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CRM - Customer Relationship Management software guide/review

Over the last couple of years, no doubt you've come across the term CRM software. It's been hyped to the max, but the question is - do you need it? This guide I hope will demystify the Customer Relationship Management software for you and will provide you with a couple of services and software applications you can trial for free.

What is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software?

Customer Relationship Management software is an application designed to assist a business in organizing all the data associated with a client - from marketing, to the initial lead, to the sale and any ongoing follow up or support. It builds a full profile of the client which is then accessible to other members of your organization and allows your team to see each others schedules and to network more efficiently through the application.

Why use CRM software in my business?

Here's a simple scenario which you may have experienced yourself. You have a customer or potential client who emails you a question. You respond to them and days later, they respond back with a one word answer e.g "yes" - without the rest of your thread. You may have no idea what the client is saying "yes" to. 

Customer relationship issues also become more complex when there's more than one person dealing with a client. It's important for whoever is communicating with a client to be totally familiar with the person and their needs, or at least have the information at their fingertips. 

Our high-tech world has the habit of putting people into boxes more than ever - and that affects customer support. An explanation or response for Customer A that works well may not be warmly received by Customer B.

Equally as important is the ability to follow up with potential clients. For example, you may have been answering questions from a potential customer over a number of weeks - and then they stop communicating. It's easy to forget about this person and they may have forgotten about you. You can imagine that if this scenario occurs repeatedly, a great deal of your time and money has effectively been wasted. 

CRM software can help you to easily keep tabs on these things; or if you have a sales force, to allow you to keep an eye on what's happening.

Free CRM - free Customer Relationship Management software

Free CRM - a totally free Customer Relationship Management software service! Quick signup; easy to use, try it out today!

Types of Customer Relationship Management software

As with any other aspect of ecommerce, there's a wide variety of CRM software applications available. They can cost anywhere from $0 to literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on complexity. Generally speaking, they can be broken down into two categories; locally and remotely hosted.

Locally hosted - all software is installed on your server

Remotely hosted - the service is run on the CRM companies' server

Let's take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Remotely hosted CRM services:

Advantages: The CRM provider is responsible for the smooth running of the software and that the application is secure. As you'll have a lot of confidential data stored in your CRM software, this is very important. Any problems that occur in the application are also the responsibility of the provider; as is upgrading, so that can save you money on bringing in developers to troubleshoot. 

As CRM software is very complex, by using a remotely hosted service you can benefit by the "buying power" of hundreds, perhaps thousands of other users; i.e. that new features will be added without costing you a fortune; quite often they are free. To build a CRM application from scratch can be a very expensive task for any single company.

Disadvantages: The CRM service can disappear, along with all your records; so it's important to select a reputable company. This is also important as you don't want your records being used for other purposes. A good CRM service will allow you to backup/export your data. 

Locally hosted CRM sofware:

Advantages: Control over the software and the opportunity to make it work exactly the way you wish.

Disadvantages: Tech expertise required for setup and upgrades and you may need to pay for ongoing support of the application. Security becomes your responsibility, which can cause a few headaches - especially as is the case with many applications, security patches are rolled out and you need to install them very quickly. As your business grows, your needs from a CRM package will also change and adding these extra features can be quite expensive.

What to look for in a CRM package

As with most other mission critical applications, you need to consider your choice of Customer Relationship Management software carefully. Consider not just your current needs, but the future. To have to change down the track can be stressful and expensive. A few other points to consider

  • Integration with current applications such as Outlook

  • Upgrade path - can you scale up or down as need be?

  • How long has the CRM company been around for?

  • What are the costs of ongoing support from the company?

  • Ease of use - the software needs to work for you, not against you. If it's difficult or cumbersome to use, then the software will cost you money in terms of productivity and the learning curve.

  • Handheld connectivity - can your sales team connect to the software by cell phone or PDA?

  • Import/Export features

  • Reporting - think about the kinds of reports you'll want the CRM software to generate.

CRM software review

I've used a number of client management applications over the years and most have them have done some of what I want, but not all - too much data falls through the gaps of many CRM type applications; e.g. traditional helpdesk software. I was recently invited by Free CRM to try out their  remotely hosted customer relationship management software. Free CRM have been offering the service for a couple of years now, and have around 15,000 companies currently utilizing their remotely hosted application. The Free CRM software service was designed mainly for micro-small businesses with under 100 employees. The price was right - like the name suggests, it's free, although you can upgrade to their very reasonably priced premium packages depending upon your needs.

The signup was very easy. There is a survey once you've signed up in order to activate your account, but it appears that the vast majority of questions are optional - it only takes a couple of minutes to do and activation is immediate. 

Once the account was activated, I was very pleasantly surprised by the variety of options available on the free plan. Features of Free CRM include:

  • 128 bit SSL encryption

  • Multiple user environment

  • Free account provides 10 megabytes (more on premium)

  • Data is backed up hourly, and off-site backups are made every night

  • Contact and lead management

  • Sales force automation

  • Shared calendars and communications

  • Task tracking

  • Call automation

  • Support tracking

  • Document sharing

  • Email marketing and reporting.

  • Import/Export functions. Import data from Act!, GoldMine, Outlook, and other applications

  • Wide range of reports

  • Customizable knowledge base

One of the major problems with some free online applications is speed, but this wasn't the case with the Free CRM software service. You can choose a text only "skin" that makes what is already a fast loading application even faster. There are so many features, I couldn't really cover them all in the few hours I've used it so far, but Free CRM is well worth a look. The premium version is $9.95 / month per user, offers unlimited storage, no ads, live support and a 99.9% Uptime Guarantee.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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