Review: Hosted CRM Software - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Review: Hosted CRM Software

CRM hosts promise top-notch customer service plus better access for mobile salespeople. Of the six we examined, our Editor's Choice impressed us with its well-designed interface.

The most daunting part of testing was our first task--copying data from our Oracle database to the vendors' CRM servers. Each provided import tools for this--a Web-based wizard, an Excel template or an Excel toolset. All methods required that the data be output in an expected format. All the vendors support comma-separated files; SageCRM also imports data stored in Excel files, and NetSuite supports XML imports using smbXML, an extension of the popular XML language.

Once the file format was decided, we uploaded the input file with the tool provided, then defined the data fields as they corresponded to the target product. Most often, this involved selecting, from a drop-down list, the item that corresponded most closely to the field from our existing database. For instance, if the current data field being mapped was the last name in the contact file, we would select some iteration of "_lastname" or "LastName." Each of the products provided many more mappings than we needed and let us define our own field mappings if necessary.

Importing is the trickiest part of the migration process. Not only must you know how your data is defined, you must understand how it should be defined once it enters the CRM system. All the products we tested let us import the basics--contacts and leads--and thankfully, each vendor gave us extensive written documentation and examples. We liked the Excel spreadsheet templates NetSuite provided, which let us perform these mappings offline. NetSuite also stands out for the variety of items that can be imported, its ease of use and its support for XML.

Immediately after loading our data, we defined users and roles. RightNow and NetSuite provide the most detailed and useful tools for this task, offering comprehensive and easy-to-use screens with detailed help available throughout. However, all the products we tested allow for fine granularity when defining users and their roles, including the ability to set permissions on individual fields, if desired. This level of detail could get overwhelming--fortunately, each product offers standard roles, including system administrator, sales staff, customer support staff, manager and company officers, that we could use as is or as templates for defining custom roles. Each supported our B2B and B2C sales models well, offering customization tools to rename fields and objects as necessary to fit our business model.

End users will need access to the CRM system, but complexity will kill many of the efficiency gains realized by outsourcing. We found the tools provided to sales representatives--for example, dashboards--adequate across the board. The most usable front ends were those from Entellium, Microsoft and SageCRM; these more graphical systems do a good job of hiding CRM complexity behind well-designed and organized screens. The other products provide as much information, but we sometimes had to click through many screens or tabs to find it.

Performance was acceptable in all but one case--the RightNow product was much slower than the others. At first, we thought it might have been because of our test system, but even on a faster test machine, screen refreshes still lagged far behind those of rivals.

Each product integrates with Outlook using an installable client program that adds buttons and/or folders to the Outlook interface, and this is how we evaluated offline potential. Our Outlook testing checked support for offline work, such as creating tasks or e-mail messages, and later synchronization with the hosted CRM data. Also, this testing verified that the data synchronization was two-way--changes to the CRM data were reflected in our local copy of Outlook, and our local Outlook changes were applied to the CRM system. All other interfacing with the CRM software was through Web browsers. Microsoft's client was, unsurprisingly, particularly good at integrating CRM functions with Outlook, but the tools from SageCRM and SalesForce also performed well.

We then tested how easy (or not) it was to synchronize data between the remote client and our server. Each product successfully synchronized all modified, deleted and added records between the client and server, providing for two-way data integrity. In addition, each synchronization tool gave us the final word on how to handle conflicts, either beforehand by defining prioritization rules (for instance, all records from the client will replace duplicates on the server) or by prompting us as the synchronization occurred. None of the synchronization tools stood out; each performed the job as expected in a workmanlike fashion.

Next, we defined our workflow, aka the process pipeline, a series of tasks that each salesperson must perform when moving a customer through the CRM system. Workflows, which also can apply to customer-service processes, ensure that the necessary tasks are always performed for each customer and aid management in gathering metrics for evaluating sales. If, for instance, the workflow metrics indicate that customers stay in the Opportunity phase for a long time, you can perform a targeted analysis of that part of the process. Defining the workflow was easiest with SageCRM. A graphical interface, similar to a flowchart, made the process easy to understand and manipulate. The other products used text to define the workflow, and though these were usable, SageCRM makes a strong case that a graphical presentation of business processes goes far in simplifying complex tasks.

Reporting also was a key testing criteria. We wanted a decent number of predefined reports as well as customization capabilities--no matter how many slick, well-defined reports are provided, you will need to view your data in a way that nobody anticipated. RightNow CRM does an excellent job here--the tools we used to customize our reports were easy to use and detailed. The generated reports let us click on any graphic to view the underlying data, a very useful feature.

Related to reporting, forecasting is the ability to project sales, set quotas and track actual sales in relation to the quotas set. A popular management tool, forecasting is becoming increasingly useful to front-line sales staffers as a way to track their work and challenge themselves. Entellium, and RightNow provide the best forecasting tools of the products we tested.

CRM software is not only for selling to customers, but also for supporting employees. Each product we reviewed provides tools for case-management activity, for example, which might include a way to track incidents, some service solutions and a knowledge base for both internal use and external customer access. SageCRM, Entellium, RightNow and Microsoft came out slightly ahead here for their simplified interfaces and ease of use. The and NetSuite case-management tools did well, but they're difficult to use.

We also looked at how each vendor handles support. Live phone support during business hours, with Web knowledge bases and support systems available around the clock, were de rigueur, as was e-mail support within a reasonable time. However, Entellium stood out for its live chat feature that let us reach out and touch a customer-support representative 24/7. And, this support option is free, rather than an add-on, which is a welcome change from fee-based live support outside of business hours. To test support, we asked the rep about extensions to the software. His answer was immediate and helpful.

Finally, we questioned each vendor about its back-end setup. Each uses redundant systems for databases and Web servers. In addition, our privacy is protected with multiple layers of authorization required for access and strict need-to-know guidelines. Database backups are performed periodically and stored off-site in secure locations. For performance and maintenance reasons, data is not stored in encrypted form in the database. Backups are also not stored in encrypted format. The browser communication is encrypted using SSL. The vendors also assured us that they do everything possible to protect against Internet-based attacks, including traffic monitoring for DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, shielding against SQL injection attacks, preventing site hijacking and providing other countermeasures to promote safety, security and around-the-clock access to our data. Each vendor also performs in-house security audits, has third-party audits performed periodically and allows for customer audits on a case-by-case basis.

Once the final browser window had been closed and the last synchronization made, we chose Sage Software's SageCRM as our Editor's Choice. It stood out because of its well-designed interface and the consistency with which it scored in all categories. However, as the report card shows, the differences between these products are slight, and they're growing smaller each day as updates are rolled out.

Entellium's Pro-Activity tied for the second spot with Entellium matches Sage in ease of use and service, but its reporting tools are limited, as is its offline usage. provides some slick features, but we didn't think its overall feature set justified its high price. Fourth place went to NetSuite, whose data importing and management tools made importing and managing our data easy. However, as with Salesforce, the software's high price hurt its overall score.

RightNow took fifth place with exceptional reporting capabilities and extensive customization options, but requiring Internet Explorer for staff access and its slow performance brought its score down. Finally, Microsoft's product took last place in a very tight group of products, with outstanding Outlook integration and an affordable price as its strong points. However, limited forecasting and reporting customization, combined with a lack of browser support, may discourage some customers.

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