The right CRM (customer relationship management) application is an incredibly useful tool in sales. CRM applications will store, sort, and report on your prospect and customer data. Not only does this save time, it also helps you make connections and learn about your customer base in ways that you'd never notice while using a pen-and-paper system.
CRM applications come in two basic varieties: software and service. CRM software installs on your office computer or server, and the data resides there as well. The advantage to software is that you only have to pay for it once and that you have complete control over both the program and the data inside it. For example, if the software company issues an updated version and you like the old version better, you can simply not install the update. The disadvantage is that you will have to handle the installation process and any technical issues that arise, and if anything happens to your office computers, you could lose all your data. Also, you'll probably need to install the software on every salesperson's computer.
CRM services are hosted online. You will typically pay an ongoing fee to access these services, and can access them from any computer – most services just require you to log in with your secure user name and password. The advantage to services is that they are hosted on the provider's equipment, often with backups and redundant servers so that it's unlikely you'll lose data even during a catastrophe. It is the provider's responsibility to keep the service running, so your tech support activities will be minimal. Disadvantages are that if the provider has a problem – or goes out of business – you could lose your data either temporarily or permanently.
CRM prices range from free to thousands of dollars. If you're just starting out, a free CRM service or software package is a good place to begin. Many CRM providers release both a free version and a more robust paid version, so if you outgrow the free software it's relatively easy to upgrade.
FreeCRM.com – FreeCRM is a CRM service that allows you to manage sales leads, track your pipeline, and even includes a trouble ticket management system (if you want to use it for your company's tech support as well). It comes in two versions: FreeCRM, which is indeed free and allows you to enter up to 5000 records, and FreeCRM Pro, which has unlimited storage and more support options but which does require you to pay a monthly fee.
SugarCRM – SugarCRM is an open source software package, meaning that the programming code is distributed for free and anyone is allowed to use it and change it for free. So if you or one of your employees has a technical knack, you can download the SugarCRM code and literally design your own CRM. Less technical users can simply download the Sugar Community Edition and use it as is for free. If you like what you see, you can pick up SugarCRM's Pro version, which includes some extra features like Mobile CRM support but which does have an annual fee.
Pipeliner – This free CRM software program received a 5-star rating from CNET and high marks on its user reviews. Pipeliner allows you to enter new leads (it refers to them as 'opportunities'), manage existing leads, and change lead status through a nifty drag-and-drop interface. The program also includes an integrated address book and a timeline to help track prospect events.
Zoho CRM – Zoho.com offers a popular CRM service that's free for up to three users and 100,000 records. Sales teams that require more licenses can sign up for the Professional or Enterprise editions instead. Zoho CRM's free edition also has 'plug-in' options for salespeople who want a few extra features but don't want to buy the whole package.