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CRM for the Web CrowdThese three sales tracking tools promise Web 2.0 features. Are they worth it?
To a cynic's eye, all you need to create a Web 2.0 business is get the right design layout. The more serious definitions revolve around treating a Web application as though the Internet is part of the operating system. Another key differentiator is a site gathering collective intelligence, and the user's ownership of his data -- digg.com being a good example. Yet another part of the Web 2.0 definition is the expectation that data comes from various sources, such as integrated mapping elements, RSS feeds, and, say, a weather update box. (They call this a "mash-up," a buzzword even I didn't understand until last week.)
There's more, and those definitions are being worked out as we speak, but even a cynic recognizes that Web applications, like any other component in the computer industry, are bound to get better. If the pundits want to slap a Web 2.0 buzzword on the improvement, let 'em.
However, most of the well-known Web 2.0 sites, such as MySpace.com and digg.com, are inherently consumer-oriented. While a business site can use some Web 2.0 elements, such as location mapping features, few of the Web 2.0 developers are putting their attention on the needs of corporate users.
One exception is Customer Relationship Managment (CRM), long a standby of the sales and marketing crowd, and low-hanging fruit for a developer looking for a problem to solve. Once, applications like Goldmine were strictly desktop applications; now they've moved to the Web. It's a crowded market for any CRM vendor, so I gave a cursory look at three sites listed in the Web 2.0 category -- 24SevenOffice, Pushcrm, and Zohocrm -- to see if the substance matches the hype.
24SevenOffice has several levels of service, beginning with inexpensive ($9/month) access for teams of 1-3 users and ratcheting all the way up to a premium service (at about $87 per month) which includes accounting, scanner based accounting, groupware calendar, e-mail, CRM, project management, and document management, all of which are hosted on the company's servers. If you're in the U.S., the financial services may not be particularly useful, as they're based on UK accounting rules. (Its UK genesis shows in other ways, too; in addition to Mr, Mrs, Ms, and Doctor, a salutation can include Sir.)
The application itself is slick and has quite a few features, even in the least expensive option. For instance, you can make recurring appointments, track products, and send e-mail promotions to all or some of your contacts. It's clear that one could spend a lot of time exploring the 24SevenOffice's capabilities, and continue to find new things you can accomplish; that's the sign of a good application. It has rough edges (finding the reports module required a few minutes of dedicated exploration), but they appear to be easy for the company to file off. And, being a Web company, they can do it without action on your part.
On the downside, the company requires you use Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer 6.0 or greater to run 24SevenOffice, and they mean it. (So much for the ubiquity of the Web; any client as long as it's on Windows, I guess.) 24SevenOffice also uses a lot of pop-ups, and other application features that are common on desktop applications but are irritating with an online tool.
ZohoCRM, still formally in beta, isn't nearly as much like a desktop application; I don't think you'll forget that you're in a web browser. Okay, it has the required elements from other sites, if you want to count a world clock as a mash-up, but nothing here makes me think it's all new technology.
On the other hand, it's a nice CRM application, with plenty of features that don't make me wish for a printed manual to understand. Most of them are typical for CRM apps, such as lead management, "potential" management (does anyone other than sales people use terms like this?), and the ability to manage sales campaigns. I particularly like its dashboard, which lets you see what action items need attention. Its "Cases and Solutions" feature lets you track customer issues and solve them in one place; ZohoCRM's forecasting helps you estimate how much revenue you can generate in a quarter.
Its tiered pricing starts at free, for 1-3 users; from the fourth user on, it costs $12/month. That makes it easy to try out... and the software makes me interested in doing so.
Yet another variation on the Web CRM option list is PushCRM, which is the only one of these companies that uses the words Web 2.0 on its home page. (Is this something a user needs to know?) On the other hand, it's the most 2.0-ish of the three, with integrated maps (so you can see the location of your clients' offices), and a link to the weather at that location. This can be useful, but I find it gratuitous, especially since using those links opens yet another browser window. The cost is the depth of feature set; from my cursory glance, PushCRM doesn't have as much to offer a serious user as do the other applications.
Yet, it may be the most expensive. PushCRM costs $25 per month for a single user, $45 for a team of 1-3 people, and $500 for a team of 50.
Are these three sites really likely to kill off Goldmine, SalesForce.com, or SageCRM? So far, the product depth doesn't appear to rival the competition, and the Web 2.0ishness isn't so compelling that it offers unique benefits. But these are new companies, still burning up VC money. In six months, the battleground may look a lot different.
Esther Schindler has been writing about technology professionally since 1992, and her byline has appeared in dozens of IT publications. She's optimized compilers, owned a computer store, taught corporate training classes, moderated online communities, run computer user groups, and, in her spare time, written a few books. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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