September 12, 2011, 10:08 AM — Customer relationship management (CRM) programs have a bad reputation for being overly technical, burdensome to implement, and a chore to use. This can certainly be true of some services, especially for owners of small to medium-size businesses who lack the funds or resources to customize the CRM properly to meet their company's needs. Salesforce, for example, is popular but not necessarily lightweight or easy to get off the ground.
But a number of CRM programs can help you manage your company's growing data files, without requiring hours of setup or expensive visits from your IT consultant.
We've rounded up five CRM programs to see which ones provide the combination of horsepower and usability that marks a great CRM. These tools live on the Web, so you can access them via Web browser from nearly anywhere, regardless of your OS.
(Free for up to three users; $12-per-user-per-month Professional and $25-per-user-per-month Enterprise packages also available)
The closest to Salesforce in power and scope, Zoho CRM offers a solid platform for managing customer support, opportunities, inventory, leads, and marketing efforts, including email campaigns that you can launch from within the service itself. Zoho CRM has a bundle of features, including word processing, database functions, collaboration, and project management. In addition to what comes as part of the program, you can purchase third-party applications to meet nearly any company need.
In my view, the best function of the program is the ability to track your email communications without having to CC or BCC each outgoing email message to a Zoho CRM email address. Instead, you send email from within Zoho CRM, using POP3. If you're willing to give up the native client for your email provider, this arrangement is a pretty good way to keep your email conversations organized. Alternatively you can purchase the Zoho CRM Plug-in for Microsoft Office Outlook; for $3 per year per user, it allows you to synchronize contacts, calendars, and tasks between the two programs. You can also find plug-ins for syncing Zoho CRM files with QuickBooks.
For all its feature-richness, however, I found Zoho CRM difficult to set up and implement. Like many small business owners, I wear many hats, and though I am fairly knowledgeable about technology, I had trouble figuring out where to get started with Zoho CRM.