by Seth Fineberg

Mountain View, Calif. - With a name like QuickBooks, one would think that even a new offering in the customer and client management space could guarantee a competitive edge. But Intuit Inc. may find that it has much ground to cover if it wants its nascent QuickBooks Client Manager and Customer Manager products to compete with long-time CRM players such as Best Software’s ACT! and FrontRange’s Goldmine.

To be sure, Intuit’s offerings are more like contact managers than fully functional customer relationship management. Some observers call the products “CRM Lite.”

Intuit officially rolled out the package in late September. It claims that it “links and syncs” with all of its major applications, such as QuickBooks accounting and the Lacerte and ProSeries tax preparation software lines, in addition to Microsoft Outlook, on a single-screen dashboard.

Client Manager is primarily geared toward accountants, while Customer Manager is aimed at small businesses, typically ones with up to 30 employees.

The products offer one-click access to financial and non-financial client historical data, including ProSeries and Lacerte tax returns and QuickBooks transactions, in addition to appointment and project schedules and to-do lists. Key features include the ability to attach files, organize and store client data, track client projects, and communicate with clients.

It was unknown at press time exactly how many users had signed on to the product, though Intuit claims that it has six million small businesses using Quicken or QuickBooks to manage their finances.

Shortly after the rollout, the product’s closest competitor, ACT!, publicly announced that its product had hit a record 1.9 million registered individual users and 16,000 corporate customers. ACT! has also been on the market for 16 years.

Intuit knew that it had to do its homework before coming onto the market with its latest offering.

“About two years ago, we started observing small business offices, and these guys just had paper everywhere. No data was organized, and most used Excel and Outlook for any kind of customer or client management,” said QuickBooks senior manager Charles Var.

“We knew ACT! and Goldmine were out there, and even thought of acquiring a company like that,” he explained, “but later realized that wouldn’t solve the problem.”

According to a recent Intuit user study, less than 13 percent of QuickBooks financial software customers use any specialized customer relationship management software, despite the fact that 89 percent regularly track customer information and 35 percent have investigated traditional CRM applications. The survey also revealed that existing CRM solutions were considered either too complex to use or focused too heavily on sales force management versus better serving customers, which is the top priority for small businesses and accountants.

“We saw a problem in the market, that was the first step. We went and observed the market and decided to go on our own when we asked how many were actually using any type of CRM product,” Var said. “We felt that what was out there wasn’t really designed for specific small business needs. So, rather than acquiring a sales prospecting product, we built a tool to provide great customer service.”

As to how he feels the current product stacks up against the competition, he realizes there are similarities, but believes the QuickBooks products will win in price and usability.

Customer Manager, which is available for sale at retail office supplies stores, sells for $79.99. The latest version of ACT! sells for $249.

Intuit is banking on its 25,000 QuickBooks consultants to help push the new product, and plans to offer online “Webinar” training on it this fall. The company also hopes that accountants will try Client Manager to learn more about the product before they start recommending it to clients.

“We strongly believe the usability of our product is a big advantage, too. If you want to add, you right-click and it’s added, whereas with Goldmine, it’s too many steps,” Var said. “We realize this isn’t a traditional CRM product. We’re not trying to do that. We are really trying to better organize data, sync and link to QuickBooks and Outlook.”

Some analysts feel the same way, with some caveats.

“It’s pretty sophisticated for a contact manager, but right now it’s really more for a sole practitioner business. Even so, it really feeds their customer base, particularly for companies that don’t have anything more than Outlook [for contact management],” said Sheryl Kingstone, program manager at Boston-based Yankee Group. “If you are a single-service tax advisor or accountant that doesn’t have to share, it’s great, but I think if Intuit really wants to compete, they are going to have to come out with a multi-user version.”

Kingstone also said that she believed ACT! and Goldmine are the strongest competitors to Intuit’s new products, but that Intuit “understands its core audience and will develop a product to that.”

Meanwhile, ACT! maker Best Software welcomes the competition and stands by its product’s many features and extensive history in the market.

To be clear, ACT!, like QuickBooks Customer and Client Manager, integrates with QuickBooks accounting products and Microsoft Outlook and Excel. It also links with Outlook Express, Lotus Notes and Eudora, and accounting packages such as Best Software’s Peachtree Accounting and MAS 90.

The latest version of ACT! also links with Palm and Pocket PC devices and retails for $249.95, or $999.95 for a five-user pack.

ACT! general manager Greg Head believes that these basic features, among other things, are the edge that his product has over the competition. Even so, he does see a place for Intuit’s latest offerings.

“If you are one person running a business or an independent consultant, I’m sure [the Intuit products] are great - but they have different needs than a 20-person company with specializations,” Head said. “As an organization grows, we know they want more sales-specific functionality, such as powerful searches and the ability to share across workgroups. That’s what ACT! does.”

Head also agreed that it was too early to tell what impact the new Intuit products will have on the market.

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