: among them is that your data is hosted by someone else outside of your business and the long term cost (which usually involves paying monthly fees per user) tends to be significantly higher than just buying a system outright.

Hosted applications have grown in popularity over the years. I recommend five. They are: Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics – CRM, Highrise and ZohoCRM. Of these, my company sells Microsoft CRM and ZohoCRM. But I love the others too – I just don’t have enough resources to be able to service them. All of these applications have the features mentioned above that ensures nothing will fall the cracks and you won’t be looking like a dope.

Salesforce.com is the most well known of the group – it’s mature, well written, easy to use and extremely popular. I like the fact that they have their own passionate developer community and platform and its parent company is publicly held and a thought leader in the industry. Reporting is fantastic and its service and collaboration tools are among the best in the business. But be careful – there are small business offerings but to get the full benefits you can spend as much as $125 per month per user for the product which can be prohibitive for a lot of companies.

SugarCRM is very similar to Salesforce.com but it’s priced much lower at only about $50 per month per user. There are three big advantages to buying SugarCRM. For starters, the company is trying hard to build a partner channel so end users can have local support and training. By comparison, most of the hosted applications I’ve come across are sold and serviced directly by the software maker. SugarCRM offers both a hosted and an in-house product for those that want to choose. So if you’re not happy with the hosted environment you’re not stuck. But the biggest advantage to SugarCRM? They provide source code with their product. This means that if you want to integrate your system with other systems, like your website or accounting database or if you want to perform complex customizations (and have the expertise to do so) you can dig into the entrails of SugarCRM to make it do exactly what you want it to do.

My company sells Microsoft CRM Online so we know all about the good, bad and ugly about this offering. What’s good? The $44 per month per user price, its Microsoft Outlook interface, Microsoft’s large channel of Certified Advisors like (ahem) ourselves and its full CRM feature set makes it a mature choice for anyone looking for a Microsoft-based solution. What’s bad? Microsoft has been playing catch-up with this product and trying to position it as a better alternative to Salesforce.com, its archrival in this space. So although the features are fine for a small company, its customizability is lacking. But that’s about to change – Microsoft is releasing its 2011 version shortly which will be as customizable as its on premise solution and, more importantly as Salesforce.com. They’ll also back it with a huge marketing and support effort. As a (ahem) Certified Advisor of Microsoft CRM since 2005 I can attest that the community around this product has grown a ton over the past few years. I’m a fan.

The last two hosted applications are great for small workgroups (less than ten people) who want to get a simple but powerful CRM up and running quickly.

ZohoCRM is only $25 per month per user (it’s free for the first three users with a few less features) and, to me, is a poor man’s Salesforce.com. That’s why my company offers this product: our clients tend to be mostly poor, particularly around the time our bills come due. Zoho has won many awards in the industry and has a full set of features to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and no one looks like a dope. It integrates with Outlook and Google Apps. And it’s part of a suite of Zoho products for doing projects, documents, billing and other tasks. Zoho is not as customizable as some of the other applications discussed above. And its parent draws most of its management and all of its support from India which can sometimes be a little frustrating. But our clients using it aren’t complaining. The price is right and the software works well.

Highrise is a sweet, little CRM application made by the good people at 37 Signals. Highrise is super affordable, costing only $24 per month for 6 users and up to $149 per month for unlimited users. I like Highrise because it’s a simple contact manager that works with a bunch of other hosted applications for customer service, sales and marketing and business productivity. There’s a programming interface for further customization, and nice little iPhone app too. Plus I’m a big fan of 37 Signals’ Basecamp software for managing projects which is very much like Highrise. The downsides? Highrise is at its heart just a contact manager and it’s still in its early days compared to some of the others products I discussed. It’s a work in progress. But I have faith in the company who makes it.

See? Now you know which hosted CRM applications to look at and now you have a good idea which is best for your business too. But here’s some more good news for you. I’m not that pimply kid from the hardware section who’d rather be home listening to Jay-Z then helping a customer select the right garden hose. I’m the short little bald man from suburbia who IS helping you choose the right hosted CRM system for your business. I wish I had this kind of advice when I was looking for that garden hose! And I wish I had some Purell after shaking hands with that kid at Home Depot too.

Stay tuned…I’ll soon be turning to in-house CRM applications.