The CRM Conundrum

So, you finally realized you need a CRM solution? Well, your decisions are just beginning. A range of hosted and on-premise choices vie for your dollars. Here's what you need to know to make an informed choice.
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Picking a CRM (customer relationship management) application is one of the biggest technology decisions you'll make for your growing company. When you consider the money to purchase it, the time to train your employees, and the ongoing manpower to keep the data it contains current, a CRM solution adds up to a huge investment. Choosing the right system for your business is crucial.

The good news: You have an array of choices available. The bad news: It's a bewildering array — from traditional "on-premise" software that you load on each employee's PC to "hosted" solutions that reside at an application service provider (ASP) that your employees access via the Web.

Ready for CRM at All?

The first step, or course, is recognizing when you are ready for a full-blown CRM solution, be it on-premise or hosted. A CRM app acts as a central repository for all your company's customer data — contacts, sales history, invoices, payment history, and so on. It also lets you keep tabs on prospective customers, as well as sales and marketing promotions and materials. Best of all, you can run reports that show you how well each salesperson is performing, by tracking the number of leads generated, the number of deals pending, those completed, revenue totals, and more. More advanced CRM solutions also interface with back-office apps such as accounting, so that you have one point of entry for many of your vital business activities.

Smaller shops (typically five employees or fewer) usually get by with some combination of ad-hoc tools, be it Excel spreadsheets with sales forecasts, an Outlook database for client information, or Post-it notes for leads and follow-up tasks. Not ideal, but the price is right. Eventually, though, you are going to outgrow this system.

So how do you know when you're ready for something more? "If there are things you can do for your customers that you can't accomplish today, or things you could do better, you're ready for CRM," says Larry Ritter, vice-president of ACT product management for Sage Software. He lists five questions a business owner should ask him or herself when making the should-I-or-shouldn't-I decision:

  • Do I have a good handle on my sales funnel and a way to quickly view all my pending opportunities?

  • Can I easily revisit customer contacts and interactions to see what has transpired to date and the current status of any given deal (or complaint)?

  • Do I have the ability to identify opportunities that my installed base of customers and new prospects might be interested in, and can I carry out customized outreach to let them know?

  • Do I have a way to standardize reports from my team?

  • Can I easily put my finger on what my best salesperson does versus my least-productive salesperson?

"If these items strike a chord, you're ready for a CRM system," says Ritter.

But now it gets tricky: You have to decide between an on-premise solution (that is, software you buy) or a hosted solution. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Hosted CRM: Pros and Cons

If you have little or no computer talent in-house, a hosted solution makes more sense for you. Sheryl Kingstone, a director at Boston-based research and consultancy firm The Yankee Group, agrees. "The complexity of on-premise software — the updates and keeping it running — can overwhelm a small business," she says. With a hosted service, the provider updates and maintains the system invisibly (for the most part).

Secondly, if CRM is still an experiment for you, then a hosted service is the least expensive, most painless way for you to give it a try, since you won't be buying an expensive application and getting it running company-wide. If you decide it's not for you, you can simply cancel (be sure to check the terms of your contract, of course, to see if there's a minimum commitment).

But a hosted solution has its downsides. For starters, there's the monthly cost. With on-premise software, you buy it once and use it for typically two to three years (or forever, if you so choose), until a compelling new version comes along to make you want to upgrade. But with a hosted solution, you are paying on a per-user, per-month basis. Over the course of a year – or two or three – your out-of-pocket expense for the service will be several times what a comparable on-premise CRM app would have cost.

Also, committing to an hosted service provider means that your valuable business data resides with them, usually in a proprietary format. If you decide to sever your relationship with your ASP, they will certainly surrender your data to you — but it might be in a database format that you can't work with without their application.

And then there are the questions of uptime and security. Early in 2006, hosted-CRM powerhouse Salesforce.com had an unexpected outage that left scores of businesses without access to the system. And some business owners aren't comfortable with having their customer information stored off-site on someone else's servers.

But Yankee Group's Kingstone thinks these are not truly strikes against the hosted model. "There are security and uptime concerns either way, whether the app is on-premise or hosted," she says. Laptops get stolen, taking your on-premise CRM data with them. And an on-premise app can crash just as easily as a hosted service.

On-Premise CRM: Pros and Cons

As we noted earlier, the biggest advantage to an on-premise CRM app is the cost savings. ACT Premium, for example, costs $399 for a perpetual license, whereas a hosted CRM suite could easily run $70 per user, per month.

Another advantage is access: With a hosted solution, your employees need Web access in order to connect to the ASP. With an on-premise solution, the software is on their local PC, so they can continue to work even when off-line (such as on a plane), assuming that PC is a notebook. Of course, there is a tradeoff — working with a CRM remotely poses little problems for a Web-based CRM, while it may be difficult or even impossible to do the same when the on-premise CRM is tied to a computer (or computers) back at the local office.

Also, with an on-premise solution you have control over your data, and you can often implement customizations (the most popular CRM apps have a range of utilities written for them by third-party developers) that wouldn't be possible with a one-size-fits-all hosted app.

In the minus column, with an on-premise CRM app, you are responsible for keeping the system up and running — and backed up should disaster strike. And should a relationship go sour with an employee, they can walk away with all your business and customer information. With a hosted solution, you can simply turn off their access should the need arise.


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