What’s the best CRM?

I often get asked or see on-line posts asking this question and people seem surprised when I, as an ACT! Evangelist, tell then that it can’t be answered without more detailed information. This is especially important in the SME market where there is a greater range of options available than in the Enterprise space.

Any recommendations without this info would be like asking for the best car or religion, and any suggestions would be akin to the adage "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails"

You need to identify your needs:

  • How many users are you expecting to have? Now and over the next 12-18 months.
  • How many records (contacts and/or companies)? Also now and over next 12-18 months
  • Where is your data sourced from (initial setup and on-going leads)?
    For example: your web site, external companies, social media, Excel, paper entry
  • What do you want to do with the data? Reports, email merges, news letters, etc
    You need to involve internal users at different levels (sales, marketing, management)
  • Do you want to integrate with legacy systems – accounting, ERP or other software?
  • Do you want to integrate with new technologies – social media, Twitter, LinkedIN, etc?
  • Do you want remote access – remote offices, laptop users, smart phones?
    If so, do you have reliable internet connectivity?
  • What sort of security is important to you? Eg should all users be able to see/edit all records?
  • What sort of infrastructure do you have – operating systems, hardware, network.
    Would you be prepared to invest in improving this?
  • Do you have your own IT? If so, will they need training to administer the new system?
  • What sort of support do you think you’ll need?
  • What sort of budget do you have?

One common issue is looking at management needs (administration and reporting) over usability... if the users find it to complex to use or un-helpful to them, they won't enter good data. Then any reports will be meaningless.

Remember that your customer database can be one of your most valuable assets and equipping your business with the right tools to mine that asset can produce valuable returns – especially when financial times are perceived to be tough.

Often the best way to to it right is to speak to a consultant in the field to provide some advice. Here is an article that I did on picking a CRM consultant: How to pick the right CRM Consultant

When speaking to vendors, and even many consultants, remember their competitive info isn't always accurate. You need to do your own research if you are comparing products.

You really want to know “What’s the best CRM solution for YOU?” Anyone who makes a recommendation without knowing or asking these questions can’t possibly be answering that.

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Should ACT! by Sage move into the “Cloud”?

There has been a lot of discussion about "cloud computing" or SaaS (Software as a Service) – even some by Sage management on the ACT! Community Leadership Blog. So I thought it would be a good topic to discuss

With most ACT! users who have modern Smartphones/PDAs now wanting wireless updates. The options for that either require the user to have web infrastructure or use an externally hosted sync server. As most ACT! users (other than Prem for Web) not having the systems and/or skills, those PDA links doing this are using the cloud and charging for the service.

Handheld Contact only offers subscription based, CompanionLink offers it as an option and Sage are looking at their own solution (ACT! Mobile Live)

In a recent discussion in the ACT! Fanatics Group, Sharon Randall of SJR said she, and many of her users, prefer CompanionLink because it's a one-off purchase. Ignoring other feature differences to HHC, this also means it is only a connected cable sync - no updates on the road. It's also the primary reason I've seen when users pick CL over HHC.

This is also one reason a user might choose ACT! over SalesForce. There are many others, but this is a core difference.

But, at the same time, there are users starting to ask for more cloud options from ACT! – and there certainly has been movement in that direction, at least with a deal Sage Australia did with a local host.
See comments below http://blog.glcomputing.com.au/2009/11/supporting-remote-users-with-act-by.html

The ability to share remotely means cloud is nearly always the better option for users with PDAs - except for the single user who isn't sharing their data. But what about other functions? Or even ACT! itself?

I also have a personal interest in your opinions on this... our soon to be released Accounts Master! (to integrate with accounting software like QuickBooks) will also use a subscription model. We did this because:

  • It will work for users where the accounts staff don't use ACT! and ACT! users don't have access to accounts – It will even work with Web versions, Sync users, Term Services and hosted.
  • It means we don't have to explain to users who upgrade ACT! and then get upset that they have to also pay for their add-ons to be upgraded - it does take work to accommodate changes with each new version of ACT!
  • We can roll out enhancements when they are ready, rather than having to wait till we have enough to justify an upgrade fee or having to really a build with bugs to meet a marketing timeframe - this is something I really like about Handheld Contact 

So... after all this: What do you think about cloud/subscription Vs purchase/upgrade?

  • With some users wanting Cloud and others resisting, which camp are most ACT! users in now?
  • Will this change over then next year or two?
  • Should Sage wait for the ACT! user-base to demand this as they mature (if this is the future) or should they lead?
  • If Sage moves to early, it may upset some users... but will it upset enough that it's a worry?
  • Might this be an issue in some areas in the world where internet access, reliability and speeds are not as good?

