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Summary:

Once you’ve figured out how to store your contact database, now you have to manage it effectively. Can you open your address book right now and pull up a name of a client, co-worker or vendor and at a glance see a record of every communication […]

Once you’ve figured out how to store your contact database, now you have to manage it effectively. Can you open your address book right now and pull up a name of a client, co-worker or vendor and at a glance see a record of every communication you’ve had with that person, including phone calls? Do you remember weeks later that you left a message that was never returned? Do you know whether or not you owe that person a phone call or note? Do you have a record of the fact that you sent them a package of materials last month? Do you link your business contacts together, so you can visually map relationships between them?

If you want to see and manage your entire history with a contact, then you are looking for a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) contact solution. Going beyond an address book or personal organizer, a CRM allows you and your team to track, manage and analyze that contact through their entire life with your business. From first meeting, to the end of the project and on to the next one.

Until recently, CRM software was only for large corporations with matching technology budgets and dedicated staff and server hardware. Now there are hosted solutions that are more accessible for smaller teams and individuals. Let’s look at some examples…

Salesforce screenshotSalesforce.com is the one in this category that most peopple have heard about. Currently boasting around 27,000 customers and over 500,000 users, Salesforce’s strength is in its flexibility. It can be as complex or as simple as you configure it to be. It has a robust API and an active developer and user community. While it can be extremely expensive, there are options that are approachable for smaller groups. Our small nonprofit uses Salesforce as the hub of all our interactions with our constituency. We are spread out all over the country, and Salesforce allows us to see at a glance all communications anyone in our organization has had with any given person or organization. Powerful analytics let us measure how we’re doing. Salesforce has a generous foundation which provides a free 10-user license to qualified nonprofits, which is the only way we could afford the full-featured Enterprise Edition we are using. If you’re not a nonprofit, Salesforce offers a free limited-feature Personal Edition for a single user. The free edition does contain the contact manager, you’re just missing a lot of the sales-driven features such as lead conversion and opportunity forecasting that comes with the more expensive packages. Small teams should consider Salesforce Team Edition, which currently costs $700 per year for 5 users.

SugarCRM is interesting because it’s Open Source commercial software. It’s free to download and install yourself, or you can pay for a hosted solution beginning at $40/month. Like Salesforce.com, SugarCRM provides a 360 degree view of every aspect of your interaction with the people in your professional life, and it’s designed for the ultimate goal of closing a deal.

SugarCRM

If you don’t need to closely track financial interactions with your contacts, then take a look at a hosted intranet. No need for an Exchange Server or the buggy Outlook Business Contact Mananger. A strong choice in this category is WebEx WebOffice (formerly Intranets.com). This is the solution our organization used before Salesforce. WebOffice gives you group calendars and task sharing, databases, and an activity log of interactions with your contacts. Pricing starts at $60 per month for 5 users.

Norado Corporation offers Solve360, reasonably priced at $20 per month for the first user with $10 per user after that. Solve360 is a mix between a CRM and a hosted intranet, offering an attractive contact history interface plus shared calendars, tasks and email. A one-click pre-populated demo lets you poke around without commitment.

Solve360

Finally, a new offering in this space is BigContacts, currently in beta. Pricing is scaled, starting with a free version that allows up to 3 users to manage 500 contacts on the same account, going up to a Pro edition that allows 10 users to share 25,000 contacts. All editions are currently free until the end of March 2007.

BigContacts logo

BigContacts was a pleasant surprise. You can import your existing contacts in a .csv file. As a test, I exported some contacts from Outlook 2003 which should have meant a nasty import experience. BigContacts handled it well. As you click boxes to map fields, the already-selected fields are greyed out. Made the process much easier.

There’s “sounds like” intelligence when you search for contacts, so a search for “Jayne Doe” will find “Jane Doe.” The Ajax contact browser makes filtering contacts easy to select items such as “all contacts with last names that begin with ‘B’ who work for the ‘Crane Company’.” Once you have the contact record up, the interface to oversee your history of interaction with that person is clear and well laid out, if not 100% polished yet.

BigContacts

Calendars, tasks and file uploads are included only as they relate to the contact, so don’t expect to use BigContacts as your central PIM. You can only save data back to Outlook, and one record at a time. There does not appear to be any way to do a 2-way sync with any email or calendar applications, which is a weakness at this point. While it is helpful that you can move data in and out one-way, if a contact’s email address changes in your email client you have to manually make the change in BigContacts. Also, I did not see a way of exporting all contacts at once. Backing up data off the BigContact site will be a challenge until this is addressed. There is a mobile edition for viewing in an HTML-capable phone/PDA browser.

Bottom line: When it comes to CRM contact management, the web worker isn’t left begging for table scraps from the Enterprise big guns. There are free demos available…give it a go, and never drop the ball on a contact again.

  1. Another solid service out there is OfficeGateway. Well priced, shared calendar, import/export features for contacts and iCal, CRM, Sales forecasting, invoicing and document management. I think they still have a free trial. We use it with our 4 person organization.

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  2. Thanks for the mention of Big Contacts! We really value what you have said and will take it to heart. To answer two of the issues raised in the article, you can do a full export of all of your data with ‘View Reports’. That’s not quite obvious enough, so we will add a new link for ‘Data Export’. Also, full sync with Outlook, Palm and Blackberry is about to be deployed within the next month – so stay tuned!

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  3. Thanks for the update, Paul. Yes, definitely move the export out of “View Reports.” I didn’t even think to look there.

    Your application is one of the first CRMs that I’ve seen that is focused squarely on the contacts and is aimed entirely at the smaller workgroup, rather than an enterprise app that is crippled down. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Nice article, I like vTiger CRM too, you might wanna check it out, it’s pretty nice :)

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  5. While it’s not a holistic solution, don’t overlook Campaign Monitor (www.campaignmonitor.com) for email sign up, allowing additional custom fields, and newsletter blasts.

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  6. 37 signals is supposed to have a CRM in the works called “Sunrise”. i have no idea when we will get a look at it though.

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  7. Shirster: Thanks, that is a good one! There are so many CRMs out there, it would be impossible to list them all in one article. vTiger appears similar to SugarCRM, without the hosted/commercial layer on top. For both, you have to have some tech skills and a good server to host it on. I was primarily looking at CRMs that required minimal technical maintenance.

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  8. [...] I didn’t think it would be interesting to talk about BigContacts in isolation, so instead I prepared a post about hosted CRM contact management for us little folks, looking at Salesforce.com (duh!), [...]

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  9. Great article. I’m a big fan of CRM for personal use. In fact, I’ve written a couple articles on my site about using SugarCRM to help with a job search – the account and opportunity tracking features make it much more capable than basic contact managers. For those considering SugarCRM, you may wish to look at the VMWare appliance version of SugarCRM, which can make it very fast to get up and running. This is the installation I described in my articles.
    SugarCRM for Job Search Management – Part 1

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  10. That was a really good review. It was easy for me to read and I’m not that up-to-date with the programs out there. Good blog.

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