The challenging economic climate has taught business owners that it’s absolutely imperative they embrace solutions that will help them work smarter and focus on generating revenue. Of course, limited budgets make business automation solutions that much more difficult to evaluate and implement. If your number one goal for 2011 is to bolster lead generation, customer acquisition, or customer retention, you must ask yourself this question: How am I going to create operational efficiencies that will free up my time, give me leverage, and allow me to grow my business? Here are some free tools that will help.
If you’re focused on increasing revenue, it makes sense to consider implementing a CRM (customer relationship management) solution. Qualified visitors to your website are like gold, and you want to create multiple touch points to extend the conversation/interaction, and convert them into customers. ZohoCRM is one of the most robust free offerings available to small business owners and allows you to formalize your sales process and manage the pipeline.
Included in the free version of ZohoCRM are the following:
- Accounts for up to three users
- Sales force automation: leads, contacts, accounts, and opportunities
- Marketing: campaigns, e-mail templates, and e-mail opt-out
- Customer support: cases and solutions
- Common features: tasks, log calls, calendaring, reports, dashboards, and product customization
ZohoCRM offers various a la carte options, like Outlook integration that is reasonably priced at $3 per user, per month. If you find you need more advanced features like security administration, workflow management, group chat, or case escalation rules, you have the option of upgrading to the Professional or Enterprise plans.
ZohoCRM offers a 15-day free trial of its pay plans, which range from $12 per month to $25 per month.
Another way to make sure you’re nurturing incoming leads is to give visitors the option to interact with a representative via Instant Messaging with a service like Zopim. Many times, visitors don’t want to pick up the phone to ask a question, nor do they wish to wait for a response to an e-mail or form submission. This solution is also another way for you to interact with existing customers and maintain a history that can be shared with the rest of your team.
The highlights of this solution include:
- Integration with your existing IM client (AIM, Google Talk, MSN, or Yahoo)
- Integration with your CRM system, such as ZohoCRM, to maintain history of customer conversations (in beta and available to all users)
- Multiple-language support
- Automatic integration with Google Analytics
- Offline form
If you find you need more agents or want advanced features, you can upgrade to one of the pay plans that range from $9 to $99 per month. Zopim offers a 14-day free trial of these plans that doesn’t require a credit card.
You hear a lot of talk about social media being “free,” but it still requires a great deal of time and effort to make sure you’re presenting a consistent message across all relevant channels. One of the best solutions for consolidating and streamlining your “social marketing” is HootSuite. It allows you to maintain a central view of your social presence, schedule messages in advance, and track the results of your efforts. The most powerful feature is called Hootlet, which is a plug-in for Firefox and Chrome that is essentially a bookmarklet that allows you to share links right from the page you’re viewing.
The HootSuite free plan lets you:
- Monitor up to five social profiles (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
- Monitor up to two RSS feeds
- Use iPhone, Droid, and Blackberry apps
- Schedule tweets
- View threaded conversations
- Integrate with Ping.fm
An upgrade to the $5.99 per month Pro plan adds the following:
- Integration with Google Analytics and Facebook Insights
- Influence scores
- URL parameters for identifying and tracking campaigns
- No ads
You can also add and manage additional team members for $15 per user per month. HootSuite offers a free 30-day trial for the Pro plan.
Most successful companies eventually make the transition from Microsoft Excel for managing invoices to a more robust solution. If you do some research, you’ll find a very large number of small businesses using FreshBooks to simplify this time-intensive process. FreshBooks has done a great job of listening to their customers when it comes to third-party integrations, so you can share data across various tools. You can view an exhaustive list on their site, but some of the more notable partners are Basecamp, Outright, Shoeboxed, Highrise, Wufoo, MailChimp, and Zendesk.
The free version allows you to:
- Manage up to three clients
- Enter unlimited invoices and contractors
- Accept online payments
- Create timesheets, document sharing, support ticketing
- Add custom logos to your invoices
- Perform data imports/exports
- Automatically schedule invoice creation
FreshBooks offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on all pay plans, which range from $19.95 to $39.95 per month.
If your business can’t operate with free or low-cost SaaS applications alone, you’ll have to allocate resources to evaluate and deploy some kind of network management solution for your internally hosted hardware and software. Spiceworks is a unique solution in that you get access to all features and functionality of their Spiceworks IT Management solution absolutely free. The trade-off is simply that you will be presented with advertising from companies like Microsoft, HP, and Google while using the product.
Rather than purchase several different network management tools from multiple vendors, you can deploy Spiceworks and:
- Take inventory everything on your network
- Run an IT helpdesk
- Monitor your network for trouble
- View an automatically generated visual map of your network elements and how they interrelate
- Generate and publish custom reports
- Troubleshoot network issues
- Manage your IT purchasing
- Manage your users
- Track network configuration changes
- Connect with more than 1.3 million Spiceworks users and share expertise and best practices
This includes a “buyers club” offering discounts on various third-party products and services. Spiceworks does offer an ad-free deployment for $30 per month.