Customer-relationship management software-thankfully referred to as CRM in casual conversation-is the sort of tool that you don't know you need until you've tried to work without it. It barely existed a decade ago, although the category can trace its roots to the contact-management tools that proliferated throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, and before then to the bare-bones order-entry systems that encouraged businesses to buy their first computers 30 or 40 years ago.
Although many people consider CRM to be synonymous with Salesforce.com, there are plenty of competitors to the cloud-based titan. Perhaps one of the pluckiest-and possibly the best-is SugarCRM, whose eponymous CRM package is more flexible in some significant ways than Salesforce.com, and certainly less expensive.
SugarCRM can be deployed as a cloud-based application, and for many organizations, that model makes the most sense. After all, cloud-based deployments such as Salesforce.com offer advantages such as accessibility and scalability while relieving IT departments of much, if not all, of the dirty work and finger-pointing associated with the care and feeding of line-of-business applications.
But SugarCRM goes two better on Salesforce.com, by offering its software as an on-premises install, and as an appliance that's designed to be easily added to an existing IT infrastructure. These may be especially appealing to those organizations that, for whatever reason, can't or won't use a cloud-based application, in cases where the entire focus is on inside sales, or where the reliability of WAN connections is less than ideal.
SugarCRM is available as a free, open-source Community Edition, or as the for-pay Sugar Enterprise and Sugar Professional. The 6.2 release, which I evaluated and at the time of writing was slated for release in early June, will feature two new editions: Corporate, which will occupy the space between Sugar Professional and Sugar Enterprise, and Sugar Ultimate, which will apparently offer everything there is in Sugar Enterprise and then some.
The paid versions have a five-user minimum "cover charge" and through release 6.1 included 1GB of storage for application data. Additional data storage is available, at $200 per gigabyte per year; this pricing is expected to change with the 6.2 release, to a charge of $500 per year for each additional block of 5GB. The various editions will also see their built-in storage allocations increase, to 15GB for Sugar Professional, ranging up to 250GB for Sugar Ultimate.
Sugar Professional, at $360 per user annually, offers the same interface, dashboarding features and Microsoft Office plug-ins as Sugar Enterprise, as well as the administration, customization and integration features of the enterprise edition. Both Sugar Professional and Enterprise offer unlimited online and email support, with premium support available at an additional price.
Sugar Enterprise offers the widest range of features, and currently costs $600 per user per year; this version gives organizations the ability to use MySQL and Oracle 9i and 10g as the back-end databases, and includes Sugar Mobile, which allows users and administrators to access and manage the software via an iPhone. (Sugar Mobile for Sugar Professional is available for $120 per user.) Sugar Enterprise also includes a self-service portal and SQL reporting features.
Sugar Community Edition is unsupported and doesn't come with any technical support whatsoever. It includes a bare-bones set of dashboards and collaboration and reporting tools, and lacks the finer-grained security of the for-pay versions.
Compared to Salesforce.com, SugarCRM is easily the winner on price. In essence, the price for Sugar Enterprise works out to $50 per user per month, or one-fifth that of Salesforce.com's list price for Sales Cloud Unlimited. It's just under that (19 percent) for Service Cloud Unlimited.
On top of that, some features that SugarCRM bundles into its Enterprise edition, such as the portal, are only available in Salesforce.com at an additional cost. For many customers, that sort of hidden cost may discourage the use of what could be an invaluable tool. To be fair, the Unlimited editions of the Salesforce.com packages do appear to offer a better level of bundled support, but whether that's worth the gold-plated price is certainly open for debate.
I spent a couple of weeks on a cloud-based instance of Sugar Enterprise, and found it to be a powerful and flexible, yet unintimidating package. From an end-user perspective, SugarCRM presents a restrained appearance that has all the tools that define modern CRM offerings and more. Opportunities and reporting functions are all available at a click, and the user interface is uncluttered, with the apparent intent of keeping users working efficiently. From an administrative perspective, things are equally straightforward. Access controls can be set up by team as well as by user role, allowing businesses to properly separate teams when desired.
Arguably, the whole point of a CRM system is to keep users inside the application as much as possible, and Sugar Enterprise does a good job of that. The only complaint I had during my evaluation was at a fundamental level of the user interface. If I had to pick a word to describe SugarCRM's default color scheme, it might be "soporific." Its overwhelming grayness is almost too comforting. Those designing future versions should take a hard look at this, if only to keep users awake.
Despite its growing user base and developer community, as an underdog in the segment, SugarCRM faces an uphill battle. But the company's eschewing of glitz is a sound approach, one that allows it to give users the information they need to chase opportunities, close deals and service customers, without fuss or muss.