If the back office represents the nuts and bolts of a business--things like accounting, inventory management, and human resources--then the front office is where the rubber hits the road.

"I would define front-office software as technology that enables customer-facing personnel to communicate more effectively with customers and prospects and other peers in the front office," says Brian Vellmure, Focus network adviser and principal and founder of Initium LLC, a California-based strategic consulting firm.

And never have there been more software choices that can help you do that, whether they're designed specifically for Customer Relationship Management (CRM), automating your marketing efforts, or using the latest social media tools to interact with customers and potential customers.

In fact, tech news site ZDNet's Paul Greenberg is currently holding a "CRM Idol 2011" contest to try to sift through the thousands of CRM software providers vying for the business community's attention. "There is definitely an unlimited number of them, with more coming out almost every week," says Esteban Kolsky, principal of California-based research firm ThinkJar, expert on the Focus network, and one of the contest judges.

While we'll never be able to cover all of the good front-office software options for small businesses, we we can provide you with a beginning look into the market today, with advice from industry experts about a few of the ones they like, and why. If the front-office software you use and appreciate isn't on our list, please let us know in the comments section.

The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Core CRM

A very popular CRM solution on the market today is Salesforce, which offers on the cloud everything from marketing automation, a contact database, customer service, social media monitoring and engagement, analytics and forecasting and more.  

While Focus network adviser Chris Selland uses Salesforce as part of his job as Chief Marketing Officer with Massachusetts-based social media monitoring company Terametric, he also likes Landslide, which he says is a good option for companies selling higher-end goods and services and those that have a very process-driven approach to sales.  "They're a smaller company with a very responsive team," he says.  

SugarCRM has similar features as Salesforce but offers a free community edition, which businesses can download, or a cloud service which the company says is significantly cheaper than Salesforce.

"Zoho CRM recently gave me a briefing and I was quite surprised to see the plethora of functions it performs, even beyond CRM," says ThinkJar's Kolsky. "I would recommend taking a look if you are on the smaller side of the SMB market."

CDC Pivotal, Microsoft Dynamics, SAP, Oracle, and Sage all have CRM products that industry experts also recommend. 

"There are a lot of different vendors for a lot of different needs," says Kolsky. "I like Zoho because it integrates the front office with the back office. I like Sugar because it's very flexible. I like Microsoft because it has a nice user interface...I like SAP because it allows you to run your entire business, and Microsoft to a certain extent. There are many different criteria that would go into saying which one is best." 


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Marketing Automation

From anywhere from $200 to $4,000 a month you can use marketing automation software to manage demand generation campaigns and generate quality sales leads - including email marketing, lead nurturing, and lead scoring. It also includes analytics to measure marketing ROI and forecast marketing's impact on revenue.

"Marketing automation lets you keep in touch with people who don't buy right away so when they do get around to buying they still remember you. Otherwise they buy from whoever they spoke to yesterday," says David Raab, principal at Raab Associates, a marketing tech consulting firm based in Chappaqua, New York, who says that keeping in touch with prospects is difficult without automation. "You can set up simple e-mail programs and other kinds of things but unless it's fully automated you're not going to do it in a small business. Nobody has the time."

Like other segments within the front office, marketing automation vendors aren't in any shortage. So how does a small business pick one?

Raab says it depends on the size of the small business.

Micro businesses, which he defines as having less than $5 million in revenue, typically don't have professional marketers on staff so the job is usually left to the owner herself who tries to squeeze marketing in between all the other things she needs to do in a day. "What's really important to them is that systems be very simple to deploy as well as to actually use. [Usually] they don't want to have to have a separate marketing system from their sales automation system," says Raab, who suggests lower tier companies such as Infusionsoft and OfficeAutoPilot, which offer both sales and marketing automation modules.

Raab says slightly larger small businesses that have a separate marketing department--even if it's just one person--typically have a separate sales system from the marketing system. "That's where companies such as Pardot, LoopFuse, Marketo, and Genius come in," he says.

