Zoho CRM aims big, hits small

New Enterprise Edition delivers SMB-worthy features at a rock-bottom price, but key shortcomings make it a poor match for large sales and service teams

AdventNet's Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition is a new, low-cost subscription-based 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 such features as organizational management (including hierarchical group definitions), role-based security on data access and information sharing, SSL transport, and broader interface customizations.

The kicker is a sticker price of only US$25 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. There's little wonder why the product has already garnered so much attention.

Further, AdventNet offers a suite of complementary applications including word processing and spreadsheet, HR, project management, reporting, and invoicing that bring 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 organizations.

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's missing field format constraints that help ensure data integrity (for example, by ensuring that e-mail addresses are formatted properly, that ZIP code and 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 e-mail, which means that marketing campaigns will be an intensively manual process. There is an Outlook plug-in for manually pulling e-mails into the system, but this is more kludge than well-integrated solution.

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 organization.

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 customize 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.

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