Office Productivity in the Cloud: A Zoho Case Study

By Paul Rubens | Posted May 14, 2014

Youth Routes, a community organization based in the north of England, helps young people to achieve and learn outside of their academic environment. It helps provide work experience and organizes music festivals that allow aspiring musicians to showcase their talents.

Until the beginning of 2013, the organization's two key staff members used Microsoft Office on their standalone PCs.

The Challenge: Introduce Collaboration, Document Sharing, Integrated CRM

Youth Routes' chairwoman, Paula Atherill, recognized a need for closer collaboration with her colleague, something that she says was difficult using Microsoft Office. "We had been using Office for a long time, but we found that it lacks collaboration features. We wanted to share documents easily, carry out editing together, share contacts and share a calendar," she explained. "But we also had a special need as well; we wanted to use CRM software, and that is very important to us," she added.

Atherill knew that Microsoft offered a cloud solution consisting of Microsoft Office 365 plus Dynamics CRM, but this option required too much investment for a small organization such as Youth Routes, she said.  She also considered Google's cloud-based Google Apps for Business but rejected it for two reasons. One, it lacks a CRM component, and two, it would have involved learning a whole  new way of working with email, she believed. "I don't like the logic and layout of Gmail," Atherill said.

The Solution: Zoho's Cloud-based CRM and Productivity Apps

She also looked at Zoho's cloud-based productivity suite. Owned by India-based Zoho Corp.,  Zoho also offered an integrated online CRM package with all the functionality that Atherill felt a small organization like Youth Routes required.

She was also impressed with the company's cloud-based email application, she said. "Zoho's Mail is as close as anything I have ever seen to Microsoft's Outlook. The majority of people have experience with Outlook and most don't want to leave it," she said.

Since Zoho offered the CRM functionality she needed, plus cloud-based productivity and email apps that she felt were familiar and easy for anyone used to Microsoft's Office suite to use, and because Youth Routes has limited financial resources, she decided Zoho was the obvious solution for her organization.

"The package that we subscribe to includes CRM, productivity and email, and it's much cheaper than Office 365, which doesn't include the CRM component at all," Atherill said. "And more importantly, the CRM integrates with Zoho's Mail and its other applications," she added.

Youth Routes staff now use Zoho's Writer word processor app, Sheet spreadsheet app, its Docs online storage facility, Calendar time-and-meeting scheduler, and a free version of its Projects  planning, time tracking and reporting app.

Zoho: The Benefits and Drawbacks

So far, Youth Routes' Zoho experience has been extremely positive, with the functionality and ease of collaboration that Atherill wanted. "I think that the product itself is head and shoulders above what Microsoft offers in the cloud in terms of CRM, email and everything else," she said. Because it is cloud-based, Youth Routes does not have to worry about software upgrades or file server maintenance.

The main drawback to the solution is that the company lacks the support and local representative resources of its two main rivals, Google and Microsoft. This may not be an issue in the United States, but it certainly is in the UK, Atherill said.

It is also not clear where Zoho actually stores Youth Routes' data, Atherill said, but Zoho does state that its data stores comply with the EU Safe Harbor framework as set forth by the Department of Commerce (USA).

Another problem with Zoho that Atherill has encountered: it's not always easy to get information about the product and its future plans. For example, she said that it is not clear how scalable the solution is or what kind of discounts would be available if her organization grew rapidly.

"I have not seen anything about scalability, so there could definitely be scalability issues," she said. "If you just had to pay multiples of the standard license cost then that would be unaffordable, but the problem is that it's not easy to get to the strategy person in India to find out."

She also notes that the product is clearly targeted to the United States market, using U.S. English terminology in applications such as CRM. Although not a problem for U.S. users, this lack of language localization to other markets could be seen as an inconvenience, at the very least, to international customers. Zoho's website claims support for thirteen languages, including UK English, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, French and German, however.

Lessons Learned

1. Before subscribing to any cloud solution, check how much localization and support is available for your country.  Larger companies may be better able to provide this outside the United States.

2. Check that any information you need for regulatory compliance is easily available from the prospective cloud application provider.

3. Providers like Zoho that offer integration between their productivity applications and business applications such as CRM (and others such as HR and data mining) may be easier for smaller organizations than mixing cloud services from different providers

Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to Enterprise Networking Planet, ServerWatch and Enterprise Mobile Today. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines, including The Economist and the Financial Times, since 1991.

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