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

The kicker is a sticker price of only $25 (about £12) 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. Little wonder that the product has attracted so much attention.

Further, AdventNet offers a suite of complementary applications including word processing and spreadsheets, HR, project management, reporting and invoicing that brings 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 organisations.

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 doesn't offer field format constraints to improve data integrity (for example, by ensuring that email addresses are formatted properly, that 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 email, which means that marketing campaigns will be an intensively manual process. There is an Outlook plug-in for manually pulling emails into the system, but this isn't a well-integrated arrangement.

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 organisation.

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 customise 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.

My home page offered anticipated features such as a calendar and task menu, quick links to recent items, and customisable data views (both tabular and graphical). I would prefer to receive alerts for calendar items and events - another missing feature.

In all, the browser-based interface was adequate. I experienced some buggy interactions with the back button (attributable to AJAX calls), and though inline editing is available for many fields, the constant page updates required for most tasks would benefit from some smarter AJAX injection or an eventual Adobe AIR desktop client.

One-click conversion of leads made easy work of populating accounts, contacts, and pipeline fields as sales opportunities advanced. Thanks to ample record-keeping slots, attachments, activities, emails, and notes, as well as quotes, orders, invoices, and service cases could all be tied to records.