Keeping your customer contacts and account activities up to date has always been a critical component of a successful business. But consolidating customer data, your staff's activities and the information they collect can quickly become a nightmare when left to chance.
Many companies rely on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to keep things running smoothly. Still, not all SMBs can afford the license and subscription fees associated with CRM — or have the IT staff to support it. Two companies, FreeCRM.com and Salesforce.com offer free online CRM applications that can help you improve your company's overall efficiency without adversely affecting the bottom line.
In addition to the free versions, both companies offer fee-based applications, which, as you would expect, offer more features. Both freebies do a good job of organizing customer and prospective customer info alike, however only FreeCRM lets you share data with co-workers and coordinate your work efforts — at no charge. Salesforce.com charges $995 per year for a team edition that lets up to five people access the same information.
Here's the best part of online applications: no software to install. Just go to either company's Web site and create a user account. Enter your basic information including name, address, time zone and other contact information. Since FreeCRM supports multiple users, you can also create accounts for the rest of your team. Once that's done, you can assign administrative rights and select what data the group will share.
Both FreeCRM and Salesforce will let you import contact records from Microsoft Outlook — or any POP e-mail accounts. FreeCRM also lets you import company records that don't include specific contact information. This is helpful if you want to target various companies but don't know the appropriate contacts yet.
During the import process, you can define which data goes into what fields. Both systems let you create new fields for those you created in your old address system. For instance, if you recorded your contacts' vacation preferences in a spare field in Outlook, you can create a field in FreeCRM specifically for that information. The program also lets you create and manage e-mail campaigns.
Links on each of Salesforce.com's account pages execute news searches about the account. The links, sponsored by AltaVista (search), Hoover's Online (financial information) and Yahoo (maps), come in handy when working with a prospect or custom. You can record notes, schedule meetings, phone calls and send e-mail from the account page.
Both programs let you create e-mail templates and merge them with selected contacts. FreeCRM sends e-mail through your existing POP e-mail accounts. In Salesforce.com use the merge function and your copy of Outlook..
Although both sites offer free CRM, they have to support the sites somehow. FreeCRM places banner adds in the top section of each page. Salesforce.com puts features on the menu that aren't available in the free version, offering to let you try out the feature at no charge.
FreeCRM can maintain a list of products and prices to add to prospective customer's deal, whereas Salesforce.com lets you enter information about the service you're selling along with a sales dollar amount, then assigns the sale to a "practice area" rather than a particular product. If tracking specific product sales and activity is important to your business, FreeCRM may be better able to supply that kind of information.
FreeCRM's reporting system lets you modify existing reports by changing the date ranges and optionally displaying the results in graphs. You can save your versions for later use. Salesforce.com offers a wider selection of predefined reports that you can modify extensively and even export the results to Excel for analysis. If you need more complex analysis than what the standard reports offer, Salesforce.com is probably a better option.
Is Free CRM for You?
If you're looking to save money on CRM and you want more than one person to access the company data, FreeCRM is a good bet. If you'ree the only person who will access the information or you need in-depth analysis, go wit Salesforce.com. Remember, if you decide to switch later, Salesforce charges $995 for up to five users on the system. Unfortunately, changing your mind later also means transferring any activity records manually, though you would be able to export your contacts from one system and then import them into the other if necessary.
Scott Koegler has been in the technology field for more than 25 years, and has written a book about systems integration as well as hundreds of articles about computers, software, digital photography, and networking over the last 12 years. He has been an IT executive in industries as diverse as health care, printing, and custom apparel.
This article first appeared on SmallBusinessComputing.com.