I have been a user of several CRM/SFA applications over the years. I was recently tasked by a client to evaluate the universe of applications available, develop a comparison with a short list, and make a recommendation.
I quickly discovered there are numerous variables to consider when taking on such an endeavor. I also determined that making some early decisions that are independent of the product choice helps reduce the amount of time you will need to invest.
Preliminary Purchasing Discussions
There are two fundamental discussions that need to be held prior to conducting any sort of product resarch - Platform and Budget. In most organizations they are intertwined.
There are two main flavors of Platform: In-house and hosted.
The in-house variety assumes that you will purchase some software, install it on a server that you own or will purchase, at your location or at a location that you control, and you will manage the server.
The hosted approach, now commonly referred to as Software as a Service, also Cloud Computing, means that you will contract to use the CRM/SFA application hosted by a software vendor or service provider, hosted on their server located somewhere in the world.
The Budget discussion comes into play because the in-house server approach involves a capital investment or some form of financing to purchase the equipment and software, installation, configuration and training. Whereas the hosted model is paid on a monthly subscription basis like rent. You don't buy anything, because you're never going to own anything except the data.
There is no global answer to say that one Platform is better than the other. That is, one shouldn't assume that if you have the cash, go with an in-house solution.
It is more a discussion of pros and cons for your specific situation - for your company. If you have the resources to manage an in-house CRM/SFA system, then you have the flexibility to evaluate everything on the market. If you don't want to commit those resources for that purpose, you are really shopping for a hosted solution.
Over time, of course, you will pay more for a hosted solution because eventually your monthly investment will surpass the amount you would have paid had you wrote the big check up front for an in-house package. That might be okay because of the unknown soft costs associated with ownership.
Another prelimary discussion about features and requirements should be held before you go shopping. What do you want the product to do? Are there any deal breakers? What are three most important features you must have? Having this type of conversation in advance helps whomever is conducting product research to narrow the field quickly, eliminating non-starters out of the gate.
Armed with some of idea of what you are looking for, you're ready to Google.
The search engines are the place to start. Select your favorite one, type in CRM or SFA, and strap yourself in for a few weeks of work.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
Without a spreadsheet or a tool to compare the plethora of products you will encounter, the lines between them will blur very quickly.
You'll want to set up a Favorites Folder dedicated to your search. Every site you land on should be bookmarked. If you registered on the site with a user name and password, add the log in information to the the bookmark so you can go back any time.
Once you land on your first web site, explore the screen shots, feature list, on-line demo if there is one, pricing if it is available, and begin to layout the elements you want to capture based on your preliminary discussions.
What you will find when exploring vendor sites is that some offer open access to their demo application without registering, some require registration, and some have no demo site on-line at all.
The best sites from an evaluation perspective are the ones that have a live demo. There you can go in and poke around the application at your leisure. Enter a contact to see how the application flows. Check out the Settings or Admin section assess customizability.
Sign up for a web demo with the vendors that appear to meet your baseline requirements. It won't be a waste of time, because you will discover vast differences in useability in those early demos that will help you sort through the forty plus sites you will explore.
Now you will begin to flesh out your comparison chart keying on the factors that will become critical to your evalutation. Keep in mind that the chart is a work in progress. You will modify it again and again as new information is collected. You will want to use a rating system for several of the factors you want to evaluate. For example, Intuitive might be a factor that you could rank on a scale of 1 to 5. Using a rating system allows you to produce a final score. If you can devise a weighted rating system, the evaluation will be that much more accurate, understanding of course that subjectivity is involved. An example of a weighted rating system would be Intuitive might be less important than Reports in terms of your organization's requirements. So you on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most important, you might give Intuitive a wieight of 3 and Reports a weight of 5. If Intuitive was rated 4, the score would be 3X4=12. Whereas a rating of 3 for Reports would result in a score of 3X5=15.
Let the Demo's Begin
Once the interactive web demonstration begin, you will want to become an expert interrogator. Ask the demonstrator questions you couldn't find answers to on the web site. If you're really organized, you might want to prepare a questionnaire to use during the demo. Here are a few questions to get you started.
How long have you been in business?
How often do you upgrade the software?
When was your last release? When is the next one? What will be in the next one?
What is the average size of your customer?
Are you privately owned, a subsidiary, public?
Can you provide references in my industry?
You do realize that the person delivering the demo is in sales, and therefore you will be peppered with the usual qualifying questions, such as what is your timeframe for making a decision, who are the final decision makers, do you have a budget, etc.
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