The best CRM suite is...

What's the best customer relationship management suite? We put six of the top vendors to the test to find out in our no holds barred face-off.
Written by James Bannan, Contributor

It doesn't really matter how good your products or your prices are — if you can't look after those with whom you do business with, you'll quickly find that the phones stop ringing.

Customer relationship management (CRM) products have evolved through ever-increasing layers of complexity until these days they can basically head out and find new customers for you. That complexity can come at a price — how do your users make productive use of a product which can do almost everything for them? How can they make sense of mountains of data and, most importantly, how can they translate all this information into effective practices and workflows that will allow your company to grow?

Paradoxically, while CRM products have become more powerful, they've also become far more portable. Gone are the days when an enterprise-class business solution involved massive infrastructural investment. Datacentres and the expanding global bandwidth penetration means that companies can have entire solutions hosted offsite, giving them greater flexibility about when and where to deploy and, more importantly, how quickly. The drive to be first to market is incessant, and with hosted services or software as a service will allow companies to deploy rapidly and effectively.

In this round-up of CRM vendors, we were particularly interested in feature sets and the maturity and accessibility of their hosted solutions. As customer relationship management can sometimes be a vague catch-all phrase, we also wanted to get a sense of the vision these companies bring to their customers and to see what innovations they bring to market to stand out from the crowd.


We installed the latest stable release of SugarCRM Community Edition — 5.2.0f — using the Windows/MSSQL stack installer on Windows 2003 R2 Standard x86 SP2. There are a number of flavours of stack installers available, depending on the platform you're looking to support, and the wizard-based installation doesn't require the administrator to do much other than verify prerequisites and specify names and passwords.

We used the default bundled installation of SQL Server 2005 Express, but you can choose to use an already-available instance of SQL or MySQL on a local or remote server. The stack also installed Apache with PHP support and we were up and running within 20 minutes. All the installers are powered by Sugar's own FastStack software and are available for Windows, Linux, OS X and Sun platforms.

The functionality to import information into the SugarCRM system is quite basic. You can import users, contacts, meetings/tasks and account/sales data, but the only options are to import from a delimited file or from a CSV exported from Salesforce.com. There are a few more options when importing contacts, as you can use CSVs exported from Outlook or from ACT! or vCards. It is possible to integrate SugarCRM with an authoritative third-party user system like Active Directory or any other LDAP-compliant system. By default the web interface is somewhat cluttered, but this can be customised.

Email integration is handled using either SMTP or sendmail protocols — no native integration with specific vendor systems. Each Sugar user has a web mail interface as part of the online portal and can send mail to both Sugar users and contacts via the shared address book.

However, there is no internal email functionality and all mail is routed via the defined external email system. Users aren't obliged to use the web mail interface as there are plug-ins available for Outlook 2003/2007 as well as Thunderbird 1.5/2.x. Similarly, document management functionality can be enhanced with plug-ins for Word 2003/2007 and Excel 2007, and there is an external SourceForge project to bring the same functionality to OpenOffice. Through a variety of third parties SugarCRM can also be integrated with Lotus Notes, Windows Mobile, Palm OS and the iPhone.

In spite of SugarCRM's obvious lack of features and relative simplicity when compared with other CRM packages available on the market, we really like this product. It's surprisingly mature and covers all the basics well. There's a thriving online community dedicated to its continued success, it's both free and easy to install, and the system requirements are minimal, which makes it a very attractive and accessible solution to businesses of any size.

The downside with using open source products is that businesses are very much dependent on their own in-house technical resources or will have to pay for a contractor's services, and as reliance on the product grows, costs are more than likely to rise. Many businesses may prefer the Express, Professional or Enterprise editions which come with support models and are available as both on-premise and hosted solutions.

An Express package starts from US$499 per year, so it's a very viable option. It is also possible to install and develop a Community Edition and then migrate to a business account. There are SugarCRM partners and resellers globally, so companies looking to implement a solution will find local support.

