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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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Doing Real Business in the Cloud, part 2

Clouds and wing viewed from an aircraft windowLast time, I discussed how working with cloud-based software could take your lowly slide presentation and transform it into something dynamic that you could access and update just about anywhere and almost anytime. If that didn’t convince you to make the leap into the business cloud, don’t worry. Powerpoints and their ilk aren’t for everyone – they’re not, ahem, sexy.

You want sexy? Let’s talk accounting! That’s right – few things are less enticing than accounting software, but I’m going to do my best to make number-crunching in the sky a little bit more appealing. You’ve undoubtedly got something you use to track your sales, pay your bills and balance your accounts. It might be a dusty old copy of Excel or an aging QuickBooks program on a dying PC, but it’s there. No modern business runs very well without accounting software.

Accounting is dry and the software packages that handle your accounting are often even drier. Even worse, the accounting software often lives on one computer or an office server with very limited access. This is partly intentional – financial data is confidential, and you need to keep it secure. But it also means that a lot of vital information – even in an abridged format – is only accessible via a gatekeeper of some kind. If you need an updated quarterly report after David in accounting has left for the weekend, you’re probably out of luck.

Cloud-based accounting software changes all that. Now, before you gasp in horror at the idea of putting your financial information in the hands of data centers miles away from your office, rest assured that, in terms of overall reliability and security, cloud-based accounting packages are likely better than what you’ve got on that dusty PC in the back of the office. In fact, the very same folks that created that package may now have a cloud-based version available. For example, the most popular business bookkeeping software, Quickbooks, has a completely online version that matches most of the capabilities of the desktop-based version.

Why Now?

Maybe you’re already using Quickbooks. Why would you want to switch to the cloud-based version? After all, if something’s not broken, you shouldn’t fix it, right? And there’s nothing compelling about accounting software anyway – it’s just numbers, and you’re the person who, as a business owner, has the insight to make sense of them.

The primary reason echoes what I talked about last month: access. Financial information, as dry as it may be, is critical to your business. If you’re dialed in to your business, you want to know about sales, cash-flow and expenses on a daily basis. In the distant past (say, 20 years in technology time), you’d have to wait for someone to prepare that information for you. More recently, if you were in the office, you might be able to fetch that information from your accounting system in real time from one of your office computers. And if you’re really advanced, maybe you connect to your network when you’re out of the office and view reports and ledgers.

When you put all that in the cloud, though, things change dramatically. Is it tax time? Give your CPA their own user name and password, and they never have to even visit your office. Have multiple locations or a bookkeeper with a new baby that wants to work from home? You control the access, giving the appropriate privileges to the users that need them. Reports on the health of your business are available in real time to anyone with an internet connection. Send a quote from the airport lounge, or invoice a client while you’re drinking a beer at the hotel bar. Just don’t spill your drink into the keyboard.

Anytime, anywhere access is great – transformative, even – but there are other good reasons to move to cloud-based accounting software. One is maintenance; although you may be able to limp along with a 12-year-old version of Peachtree on your PC, you eventually have to upgrade, and the maintenance and backups associated with keeping accounting software and data up to date can be a real pain, especially if you don’t have an IT person to help you.

With cloud-based accounting, the only software you need is a web browser. Heck, sometimes you don’t even need that, since some cloud accounting services now have smartphone and tablet apps. But working in a web browser is now a pretty familiar experience for most folks, and just about every modern computer has an internet browser. Getting rid of software and install disks can be surprisingly liberating. You log in, and you’re just there – nothing to install or upgrade.

This also means that you’ll get new features instantly – if the accounting software company adds some nifty new charts and graphs, you don’t have to buy the next version to get it. It’s all included in the subscription fee.

It Costs Money?

Hold up, you say – there’s a monthly fee? Yes, that’s pretty much the way most of these services work: Instead of paying, say, a few hundred bucks for a box with disks in it, you’ll pay a few dozen bucks every month to access the software. If you need a ton of users, you might pay a little more. But that’s the biggest catch – it only works as long as you’re paying for it.

Of course, you’re probably already paying monthly for a wide variety of other services, like utilities or mobile phones or internet access. Still, paying for access to software is often a tough pill for many business owners to swallow when they could just buy something once in a box and replace it only when they have to. In many cases, the long-term costs of cloud-based accounting packages are higher than buying a package with similar capabilities every few years.

The providers of this software know this, and they make great efforts to increase the value proposition of their offerings. For a company like Intuit, the maker of both the “boxed” version of Quickbooks and the online, cloud-based, pay-by-the-month version, they’re going to get your money either way, so you’d think they may not care one way or the other.

But Intuit is pushing hard into cloud-based accounting and adding new features to its Quickbooks Online package at record pace. If you think about their business model, it actually makes a lot of sense – a company like Intuit spends millions providing customer support for its products, and with so many old versions floating around out there, convincing users to migrate to a single, cloud-based version makes their entire support program much simpler.

Quickbooks Online leads the pack in inexpensive cloud-based accounting, but if you’re interested, companies like Xero, Freshbooks, Zoho and many others offer similar products. If your’e concerned about security and data integrity (and you absolutely should be), keep in mind that these companies have backup systems and security mechanisms that go far beyond what you could ever implement for the accounting package you’ve got on your office computer. Of course, if you’re truly paranoid, buy boxed software and put it on a computer with no network connection at all and store your backups off-site in a fire safe. You’ll be safe and secure, and that tinfoil hat looks pretty good on your anyway.

– Brent Buford

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

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