Alternatively, without the cloud, how would users feel to a subscription model for ACT! in their own office - an annual license key and has to be renewed, but includes upgrades? I guess this is like Upgrade Insurance

For ACT! resellers, I've asked a follow-up in the ACT! Resellers Group on LinkedIN

I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have. Thanks.


For those looking at a SaaS offering for ACT! by Sage now, see http://glcomputing.actondemand.com/


Supporting Remote Users with ACT! by Sage

With users like the Professional Sales Road Warriors that made up much of ACT!'s early user base to field service technicians, trades-people, telecommuters who work from home, remote offices and others who need access to their data while out of the office, ACT! has needed to make use of every changing technology so that the data can be provided to the users as they need it.
From it's creation in 1987, ACT! has been at the forefront of remote and mobile users. From the ability to merge
databases with ACT! for DOS 2.0 in 1990 (where users would need to bring their databases into the office to sync) then through the HP95LX PDA version in 1992 and ACT! Mobile Link for laptop users in 1995, ACT! users have been able to access ACT! while remote from their office.
Over time advances in internet speeds, more scalable databases, browser technologies and other technological improvements have made it easier for organisations to implement and administer remote access solutions for their staff.
Currently, there are a range of options available to provide this remote access but users are often not sure how to determine the solution most suitable for them. So I thought I'd provide a selection of the most common options available... but remember, that for many sites, a combination of these should be implemented.
For some users, it may be better to have the database hosted externally, then using one or more of the options to provide access. One host providing this at very good rates is Conetix

Direct Access of the database via VPN

  • Infrastructure
    • Requires the technical skills to setup and maintain VPN server
    • Needs higher than normal internet bandwidth as the VPN protocols use up a significant amount
    • Users lose access to the data if their internet connection goes down
  • Installation
    • Sharing a database over a VPN is no different than sharing the database over a LAN. Each remote user must obtain a copy of the .PAD file for the shared database and have read/write access to the database folder and the Supplemental Files folders.
    • See - http://blog.glcomputing.com.au/2009/02/sharing-act-network-or-sync.html
    • Firewall exceptions on server should be same as for LAN
  • Administration
    • Administration and Maintenance of the VPN needs to be done well. Many VPNs tend to drop out WINs and then ACT! won't be able to find the server
    • It is usually more reliable to use the IP address of the server in the PAD file rather than the machine name. But for most VPN implementations, using Sync is the best solution.
    • All users need to be using the same version and build of ACT! - so upgrades and patches need to be carefully planned
  • Speed
    • Speed is dependant on both the bandwidth of the main server and the bandwidth that the users connect to the internet
    • Remember that most consumer internet connections don't have as fast an upload speed as they do download - if the server is also on a consumer grade connection, the actual speed will be the slower of both the user and server.
    • Due to the overhead of the VPN protocol most internet connections won't be adequate and users may be better using sync
  • Security
    • If the VPN is set up correctly, this type of access is very secure.
    • User access to records can be determined by Limited Access in the Premium editions
    • Other security may need to be implemented if you wish to prevent users from exporting or reporting data that they have access to locally

ACT! Synchronisation Services

  • Infrastructure
    • Remote users only need direct connection to the master database when they need to sync
    • ACT! by Sage does require ACT! to be open and logged into the Publisher database to sync but Premium editions can use Network or Internet sync servers to allow sync as a Windows service
    • Sync for remote users doesn't require Internet Sync server (which uses IIS). It can also be done with Network Sync server and port forwarding or VPN using a VPN server or Hamachi
  • Installation
  • Administration
    • All users need to be using the same version and build of ACT! - so upgrades and patches need to be carefully planned. If using sync server, these should also be updated when patching ACT!
    • Note: If you update the local users, the remote users still access their local data and can sync when you update them.
    • If syncing a database larger than 4GB and wanting all data to sync, needs SQL standard at each point the database will be located
    • Sync can be automated with ACT! Scheduler - better if using Premium
    • The Administrative Dashboard can be used to determined when users sync
    • If using sync via VPN, administration and maintenance of the VPN needs to be done well. Many VPNs tend to drop out WINs and then ACT! won't be able to find the server
  • Speed
    • Speed for each user is dependant on their local hardware (RAM and HDD speed)
    • Speed for the sync is dependant on the bandwidth between the user and server. If using VPN, speed is reduced due to the protocol overhead.
    • Sync speed depends on volume of changes and bandwidth of connection - especially if syncing a large number of attachments
    • As only the delta (changes) are sent, this uses less bandwidth than a direct connection
  • Security
    • Users only have access to the records in their defined sync set and, if using the Premium editions, that they have access to
    • The sync process itself is reasonably secure as data is encrypted during the sync process (I have not heard of a breach)
    • Additional layers or security can be achieved by:
      • Using a different port for the sync process
      • Sync via VPN - this is a very secure protocol and removes the need for port forwarding from the internet to the database server
      • If using Premium Editions, putting the Sync server in a DMZ

