Customer and project management systems - comparison

2013-Feb,
Dan Dascalescu

Pretty much any business nowadays can benefit from a collaboration platform to manage internal communication, customer relationships, projects, time, budget and so on. Salesforce, Asana, Basecamp or Slack are popular choices - but there are many more web and mobile apps that can help people in a small or medium company coordinate and work better together.

Throughout 2012-2013, while working at Blueseed, a three-person startup, I analyzed web-based contact and project management systems with tagging support, Gantt charts, API and Google Apps integration. Aside from Gantt charts, our requirements were pretty basic, and if a software package implemented them well, it would beat the competition by far, hands down.

In total, I tested 37 products in detail, looked at another 39, and NONE satisfied the basic requirements well.

Note - I haven't evaluated enterprise-grade CRMs like Salesforce or SugarCRM, since we were a small startup at the time. This is a comparison of CRM and project management systems for SMBs.

Requirements details

  • contacts management - the ability to have an address book shared within the organization. Social integration would be great - even something as simple as hyperlinking a contact's Twitter username to their Twitter URL (it's unbelievable how almost no platforms I tested did that!)
  • project management, with Gantt charts (this already rules out a lot of candidates, though it's an artificial requirement that I do not recommend insisting on any longer). Ideally, tasks could be assigned to more than one person, and could belong to more than one project, reflecting the realities of knowledge work. Similarly, projects should be hierarchical, and dependencies within the system should map closely to reality (e.g. one task can block two other tasks). Wrike was the clear winner in this category.
  • a sleek, fast, modern UI, with a pleasant user experience, employing current information visualization paradigms such as the three-pane view.
  • tagging throughout the system.
  • a Gmail contextual gadget that would make it easy to integrate incoming email into the platform. This is very useful if your company received a lot of inbound email leads, but not really useful otherwise. The functions we were looking for, that no app on the Google Marketplace implemented entirely at the moment, were:
    1. display all the information stored in the system about the contacts in the email's From, To and CC fields.
    2. if the contact is new, offer to add them.
    3. create a project or a task associated with the contact or not, pulling in the email body (including formatting) and attachments.
  • an API to interface with other systems

Nice to have

  • activity stream
  • rich text in project/task/contact notes (i.e. basic formatting, hyperlinks and inserting images)
  • real-time notifications within the application (Podio wins here)

Candidates

What I've tested in detail: AffinityLive, Apollo HQ, Asana, Collabtive, CubeDrive, Do, Glasscubes, Google Contacts, Goplan, GreenRope, Insightly, Manymoon, Mavenlink, myERP.com, NimbleCRM, Nutshell CRM, Plancake, Podio, Producteev, ProjectCompanion, rule.fm (now Glip), Slack, Solve360, Tangerine District, Teambox, Teamwork PM, TimeToNote, Trello, WORKetc, Wrike, Zoho CRM. For software development I've used over the years Atlassian's JIRA, Bugzilla, Redmine and Trac.

What I've evaluated (read about their features, checked out the community, but didn't test drive the product): 5pm, Basecamp, Brightpearl, Clarizen, Embraiz CRM, EmForge Portal, FogBugz, Ganttic, Glasnost21, GroupCampProject, KPI (former WorkForceTrack), Nirvana, Open Atrium, PivotalTracker, ProjectManager, ProjectPier, RockTask, Smartsheets, Thinkfuse, Trakeze, Viewpath.

I haven't tested yet: activeCollab, AgileZen, CapsuleCRM, centraldesktop.com, Freedcamp, Glip, HeapCRM/Torch, ]Project-Open[

However, given the stopping rule suggested by the Secretary problem, I won't do any more testing unless I get direct requests that show how the product satisfies ALL the requirements I listed above, except Gantt charts.

Summary of results

comparison_table

The only applications that had PM, CRM, API and Gmail contextual gadgets were Podio, Solve360 WORKetc and Insightly.

Wrike was the clear best at project management, but doesn't support contacts at all. The other apps weren't compelling enough to test extensively. We ended up starting with Wrike and switching to Podio after it became evident that Wrike couldn't be used as a CRM with even basic success relative to our (rather modest) needs. Note that Wrike has undergone a massive redesign, which in my opinion has significantly decreased its capabilities and appeal. I no longer recommend Wrike.

Open-source solutions

All of the above are closed-source, hosted options. The most powerful open-source option was Tine 2.0, which doesn't have Gmail integration, and its UI is very much desktop-like. Tine may be promising, but a seriously flawed decision to split the community by language (English vs. German, with German posts outnumbering those in English by a factor of 5), prevented Tine from attracting developers worldwide.

