Choosing the Right Database & CRM

Jan 3, 2014

Choosing the Right Database & CRM

It seems like every business organization I’ve worked with in the past couple of years is after the same thing: “the” database. From nonprofits and tech startups to small businesses and marketing companies – everyone wants a system to keep track of their information and interact with it in their own unique way.  Some want task management, some want sales tracking and CRM (Customer Relationship Management), others are after email list integration and customer service tools.

They want all this in addition to a regular old database. You know, one that has fields that you can customize and reports that you can run. Well,  to make those decisions even more difficult, the tech world has responded with dozens of apps, systems, and software to cash in on this very real business need.  So how do you decide and where do you start?

Some things we all want are standard: we definitely know that we need them to be cloud-based, so anyone can work from anywhere.  We also want them to play well with other systems that we all use, from Google Apps integration to working well with whatever email software we might have.

Usually the needs are two- or three-fold: The first thing people want is a customer database:  A simple way to have all their customers, partners and vendors in one place at a glance. The second usually concerns project and task management, and a third prominent need is a CRM which follows things like sales leads through a cycle.  Some businesses even want to be directly involved with their customers along the way, either through live support, or some sort of engaged customer service.

Below are a handful of the most well used and promising up-and-comers and outliers which could help solve your database/CRM needs.

The behemoth in the room, Salesforce was originally designed as pure CRM and has grown to encompass many other options.  You can customize everything from reports to data fields and they have an AppExchange with over 1,000 different apps to add almost any functionality you want.  A big minus is that all these options get very overwhelming.
Pros: It’s ubiquitous and all encompassing. Can scale to whatever needs a business might have.
Cons:  It may be more then you need, has quite a learning curve, and can get expensive.

Zoho offers nearly every add-on imaginable and gets you pretty far along for free or very low cost. Almost like a lighter-weight Salesforce clone, the Zoho CRM is robust and fairly user friendly. They also offer more than two-dozen business apps add-ons that work together:  everything from accounting software and bug tracking to Live Support features. You can also add these other options a la carte which means you only pay for what you want.
Pros: Fairly Affordable, Quick to set up. Many different add-ons.
Cons:  Doesn’t play well with some non-Zoho applications. Reports don’t customize well. And with so many products working it can be time consuming.

Insightly is a startup with a CRM and integrated project/task management combined. With Insightly you can easily manage tasks, projects, and events and tie them together with your contacts, organizations, and business.  It also has some great task automation features and wonderful Gmail gadget that allows you to save emails to almost anything in the database.
Pros: Robust and easy to use out of the box, and the free plan is a great starter to see if you like it.
Cons: Lacking some customization options. No time tracking.

This unique take on CRM and project management is by Citrix, better known for their GoToMeeting software. With Podio, you start by creating a base database/CRM and then add one of the hundreds of their free business apps that you can customize or build from scratch to create your ideal cloud-based workflow.  You can even solve things like collaboration, project management, recruiting and events.
Pros: Highly customizable. Free for up to 5 employees.
Cons: Can take time and backend knowhow to get setup.
Going at CRM and databases from yet another angle, allows you to “Communicate personally with every single customer.” Intercom deals with user behavior and offers you customized communication through highly segmented multiple channels. This CRM has the great features of being able to reach out to your customers quickly and easily.
Pros: If customer service is your number one priority, this is a great option.
Cons: May not be “databasey” enough for some companies.

Mixpanel is like Google Analytics on steroids with a dash of Salesforce thrown in for good measure. Though mostly used to visualize funnels of web and app data, Mixpanel enables you to tie that data to your users to see who they are and what they have done on your app or website.   You can even track the lifetime value of a customer. It also allows you to set up emails or see groups of users with similar activity profiles, improving your product by following along as people experience it.
Pros: Great for hands on, tech savvy companies who love data.
Cons: Expensive, and may be too techie for more traditional or larger companies.

Of course these are just a few of the many options out there. I’ve also heard good things about the Basecamp and Highrise systems from the 37 Signals folks, and I had experience with Solve360 from Norada, which integrates well with Google apps.  I also have had a chance to work with Asana and – which are two very handy task management tools. However, if you’re after anything beyond sharing where you are in a project with others in a team, these two tools are not the droids you’re looking for.

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