ACT! Premium for Web

  • Infrastructure
    • Requires a Windows server running Internet Information Services (IIS) - can be hosted by a third-party if the user lacks infrastructure or skills. If hosted, it is better to select a host who specialises in ACT! for Web hosting and knows how to maintain it
    • Remote users only need a supported web browser and internet connection
    • ACT! for Web is also the only solution for allowing access to MAC users (internal or remote) via the Safari browser support (currently Safari 3.0)
  • Installation
    • Installed once on IIS server. Easiest and fastest install for IT with suitable skills
    • IIS must be set to 32bit if on a 64bit OS – can cause issues with other apps
  • Administration
    • Easy to administer and maintain as everything can be on a single server. It's a bit more complex if using multiple servers
    • IT doesn't need to worry about remote users OS or hardware
    • Sharing of user preferences makes admin and backup a bit easier. while not the default, is done as per this ACT! Knowledge Base article
  • Speed
    • Speed is dependant on the server speed, configuration and bandwidth
    • For large volumes of users, implementing one or more web servers separate from the database server allows better allocation of resources
  • Security
    • As this is a Premium edition, users only have access to records according to ACT!'s Limited Access and Teams
    • Additional layers or security can be achieved by:
      • Using a different port for the web server
      • Putting the IIS server in a DMZ
      • Using HTTPS/SSL
      • Requiring Windows Authentication to the Virtual Folder before getting access to the ACT! for Web interface
      • Access Web via VPN
    • It is important to add additional security (preferably VPN) is users might connect via any public WiFi connection

Remote Desktop (Terminal Services, Citrix)

  • Infrastructure
    • Requires Windows Terminal Server, Remote Desktop Services in Windows 2008 or Citrix - can be hosted if user lacks infrastructure or skills
    • Remote users only RDP client and internet connection
  • Installation
  • Administration
    • Relatively easy to administer and maintain as everything on a single server
  • Speed
    • Speed is dependant on the server speed, configuration and bandwidth
    • For large volumes of users, implementing one or more client servers separate from the database server allows better allocation of resources
  • Security
    • If using a Premium edition, users only have access to records according to ACT!'s Limited Access and Teams
    • RDP on TS and Citrix provide a range an additional security options

Included ACT!Link for PDA/Smartphones – no-longer available

  • Infrastructure
    • Currently supports Palm OS and Windows Mobile devices (no Palm OS support for Windows 7, so no ACT! Link support)
    • Uses direct USB connection to full ACT! client - no support for Web or Remote Desktop (Terminal Services/Citrix)
    • Only supports fields and functions in PDA PIMs
  • Installation
    • Installed on each user PC
    • Care needs to be taken for supported Phone OS and driver versions, depending on version of ACT!
  • Administration
    • Can be complex to maintain with issues if user updates their phone OS or driver
    • Admin can only set if the users can sync via Manage Users
    • Administrator has no control over what is sync'd and connection issues are known to cause duplication in the ACT! database
    • No access to Custom Activity types
    • No support for Activities, Notes, Histories that link to multiple contacts
    • Calls, SMS, Emails sent from phone not recorded in ACT!
  • Speed
    • Speed is dependant on the phone type and amount of data sent
  • Security
    • If using a Premium edition, users only have access to records according to ACT!'s Limited Access and Teams
    • User can select to sync any records they have access to
    • Data on lost phones can't be wiped

Handheld Contact Sync to PDA/Smartphones

  • Infrastructure
    • Currently supports Blackberry OS, iOS (iPhone and iPad), Android 
    • Uses a console with wireless sync - fully supports Web and Remote Desktop (Terminal Services/Citrix)
    • Professional Edition adds support for up to 76 fields and many additional functions
    • Field formatting and pull-downs maintain data integrity
    • Can support very large numbers of mobile users from one console.
  • Installation
    • Installed on ACT! server, it's own server or on user's PC
    • Easiest PDA solution to remotely configure and install remotely for one or more devices
  • Administration
    • Very easy to roll out and maintain
    • Administrator controls what data is sync'd and how often.
    • Administrator can set contacts sync'd with each user based on Groups an Activities
    • No known issues with duplication or loss of ACT! data
    • HHC Professional supports ACT! Custom Activity types for activities and history
    • HHC Professional supports Activities, Notes, Histories and Email that link to multiple contacts
    • Calls, SMS, Emails sent from phone recorded in ACT! if instigated from HHC Professional
  • Speed
    • Speed is dependant on the phone type and amount of data sent – typically faster than other link options.
    • As HHC can send items based on Groups or Activities, users can reduce the number of records they keep on the phone
  • Security
    • Administrator has full control over what is sync’d to each user
    • Data on lost phones can be erased remotely by Admin, providing phone in radio range and turned on
    • Data is sent securely in small packets via https and encrypted