When financial planner Spencer Hill was considering moving his customer relations management (CRM) into the cloud, he test drove Redtail, a Web-based solution for financial advisors. In fact, confesses Hill, he "sneaked and used two free trial periods." The trials convinced Hill that Redtail works well for his Kingstree, S.C., asset management company.

Marjorie R. Asturias, president of Blue Volcano Media, a three-person digital marketing, content and SEO firm based in Dallas, has gradually turned much of her business operations over to cloud applications. But before she takes the plunge, Asturias takes advantage of free trial periods to evaluate cloud services.

While cloud computing offers your small business the opportunity to leverage computing resources you might not otherwise have the expertise or wherewithal to employ, it can be intimidating to move critical operations out of your own hands. That's where free trials come in. A number of cloud computing vendors offer free test runs that let you figure out how their services would meld with your current operations.

For instance, you can try Google Apps Premier Edition, which costs $50 per user account per year, for a 30-day free trial period. Salesforce, the CRM cloud-based tool, offers a 30-day free trial with access to all features. Healy Jones, head of marketing for OfficeDrop, says his cloud-based digital filing company designed a 60-day free trial based on experiences gained by trying other cloud service trials.

Make a trial work for you

To get the most out of a free trial takes some planning and effort. "Many of our potential new users who start a trial account give it a very cursory look," says Tom Greenhaw, founder of Cashier Live, which offers Web-based point-of-sale software. "Surprisingly, few actually give it a test drive. To get the most out of a free trial, you need to actually use the product for its intended purpose."

Cloud providers and small business users offer these guidelines for getting full value out of a trial period:

  • Start small and go slowly. Migrate a non-critical system first, and consider evaluating a cloud service that won't impact your clientele in any significant way. Consider using a test group. When one of business consultant Louis Rosas-Guyon's customers decided to move e-mail and a few other services to Google Apps, the company began by migrating a subsidiary first. "The subsidiary only has five employees so it would not cause a major upheaval," says Rosas-Guyon, president of R-Squared Computing.
  • Look for a long trial. It takes time to evaluate how you'll use a cloud service and how well it fits with your business. Remember that there are some functions your company may only need on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis and consider whether you can test for those needs during the trial, says David Rocamora, a senior consultant at Control Group, a technology services firm. "The worst thing you want to do is to migrate to another system, it's going to be so much better and the next month you realize, 'Oh, we run this report each month, and now we can't do it,'" he says.
  • Consider what you get. There's nothing more annoying than signing up for a free trial and finding some features are available only to paying users, says Jones of OfficeDrop. You want as full an experience as possible. And use the trial to evaluate the service level agreement, says Pat O'Day, co-founder and CTO of BlueLock, a cloud hosting and managed IT services provider. Look for a comprehensive plan that outlines penalties "in line with the level of pain you'll experience if there's a problem," says O'Day. Take time to review the cloud provider's security policy.
  • Hold onto that credit card. Some free trials require a credit card number during registration. Be cautious about handing over your number, and respect deadlines if you do, says Asturias of Blue Volcano Media. "I've had to pay for services I ultimately decided I didn't need just because I forgot to cancel before the trial period ended." Jones says OfficeDrop lost valuable time dealing with a free trial that kept billing the company credit card.
  • Evaluate customer service. "Test hold times, responsiveness, and availability of customer service," says Yehuda Cagen, director of marketing, business development division for Xvand's IsUtility, a cloud computing IT provider. "Your employees will have to lean on these people for technical assistance. No customer service line is a huge red flag."
  • Involve stakeholders. Have a broad cross section of users try the service. "Having buy-in from users is incredibly important," says Rocamora. "Get them involved early in the process so you can truly understand what they need."

Know what you want from a trial before you embark on the test drive, says Tim Bangert, founder of Catalyst Technology Solutions, which offers IT support for small businesses. "One simple way to evaluate the success of a trial is to answer the question, 'Can I do what I need to do easier, faster or better than I already do it?'" says Bangert. "And don't forget to consider 'less expensive.' A well-thought-out plan to maximize that free trial period to its fullest will pay off many times over as your business continues to grow."