Put Cloud CRM to Work

James A. Martin
PC World
Sunday, April 18, 2010; 12:19 AM

No matter how hard you work, you can't succeed in the small-business world if you don't put your customers first. But making the most of customer relationships isn't easy. Keeping your clientele engaged and coming back for more requires flexibility, a great memory, and creative thinking.

Today, customer relationship management (CRM) software is a must-have for companies that want to keep in touch with their clients. And for very small companies, the most compelling CRM products live in the cloud.

Here's how to select the right online CRM tools for your business, and how to put them to work.

Salesforce.com

By now, most Web-savvy small-business owners have at least heard of Salesforce.com. Founded in 1999, the company was a pioneer in offering a CRM system in the cloud for small and midsize businesses; and today it is the recognized leader among cloud CRM systems. Because plenty of third-party cloud services integrate with Salesforce.com, users have access to more options and features. And Salesforce.com offers tools for businesses of all sizes. For example, the Salesforce Contact Manager service costs just $5 per month per user.

But Salesforce.com is by no means the only cloud CRM tool for small businesses. In fact, the market is bursting with interesting choices. Some are free or extremely inexpensive. Others, so-called ?social CRM' tools, add social media components, making it easier to follow your customers' activities, interests and needs online. And a few CRM systems now offer mobile versions, so you can access customer data on the go.

(For more about the pros and cons of cloud computing in general, read "Should You Move Your Small Business to the Cloud?")

Free and Inexpensive Cloud CRM Systems

If you've never tried a CRM system before, your best bet is begin by experimenting with a free or low-cost cloud tool, says James E. Gaskin, a small-business technology consultant. "Play around with them for a while to find out what you like and don't like. Then, when you're ready, you can start adding more users and data to the system or switch to another one, if the free tool doesn't meet your needs."

Among the free or low-cost cloud CRM services available are these:

offers many CRM features, and it integrates with the Zoho suite of cloud applications, including e-mail and Web conferencing apps. Like most Zoho apps, Zoho CRM is free--albeit in a limited version, and for no more than three users. After that, the service costs a minimum of $12 per user per month.

? is, no surprise, a free cloud CRM tool that supports up to five users and up to 10MB of storage (which isn't a huge amount). Named one of PCWorld's 15 best free services for businesses a few years back, Free CRM takes some time to set up and learn, but it offers straightforward tracking of prospects, sales forecasting, and other features. The Professional Editions ($15 per user per month and up) provide live support, unlimited data storage, and other features.

and are free, open-source CRM applications that include some cloud components. Both have active development communities, meaning that third parties can add functionality and flexibility to the tools. SugarCRM is available in Professional ($360) and Enterprise ($600) editions with enhanced feature sets.

The Latest Option: Social CRM

"Social CRM is a hot issue these days," says William Band, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and a specialist in CRM strategy and technology.


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