Another open source solution, though not listed on GitHub (!), is Plancake. The UI is less desktop- and more web-oriented than Tine's, but the application is essentially not much more than a task list.

Detailed comparison

Do you have a VERY LARGE display?

Open the CRM and Project Management comparison table in a new tab or save it as PDF

Note that due to a limitation of Google spreadsheets, you can't wrap cell contents. Feel free to download the table from the File menu in the new tab in Excel or Open Document format.

Recommended CRM/PM systems

For project management, Wrike beat the competition hands down, back in 2013 (it has since undergone a massive redesign, which made it significantly worse in my opinion). When I evaluated it, Wrike was by far much more powerful than Asana and equally fast and easy to use. I've asked on Quora why Asana is so popular despite being much less featured than Wrike. The answer? Marketing. If you need to store contacts (and who doesn't?), Wrike will only offer a contorted solution - i.e. you abuse it by creating contacts as tasks or folders. Which besides being unnatural, comes with obvious shortcomings, like inability to properly filter. The root of the problem is that Wrike doesn't support custom fields, so structured data about contacts will have to be entered as free text in the "description" of a task or folder. Which is a recipe for disaster down the road, can't be searched for (yes, Wrike, doesn't search in folder descriptions!), can't be filtered, can't generate reports etc.

For CRM, I can't quite give a recommendation. Try NimbleCRM, which is perhaps the best at integrating with LinkedIn and Twitter. I haven't tested it much because it didn't offer an API (a key requirement for my team) until January 2013. Nimble didn't have any project management features though - it only had tasks. We ended up using Podio, but we didn't have a sales process per se, so requirements were rather low.

For storing arbitrary data with a nice UI, Podio wins hand down. At Blueseed, we used it to store customers, investors, expenses, deliverables, projects, and... ships and ferries. However, project management features are poor and forced to map onto a general forms/database structure. In other words, if you think of projects as sets of values (name, creator, assigned people, description, due date etc.) then yes, Podio will do the job. If you need anything that's truly a project management feature, like Gantt charts or aggregated progress reports, or even simple things like assigning a task to more than one person, tough luck. Podio, by design, can't do that.

While support at Podio was very pleasant, the team suffered from a scaling problem: they claim 200,000 customers, have been bought by Citrix in April 2012, but they still complain they have a small team, and systematically refuse to fix trivial things, even when provided with all the information needed to do so (screencasts, even JavaScript code). The Android app was poorly written (you couldn't search for instance, which defeats the point of being mobile), and Podio seemed to be using somewhat backwards technology - they hadn't quite jumped on the cross-platform HTML5 bandwagon yet, since they need to develop separate iOS and Android apps. For reference, and especially if you're a web developer, check this amazing video of how to properly build mobile apps with HTML5 that beat in speed and functionality native apps: Sencha: HTML5, a Love Story.

For a cross between CRM and PM that doesn't suck, try Insightly. It has a brilliant feature, not copied yet by any other system (except by Podio in a half-assed way) - linking items! As in, you can link two people and specify the relationship, e.g. "manager" -"employee", or "referred" - "referred by". This feature is really useful in mapping real-life connections, people love it (check the Google Apps Marketplace reviews for Insightly), but nobody else has borrowed the idea. Insightly's project management was not really pleasant to use, and the CRM's reporting features were non-existent. Support was ineffectual in my experience, mirrored by reviewers on Google Apps Marketplace.

For everything/the kitchen sink, WORKetc. It's complex, cluttered (despite their "design overhaul" during the summer of 2012) and paid training is recommended (!) but it can do most of what you want it to. If your team adopts it, that is. A lighter alternative is Bitrix24, though in the days of UI sleekness lead by Asana, Wrike and Trello, Bitrix24 is left behind as well.

Some promising candidates

Back in spring 2012 when I started the evaluation, Teamwork PM had the fastest development, but its People module needed some work to be used as a contact management tool, and there was no Google Apps integration yet. Apollo and rule were promising, but there was no API or Google Apps integration yet.

Top 10 mistakes that most CRM/PM web apps make

After wrestling with ~70 CRM/PM system over the course of a year, it still boggled my mind how many common mistakes are repeated over and over. It's as if most teams haven't done any competitive analysis.

  1. Failure to create a community around the product. A simple forum like Vanilla Forums (which can function either as SaaS or self-hosted) would do the job. In addition to offloading work from the support team to the users themselves (who can search the forums for their problem, and help each other), a community is a great way to see what the most requested feature suggestions are, to show prospective customers that they won't be alone, and that support is great (assuming the product's support team actively participates in the community). Otherwise, the support team ends up answering the same questions over and over via private support channels (almost invariably Zendesk, which suffers from an annoying flaw - it can't distinguish "Pending" tickets between "Pending customer action" or "Pending support team action". Yup, what a genius distinction to make (mirror).

