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Denise Holland Is Open Source CRM Enterprise Ready?
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 By Denise Holland

Can trust your customer facing business operations to an open source CRM project?

It depends. Or more specifically it depends on which open source customer relationship management (CRM) product you choose and how well it fits your business needs. While open source CRM software may provide cost and extensibility benefits, any CRM application software must demonstrate a business fit, possibly with customization, in order to satisfy your sales, marketing and customer service staff, and ultimately your customers. However, subject to a reasonable software fit, the general answer is that you may very well be served with an open source CRM solution. Open Source CRM has become a densely populated market with several viable software products and active user communities supporting them. Especially in the small and medium size business environment, an open source CRM package may be the answer to your CRM needs.

The World Of Open Source CRM
One of the most striking differences between open source business applications, such as accounting software or ERP applications, and open source CRM solutions is that there are a lot more offerings to choose from in the CRM software market. There are literally hundreds of CRM projects listed just in the Sourceforge open source database.

There are two main reasons for this. First, CRM covers less ground than back office ERP systems, making it easier to develop CRM than ERP. Second, the CRM software market is several years more mature than ERP when it comes to new technology adoption. New technology concepts such as software-as-a-service, cloud computing and social CRM have gained rapid momentum in the market while back office ERP systems have taken a more cautious approach.

Entrepreneurial software development start-ups and emerging growth companies are further tapping into the change in software consumption in order to change the rules of the game. As CRM software companies mature, consolidate and use their brand and scale to construct barriers to entry for new comers, a new software developer trying to break into the market either needs tremendous financing, or an alternate strategy, such as open source, to gain a foothold.

Total Cost of Ownership
It’s worth noting that although most open source customer relationship management products are available without license fees and with source code, the software acquisition costs are only one component of the total cost. As with any type of CRM software system there are significant implementation, training, support and maintenance costs. Several analyst firms, such as Gartner and Forrester, suggest that the software cost generally makes up 20% to 30% of the total cost of ownership. A 'free' open source product that imposes additional IT labor for increased software maintenance, customization, testing, trouble-shooting, upgrades or user support may inevitably result in a higher total cost than a commercial product.

Software Fit
Software fit with your organization’s business processes is a critically important criterion for selecting CRM software whether it is open source or not. A decisive question when reviewing any CRM product is “will it do the jobs we need done?” You can only answer this question by carefully considering your potential software candidates and measuring them against your specific and objective customer relationship management requirements. That means clearly identifying your requirements and then comparing the open source CRM solutions in order to achieve a ranked order.

Open source CRM products can make evaluating business systems easier because you can try them out during your evaluation process. Most open source CRM systems can be easily downloaded from the company’s web site and then run against one another to see what works best in your environment.

Adaptability and Customization
It’s unlikely that any CRM package, open source or proprietary, is going to do things exactly the way you want right out of the box. At the very least you can expect there will be some gaps that can be addressed by configuration work-arounds, third party products or software customization.

Customer relationship management applications vary widely in how easy they are to adapt to your environment. Generally open source business systems have an advantage because they come with source code and (usually) an active user community. However each product is different and you need to evaluate the available documentation, software code structure and ease of development with which you can make the necessary changes.

Customer Support
Customer service and support is another area where open source CRM products vary widely. The better solutions have effective support organizations and active communities available to help you install, configure and customize the software.

In the open source world, support can be obtained from fee-based vendors or from a user community. Both areas are important and generally used for different purposes. Between them, they should be able to handle about any request for information or support that comes up.

Paid support comes from a variety of sources. Most open source CRM companies have multiple types of support services available for varying fee structures. In fact selling support and service is the way that most open source software companies have constructed their business model. Another common support channel goes through value added resellers (VARs) and system integrators. Consultancy services are also available from the vendor and the partner community.

Community support is an important part of open source support. Through social networks, forums, newsgroups, wikis and web pages, users band together to share knowledge and experiences with the software. This is unfamiliar to most companies using commercial software, and requires some education in online etiquette and expectations, however is a very powerful source of information and support. When selecting an open source CRM package, look for one that's got a large, active and growing community behind it. Also recognize that an open source solution can generally not survive without an active and growing community. Monitor the community size over time to understand the trajectory and health of the open source community.

From Contact Management to CRM
CRM open source products run the gamut from programs that are basically contact managers to all-encompassing customer relationship management software with dozens of modules that can handle the complete customer experience. This is useful because different enterprises want different things from their CRM software. However it means that CRM packages are assuredly not equal, or even much alike.

This is much more true of open source CRM software than it is of conventional customer management applications. That means it’s especially important to compare open source systems against comprehensive prioritized requirements and in a side by side manner.

While selecting a CRM system may not be as complicated as choosing an ERP system, it still requires diligence, discipline and systemic evaluation. CRM systems manage, automate and provide information reporting for sales, marketing and customer support. Any short changing the software selection or evaluation process has the potential to disrupt customer facing processes. Open source CRM software systems provide another viable alternative, with a new set of benefits and risks, to evaluate when searching for your optimal information system. End

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CRM open source products run the gamut from programs that are basically contact managers to all-encompassing CRM software systems with dozens of modules that can manage the complete customer experience. This is useful because different companies want different things from their CRM software. However it means that CRM packages are assuredly not equal, or even much alike.

 

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