Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition is a low-cost, subscription-based 'software as a service' (SaaS) offering that may be impossible to ignore.

Building on a Professional edition that combines sales, service, marketing and inventory management modules, Zoho Enterprise aims to meet the needs of corporate customers with features such as organisational management (including hierarchical group definitions), role-based security on data access and information sharing, SSL transport and broader interface customisations.

The kicker is a sticker price of only $25 (about £12) per user per month - a rate well below any other hosted application vendor, and $100 cheaper per user per month than the sultan of SaaS, Salesforce.com. Little wonder that the product has attracted so much attention.

Further, AdventNet offers a suite of complementary applications including word processing and spreadsheets, HR, project management, reporting and invoicing that brings Zoho, on the surface at least, into competition with the likes of NetSuite. But while Zoho CRM boasts a feature set that rivals some pricier solutions, it lacks the depth and polish of top-flight competitors. Ultimately, its features don't go far enough to meet the needs of larger organisations.

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Making a list

Zoho CRM falls short of enterprise requirements in a number of ways. It lacks basic audit logs essential for tracking changes to record. It doesn't offer field format constraints to improve data integrity (for example, by ensuring that email addresses are formatted properly, that phone numbers contain only digits and so on).

Rules-based task assignment is present, but hindered by the absence of queues, an essential feature for large sales and service teams. The ability to automate escalation based on time-based triggers is also conspicuously absent.

Zoho CRM also lacks support for inbound email, which means that marketing campaigns will be an intensively manual process. There is an Outlook plug-in for manually pulling emails into the system, but this isn't a well-integrated arrangement.

For companies looking to integrate CRM with other systems, the absence of an API makes Zoho a non-starter. And, although AdventNet offers the aforementioned office productivity tools, no easy mechanism exists for weaving them seamlessly into the CRM application - with the exception of spreadsheets, which have been newly integrated into some of the CRM modules.

Ins and outs, ups and downs

Getting started with Zoho CRM involved setting up the roles within my company hierarchy and creating the users to match. Because neither roles nor users can be created on the fly or added en masse, initial setup would be cumbersome for a large organisation.

Tabbed access to sales and service modules makes for easy navigation, and security is implemented at the field level across the package. But here again configuration is tedious: For every profile, for every module, and for every page there's a different screen for setting the field-level permissions. Following this, a separate interface for data sharing was needed to set default permissions and customise access rules - again, for every module.

AdventNet should streamline this process by consolidating the settings into a quick-tick permissions grid. I would also like to see a "read only" option added, since data access is currently an all-or-nothing proposition. You either permit full read/write/delete access or deny all.

I was able to import existing records (CSV/XLS) and match my fields to Zoho's - but transforming the data en route is not possible. The record de-duplication utility also proved handy as there is no checking for duplicates on record entry.

My home page offered anticipated features such as a calendar and task menu, quick links to recent items, and customisable data views (both tabular and graphical). I would prefer to receive alerts for calendar items and events - another missing feature.

In all, the browser-based interface was adequate. I experienced some buggy interactions with the back button (attributable to AJAX calls), and though inline editing is available for many fields, the constant page updates required for most tasks would benefit from some smarter AJAX injection or an eventual Adobe AIR desktop client.

One-click conversion of leads made easy work of populating accounts, contacts, and pipeline fields as sales opportunities advanced. Thanks to ample record-keeping slots, attachments, activities, emails, and notes, as well as quotes, orders, invoices, and service cases could all be tied to records.

I found workflow rules to be easy to set up, though they don't go beyond basic Boolean operators. AdventNet could learn from the graphical workflow designer in SageCRM, and from RightNow's tools to improve setup and breadth of workflow design. Nevertheless, I could create rules that assigned and advanced leads and cases on a per-user basis (if not yet groups) and I could create triggers that fired them when a record was created or changed.

Built-in forecasting supports quarterly planning and tracking with decent what-if scenarios. For the sake of clarity, I would like to see better separation between managers' forecasts and their direct reports.

On the service side, case workers will find good access to account data and a searchable solutions base, though a few improvements would be welcome here as well. It would be nice to be able to search the solutions repository directly from the Case tab, rather than having to navigate to another module. Emailing directly from within a case would also be helpful. And for the sake of customer satisfaction, open cases should be sortable by date created or days aged, and escalatable by time-based triggers.

Bells and whistles

I found reports and dashboards to be standard fare. The number of canned reports pales in comparison to what you'll find in Salesforce.com, but all can be customised on most any data point and shared or secured. Reports can be scheduled for email delivery, and exported to an Excel or PDF file.

I was able to add the Flash-based dashboards to my home page tab, giving me a heads-up view at login and the ability to quickly drill down to underlying data.

Although Zoho CRM offers no offline or mobile edition, the optional Outlook plug-in adds buttons to sync local contacts, tasks, and calendar data with the hosted app. I was also able to push emails (with attachments under 1MB) to Zoho CRM and associate them to existing records.

Unfortunately, Zoho CRM failed to identify calendar conflicts, creating overlapping meetings during sync. Further, rather than associate an email to a specific case, it only allowed lookup of contacts, not actual cases. Cases and leads could not be created from inside Outlook, and Outlook categories were not supported.

All told, Zoho CRM offers a surprisingly sophisticated set of features for the price, but those features don't match up with top solutions in the space, and they fall short of the needs of larger sales and service groups. AdventNet has some work to do before Zoho CRM will qualify as an enterprise player.

But if the folks at Salesforce.com needn't shake in their shoes just yet, they would be wise to keep an eye on fast-moving AdventNet. Even during the course of my evaluation, Zoho CRM benefited from a number of updates and changes.

In the meantime, Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition can help small companies keep tabs on sales and service issues for a fraction of the cost of competitors. This solution is more than adequate for many SMBs. Just make certain you're satisfied with how the application maps to your requirements before you jump in.

Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition: Specs

  • Internet Explorer 6.0 or 7.0
  • Microsoft Outlook plug-in requires Windows 2000/XP/2003 running Outlook 2000 or later
  • Internet Explorer 6.0 or 7.0
  • Microsoft Outlook plug-in requires Windows 2000/XP/2003 running Outlook 2000 or later

OUR VERDICT

Zoho CRM is the most affordable hosted CRM solution on the market. The solution lacks a number of enterprise requirements including integration hooks, time-based escalation triggers, queued workflow, and document management, but has much to offer SMBs. Highlights include an intuitive GUI, customizable dashboards, field-level security, rules-based task assignment, and easy-to-share reports. Initial configuration is a grind.

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