Open Source CRM: How Does It Work?

Monday, May 6, 2019
Christopher Sirk
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CRM.ORG is a knowledge hub for all things work: digital tools, customer service relationship software, and other innovative methodologies for exploring work-related relationships. In “What is a CRM?”, we break down the meaning of the three-letter monster that is CRM and explore the history, benefits, and features of the customer relationship software.  
 
 

To open source or not to open source, that is the question. Well, it is if you’re trying to choose a CRM for your business at least.

Open source CRM software and its proprietary competitors each have their pros and cons in terms of costs, complexity, upkeep, and overall user-friendliness.

Which one should you get to make your work life easier? The answer, as usual, can be somewhat complicated, but we break it all down for you.  

Open source code vs. proprietary software—what’s the difference?

Proprietary software is a closed system, a boxed up, finalized product. You download it for free, or buy a subscription, then set it up for your needs. No assembly required (aka. you can skip hiring in-house developers).

This category of CRMs are ‘full stack’—they’re generally designed for the big picture, which means they can cover basic needs across the board, with a faster start-up period.

With open source, meanwhile, the platform’s source code is available to the public for use and further development and modification. The expectation is that you’ll want to take the existent product and tweak things here and there to calibrate it towards your specific workflow needs. In most cases, said open source code is already well developed, and customization solutions have been streamlined for speed and ease.

Many small and medium-sized businesses go open source. Others choose closed source, proprietary software.

Both types do sales, service, marketing, support, project management, and every other CRM-y thing you can imagine. In other words, there’s qualitatively not a massive difference between them.

The choice is really all down to what kind of CRM applications you need, and how much time you’re willing to invest in getting your system up and running.

Some may find great appeal in the open source movement that surrounds CRM. With its sense of reciprocal community and freedom to innovate, contributing to open source can feel like you’re hacking the system, or simply producing something original. Others might find open source software development to be a time-consuming foray down the rabbit hole that distracts from the primary business.

These CRM systems tend to offer more robust integrations. You can also build the exact integration you want without any vendor restrictions. If you’re concerned about flexibility and scalability over time, open source definitely has the advantage.

Another very pragmatic reason for using open source tools is cost—they’re free or affordably priced (generally speaking) and are less likely to have time-based commitments to software licenses. If you signed up for a year with a proprietary CRM but decided it wasn’t right seven months in, you’d be eating some fairly rich costs. That wouldn’t happen with the vast majority of open source tools.

When it comes to ease of implementation, however, proprietary CRMs have the alpha. The task of adapting an open source CRM to your purposes is not to be taken lightly.

While both genres of software are functional out of the box, proprietary software is ready-to-go after the initial set-up. Open source business tools are usually going to require developer hours, as well as a very considered implementation plan to make them worth the time invested.

If you choose an open source platform, it’s important to make sure it has a strong, active community of developers. Updates, bug fixes, and the like all have to be taken care of by the developer community surrounding the platform.

As far as names in the field, SugarCRM was historically the most well-known CRM of this kind. Their Community Edition project spanned 14 years and resulted in a ton of spin-off projects. Yes indeed, those two sentences are past tense for a reason—the platform quietly stopped being open source in early 2018.

But its legacy lives on! Vtiger and SuiteCRM, for example, are proud children of SugarCRM’s original open source code, birthed and set off into the wilds in 2004 and 2013 respectively.

Here’s the lowdown on those two, and a few other key platforms worth checking out.

Who’s who in the glamorous world of open source

vTiger

Vtiger CRM Open Source covers the breadth of customer relationship management features you know and love. You can use it to run marketing campaigns and keep track of leads, customers, and opportunities, handling the sales cycle and daily workflows. Reporting and analytics features are included too (although it should be said the reporting features are somewhat lightweight in open source when compared to Vtiger’s paid version).

It has a Gmail extension too, which is super handy for referencing CRM data and info while emailing.

You’ll need to set up your own hosting account and use some technical skills (or enlist those who have them) for implementation. As you scale up your usage, you’ll definitely want to check out the market for add-ons.

SuiteCRM

SuiteCRM handles sales, service, and marketing, with custom module, layout, and relationship development tools that will please your IT department too (if you have one). They’ve also got a real-time dashboard, meaning as data streams in, new figures offer broader insights into things like pipeline metrics, open project statuses, and cash flow.  

