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Business special: The best free tools for SMEs

Free small business software guide

If you run your own business from home, or manage a small business in a dedicated office, technology investments are essential.

But that doesn't mean you have to throw money around. A penny-pinching business manager can access some useful services and applications with no financial outlay.

We've looked at 15 of the best business freebies - covering everything from customer relationship management and e-commerce websites to email accounts, customer mailing lists, and business management training.

Many require nothing more than internet access, a web browser, and a few minutes of your time for user registration. Others require you to download and install some software to access their capabilities.

All are free. Some have paid versions that offer additional features and higher capacities.

Customer Relationship Management: Highrise

Customer relationship management (CRM) helps you keep track of your contacts, with the aim of converting more of them into sales prospects for your business. Highrise could be just what you need to start using CRM effectively to maintain a closer relationship with your customers. The virtue of this web service lies in its simplicity.

Using Highrise, you can enter customer contact information directly using your web browser or import existing contact records. Then you can create new tasks, set deadlines, and assign tasks to categories. Establishing a case lets you bring together related contacts and tasks.

When you log in to the service, the Highrise dashboard displays recent activity and upcoming tasks. You can choose to have a daily task summary email sent at 6am to remind you of what you need to accomplish that day.

Highrise is straightforward and doesn't offer a lot of extra capabilities, but it's a handy way for you to keep on top of what your customers want. The free plan is limited to two users and 250 contacts. Greater capacity is available with paid plans.

Customer Relationship Management: FreeCRM.com

CRM is a vital component of an end-to-end business strategy, one that can handle the sales process that begins with the first inquiry from a new prospect and can grow to an established customer relationship with continuing product and service requirements.

FreeCRM.com offers a more sophisticated online CRM service than Highrise, though it requires more time to set up and learn. But it allows easier tracking of potential deals in your sales pipeline. This lets you determine if your sales performance is on track compared to budget.

A large variety of user preferences let you tailor FreeCRM to your business environment. For example, you can select a different currency (pounds instead of dollars) and decide if you want to display completed tasks and deals in your calendar.

There's no limit on the number of users, though the advertising-supported free version is capped at 10MB of data storage. A paid Professional version of the service removes the 10MB limit and makes it simpler to synchronise data offline, with a handheld device such as a Palm or Blackberry, or on your PC using Microsoft Outlook.

Web and email Hosting: Microsoft Office Live Basics

Microsoft's Office Live Basics lets a small business establish an online presence by providing a domain name along with the capacity for managing a good-sized website and a couple of dozen email accounts.

Office Live Basics will appeal most to small businesses which don't have a website and want to establish and manage one. Unfortunately, if you already have a website you can't upload it to the free Basics service.

While a professional website designer would chafe at the limited template design options available, the templates make it easier to develop a simple site even if you know absolutely nothing about the HTML code for a web page. Some handy interactive web components, such as a forms submitter and a site search engine, are also included.

The free advertising-supported Office Live Basics provides a domain name you select along with website storage that can hold up to 500MB of data and email management for up to 25 accounts with 2GB of storage each. Paid editions of Office Live offer greater capacity and additional services such as uploading an existing website, document sharing, and contact and time management.


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