Product:SugarCRM Community Edition
Vendor:SugarCRM (commercial)
Phone:+1 408 454 6900
Interoperability:3/5 — cross-platform, works with Microsoft Office and open source alternatives
Future-proofing:4/5 — mature product with plenty of community and commercial support
ROI:4/5 — any return on a free product is all profit
Service:1/5 — community-driven self support


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


With its clean user interface, SalesForce CRM offers a very intuitive online experience and is a breeze to set up. You can import account data and contacts from Outlook, ACT! or alternate sources from CSV using a straightforward upload wizard — our test Outlook CSV imported easily, automatically populating business account and contact details.

Salesforce.com doesn't contain an email package, but it does offer pretty tight integration with third-party products. We particularly liked the ability to configure emails sent via external accounts like Gmail to be logged against account activity and have bounce-back alerts within the system. The system can also be integrated with Google Apps for domain-based collaborative management so that SalesForce users can make use of components like Google Docs and Gmail from within the SalesForce portal. This is a particularly nice touch, and a solid acknowledgement that Salesforce.com is a true cloud application.

Application integration and offline access are major aspects of SalesForce products, and users have access to a suite of Connect desktop integration products — Outlook, Lotus Notes, and Microsoft Word and Excel. Users can use the online portal to check for and install version updates. Customers who have purchased either the Enterprise or Unlimited Editions also have access to Force.com Connect Offline, another integration tool that lets mobile users access Salesforce.com data while disconnected, then sync any changes when they reconnect to the internet. System admins can create policy-based configs assigned to different organisational roles that define and restrict which datasets users can access offline, as well as calculate estimated data downloads.

We tested the integration apps on a 32-bit Windows Vista Enterprise SP2 system. The bundled installers didn't react well to UAC, even with administrator elevation, so we had to disable it to get a successful install. Connect Offline uses the local browser to deliver a mobile SalesForce interface, populated with datasets made available via system policy. The Office plug-ins give users the ability to import merge fields into Word and reporting features in Excel. Unfortunately, the plug-ins don't remember the SalesForce password, and given that you have to use a security token as well as a password for the offline APIs, this is quite frustrating.

For ultra-mobile users with smartphones (and who have purchased the Unlimited Edition), there's also the ability to provide access to the Salesforce.com system from Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, iPhone or Palm devices. Admins can set up different mobile configs assigned to various users, which define mobile time-outs, and can prevent users from accessing Saleforce.com from non-authorised devices.

There are four product editions available, each offering varying levels of online storage, support and feature sets, and the pricing varies accordingly although details are not published online. Extra services are available at cost, like LDAP single sign-on and integration with SAP or Oracle.

Salesforce.com is an accessible and flexible application for business who don't want to have to implement an on-premise CRM solution. It's suitable for businesses from just a few users right up to large companies. Of course, as with any hosted solution there are dependencies and points of failure outside your control, like ISP links, as well as greater bandwidth costs. But for many businesses this will be more than offset by the ease and speed of deployment.

Overall: 4/5
Product: SalesForce CRM
Price: Variable — available on request
Vendor: Salesforce.com
Phone: 1800 667 6389
Web: www.salesforce.com/au
Interoperability: 3/5 — limited to Microsoft Office, but works on a wide range of mobile platforms
Future-proofing: 4/5 — in a strong position as a hosted solution, and appearing as an import source in other business products
ROI: 3.5/5 — subscription model encourages transparent costs
Service: 4/5 — Basic, Premier and Premier with Admin models available


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)

Microsoft Dynamics

Leveraging off Windows Server, SQL Server, IIS and Active Directory, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is designed to fit seamlessly into a Windows environment. The system is accessible to users via a web browser or the CRM client, which integrates with Outlook, presenting users with a familiar UI to get them up and running quickly, and also has an optional SQL Server Express component for mobile users to house offline data. The system can route email from an Exchange server or with non-Microsoft systems via POP/SMTP. Dynamics CRM can also integrate with other Microsoft products like SharePoint.

Importing contacts and customer account data into Dynamics is a little different than with other CRM packages. You still export the data as a CSV, but the upload is done using the Dynamics CRM Migration Manager, which is a stand-alone tool you need to download and install and which talks to the Dynamics system via SQL. If you're using Dynamics CRM Online, there is a different Migration Manager package available.