    • Some products use UserVoice to get feedback, which albeit silly (everyone gets the same number of votes, even if you're a power user or Joe Schmoe), is still better than nothing. Most ignore the feedback received though, or give boilerplate answers. As for using Facebook for this purpose (Insightly, Apollo, rule.fm), that's a really lame choice. Search is non-existent, to begin with.
    • A sub-case of this is poisoning the community. The best example is Tine 2.0, which is very promising (being based on a Rich Internet Application framework having a modern UI, and allowing for rapid development), but a seriously flawed decision to split the community by language (English vs. German, with German posts outnumbering those in English by a factor of 5) has preventing non-German speaking developers (i.e. most of the world) from joining and improving the project.
  2. Lack of integration with social networks for the vast majority of CRM products. Information is power and when I go to a meeting, I want to see the latest about my contact - their latest tweets, LinkedIn, FB and Google+ posts. Insightly does that for Twitter, and Nimble also integrates, but that's about it. Also, surprisingly, only HighRise has a Rapportive applet. (If you don't know what Rapportive does, go install it NOW).

  3. But hey, social networks are advanced. Half the products I've tested don't even integrate with Google Apps. This when 5 million businesses (in June 2012) were using Google Apps. And with Gmail having over 425 million users. Talk about market opportunity in your face. Getting listed in the Google Apps Marketplace is the single best thing the marketing department of these PM/CRM products could do, yet most don't.

  4. The Gmail gadget is a very powerful way to integrate with Gmail (and a great advantage when competing in the Google Apps Marketplace), yet all products except WORKetc squander the opportunity by only letting you create tasks out of the email's contents. How about adding the person who sent the email to the CRM? (Solve360 does that) Or how about adding the people in CC to CRM? Ahh but wait, that's too brilliant for anyone to implement. Seriously. None of the product managers behind the CRMs with a Gmail gadgets envisioned the use case of Jill replying to you that she's delegating something to Joe, who's in CC?

  5. Many teams refuse to fix the very simple things that give a big bang for the buck or avoid costly errors (Podio, Insightly). Some are just plain stubborn in the face of user requests - Norada, the makers of Solve360, is the leader. Here's how they refuse to implement folders:

    "We don't do folders (or hierarchies). These are super important to us and we won't shake them."

    or to enable creating standalone tasks (not associated with a contact):

    "We don't manage tasks independently of a project or contact, here we want things to have context"

    Well, what if I have a task like "Go to the post office to mail [whatever]" or "Update X on the website"? Why do I need a contact for that? WTF.

  6. Strong Not Invented Here syndrome. As an example, WORKetc spent 6 months or so to build a grid control from scratch (they're proud of that), when web frameworks like Sencha and many others have solved this problem extremely well and long ago, with thousands upon thousands of developer hours behind it. This helps explain why development is so slow, in spite of WORKetc having over 50 employees.

  7. Trial requires credit card. (CapsuleCRM, rule.fm) A lot of users will simply be turned off and leave.

  8. Not allowing tasks to have a start or end time, in addition to a date. Is it so uncommon to have a task that must be performed at a certain time of the day, such as posting on social media when users are most likely to be engaged? Are all tasks supposed to take at least an entire day? (Wrike, Insightly, others)

  9. No country drop-down when entering a contact's details (WORKetc, TimeToNote, others). This is really obvious: by not having a country, users are forced to type one, and multiple names of the same country can be entered (USA, United State of America, US, U.S.; United Kingdom, Great Britain, UK, CCTVLand etc.). Later when filtering contacts by country, these inconsistencies will lead to a frustrating mess.

  10. Adoption of new technologies is very, very slow. The vast majority of products still use relational databases (MySQL), and run into their limitations (I spoke with the developers at Wrike about that - that's why they don't have custom fields). The only NoSQL-powered CRM product I know of is NimbleCRM, which uses MongoDB - kudos!

I hope that with the rise of the amazing Meteor framework, a Meteor-based fully-JavaScript PM/CRM will emerge. Making a simple task list app, with support for tags, is so trivial in Meteor that it's one of the sample apps, and only has ~200 lines of code. MongoDB also has just implemented full-text search in Jan 2013.

Consulting

I'm happy to share detailed insights into the CRM/PM/collaboration platform landscape, or discuss work opportunities. Feel free to contact me through my About page.

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