This month, SuiteCRM received some welcome updates in the form of Google Calendar sync and Elasticsearch integration for quicker, more scalable text searches across your ever-accumulating pile of data.

With a low learning curve and easy set-up, it’s definitely one of the most approachable open source systems on the scene.

Endless modular customizability and add-ons mean you can use it for applications simple or complex. It also works on every operating system under the sun: Windows, OS/X, Ubuntu, Android, iOS—you name it.

Zurmo

Zurmo is a gamified, intuitive CRM with some lofty social goals of community, diversity, and inclusivity attached to their developer ethos. It’s easy to use and modify, manages contacts and amicably takes on sales pipeline and real-time reporting features. Marketing and sales force automation cut down your manual input.

The platform features tools for motivating and instilling a spirit of healthy competition in your team with points, badges, and experience points.

It’s good for on-the-go situations with iOS and Android versions. It’s a total cloud-based system, and you can run it on their servers or on or your own proprietary cloud, as you like.

Odoo

Then there’s Odoo, which (surprise surprise) also offers both a Community free version and an Enterprise edition CRM solution.

Odoo is all about ‘extensible architecture,’ with a modular design that lets you mix and match different features. There’s 10,000+ apps in the Odoo orbit, configured to integrate with one another seamlessly.

If you’re in retail, restaurants, and other brick and mortar enterprises, you may be interested to know it has a very useful point of sale app. Plugged into other Odoo apps, point of sale data can easily flow into your inventory, email marketing, and sales operations.

X2CRM

X2CRM has an open source edition, which generously shares the code through GitHub, SourceForge and Bitnami, thus encouraging anyone and everyone to customize it for their own purposes. The software can be downloaded right onto a webserver, but you can also get help when downloading it as part of a full stack.

This open source edition employs many of the core modules from the general (non-open source) X2CRM platform, which is more geared toward larger enterprises rather than lean startups. 

Lighter operations can take advantage of X2CRM Open Source’s tools for marketing campaigns and pipeline and funnel management. There are email modules that include open email tracking, and a feature to design workflow visualizations. Of course, there’s also Android and iOS apps.

OroCRM

Last but not least, there’s OroCRM, which has a reputation as the most flexible open source CRM. It’s based on the Symfony2 PHP framework for web development, which is widely used and well-liked. That means that lots of open source developers find it easy to understand Oro’s code and create new customizations, making it relatively easy and cost-effective to modify the platform to your needs.

Easy integrations with Zendesk, MailChimp, and many other clutch apps are a nice touch too.

Socially open

While all CRMs, both open source, and proprietary, started out as tools for sales teams, and later extended that reach to give marketing and support some helping hands, nowadays its social media teams that are the latest to enjoy the added perks of these platforms. 

And so it should be, as so much advertising goes on in that coveted social space.

Some CRM features for social media managers and teams include tools to unify all social channels into a single overview, pre-compose and schedule posts, provide analytics on reach and engagement, aggregate all incoming communication via all social channels into one dashboard, and even offer constantly-updated suggestions on what to post, when, and how frequently. 

Some examples of open source CRMs working closely in social media spaces are Vtiger, which integrates with Twitter, where you can tweet or upload a 3MB pic to Twitter right from Vtiger. In a different way, SuiteCRM integrates with other apps to do things like, finding out which social media networks your leads are most active on.

The name of the game is interoperability

Thankfully, softwares don’t come into this world in isolation and build garrisons around their code. 

A big advantage to many platforms is flexibility, specifically in the form of their API (application programming interface). This is sort of like the instructions from one set of code to another that allows two programs to work alongside, or on top of one another. 

There are different standards of API, with RESTful API (or sometimes just REST) being somewhat of a gold standard, especially with open-source CRM. This “representational state transfer.” Since the idea of open-source is to never close the gates on new developments no matter where they come from, many API builders count on the freedom and flexibility of RESTful API.

All of the above-discussed open-source CRMs take advantage of RESTful API.

Are you the open source CRM type?

Depending on your skill set and what you want to achieve with a CRM, open source might appeal to you more than a free or paid closed source one.  

If you’re running a small business and looking for very specific features, going open source CRM software could indeed be the way forward. But if your business is doing something more ‘normal’ in a well-defined market, needs more complex tools, and/or demands highly responsive product support, it might be better to go with a feature-rich, proprietary tool that was built to address your needs.

Thankfully, if you’re on the fence, it’s easy enough to download a free open source program and explore.

Happy hunting.

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