Open source CRM a convenient alternative

Open source CRM is catching on. Three companies explain why cost, customizability and convenience make the open source model a good fit for their CRM projects.

About five years ago, Spirit Cruises, a Norfolk, Va.-based company that operates dining cruises in ports around

the U.S., implemented a CRM package from a reputable commercial software vendor.

Unfortunately, it did not meet Spirit Cruises' needs.

"Our sales team was unhappy from the beginning. It was a combination of things -- features, performance … all of the above," said Steve Baskerville, director of IT. "We were forced to replace it as quickly as possible."

So when the company went looking to replace its CRM package, it sought something both inexpensive and easily customizable. By chance, Baskerville found Centric CRM, an open source product from Norfolk, Va.-based Dark Horse Ventures LLC, which met both of those requirements.

"One of the issues I'd experienced with some of the mainstream CRM products is that if you customize them, you may wind up outside of the baseline. So when you go to upgrade, it's a major issue," Baskerville said. "With open source, you participate in the design of the overall product and, if you play by the rules, all of your changes are incorporated into the baseline."

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Like a growing number of corporate executives and IT managers, Baskerville is now a fan of open source software, partly because of the lack of license costs, partly for the ease of customization, and especially for the value of having access to the source code any time he needs it.

But, as he and others readily concede, there are drawbacks as well.

For one thing, there is no official technical support team or sales rep to handle problems. So trying to get a bug fixed, for example, isn't as simple as filing a complaint with the software vendor and waiting for a resolution. Companies using open source CRM either have to fix bugs themselves, pay someone else to create a fix or politely ask the open source community for help and hope for a quick response.

"There's sort of a perception that if you go with a [commercial] product and say, 'Hey, this is broken,' they'll jump all over it. With open source, it's different," said Louis Lesko, owner of Blinkbid, a software vendor in Los Angeles, which uses a hosted version of open source applications from Cupertino, Calif.-based SugarCRM.

Then again, commercial vendors can be slow to issue fixes while the open source community can sometimes fix a bug rather quickly.

Blinkbid's hosting partner iRadeon regularly issues patches for major bugs, which does provide a sort of safety net. For less critical issues, or problems unique to his company's use of SugarCRM, Lesko can either pay iRadeon to help or ask the SugarCRM user community.

The main benefit, according to Lesko, is that his hosting company handles the operational headaches for him, and at a very low cost: about $5 per user per month. By comparison, hosted applications from San Francisco-based Salesforce.com start at $65 per user per month.

More control, flexibility with open source

Because the code of an open source application is accessible to anyone, it is always possible to add new features and functionality. In general, users rely less on a vendor for functional enhancements and customization. That is a definite advantage for companies with very specific requirements, and either some in-house programming talent or an affordable consultant.

"As an end user, you've got more control over the product. That's always been one of the big draws of open source," said Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica Inc., an open source consulting firm based in San Carlos, Calif.

"Customizability" that would accommodate a unique business model is a main reason Virginian-Pilot Interactive Media, a publisher in Norfolk, Va., chose to use the Centric CRM open source product to build its advertising portal, Adsjet.com.

"No one is doing what we're doing, so we had to build it," explained Ed Power, general manager for Virginian-Pilot Interactive Media. "We didn't want to go with proprietary software because open source allows us to grow and, as we become more sophisticated, to integrate that product with other things we have in-house."

Of course, not everyone wants to customize their software. Open source CRM may not be quite as attractive for organizations that want an application to fulfill their needs right off the shelf.

"I'd say that most of [the open source CRM vendors] have got the basic functionality pretty well covered," Golden said. "They're building out their functionality rapidly but, depending on what you need, it may be easier to locate a commercial product."

Jeff Minich, vice president of business development for iRadeon, agrees that open source lacks the more sophisticated features of larger, commercial CRM packages. "There is a features gap in a few key areas, such as reporting," he noted.

But Minich said small and midsized firms tend not to need or want complex features, and often prefer basic functionality and less investment.

Additionally, open source CRM products usually don't have verticalized offerings. So companies seeking a healthcare-specific CRM package will either need to purchase a commercial product or spend to customize it.

Baskerville advises companies that choose to customize an open source application -- as Spirit Cruises did -- to take a long-term view of the project. Target critical features first and allow the open source community to gradually help fill in those that are desirable but less urgent.

Sue Hildreth is a freelance writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at Sue.Hildreth@comcast.net.

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