Because of its tight integration with Outlook, Dynamics displays the online CRM data within the shared Outlook views — Calendar, Contacts, Tasks etc — or you can view them separately in dedicated views. This offers users instant familiarity with the UI as it slots into a pre-existing business tool — a distinct advantage when implementing a new system. We particularly liked the "Track in CRM" function which ties together data across all aspects of the system, and when used in conjunction with the "Advanced Find" feature it gives users a complete 360-degree overview of account communications, meetings and relationships with other contacts.

For highly mobile users, Microsoft has its free Mobile Express product for Windows Mobile devices — this uses HTML browsing for online access to the Dynamics system and doesn't offer any offline functionality. There are plenty of ISVs who have written products for Windows Mobile platforms as well as the BlackBerry, Nokia and iPhone, which offer a richer user experience and offline data. There is also a wide network of Microsoft partners who develop custom solutions in Dynamics leveraging off external resources like Silverlight and Virtual Earth, so external support is readily available.

Given the product dependencies, an on-premise solution is best suited to enterprises with a well-established Microsoft infrastructure. Hosted solutions are also available from many Dynamics CRM providers, and these tend to be much cheaper and easier to establish, scalable and suitable for businesses with a highly mobile workforce. The licensing is based on a per-user subscription model so there are significant cost savings to be made, and the offsite system can still be integrated with on-premise Exchange systems. Hosted data can later be migrated onto an in-house system.

Overall: 3.5/5
Product: Microsoft Dynamics CRM
Price: Variable
Vendor: Microsoft
Phone: 13 20 58
Web: www.microsoft.com/australia
Interoperability: 3/5 — only works on-premise in a Microsoft environment
Future-proofing: 4/5 — this is a growing market segment for Microsoft
ROI: 3/5 — better with existing infrastructure or hosting
Service: 4/5 — wide array of Microsoft partners, ISVs and hosting companies


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


(Credit: James Bannan/ZDNet.com.au)


A significant player in the big end of town, SAP's offerings are SAP CRM, which is part of the on-premise SAP Business Suite, and SAP CRM On-Demand, a fully-hosted subscription-based service.

SAP CRM is geared to provide real-time collaborative data to various enterprise departments — sales, marketing, customer service, call centre and internal/external e-commerce. As with the rest of the Business Suite, SAP CRM is platform-agnostic and can be implemented and supported on a wide variety of operating systems and databases to best fit in with the customer's existing infrastructure.

SAP CRM On-Demand is designed to facilitate rapid deployment of CRM solutions. Using a per-user subscription licensing model and fully integrated with on-premise CRM ERP installations, CRM On-Demand allows enterprises to deploy within weeks rather than months, and is particularly suitable for difficult geographical locations or for enabling a highly-mobile workforce to hit the market quickly. The product isn't as fully-featured as SAP CRM and is only suitable for sales, marketing and customer service lines of business, so customers requiring more functionality will either have to look at an on-premise solution or engage consultants to achieve the necessary customisations.

When we tested, we particularly liked the clean, stripped-back user interface. A mistake some CRM products make is to assume that users want access to all the information available to them, not realising this can make for a cluttered and intrusive UI with the result that it takes users longer to become familiar with the product which results in a drop in productivity. Although fully customisable with the ability to be as complex as you like, SAP's products are minimalist and intuitive out of the box, and accessible across a wide range of mobile platforms for road warriors.

An interesting emergent feature of complex products like SAP Business Suite is departmental sandboxing — products which are heavily designed and customised to meet a particular business need have a tendency to, over time, effectively become stand-alone entities. Individual products may enable disparate lines of business to collaborate on a particular business process, which has cross-department implications, but the data is not available to the wider context of enterprise practises. SAP is looking to reverse this silo effect in the upcoming release of Business Suite, which will be an interesting development for both existing and prospective SAP customers.

SAP is very much coming to market as a business solution architect, not a software vendor. This approach has certain implications for the type of customer SAP tends to deal with, which is (depending on your definition) definitely not SME. SAP's customer base is centred around enterprises with a $200+ million annual turnover. This is not to say that smaller businesses would not receive a great deal of benefit from SAP's product range, and the low entry-level cost of SAP CRM On-Demand is an attractive proposition as long as customisation costs can be avoided. Having said that, global financial crisis or not, you still get what you pay for, and SAP's CRM solutions are undeniably robust.

