Put Cloud CRM to Work

No matter how hard you work, you can't succeed in the small-business world if you don't put your customers first. But making the most of customer relationships isn't easy. Keeping your clientele engaged and coming back for more requires flexibility, a great memory, and creative thinking.

Today, customer relationship management (CRM) software is a must-have for companies that want to keep in touch with their clients. And for very small companies, the most compelling CRM products live in the cloud.

Here's how to select the right online CRM tools for your business, and how to put them to work.


Salesforce.com has become the recognized leader among cloud CRM systems.
By now, most Web-savvy small-business owners have at least heard of Salesforce.com. Founded in 1999, the company was a pioneer in offering a CRM system in the cloud for small and midsize businesses; and today it is the recognized leader among cloud CRM systems. Because plenty of third-party cloud services integrate with Salesforce.com, users have access to more options and features. And Salesforce.com offers tools for businesses of all sizes. For example, the Salesforce Contact Manager service costs just $5 per month per user.

But Salesforce.com is by no means the only cloud CRM tool for small businesses. In fact, the market is bursting with interesting choices. Some are free or extremely inexpensive. Others, so-called ‘social CRM' tools, add social media components, making it easier to follow your customers' activities, interests and needs online. And a few CRM systems now offer mobile versions, so you can access customer data on the go.

(For more about the pros and cons of cloud computing in general, read "Should You Move Your Small Business to the Cloud?")

Free and Inexpensive Cloud CRM Systems

If you've never tried a CRM system before, your best bet is begin by experimenting with a free or low-cost cloud tool, says James E. Gaskin, a small-business technology consultant. "Play around with them for a while to find out what you like and don't like. Then, when you're ready, you can start adding more users and data to the system or switch to another one, if the free tool doesn't meet your needs."

Among the free or low-cost cloud CRM services available are these:

Zoho CRM offers many CRM features, and it integrates with the Zoho suite of cloud applications, including e-mail and Web conferencing apps. Like most Zoho apps, Zoho CRM is free--albeit in a limited version, and for no more than three users. After that, the service costs a minimum of $12 per user per month.

Free CRM is, no surprise, a free cloud CRM tool that supports up to five users and up to 10MB of storage (which isn't a huge amount). Named one of PCWorld's 15 best free services for businesses a few years back, Free CRM takes some time to set up and learn, but it offers straightforward tracking of prospects, sales forecasting, and other features. The Professional Editions ($15 per user per month and up) provide live support, unlimited data storage, and other features.

SugarCRM and vTiger CRM are free, open-source CRM applications that include some cloud components. Both have active development communities, meaning that third parties can add functionality and flexibility to the tools. SugarCRM is available in Professional ($360) and Enterprise ($600) editions with enhanced feature sets.

The Latest Option: Social CRM

"Social CRM is a hot issue these days," says William Band, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and a specialist in CRM strategy and technology.

"Four out of five U.S. adults are involved in a social network," Band adds. The result: Businesses are increasingly trying to follow their customers' social networking updates. It's a logical extension of CRM, which is designed to help businesses broaden their understanding of customers' interests, needs, and concerns.

Many business relationships today begin on the Internet, as customers increasingly find businesses from Google searches, Facebook fan pages, and Website visits, adds Brent Leary, a CRM and small-business technology analyst. So it makes perfect sense to track and build those relationships using cloud CRM services, especially if they offer social network monitoring.

The following services merge social media and CRM:

LinkedIn Profile Organizer adds basic CRM-like features to the business professionals' social networking site, including the abilities to organize contacts into folders and to add notes to profiles. The service requires a LinkedIn Premium Account ($25 per month or more).

Gist ranks the importance of the people and companies in your contact databases, based on your interactions with them.
Gist imports contacts from Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, Twitter, Outlook, and Gmail into one dashboard. This free beta service ranks the importance of the people and companies in your contact databases based on your interactions with them. You can also see, at a glance, your most recent e-mail correspondence with each contact, along with notes you've made relating to them; their latest tweets; and so on.

BatchBook combines contact management with tools for following contacts' social media posts, tracking customer communications, using forms to generate leads and conduct surveys, and creating various lists and reports. BatchBook is available in a free limited version. Paid accounts cost $10 to $100 monthly.

HubSpot is a one-stop shop that includes sales lead nurturing and tracking, integration with Salesforce.com, marketing analytics, and other CRM features--plus social media monitoring, blogging, Website hosting, and search engine optimization. All of these features come at a price, however: HubSpot costs $250 per month and up.

Chatter (priced at $25 per month per user or more) adds a social networking component to the Salesforce.com CRM environment when it becomes available this year. Chatter also enables subscribers to connect directly to Facebook and Twitter accounts. The service is currently in private beta.

More Cloud CRM Choices for Small Business

Here are three more cloud CRM options to consider:

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is a flexible system. You can install and use it on your local computers and servers or use it as a cloud CRM system (for $44 per user per month). The interface is similar to the one used in Microsoft Office, so most users will find it familiar.

Infusionsoft Email Marketing 2.0 emphasizes CRM integration with e-mail marketing. It's suitable for small businesses that have fairly complex marketing needs and want to track practically every part of a customer interaction. Plans range from $199 to $499 monthly.

Highrise is a cloud CRM system that many small businesses like. Along with its CRM features, the system provides various third-party customer service applications, such as MailChimp, an e-mail marketing campaign service. Highrise offers a free plan for two users with up to 250 contacts. Beyond that ceiling, monthly plans start at $24 for up to six users.

Getting Started With Cloud CRM

As you would prior to adopting any new software, do some research and plan ahead before you sign up for a cloud CRM system.

• Assess your company's needs: Figure out which sales and marketing problems you want a cloud CRM tool to solve, suggests Leary. Look at all of the processes you have in place to see what's working, what isn't, and what you can eliminate. "This will give you a clear understanding of what you need a CRM system to do," he explains. "It gives you a checklist of to-do items, which helps you compare the various CRM systems and make the right decision."

• Take advantage of free trials: Use the services' free trial periods (usually 15 to 30 days) to familiarize yourself with each system's features and interface. Bear in mind that, after the trial period, you may be locked into a contract and subject to early-termination fees.

• Do the math: A cloud CRM system may help you reduce your investments in servers, software, and IT staff, notes Jeremiah Owyang, who oversees customer strategy at Altimeter Group. Instead, you'll have a predictable monthly fee that you can build into your budget. But be clear from the beginning what the monthly expense will be. Find out whether any CRM features that you want will cost extra.

• Consider mobile options: A few cloud CRM services--notably, Salesforce.com--have developed iPhone and other mobile device apps, so you can access customer records on the go.

• Ask about security: Cloud CRM service providers "are much more security minded and have more security expertise than most small businesses will ever have," says Gaskin. Also, as more large companies migrate to cloud CRM systems, cloud CRM providers must prove that their security is at least as strong as what the enterprise already has in place. Take the time to ask about security guarantees before committing your customer data to any CRM provider.

• Make sure the sales team is on board: Many small businesses moving to online CRM systems fail because their salespeople find the systems too cumbersome to use, says Gaskin. They don't see the value in taking time to learn the system, or they feel threatened by sharing information about their customers with others in the company. The sales staff "needs to see how they can make money from the CRM system or they'll resist it," he adds.

• Know your exit strategy: Make sure you know how to export your data from the cloud CRM service. That way, if you decide to migrate to another system later, you won't be caught off-guard by the export options. And be sure to export all data before you cancel the service. Some cloud services say that they expunge all your records as soon as service is terminated.

James A. Martin is a PCWorld contributing editor and a coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era (Broadway Books).

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