"Now you're doing a data synchronization between marketing on one side and sales or CRM on the other. You're doing more sophisticated outbound e-mail and landing pages. You need lead scoring to know which leads to hand across to the sales group, whereas in the smaller companies it's literally the same person looking at the data so there's no need for a formal scoring system," he says.

Regardless of the size of your business, Raab says it's important to realize that the higher-priced products aren't necessarily better on any dimension.  "Obviously you want the cheapest one but you also want the one that fits you, and if that isn't the cheapest one then there's no point to being penny wise and getting a product that doesn't meet your needs," he says.

"There have been any number of studies showing the amount of incremental business that a proper marketing automation implementation will get you and it could increase your business by 20 to 50 percent...It doesn't take much of an increase to justify the cost," he says.

To read reviews of major marketing automation software choices and see a breakdown of their various costs, we suggest visiting Raab's marketing automation blog. He also offers a fantastic guide that coaches businesses in choosing software.


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Social Media

"Social media really is just another channel for customer communications," says Initium's Vellmure, who coached us on some of the major players in this arena. "New players are seeking to enable bi-directional communication between companies and customers. Many of them [handle] a different piece of that communication." 

"For example, Radian6 is one of a hundred companies that does social media monitoring. What they do is scour the Web for mentions of a particular brand or a particular key word, surface all of those mentions, and then provide a level of analytics on top of it," Vellmure says.

"So, an example might be if you are McDonalds, Radian6 would help you to listen to everything that everybody in the world is saying about McDonalds on the social web, tell you the most common key words associated with McDonalds, and help you know what people saying about the Big Mac, or it can allow brands to trial new products and listen for and analyze unstructured feedback associated with it."

"HootSuite has a similar play, but largely grew out of Twitter," he says. "HootSuite enables an individual and or a company to listen, segment and respond to specific pieces of content or conversations.  Using the McDonald's example again, if someone on Twitter asked if anyone knew where the closest McDonald's was in a particular city, HootSuite would let a user listening for those key words immediately reply on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. So it is basically a conversation platform."

"Cotweet is a different way to attack a similar challenge. Picture a large organization that has five or ten people responding on Twitter to customer complaints or customer questions. The next obvious question is 'Who is going to respond to what?' Some issues are going to be PR issues, some issues are going to be customer service issues. Cotweet basically provides [a way] to route [comments] to the proper person within [an organization] to respond appropriately."

"SocialText [is a] totally different animal altogether, [representing] a segment of software that has traditionally been labeled Enterprise 2.0, which helps to enable internal collaboration. Once an issue or an opportunity gets raised up or found on social channels, SocialText brings the conversation inside an organization to find the right people and answers in order to present the appropriate response to the customer," Vellmure explains, adding that SocialText is one of several internal collaboration platforms including Chatter by Salesforce.com, Microsoft Sharepoint, Yammer, SocialCast, Clearvale by Broadvision, Podio, and Saba Software, among others.

"HubSpot is largely a marketing platform which encompasses things such as social media monitoring but it's also a blogging platform with a message distribution platform that has a slew of analytics to track who has responded to what message and how they responded," he says. "I would say it straddles the fence between social CRM and marketing automation."

The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Contact Management

Speaking of straddling categories, Vellmure is impressed with Nimble, which includes many features of Social CRM while focusing on contact management.  

"If I have your contact record in Nimble, I can see all the e-mails I've exchanged with you, if I've exchanged Tweets with you, what you've tweeted, and what you've put on your Facebook page. I can get a fully contextual representation of who you are, who you're talking to, and what you're talking about. Then I can choose to communicate directly with you and track it all within Nimble," he says. "[Nimble is] just coming out of beta right now so they're brand new but they're about as far along as I've seen of anybody really merging the two concepts together in a simple, affordable, manageable way."

