Building CRM on the cheap

By Tom Yager, InfoWorld |  Software

A boom economy gives rise to big, expensive projects. Many companies fired up enterprise CRM (customer relationship management) projects in the past five years as part of a larger effort to cut expenses and improve customer service. But as the economy softened, a few large enterprises have had to put their CRM initiatives on hold. More small to midsize companies, daunted by the cost of enterprise CRM ($250,000 to $500,000), never left the starting gate.

Good news for large companies waiting for sunnier skies and smaller outfits that can't afford CRM on a grand scale: Low-cost alternatives are available. Using affordable CRM software and services entails many trade-offs, but implementing a subset of CRM is vastly better than leaving your staff to its own devices to manage customer relationships.

Desktop solutions remain the most accessible and least costly option. Interact Commerce Corporation's $189.95 ACT! 2000 is the best-known desktop CRM application, which, like the products of its competitors, emphasizes the management of customers and other contacts. For those reps already using Microsoft Outlook, MultiActive Maximizer ($149) expands the contact information collected by Outlook and helps reps keep track of accounts while they're on the road.

Desktop contact and sales-force management applications usually pool users' data through Windows or NetWare file sharing. Interact Commerce SalesLogix.net (starting at $595 per seat plus server software) and Purple Solution PurpleCRM ($450 per seat plus server software) are two of many inexpensive client/server CRM tools. Such low-cost client/server applications lack the back-office integration capabilities and scalability of their big-budget counterparts. But the client/server model makes data sharing faster, more secure, and more reliable -- a worthwhile step up from desktop CRM.

For the lowest startup costs (starting at $50 per seat per month), try ASP-hosted CRM. For example, salesforce.com provides sales force and customer service automation, with data imports from several desktop CRM applications and contact managers. CRM via ASP seems ideal: It costs next to nothing to get started, front-end systems need only a browser, you pay just for the seats that need it, and scalability is the provider's problem. The greatest drawback is that you rely on data import/export to sync hosted CRM servers with data from desktop, portable, and back-office systems.

It's impossible to rival the capabilities of an enterprise CRM solution with a desktop, client/server, or hosted application. But for what they do, inexpensive CRM applications are an excellent value. When you start digging, you'll find hundreds of CRM options coming in well under the $100,000 mark.

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