Overall: 4/5
Product: SAP CRM and SAP CRM On-Demand
Price: Available on request
Vendor: SAP
Phone: +61 2 9935 4500
Web: www.sap.com/australia
Interoperability: 4/5 — cross-platform
Future-proofing: 5/5 — SAP is a massive market player and will stay that way
ROI: 3.5/5 — biggest returns to be seen by the biggest customers
Service: 4/5 — SAP Active Global Support, various support models available


(Credit: SAP)


(Credit: SAP)


(Credit: SAP)


With its massive (and sometimes bewildering) suite of products, Oracle could be said to have a CRM solution for every occasion. Its CRM offerings come in the form of Oracle CRM, CRM On Demand, PeopleSoft Enterprise CRM, JD Edwards EnterpriseOne CRM, Social CRM, CRM Gadgets and, of course, Siebel CRM.

Entering the Oracle fold in 2005, Siebel CRM has since become the company's flagship CRM product. A massively-integrated on-premise solution, Siebel CRM handles everything from sales, marketing and call centres to customer self-service, e-billing and partner relationship management. Built on Siebel database technology, the product can run self-sufficiently or as an integrated part of a complex environment. It works alongside Outlook/Exchange to unify task and calendar management, and can be deployed to a wide range of mobile devices.

Working alongside Siebel CRM in a tag-team relationship is Oracle CRM On Demand. A key SaaS product, CRM On Demand is a hosted, subscription-based service that is designed to integrate tightly with both Oracle CRM and Siebel CRM. With licensing options starting from US$70/month per user, the product is designed to facilitate rapid CRM deployments. CRM On Demand is also an attractive proposition for new CRM customers, and the package features various data integration tools that allow a user to quickly import users, integrate with Outlook and access offline data.

Hosted solutions are often the poor cousins of the on-premise packages, with remote rapid deployment sites siloed off from the main centres of operation. Oracle has circumvented this problem with a custom integration application, which provides a unified user interface and data synchronisation between Siebel CRM and CRM On Demand. Leveraging off existing products in its own range (Fusion MiddleWare), this is an intelligent solution that gets users up and running quickly, and facilitates simpler, more cost-effective future transitions to on-premise installations. For existing customers, there are also CRM On Demand integration tools to connect to both Oracle CRM and JD Edwards EnterpriseOne CRM.

Some features we particularly liked in Oracle's CRM range were Social CRM and CRM Gadgets. Social CRM moves away from the traditional data-intensive approach to CRM and instead focuses on the short-term needs of sales executives. The product delivers forecasting data and customer analyses based on private and publicly-available data which, when measured against executives' quarterly sales targets, gives employees the ability to better direct their efforts and create new sales opportunities. It also quickly puts executives in touch with colleagues, enabling them to follow up on leads and make new contacts.

While this functionality isn't exactly cutting-edge, Oracle has managed to create a product that is intuitive, impressive in its simplicity and delivered across a wide range of mobile devices. It's a powerful tool that enables a sales force to really capitalise on the data available to them, without bogging them down in detail.

Oracle CRM Gadgets takes this a step further. Built on Adobe AIR and available free to existing CRM customers, the gadgets are little desktop widgets that trawl enterprise data for information like Top Deals, Sales Quota and Search. This is a particularly innovative approach from Oracle — the gadgets can be delivered to just about any platform, will be capable of in-house customisation and make solid use of the popularity in social networking tools like RSS readers and Twitter clients.

As business solution architects, Oracle operates in the big end of town, so smaller enterprises may not think of them first when considering a CRM deployment. While there's no doubting that an integrated on-premise solution would require significant financial outlay, the CRM On Demand and Social CRM product offerings make compelling business cases, and should be investigated.

