CRM Made Simple

January 1, 2007

Few pieces of tech jargon are as unwieldy as CRM–customer relationship management. But what CRM systems do is actually quite simple. A CRM system is like an electronic Rolodex souped up so that every entry yields not only a phone number but your entire business history with that customer. The systems also can scan data to spot trends, enabling you to refine your sales, marketing, and customer service efforts. Such systems traditionally have been expensive and complicated, challenging the skills of even the smartest techies. But that’s changing. Forrester Research (NASDAQ:FORR) projects that in 2007, companies with fewer than 100 employees will account for more than a third of the CRM market. In other words, systems are no longer a luxury; increasingly, you need one if you’re going to compete. Here’s what the major vendors are offering.

Best for… Getting it all in one place


What it is: NetSuite provides a collection of software tools to manage nearly everything a business does, from accounting and payroll to e-commerce and publishing. CRM is one of the firm’s signature offerings. Those tools, which handle sales, marketing, and customer support, can be purchased separately from, say, accounting tools. But the company’s strong suit is the breadth of its software operations and its ability to integrate all of those functions into a single system.

What’s cool: NetSuite is best known for its easy-to-use dashboard interface. Its CRM features make it easy for marketers to monitor and fine-tune their search-engine marketing efforts with a tool that tracks keywords and leads, from click to sale. A new feature called SuiteFlex allows people to tailor the software to specific industries, like retailing or maintenance. NetSuite Small Business is geared specifically toward companies with 20 or fewer employees.

Drawbacks: NetSuite’s free e-mail support can take up to a week to respond to questions, so you may need to pay for a support plan.

Price: $499 per month, plus $99 per user per month

Best for… Easing the learning curve

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0

What it is: The software giant’s product for sales, support, and marketing. It’s a licensed product that you install on your own servers rather than access on the Web.

What’s cool: Dynamics CRM appears as a folder in Outlook, and for many users it will seem like it’s another part of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Office. That means staffers will need less training–often the bane of CRM implementation. The system is especially good at managing contacts and creating account information.

Drawbacks: Microsoft is new to CRM and is still working to catch up to its rivals. For instance, there is not yet a sales-commission management tool.

Price: The Small Business Edition, designed for companies with fewer than 50 employees, runs $440 to $499 per user and $528 to $599 per server. The Professional edition costs $622 to $880 per user and $1,244 to $1,761 per server. Both versions include a year of support and maintenance.

Best for… Revving up the sales team

What it is: is the original hosted CRM tool. Over the years, it has expanded from sales force automation to handle customer service, marketing, analytics, and more.

What’s cool: It’s flexible. The software’s latest version lets you customize the way data appears on your screen. Another new feature lets you slide your mouse over a contact name and bring up a pop-up screen filled with data such as current deals in process and service call status. The company also has established the AppExchange, a directory of more than 400 applications that integrate with and extend the capabilities of (as well as other applications).

Drawbacks: remains best at what its name implies: managing sales. It’s not as good at things like customer support and marketing.

Price: The Team Edition (maximum of five users) starts at $995 a year. The Unlimited Edition starts at $195 per user per month.

Best for… Coddling your customers


What it is: RightNow started out as a Web-based customer service application, but has added marketing and sales tools, becoming a full-fledged CRM application. The company’s strong focus on support means it has added interactive voice response and analytics, and also has developed its own professional services team to help businesses figure out how best to use its products.

What’s cool: A tool that lets you automate responses to customer inquiries, no matter where they come from–the Web, e-mail, or telephone. Knowledge management tools keep your entire staff up to date on what’s going on with all of your customers; in other words, you’ll know not to make a sales call to a client who just spent an hour screaming at a customer service rep.

Drawbacks: RightNow’s customer base is now more than 50 percent large companies, and its software really isn’t meant for companies with less than $50 million in sales. It can be difficult for small firms, with small IT departments, to manage.

Price: Starts at $52 per user per month (two-year commitment required)

Best for… Exploring the possibilities


What it is: A Web-based library of more than 100 open-source CRM products that visitors can sample and download for free. The site is sponsored by SugarCRM, a leading open-source CRM provider (see “Something for Nothing,” November 2006).

What’s cool: The exchange is a perfect way for CRM shoppers to get a sense of the range of free, open-source products available. Among the offerings: reporting tools to analyze customer data; contact tracking software; and tools to boost the efficiency of phone-based customer service operations.

Drawbacks: Because it’s stocked exclusively with open-source products, the pickings can be thin in some categories; only one application is available, for example, in list management. Implementing the software could require some in-house technical expertise.

Price: Free

Best for… Following the leader

Oracle’s Siebel CRM On Demand

What it is: Siebel helped invent CRM software, and is the largest company in the market today. (Last January, it was acquired by Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), which also owns CRM firms PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards.)

What’s cool: Siebel systems have great customer service tools, including a feature that automatically routes calls to the support person with the most appropriate skills, rather than just the next one in line. Siebel CRM On Demand also has strong data-reporting capabilities that make it easier to track sales performance.

