Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How Raab Associates Converted to ZohoCRM In One Weekend: a B2B CRM Success Story

Raab Associates is really two businesses: the technology consulting practice run by Yours Truly, and a marketing agency specializing in children’s books run by my beautiful and brilliant wife Susan. We keep them largely separate, but I am inevitably involved in her technology decisions. So when her ancient Goldmine CRM system finally crashed last week, we both scrambled to pick a replacement.

From my usual lofty perch in enterprise software world, Susan's requirements seem stick-figure simple: accounts, contacts, opportunities, lists, and mass emails. So our first thought was to find a system that offered those plus some cool new things like social media profiling. But a quick scan of the market showed that none of the neat new systems also offered the basic functions with with enough refinement and flexibility to meet Susan's needs.

This pushed us back to the more standard CRM options.  To my dismay, we found ourselves ruling out one after another for various. I even briefly suggested we reconsider Goldmine, an thought that was quickly rejected.  Eventually we took an unhopeful look at ZohoCRM, which I know as a popular small business system but had never considered particularly advanced. Happily, the system has a very thorough online user manual, so I was able to check it out in detail.

Even more happily, the answers all came back positive as I imagined working through Susan’s basic business processes in Zoho. Build contact lists, check. Mass emails, check. Opportunities linked to campaigns, check. Pull-down status list and callback date on opportunities, check. Custom filters across all field types, check. End-user report writer, check. Multi-field search, check. A bunch of other details that I no longer recall, check check check. Reasonable cost, double check: we would have grudgingly paid a couple hundred dollars a month for a solution, but Zoho’s mid-tier Professional edition costs all of $20 per month with no limits on database size (Susan has about 14,000 contact records – well above the minimum for many small business systems). We may even splurge for $35 per month enterprise edition, which provides some advanced automation features but is probably overkill for most small businesses.  Just call me Diamond Jim.

At this point, we were ready to sign up for the free trial account, which was a simple process and didn’t ask for a credit card. Let me point out that I purposely hadn’t signed up sooner because I didn’t want to waste time exploring a system that I wasn’t pretty confident would meet my needs. Diving in too soon is a classic mistake among software buyers – and, in this instance at least, I actually followed my own advice.  (While I'm patting myself on the back, I'll also point out that we evaluated the software against our actual business process, not an arbitrary feature checklist.  That's another best practice that too few buyers follow.)

We now pulled a small set of test records from Goldmine to test the import function. The online manual guided me through the exact steps necessary, complete with a handy checklist of preparatory tasks.  When I went to load the file itself, I got the first of many delightful surprises: Zoho took a guess at mapping the input fields, based on their names, and got about half right. That’s a pretty sophisticated function and a big time-saver. It’s the sort of refinement you don’t see in a new system because it’s not essential to get the product into market, but gets added after enough users request it and the developers have some breathing room. Zoho has actually been around since 1996 (although CRM came later), so they’ve had time to add a lot of those little helpers.

In any event, the test import worked perfectly the first time out, which was a great feeling of accomplishment. Susan and I played with the system a bit more now that we had some real data in it, and found all sorts of nice little options, like being able to rename objects (she calls an opportunity a “pending record”), rearrange the fields on each screen, change the order of sections, and move fields from one section to another.  Again, none of these is cutting edge, but they’re not always available and make a big difference in making the system more usable.  The interface itself was also highly intuitive – lots of nice dragging to move the fields around, for example. There were plenty of other unexpected goodies that I would have otherwise needed to configure or live without, like automatically listing the associated contacts when you view an account record, and listing the associated opportunities – I mean, pending records – when you look at a contact. And, oh yes, you can control which fields are displayed on those related records.

At this point we were feeling pretty good about actually pulling off the conversion, so I spent all day Sunday manually cleansing those 14,000 contact records to ensure the critical data was populated. Even Zoho couldn’t help with that one. I finished around midnight and had a moment of panic when I saw that Zoho would only import 5,000 records at a time.  But it turned out to accept all three batches without waiting for the first batch to finish, so I was able to submit them and get some sleep.

I woke up bright and early (well, actually, late and cranky), feeling pleased that Susan could start using the system without missing a business day.  Alas, we found that somehow there were twice as many account records as expected. A quick call to Zoho support pointed us to a rollback function that should have cleaned up the problem in a few seconds. Sadly, it rolled back one set of records but not the other (remember, there had only been one import).  I spoke again with Zoho support, who promised to look into it but hadn’t accomplished anything several hours later.  At that point, I realized – duh – that it would take about two minutes to delete the records manually (you can only delete 100 at a time, but it’s three keystrokes for each batch, so you can probably do about 50 batches per minute). Once I figured that out, I cleaned out the old records and reimported everything, and we had a clean set of data.

Susan has been working with the system for the past two days, and I’ve been peeking over her shoulder and poking around a bit myself.  ZohoCRM is certainly not perfect – there are bunch of little things she would like to do, such as preview a template-based email with the variables populated. There are also some oddities like two unrelated sets of email templates, a vestige of Zoho's earlier separate systems for CRM and mass mailings. Those quirks take a bit of getting used to but are far from show-stoppers. There are some other tasks that cumbersome at the moment, but I suspect we’ll be able to automate once we have time to explore those functions. And, yes, there are some things it doesn’t do that Susan would like, such as associating multiple email addresses with the same contact. I wouldn’t exactly say they’re trivial – certainly not to Susan – but she can live with them.

We're generally satisfied with customer support: phone calls aren’t always answered immediately, but after about a minute on hold, a very nice lady picks up the line and offers to take a message. I appreciate the human touch, and, more important, the opportunity to get immediate help if something is truly urgent. We do get callbacks in an hour or two and the agents have been pleasant and helpful, which is about all I can ask. There’s a “how’d we do?” email after each interaction, which is a good sign that Zoho is trying to do a good job.

Bottom line: We’re still in the honeymoon period, so I may find Zoho isn’t really as great as I think.  On the other hand, I proposed to Susan almost immediately after meeting her and that's worked out just fine.  So I'd say ZohoCRM is worth a close look for small business CRM, even for people who think it may be too simple for their needs.

7 comments:

Ken Lague said...

I just loved reading this. Thank you David for sharing your story.

So often in our field we discussing MAP industry with a handful of larger companies, nice to see that excellent solutions can still be found among the smaller players. They are the future.

Andrew Koller said...

Great article. I great way to think about the problem. We all know that free software isn't free because of the time commitment to set it up. What advanced automation do you use? I'd love to hear how it's going for you in a month.

David Raab said...

We haven't set up the automation in Zoho yet but will use it for things like entering standard starting values into new records. Susan has several multi-step processes that could be automated with either true automation or a macro (another Zoho feature).

If you are asking about marketing automation, Susan doesn't use any and I use OfficeAutoPilot (now OntraPort), which better serves my purposes, since I don't do CRM but do send a (very sporadic) newsletter and do some ecommerce, which it handles nicely.

Shri Chaudhary said...

Very interesting article that highlights the nuances of a "major" system change for a small business. One statement was not clear- "Susan has about 14,000 contact records – well above the minimum for many small business systems..." Did you mean to say maximum instead of minimum?

David Raab said...

I meant, 14,000 names higher than the amount allowed at the mimimum pricing level for many systems -- which might allow 1,000 or 5,000 names before charging extra.

bpo erp said...

Very interesting post to describing Software application, I have one doubt about the customization allowed on software. How much flexible it is for using medium size organization.

David Raab said...

A mid-size organization might want more flexibility. Customization hasn't been much of a problem, but there are some other limits that cause problems -- for example, email can only use POP3 servers, not IMAP.