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New BSF Business CardsOver the past couple of days, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to businesses large and small, in virtually every industry from non-profit rescue missions to Fortune 500 companies about their digital marketing, and one of the greatest consistent gaps I’ve seen is that few are using a CRM, or customer relationship management system.

For those who aren’t familiar, a CRM is a piece of software that does pretty much what its name says it does: helps you manage customer relationships. They’re used to stay in touch with customers, look for business-generating opportunities, stay on top of opportunities you’ve created, prevent customer loss by staying on top of support and service issues, and many other things.

In this day and age, when information flows freely and data capture requires the advanced skills of copy and paste, there’s no excuse not to use a CRM for your business. Price isn’t an issue – there are free and low cost systems out there that offer 80%-90% of the functionality of the top end systems. Here are a few options and some of the tradeoffs:

Salesforce.com. Salesforce is the 800 pound gorilla in the world of CRM, and for good reason. It offers an incredible amount of power, but that power comes at a price. Salesforce isn’t cheap (as much as $150/user/month), and it’s a bear to set up well. Out of the box, it’s okay, but it requires extensive configuration and expertise to make it sing. If you do set it up well, however, you will find that Salesforce can make a huge improvement in your business profitability. We use it at Blue Sky Factory email marketing and it’s amazing.

Zoho CRM. Zoho is the small business CRM of choice for me. I set it up for the Boston Martial Arts Center and I like to say it’s 80% of Salesforce at 5% of the price, around $12/user/month. Zoho requires configuration time too, but integration with other services is relatively painless. For the small business, Zoho is probably the best choice.

Sugar CRM. Sugar is an open-source Salesforce clone that is usually about 1-2 releases behind Salesforce. It’s financially free, but the free comes at a hefty price: not only do you need to be an expert in configuring a Salesforce-like web service, you also need to be or have a very competent developer & systems administrator to get it even installed on a server. If you have the skills but not the cash, Sugar is a great solution. I set several up in the past, and it’s not fun but it does work. If you lack the skills, pay the money for a hosted service like Salesforce or Zoho.

Are there other CRM solutions out there? Sure there are. These are the three I’ve had direct experience with, setting them up and configuring them to make them work.

No matter what CRM you choose, you will be doing a lot of configuration time to make it conform to how your business does business. This is a good thing, because in the process of setting up a CRM, you’ll also be confronted with the gaps where your organization does not conform to best practices, like following up on sales opportunities rigorously. It’s that process which will help you become a better-functioning business.

Are you using a CRM? If not, why not?

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