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CRM suites for SMBs

Salesforce.com may be the No. 1 hosted CRM software, but there are plenty of alternatives with more services and smaller price tags for SMBs.

In the software vendor world, success is defined as making the customer's ''short list.'' In the hosted customer...

relationship management (CRM) market, no one makes the short list more often than Salesforce.com.

But before you leap, know that you have plenty of alternatives to this major player. Many hosted CRM vendors compete with Salesforce.com by offering additional services or lower price. You should have a couple of them on your short list, if only to keep Salesforce.com honest.

To help you in this effort, I called up a half dozen Salesforce.com competitors and asked them for their ''elevator pitch.'' I asked them to tell me in five minutes or less what they do that makes them a better choice than No. 1? Here's what they had to say:

BScaler: Milpitas, Calif.-based BScaler bills itself as the only company to offer a full product suite for small businesses that are ready to take the leap into enterprise resource planning-type capabilities. "Our customer is typically someone who is fed up with [Intuit Inc.'s] QuickBooks, [Microsoft] Outlook and spreadsheets," said Lee Boylan, a senior writer at the small company. "We go for small business because there's no SAP for the little guy." The company targets manufacturers and resellers in particular. List pricing is at the high end of the market at $150 per user per month, but BScaler covers a lot more territory than just CRM.

Entellium Corp.: Service and simplicity are what sets Entellium apart, said Natalee Roan, chief marketing officer. The Seattle-based company offers a 99.7% availability guarantee and refunds fees if it misses the target. It claims to have a short learning curve and fewer customization switches. "Our customers just want CRM to work out of the box," Roan said. The product comes with richer workflow features than those available from other hosted services, according to the company. At $59 per month, the usage fee is about half that of Salesforce.com's.

RightNow Technologies Inc.: With 1,400 customers and $87 million in sales, Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow is one of the top players in the hosted market. Its strength is in call center and customer contact applications, while Salesforce.com is strongest in sales automation. "We don't see Salesforce that often [in sales engagements]" RightNow CEO Greg Gianforte said. RightNow does have sales and marketing services, though. The company is moving upmarket and is price-competitive with Salesforce.com. Prices start at $60 per month but move up based on the modules you order. You can also license the company's software for in-house use, although fewer and fewer customers are doing that, Gianforte said.

Salesnet Inc.: Founded in 1997, Boston-based Salesnet is one of the granddaddies of hosted CRM -- but it never raised the money to match Salesforce's marketing muscle. No matter. The company is now challenging its rival with a cheeky white paper titled "The 10 Weaknesses of Salesforce.com." Response to that promotion has "overwhelmed" Salesnet, said Salesnet's Jonathan Tang. More than 2,000 people have downloaded the white paper.

Salesnet's special sauce is configurability and its understanding of the sales process, Tang said. "Before we wrote a single line of code we learned that process is a key to success. We leverage the best practices of the top 20% of CRM users." Now profitable and well-funded, Salesnet is gunning for the top tier.

SMB Live: This new service bills itself as having all the tools SMBs need to run a business, including collaboration, human resources and financial software. "It's not one application, it's the suite of applications for a small business and one place to consume them," said Jeff Hagins, chief technology officer and partner. A feature that launches this month will give each user a personal space for tasks, contacts and documents. At $10 to $20 per user per month, the cost is a fraction of Salesforce.com's.

SugarCRM Inc.: The only commercial open source software provider of note in this market, SugarCRM makes its money supporting and customizing software that can be freely downloaded on the Internet. Cupertino, Calif.-based SugarCRM has raised $26 million in funding and built a base of 400 customers, most in the 10- to 50-user range, CEO John Roberts said. About one third of its customers opt for the company's hosted offering. However, the strength of the open source platform is in customization. "We believe in writing software in public," Roberts said.

To that end, the SugarCRM platform has amassed a large library of extensions written in all manners of programming and scripting languages. You can find them at Sugarforge.org, a developer forum hosted by the company.

Those are some, but by no means all of the options in the CRM market, which is the most mature in the emerging category of hosted applications. You can find more at the Software-as-a-Service Showplace, developed by ThinkStrategies Inc. Happy hunting!

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His website is www.gillin.com Check out his recent blog entry on SMB picks.

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