"Two great tools are BatchBook and ContactMe," says Alyssa Gregory, founder of Small Business Bonfire and another expert on the Focus network. "The features of each are very specific to the needs of small business owners, especially those who want quick and easy access to contacts and data from anywhere. BatchBook also has a great social component that pulls in social data on your contacts for a unified at-a-glance review."

Sage ACT! is a best-selling Contact and Customer Manager and starts at $195 per user. 


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Customer Service/Help Desk

Chris Selland, vice president of sales and marketing for Terametric, says because GetSatisfaction is easy to use and inexpensive, Terametric uses it as part of its Optimizer for Twitter product, which enables social media marketers to measure many aspects of Twitter marketing campaigns. "It integrates very smoothly into our Web site and application, and most importantly provides huge benefits on the support side, both helping our users solve problems as well as surfacing ideas," he says. "We're very big fans of GetSatisfaction. [It's a] great product." 

Assistly pulls all your customer service conversations into one collaborative desktop where service requests through traditional and social channels are collected, prioritized, and handled by your team without bouncing from screen to screen or juggling multiple apps. Whether your customers need assistance by email, phone, Twitter, or chat, every employee has the means to help.

Zendesk is popular Web-based help desk software with a support ticket system and a self-service customer-support platform. Featuring integration with services such as Twitter, Wordpress, Salesforce and others, Zendesk is a multi-channel help desk, communicating with customers the way they want to communicate.

Zoho Creator is an inexpensive helpdesk that's easy to use, fully customizable and integrates with Google Apps.


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Online Appointment Scheduling

Many different online appointment scheduling services are used by SMBs. 

TimeTrade is a very popular cloud-based system used by businesses to create new sales prospects, accelerate the sales and service process, and make it easy and fast to interact with customers.

Lisa Rothstein, owner of YourWriterForHire, uses BookFresh to book clients online and for sending automatic appointment reminders. "BookFresh is bit more expensive than competitors like TimeTrade, but I like that BookFresh also gives me a dedicated storefront Web page, showing all my reviews from satisfied clients," she says. "While I have my own Web sites, it's great that my prospects have another way in. It also lets me put booking widgets right on my own Web sites." 


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: Software Suites That Include CRM

If you're sure your small business is going to expand rapidly, you may want to consider a software suite that includes components for both front and back-office functionality. 

SAP's Business One starter package provides a fast, flexible, user-friendly option for small businesses to integrate CRM and sales with back-office functions such as finance, purchasing, and inventory. As businesses grow, they are able to upgrade to the standard edition of SAP Business One, without having to make costly software reconfigurations.

In addition, SAP recently announced a subscription-based hosted delivery service for Business One that will allow businesses to take advantage of an all-in-one software suite, but do it relatively inexpensively through a fixed monthly fee. While this subscription-based hosted delivery is currently only available in select overseas countries, it will be rolled out to the United States later this year.

As we mentioned in our guide to back-office software, fast-growing, mid-sized businesses universally tout NetSuite, which specializes in providing a cloud-based solution that ties the front office to the back office.


The Best Front-Office Software for Running Your Business: How to Choose

While we've given you a bit of a start in thinking about front-office software, many business owners may become overwhelmed once actually out in the marketplace shopping around.

"Software has got to be the last thing you pick," says ThinkJar's Kolsky. "I always tell my clients to first understand what they're trying to do and then think about how the software is going to help you to do it."

Vellmure agrees. "Define your requirements first and define exactly what it is you're trying to accomplish. Often, what happens is business owners get a hint of what they need, or they hear about some new technology and then they go out to the marketplace and get educated from a vendor.  Inevitably, they end up changing their business model to work with the technology as opposed to defining a strategy, defining the business requirements, and defining the requirements for the technology that they're trying to use and then going out and finding the best fit for what they're trying to accomplish."

 "So my greatest piece of advice to a business owner would be to very clearly define your strategy, very clearly define your business requirements, and then go out to the marketplace," he says. "You'll be much better off than you would have been otherwise."