Few pieces of tech jargon are as unwieldy as CRM--customer relationship management. But what CRM systems do is actually quite simple. A CRM system is like an electronic Rolodex souped up so that every entry yields not only a phone number but your entire business history with that customer. The systems also can scan data to spot trends, enabling you to refine your sales, marketing, and customer service efforts. Such systems traditionally have been expensive and complicated, challenging the skills of even the smartest techies. But that's changing. Forrester Research (NASDAQ:FORR) projects that in 2007, companies with fewer than 100 employees will account for more than a third of the CRM market. In other words, systems are no longer a luxury; increasingly, you need one if you're going to compete. Here's what the major vendors are offering.
Best for… Getting it all in one place
What it is: NetSuite provides a collection of software tools to manage nearly everything a business does, from accounting and payroll to e-commerce and publishing. CRM is one of the firm's signature offerings. Those tools, which handle sales, marketing, and customer support, can be purchased separately from, say, accounting tools. But the company's strong suit is the breadth of its software operations and its ability to integrate all of those functions into a single system.
What's cool: NetSuite is best known for its easy-to-use dashboard interface. Its CRM features make it easy for marketers to monitor and fine-tune their search-engine marketing efforts with a tool that tracks keywords and leads, from click to sale. A new feature called SuiteFlex allows people to tailor the software to specific industries, like retailing or maintenance. NetSuite Small Business is geared specifically toward companies with 20 or fewer employees.
Drawbacks: NetSuite's free e-mail support can take up to a week to respond to questions, so you may need to pay for a support plan.
Price: $499 per month, plus $99 per user per month
Best for… Easing the learning curve
What it is: The software giant's product for sales, support, and marketing. It's a licensed product that you install on your own servers rather than access on the Web.
What's cool: Dynamics CRM appears as a folder in Outlook, and for many users it will seem like it's another part of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Office. That means staffers will need less training--often the bane of CRM implementation. The system is especially good at managing contacts and creating account information.
Drawbacks: Microsoft is new to CRM and is still working to catch up to its rivals. For instance, there is not yet a sales-commission management tool.
Price: The Small Business Edition, designed for companies with fewer than 50 employees, runs $440 to $499 per user and $528 to $599 per server. The Professional edition costs $622 to $880 per user and $1,244 to $1,761 per server. Both versions include a year of support and maintenance.
Best for… Revving up the sales team
What it is: Salesforce.com is the original hosted CRM tool. Over the years, it has expanded from sales force automation to handle customer service, marketing, analytics, and more.
What's cool: It's flexible. The software's latest version lets you customize the way data appears on your screen. Another new feature lets you slide your mouse over a contact name and bring up a pop-up screen filled with data such as current deals in process and service call status. The company also has established the AppExchange, a directory of more than 400 applications that integrate with and extend the capabilities of Salesforce.com (as well as other applications).
Drawbacks: Salesforce.com remains best at what its name implies: managing sales. It's not as good at things like customer support and marketing.
Price: The Team Edition (maximum of five users) starts at $995 a year. The Unlimited Edition starts at $195 per user per month.
Best for… Coddling your customers
What it is: RightNow started out as a Web-based customer service application, but has added marketing and sales tools, becoming a full-fledged CRM application. The company's strong focus on support means it has added interactive voice response and analytics, and also has developed its own professional services team to help businesses figure out how best to use its products.
What's cool: A tool that lets you automate responses to customer inquiries, no matter where they come from--the Web, e-mail, or telephone. Knowledge management tools keep your entire staff up to date on what's going on with all of your customers; in other words, you'll know not to make a sales call to a client who just spent an hour screaming at a customer service rep.
Drawbacks: RightNow's customer base is now more than 50 percent large companies, and its software really isn't meant for companies with less than $50 million in sales. It can be difficult for small firms, with small IT departments, to manage.
Price: Starts at $52 per user per month (two-year commitment required)
Best for… Exploring the possibilities
What it is: A Web-based library of more than 100 open-source CRM products that visitors can sample and download for free. The site is sponsored by SugarCRM, a leading open-source CRM provider (see "Something for Nothing," November 2006).
What's cool: The exchange is a perfect way for CRM shoppers to get a sense of the range of free, open-source products available. Among the offerings: reporting tools to analyze customer data; contact tracking software; and tools to boost the efficiency of phone-based customer service operations.
Drawbacks: Because it's stocked exclusively with open-source products, the pickings can be thin in some categories; only one application is available, for example, in list management. Implementing the software could require some in-house technical expertise.
Best for… Following the leader
What it is: Siebel helped invent CRM software, and is the largest company in the market today. (Last January, it was acquired by Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), which also owns CRM firms PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards.)
What's cool: Siebel systems have great customer service tools, including a feature that automatically routes calls to the support person with the most appropriate skills, rather than just the next one in line. Siebel CRM On Demand also has strong data-reporting capabilities that make it easier to track sales performance.
Drawbacks: On Demand lacks some of the features common in other applications, such as real-time alerts to let sales and support staff respond immediately when a prospect has a question.
Price: $70 per user per month