Blog: June 2013

Doing Real Business in the Cloud, part 3

Clouds and wing viewed from an aircraft windowI’ve been discussing (see part one here) how you can use the cloud to run your business, from publishing, creating and sharing sales presentations to handling all your invoicing, payroll and general accounting with cloud-based solutions. If you’re not yet convinced that running a good chunk of your business in the cloud is a feasible alternative to software packages locked to your computer, this month will either convince you or lose you for good. That’s because this month is all about the ultimate cloud solution: CRM.

What’s CRM? It stands for Customer Relationship Management. For some of you, CRM is an address book on your computer and a folder full of quotations. For others, it’s software like ACT! or Goldmine or a dozen other possible alternatives that you use to track interactions with customers. Whatever you use, if you sell to people, you’re doing some kind of customer relationship management. CRM software exists to help you do it better.

CRM was also one of the first industries to be “disrupted” by cloud computing. Many years ago, some visionaries in the technology industry saw that one of the primary problems with most CRM packages (and processes) was that they were tied to the user and the user’s computer. There was no oversight available to managers and no way to easily share what was happening in the sales cycle. That made forecasting sales and managing salespeople an inherently inefficient process for many businesses. If you wanted to know what was in the pipeline or make sure that your salespeople were following up on their leads and quotes, you had to ask them – over and over.

CRM, especially for medium to large organizations, needed immediacy, transparency and sharing. Most importantly, it also needed to provide all those things for anyone in the organization, wherever they were – at the office, on the road, in an airport, wherever. In other words, a perfect fit for the cloud.

The Major Players

You may have heard of – the company was one of the first movers in cloud-based CRM, and it still remains a big player. While their initial offerings focused on larger companies and were probably impractical (not to mention too expensive) for an organization with just a few salespeople, they now offer packages for businesses of nearly any size (that said, if you’re a one or two-person operation, cloud-based CRM could be overkill until you really build up some sales volume).

Salesforce is, in many ways, still the king of cloud-based CRM, and that’s reflected in the richness of their feature set. Unfortunately, it also means that Salesforce has a steeper learning curve than other platforms, and its massive feature set is often largely wasted on companies that simply want to manage their sales pipeline simply and efficiently.

Salesforce’s success spawned a host of imitators, some of which are worth considering if you’re looking for a better deal. Zoho CRM and Sugar CRM both offer most of the basic functionality of Salesforce for quite a bit less money, and both have been around long enough that you can entrust your data to them. Salesforce, Zoho and Sugar CRM all integrated directly with your own address book and will also plug directly into Gmail and Google Apps for Business, so if you’re using any of those tools, your information (such as contact info and emails) should flow freely between them without too much headache. Most of them also have apps for your mobile phone or tablet so you can manage leads and opportunities on the run.

Are these right for you? They might be, especially if you want to dive into CRM headfirst. If your sales group is large, spread out geographically and/or sells a fairly complex product mix, Salesforce, Zoho or SugarCRM could be ideal for you. If you want to keep things very simple, you might want to look at these other options, below.

The Middle Ground

After the massive success of Salesforce and its various knockoffs (and the entry of even bigger packages, like Netsuite, Oracle CRM and scores of other enterprise-level systems), dozens of newcomers arrived to fill the niches that the big players left open. Not every business wanted or needed the capabilities that the big players offered, but nearly any company with a few salespeople (and a boss who wanted to know how the heck they were doing) could see how managing customers with a cloud-based solution beat the old-fashioned address book and email method.

Enter the CRM alternatives. In most cases, these companies either cater to specific industries or offer stripped-down CRM packages designed for smaller businesses or those who don’t need all the advanced features and integration of the bigger systems.  There are hundreds of these companies in the marketplace (though very few geared toward promotional products) but only a few of them have had any mainstream success. I’ve used or evaluated all of the following; if you’ve found something that beats ’em all, feel free to drop me a line:

CapsuleCRM – Like a number of the others covered here, Capsule specializes in a simpler, more “social” form of CRM, where the emphasis is on sharing what you’re doing with the rest of your sales team or company. If you’re familiar with Twitter or Facebook’s activity stream, you’ll recognize that most CRM is now “social” like this in some fashion. Most often, it’s just a private (only visible to authorized users), real-time feed of what’s going on, e.g. “Dave just closed the Caraway deal for $3,000). These feeds can be customized and you can control who sees what. Capsule is a good solution for small to medium-sized sales teams. Its interface is straightforward, though if you crave Apple-like simplicity, read on.

Pipeline Deals – Similar to Capsule but with a more elegant, simple interface, Pipeline is exclusively focused on managing and forecasting the sales pipeline (funny, huh?) and it does a great job of that. Sales forecasts are easy to produce and simple to understand. It’s reasonably priced and a good solution for someone who wants to “plug it in and let it run”.

Highrise – My current favorite (and the one our company uses), Highrise strips all the complexity out of CRM and makes it a lot more like an enhanced, social address book in the sky. You manage contacts and the deals you have with them, and that’s about it. There are no fancy pie charts or in-depth forecasts, just a feed of what each person is working on, how they’re communicating, and the deals they’re winning or losing.

We’ve tried just about every aforementioned package (as well as a few others) over the years and finally settled on the simplest one. That brings us back to one of the biggest problems with any kind of CRM solution – adoption. A CRM platform – whether it’s cloud-based or packaged or just paper and pencil – is worse than worthless if you can’t get everyone using it. The simplest packages are often the easiest to convince your employees to adopt. Since all of these packages are going to cost you a bit of money per month (they are mostly priced monthly by the user) don’t forget to think about which one you and your team will actually use!

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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