Free CRM Solutions Can Brighten Up a Recession

Customer Relationship Management
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With budgets tight, anything free that can materially improve business efficiency is a sure winner.


The economy is pressuring people in odd ways and seems to be making some people more self-centered. So when you run across a business person who takes the opposite tack and makes a deliberate gesture of generosity--whether or not it costs them anything--you take note and smile and perhaps listen to what they have to say. I received such a gesture in an email today in the form of someone who was recommending to his clients that they try a free CRM solution for which he provided the link.


It was a nice gesture on the part of the business owner, an entrepreneur who is dedicated to marketing small businesses. The message came through: he is actively thinking about his clients' welfare and offering them something tangible that can improve their business operations. The fact that it is free software doesn't matter since most people didn't know about it and weren't using it.


Hopefully, all of the MC Press readers are familiar with the term CRM, or customer relationship management, as it applies to software, but ironically, many people aren't, according to one survey. CRM vendor Avidian Technologies, maker of Prophet CRM software, took a survey and discovered that some 70 percent of SMBs are unfamiliar with the term "customer relationship management." Only 47 percent reported ever hearing the term.


Given that CRM solutions were, until this year, on a steady growth path for the past four or five straight years, it's a wonder that so few people know what they are. About a third of those who are familiar with CRM associate it with Microsoft Outlook and QuickBooks, and the majority of those want CRM data stored within Outlook. Two of the top five CRM vendors, and Microsoft, experienced large revenue jumps in CRM solutions in 2008.'s revenues rose by more than 42 percent over those in 2007, and Microsoft's CRM revenue jumped 75 percent over the prior year. Much of this can be attributed to the companies' investments in technologies to support customer retention, analytics, and online cloud (or SaaS) solutions.


Another finding of the study is that the companies who have implemented CRM solutions have had results that exceeded their expectations. These include increased efficiency when working with customers, increased sales, better business insight, and increased visibility into future sales (the sales pipeline). Most SMB managers are interested in ease of use and a solution that requires little support. They also want the ability to customize the solution to match how they approach the sales routine.


As budgets tighten with the recession dragging on, it may be that organizations will slow down their adoption of CRM solutions, probably the worst decision they could make. For smaller businesses, which must try harder to win and keep customers, CRM software can be vital. In today's economic climate, the need to attract and maintain customers is more important than ever. CRM solutions can save SMBs time entering data, but it can also track interactions with customers to better understand their buying habits.


In recognition of the extreme budgetary forces we realize IT managers are under these days, and in the spirit of expressing our feelings of concern, we will pass along the names of several very good free CRM solutions that IT can deploy at no cost.


At the top of our list is Zoho CRM, which is free for three users, but beyond that you have to cough up either $12 per user per month or $25 per user per month, depending on whether you opt for the professional or enterprise edition. This is an online service that has a basket of modules and the ability to integrate with existing applications through a set of APIs. Just a few of the many modules include security, workflow, Webforms, plug-ins, sales force automation, marketing automation, dedicated customer support, activities and calendar, product customization, inventory management, reports and dashboards, and file storage. Zoho API service is available for all editions.


The enterprise edition of Zoho CRM is for managing multi-level organizations. It supports complex data-sharing permissions with security and offers advanced data administration tools and greater file storage.


The professional edition is a sales automation solution for small business that is suitable for a growing company. It streamlines sales activities and provides maximum flexibility for ease in managing customers while integrating into sales and marketing operations.


The free edition is an easy-to-use, hosted, full-featured, on-demand CRM solution for entrepreneurs and startups. It improves tracking prospects, contacts, accounts, and business opportunities and can help daily organizational management.


FreeCRM is free for single users, but even for more people it is still one of the best values for the money among hosted CRM solution vendors and compares favorably with larger and more expensive vendors, such as Salesforce.


SalesForce CRM is among the best-known CRM solutions today in the SMB space. The company used to offer a free personal edition, but alas, now offers only a 30-day free trial. Different editions--from the five-user group edition to the unlimited edition--range in price from $9 per user per month up to $250 per user per month.


Mx-Contact is an Outlook-based CRM solution that is fully scalable to match a company's growth curve. This is a CRM, contact management, and sales automation package that runs inside Outlook. The personal edition of Mx-Contact is free, but there are six separate editions to meet a variety of needs.


EssentialPIM offers a free contact manager that includes a scheduler, a contact manager, and an outliner. The company also offers a for-pay Pro version.


Keepm is a free Web-based contact management tool for that allows you to share and manage an unlimited number of contacts.


Hopefully, the free CRM solutions I've listed will give anyone not already using CRM the confidence to try it during a time when you can't just throw money at something and then have people not use it. By using the free edition, you can perhaps evaluate whether the for-pay version is worth the investment after all.