WHEN YOU’RE adopting a CRM (customer relationship management) package, it’s important to get a solution that integrates well with your existing back-office applications. If your software can seamlessly update the company books and inventory whenever a transaction is completed, you can offer more competitive prices and better customer service — all without reducing the bottom line or overstepping the limits of company policy. Test for Hyperlink ( www.cnn.com )
Of course, these kinds of solutions tend to be very costly. But a new release from Tigerpaw Software, Business Suite 8, offers all of these features at a very reasonable, $1,995 per-user price. The easy-to-use package comes with built-in interfaces for popular financial software and the functionality to let you create offline updates to other back-office applications. Thus, in terms of pure usefulness, Business Suite 8 challenges more expensive products such as Applix’s iEnterprise.
What makes Business Suite 8 especially unique is that it offers tools for both front-and back-office applications. In total, there are four modules: a sophisticated inventory management system; a group of tools for creating quotes, purchase orders, and invoices; another tool that manages customer service calls; and a set of easy-to-use contact management and activity scheduling features.
The latter three features are all connected to the inventory management system. Business Suite 8 supports multiple inventories, letting you record the products stored at each location. You can keep an inventory of the products sold to your customers, so you can send them quotes for maintenance service or offer replacements for aging products.
The inventory management system also gives you control over pricing. You can store the original purchase cost for each item, for example, and create different discount options according to your own criteria. I tested this feature by simulating a computer reseller business: My inventory consisted of the computers in my lab. Using an intuitive, friendly wizard, I entered general product information such as descriptions, serial numbers, UPC (Universal Product Code) identification, warranty and maintenance terms, and vendor data.
(Interestingly, you can store a product either as a single item or as an assembly of multiple items. In my example, this meant I could create a new computer configuration by putting together components from different machines; Business Suite 8 automatically computed the price and cost information for the hybrid.)
Next I moved to the pricing window, where I entered purchase costs and the manufacturer’s suggested retail prices. Based on the purchase cost data, Business Suite 8 automatically created different discount sets according to criteria I had specified. For example, you can adjust selling prices by applying percentage increases to the purchase cost or by using different pricing criteria for different customer groups.
Moreover, the inventory module lets you store labor and replacement-part information, turning your database into a repository for sales and service issues as well. A separate service module lets you create and track service orders, and bill for maintenance and repairs.
Yet another module automatically generates the flow of transactions triggered when a sale closes, such as producing an order, printing an invoice, preparing for the shipment, and posting the general ledger accounts. Business Suite 8 doesn’t provide its own general ledger module, but the package does offer off-the-shelf integration with accounting products from Great Plains, Peachtree, and Quicken — a range of choices that should satisfy most users. And if you’re using another financial package, Business Suite 8 boasts an export feature for creating custom update files.
In fact, Business Suite 8 has so many features typical of back-office applications that, while reviewing it, I had to constantly remind myself that it’s actually a front-office product. But that’s not to say that the front-office features are substandard: Business Suite 8 comes with a very powerful contact management module that lets you record and track activities, share your schedule and contact information with other users, import contact data from other sources, and define access privileges for each user. Business Suite 8 lets you spell access rights in plain English — “can change price,” for example — which makes administration much easier. My only complaint is that, although the interface is easy to use, some operations (such as editing master tables) force you to dig into several layers of menu entries, only to be brought back to the main window after making each change.
The package also lacks some of the Internet bells and whistles that other CRMs provide. Shortcuts to Web searches and portals were nowhere to be found, nor were there any tools to manage marketing campaigns: You can’t, for example, create a plan for a new promotional effort or automate the tracking of costs and revenues for specific campaigns. Furthermore, because Business Suite 8 uses the relatively skimpy Access as its database engine, the suite isn’t as scalable as it could be. You can’t migrate to a more robust database, either.
Still, Business Suite 8’s unique combination of functions cover a broad spectrum of the sales cycle — from scheduling the first blind phone call, to producing an invoice, updating the inventory, or following up on maintenance. Even at $1,995 for each user, this group of tools could prove to be irresistible, particularly for companies that sell both products and services. All you need to do is add a financial package and you’re ready for business.
Mario Apicella , a technology analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center, is a former programmer and database administrator. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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