Drawbacks: On Demand lacks some of the features common in other applications, such as real-time alerts to let sales and support staff respond immediately when a prospect has a question.

Price: $70 per user per month



July 21, 2006

If you’re a book lover and not too secretive, visit as fast as you can.

Keeps a convenient online catalog of book collections. Lets you browse other collections. Connects you with other book lovers. Gives book recommendations.

You can’t expose your online book catalog solely to specific friends and family—it’s either completely private or completely public.


Notes: Free for up to 200 cataloged books; for more than 200 books, shell out either $10 per year or $25 for a lifetime membership.


LibraryThing is a social network of bibliophiles. That’s right. Bibliophiles. Despite its reputation as a frivolous fad among teenagers and twentysomethings, online social networking has the power to serve almost anyone—including people with a passion for books.

Created by Chicagoan Tim Spaulding, this grass-roots site follows in the footsteps of Flickr and Just as Flickr built an online community around digital photos and fashioned a similar social network around browser “favorites,” LibraryThing connects people through their book collections.

To date, more than 39,000 people have cataloged their personal book collections on the site, posting information about more than 2.8 million titles. Some use it to keep tabs on their vast home libraries. Others are merely interested in, well, showing off. But first and foremost it puts you in touch with people who share your tastes. You can browse each other’s collections, trade recommendations, and even forge relationships. It isn’t called social networking for nothing.

At the very least, you should spend a few minutes perusing this vast catalog of book titles. Search on your favorite authors—just to see how popular they are. Track down reviews people have posted about your favorite novels. Find out what else they’re reading. Check out the “Zeitgeist” page, where you’ll find the top 25 most popular titles, the top 75 authors, and more.

I particularly enjoy browsing via “tags.” As with Flickr and, LibraryThing encourages its users to tag their books with keywords, a process that essentially sorts titles into ad hoc subcategories. Tags associated with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince include “adventure,” “british,” and “children,” and if you click on “adventure,” you’ll find a list of other titles carrying the same tag. The Zeitgeist page includes a list of the 75 most popular tags, letting you peruse everything from “historical fiction” to “young adult” books. I could spend hours on the Zeitgeist page alone.

Of course, LibraryThing is even more useful if you post your book collection, and the process is wonderfully easy. Once you key in a username and password—nothing more—you can immediately start cataloging. Simply enter a title or an author, and the site searches and major library sites for matching books. Then, with another click, you can add a book to your list. Within 15 seconds of first visiting LibraryThing, I’d added the first three titles to my catalog. If you’ve got a rare or unusual book that LibraryThing can’t find, you can add it manually.

Assuming the book is found (and most will be), each time you add a book, LibraryThing automatically posts an image of its front cover, its date of publication, its ISBN (International Standard Book Number), a list of other editions, and even where you can buy new copies online. If you like, you can add other information, including tags, a star rating, a Dewey decimal number, the date you acquired the book, the day you started reading, and the date you finished. You can add comments. You even can post a review.

At the very least, this gives you a detailed record of your personal library. That’s a good thing to have on hand, whether you’re giving book recommendations to a friend or trying to remember if there’s a particular title buried somewhere in your collection. I recently bought a copy of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, not realizing I already owned it. That’s a common problem among big book collectors, and LibraryThing solves it. The site even lets you browse your titles using only their cover images, as if each was propped up on a vast bookshelf.

Better still, posting your collection proves to be an even easier way to leverage that vast LibraryThing network. The site automatically generates book recommendations based on the titles you own. It gives you a list of other users who own the same books. Perhaps my favorite thing about LibraryThing is that you can track down someone who shares your tastes and request a direct recommendation or ask them if a book you’re thinking of buying is any good. You can easily trade comments with users, and you may even develop running relationships. Why not meet up with someone and trade books? Spaulding claims his brother uses the site to meet women.

Don’t want others to see your book collection? No problem. If you like, you can make your catalog completely private. Unfortunately, you can’t expose your collection to specified individuals. I’m hoping this semiprivate option will be added in the future.

Users aren’t afforded a full-fledged Web presence on LibraryThing—you can’t really customize the look and feel of your profile, for instance—but the site does let you sign up for RSS feeds that alert you to newly added books and reviews. How much does it cost? You can browse for free, and you can post up to 200 books for free. Beyond that, you have to pay either $10 for a yearly membership or $25 for a lifetime account.

Yes, LibraryThing has much the same appeal as Gen Y sites like MySpace and FaceBook. In letting you post your book collection for all the world to see, it’s a means of connecting with other people—and a way of feeding your vanity. If you’re not into books, you may not see it that way, but trust me, book lovers are very vain when it comes to their books. On the other hand, there’s a more civilized side to LibraryThing: Not only do you have the option to keep your collection private, but the site also has a very practical purpose of providing book recommendations. For a book lover, nothing’s more practical than that.