Software that'll make you king to customers

Want to deliver top-notch customer service to your clients--for cheap? Outsourced CRM software can help, but finding the right package won't be easy.

Stemming customer defection is part of owning and running a small business. No business sets out to alienate customers--yet sometimes we unintentionally tick them off by ignoring them due to oversight or overwork.

The most efficient way to retain customers is to offer first-rate customer service. In a world where customers change loyalties as fast as they change a URL in their browser, small businesses must learn to react quickly to customer complaints, instantly answer inquiries, and pop a quote in the e-mail outbox as soon as a request hits the inbox.

Enter customer relationship management (CRM) software, a category so hot that it'll burn a $10 billion technology hole in business pockets by the end of this year. With tools for sales lead mining, contact tracking, and technical support solutions, CRM software helps small businesses facilitate and automate e-mail communication with customers, and lets everyone in the company--no matter where they work--know exactly who the company's customers are and what dealings each customer has had with the firm.

YES

By turning to an ASP that leases CRM software, you can roll out customer tools instantly and with less up-front money than traditional software requires--but codifying your customer relationships with the help of software may not be as easy as it sounds. Here's the not-so-pretty picture I found behind the curtain of ASP-hosted CRM software.

NetLedger may deliver first-rate small business accounting software over the Net, but its CRM module is as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard. Worse, it's only vaguely integrated with the other parts of the service, and locks you into hosting your e-site with NetLedger if you want to integrate it with your online efforts.

NetLedger's CRM handles little more than the basics of customer contact management and support. You can record detailed info about a customer (things like address, phone number, and multiple contacts), track transactions, associate tasks, and set calendar events--tasks contact managers did years ago.

Among its few modern twists is the link between your NetLedger-hosted Web site and the customer list. When someone registers at your site, the data's automatically delivered to your customer list. That works, however, only if you host your site or e-store with NetLedger.

Among NetLedger's other black marks is the lack of functional integration between CRM and e-mail. Requests for information or customer queries generated at your site do not produce tasks such as a reminder to follow-up on the lead, or trigger automated e-mail responses.

The price--US$20 per user per month--is also way too high if you're purchasing NetLedger services a la carte. Fortunately, the US$99 prix fixe NetLedger 1 System includes five CRM "seats" in its package. Compared to other Web-delivered CRM, that's a bargain.

NetLedger has a history of frequently updating and even re-crafting its service, so what you see now is not necessarily what you'll get several months down the road. But I get the feeling that NetLedger slapped on these primitive tools simply to say it had CRM covered. Unless you're already locked into NetLedger for your accounting, there's no reason to bother with its CRM.

NetLedger left me cold, so I continued my hunt for a small business CRM provider at Microsoft bCentral.

Microsoft's bCentral ASP sells Customer Manager, the site's CRM software service, for US$30 per user per month. Although that's half the price of Salesforce (which I review next), it's still too much for this CRM service. Give yourself a seat, one each to your three salespeople, a fifth to an in-house assistant, and suddenly you're plunking down US$150 a month, US$1,800 a year. Yow! bCentral sells annual plans for US$270 per user, a savings of US$450 for five seats, but the cancellation penalties are brutal: after the first 30 days, you get back just 75 percent, and after 6 months the refund drops to zero.

Your customer list on bCentral is accessible to everyone who can get on the Internet--or at least everyone who has a US$30/month account, which virtually guarantees that some small businesses will pass around user names and passwords so more than the legal limit can participate. And Customer Manager takes a page from Fortune 500-style CRM software by automating numerous tasks, like stock e-mail responses, and can even automatically bump up a problem to the next support level in your company if an answer's not mailed to the customer in 24 hours. Customer Manager also collects leads from your bCentral-hosted Web site, and if you use FrontPage 2000 or 2002 to design and maintain your site (no matter who hosts it), Microsoft provides a template that automatically deposits customer information and queries from your e-site or storefront.

The Customer Manager interface with the display of daily tasks is just a plain-Jane list, but it blows by NetLedger's CRM module in terms of functionality, flexibility, and automation. I especially liked the rules you can create to automate responses to events as disparate as a sale on your e-store or an incoming e-mail.

But at this price, and with just a one-month trial (unless you sign up for an annual contract, in which case the trial's extended to three months), even Customer Manager is out of the question for me, and lots of other small businesses. Frankly, Microsoft has a lot of gall to charge these rates for Customer Manager when bCentral's Finance Manager, the service's more robust accounting service, costs US$30 for five users.

Maybe it was time to give up my hunt for affordable customer relationship management. To get an idea of small business CRM for those without budgetary constraints, I decided to look at the other end of the spectrum: Salesforce.com.

At the opposite end of the sophistication and cost spectrum is Salesforce.com. Where NetLedger's CRM only teases, Salesforce satisfies. And it should, at this price--it recently jacked fees from US$50 to US$65 per user per month.

Salesforce has been in business for two years, but added CRM to its sales force automation lineup only this March. Although it tilts more toward customer support than other ASP-delivered CRM--here, fixes to a customer problem or inquiry ("solutions") can be drafted, retained, then re-used--it also provides the typical tools of contact database, tracking features, and task allocation. Salesforce's big selling point is the soup-to-nuts integration of the CRM components with the service's original sales lead tracking; it's easier to follow a customer from first contact to first sale to problem solution here than at either of the other online CRM sites.

Customer queries can be grabbed from your Web site and added to your Salesforce site; you decide what information you want to collect, and Salesforce generates HTML code that you can simply copy and paste into your site. It's more flexible than either NetLedger or bCentral's Customer Manager-- you're not tied to a hosting service as with NetLedger, nor limited to a pre-designed template as with Customer Manager.

On the downside, Salesforce lacks any rule-making features such as those included in bCentral's Customer Manager that automatically shunt inquiries to specific individuals in the company or produce hands-off auto-responses to incoming e-mail. And the price is like a kick in the head: at US$65 a seat per month, handing Salesforce's CRM to five employees costs a staggering US$3,900 annually. On top of that, the once generous 12-month trial period has been whittled down to just a single month (albeit for five users). I like Salesforce--but not enough to give up that much cash.

All of these ASPs have a total disregard for the one app that provides a natural foundation for CRM tools: Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail client and organizer that comes with every edition of Office. Even bCentral's Customer Manager only imports contacts from Outlook, though Microsoft says it will further integrate Customer Manager with Outlook and other Office applications later this year.

Recognizing a market opportunity, software developers like PurpleCRM, SalesOutlook, and WorldTrak have created applications that add customer relationship tools to Outlook. But the up-front costs for these products can be a killer: US$250 to US$500 per seat, with server fees atop that in some cases.