Overall: 4.5/5
Product: Oracle Siebel CRM and Oracle CRM On Demand
Price: Hosted solutions from US$70/user per month
Vendor: Oracle
Phone: 1300 366 386
Web: www.oracle.com/global/au
Interoperability: 3.5/5 — proprietary database, wide range of client and mobile device support
Future-proofing: 5/5 — market leaders and determined to remain as such
ROI: 4/5 — accessible solutions for all business sizes
Service: 4/5 — wide range of enterprise support models available


(Credit: Oracle)


(Credit: Oracle)


(Credit: Oracle)


With its 2006 acquisition of SSA Global, Infor Global Solutions brought CRM solution Epiphany into its suite of products. Designed for companies from around 500 users and up, and available as a hosted solution, SaaS or an on-premise deployment, Epiphany brings CRM functionality to a business' sales, marketing and service departments. Epiphany is available as a generic product or as a vertical solution to suit the needs of a specific industry, like banking, manufacturing and retail.

Epiphany has a particularly strong focus in inbound and outbound marketing. Epiphany Interaction Advisor is designed to take advantage of the fact that every customer interaction is a sales opportunity. Whether it's direct contact like a service call or product query, or indirect like e-billing or online self service, each interaction is an active touch point between company and customer, and the ability to capitalise on these moments in time can make a critical difference to profit margins.

Interaction Advisor (inbound marketing) analyses each interaction as it happens. Employees are presented with a range of campaign offerings to suggest to customers, based on a real-time assessment of the customer's geographic and demographic data. Each campaign is assigned an acceptance probability and an expected benefit to the company, and these values are constantly adjusted as Epiphany records acceptances or rejections.

This data also plugs in to the marketing feature set of Epiphany, specifically the cross-sell, up-sell and customer retention aspects of channel marketing. Marketing executives can mine back-end data to identify appropriate targets across a range of market segments, create new campaigns on the fly and deliver the campaign message at all the appropriate points of interaction — phone, email, online, ATM etc. Again, acceptance and rejection data are gathered in real time so that executives can accurately track campaign effectiveness. Call centre staff and account managers also have access to this information so that customers are constantly matched up to the most appropriate offers and products.

We particularly liked the highly-integrated nature of Epiphany's intelligent use of customer data. We're all used to seeing banner ads when logging into online banking, but the particular banner ad that you see is aimed especially at people of your demographic, and the next time you speak to someone from the company, they will know whether you clicked on the ad or not because the back-end system will take note of it, which is very impressive. It effectively makes every customer-facing employee an active participant in the sales force. Large enterprises looking to push sales while offering customers a relevant range of targeted products should seriously consider Infor.

Overall: 3.5/5
Product: Infor CRM Epiphany
Price: Available on request
Vendor: Infor
Phone: 1800 260 2640
Web: www.infor.com.au
Interoperability: 3.5/5 — Cross-platform back-end support
Future-proofing: 4/5 — major player in the CRM space behind Oracle and SAP
ROI: 4/5 — outstanding sales force automation
Service: 3/5 — Infor Global Support and online customer portal


For small businesses looking to implement CRM, the various on-demand hosting solutions offered by the big enterprise players have changed the picture completely.

Traditionally, a company with half a dozen employees would not have considered vendors like Oracle, but now Oracle is serving customers in that space. So for small business there are plenty of compelling options to choose from, and none of them need to be on-premise. Companies should look to their long-term anticipated needs and see which vendor offers the best functionality in their industry, but in terms of rapid deployment and ease of set-up, SugarCRM, Salesforce CRM and Dynamics CRM all offer strong solutions.

Medium-sized businesses looking to deploy CRM will possibly be limited by any existing on-premise business solutions. Integration and leveraging off uniform platforms offer power and flexibility, and thus it's harder to make a business case to introduce a new vendor into the mix. For Microsoft-dominated environments, Dynamics CRM should be the first consideration, but both Oracle and SAP also offer rapid on-demand deployment with the potential to future moves towards SaaS and on-premise, and both vendors' data integration tools are excellent.

For large national and global enterprises, it's hard to look past Oracle's CRM product suite. Of course, all major players in this space offer custom vertical solutions, data analytics and business intelligence, but Oracle's innovation in sales force empowerment through Social CRM is very compelling and marks the company as a stand-out in this space.

What customer relationship management suite do you prefer? One of the big guns or a smaller player and why? Post your comments below in the talkback or drop us a line.

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