CRM plug-ins for Outlook: When is free not good enough?


This “very long” article is an adaptation of a reply sent to a client who asked why customers would want to pay for Riva Integration Server for Exchange and GroupWise instead of just using the free plug-ins for Outlook. As CEO and Managing Director for Omni, Aldo proposes that the limited functionality and complexity of free Outlook plug-ins are not what customers are looking for or require over the long term.

So, what is your opinion? Do you agree or disagree? Is free good enough or are your users looking for a better solution than legacy Outlook plug-ins? Send your opinion to

When free Outlook plug-ins are not good enough

Hello, Peter.

I understand your question about why you would want to pay for a product like Riva to integrate CRMs with Exchange or GroupWise when there are free or inexpensive Outlook and GroupWise plug-ins. Most customers do start with the free Outlook plug-ins. However, it doesn’t take users who use the free CRM Outlook plug-ins long to find out that free is not good enough when it comes to CRM integration. One interesting facet to server-side versus client side is that we hear much more often from end users who are looking for a better integration solution than we hear from administrators. That’s probably because the CRM administrators and support team don’t know there is an alternative to the clunky, legacy Outlook plug-ins. They figure if it’s free and if that’s the way Microsoft Outlook integration has always been done, why would they want to change things.

Yes, most CRMs provide a Windows-based, Outlook, free plug-in that allows users to select individual emails or contacts to be synchronised to the CRM and individual contacts and accounts to be sycnhronised from Outlook to the CRM and vice versa. And yes, most CRMs allow a user to archive an Outlook email to a CRM account or associate an email with a CRM opportunity, case or quote. At first glance, that seems to be what people need – at least that’s what people who are new to CRMs usually say when they start looking for CRM integration.

Maybe for certain environments with a limited number of users and minimum integration requirements, free is good enough. But if you take time to listen to end-users who struggle with the complexity and challenges of “broken” plug-ins, or spend time in the CRM forums analysing the comments, complaints, frustration and enhancement requests that users of these free Outlook plug-ins share, you soon realise that the free CRM Outlook plug-ins aren’t all they are made out to be by the marketing people. The plug-ins are free but the costs to deploy, implement, train and support them certainly aren’t.

What about the hidden costs of down-time and training your end users on how to use the plug-ins? Because Riva provides server-to-server synchronisation, there are no changes to any of the clients. This means that end users don’t need to be trained on how to use a new plug-in. End users just keep using their email client the same way they always have – nothing new to learn. No new software to learn how to use on your mobile devices. And your WebAccess and Mac users will be thrilled to finally have full, transparent CRM integration.

Free doesn’t always mean free either. For example, the Community Edition (free) version of SugarCRM does not include the free Outlook plug-in. You have to purchase SugarCRM Professional Edition to get the free Outlook plug-in. Want the free Outlook plug-ins with Maximizer? You have to buy the Group Edition. And if you want server-side synchronisation of Maximizer with Exchange, the MaxSync solution (at an additional cost) is required.

And free most certainly doesn’t always mean good, either. Here’s an example of a forum post started on the SugarCRM forum where users are asking for the functionality that Riva Integration Server delivers: transparent, server-side synchronisation between Exchange and SugarCRM. Although this post refers specifically to SugarCRM, the situation of advanced functionality not being free for Outlook is similar for most CRMs.

And Outlook plug-in problems are not limited to a particular CRM. They are plug-in problems with ALL CRMs. Here is a link to posts by Salesforce end-users who have questions and challenges with the Outlook plug-ins. You can just feel the end-user frustration in the posts. And this link describes why server-side integration is what customers are really looking for and is the future of CRM integration. Riva Integration Server delivers that future – today. This link shows numerous discussions regarding the limitations and complexity of Outlook plug-ins.

People who start out with the free, client-side, user-initiated synchronisation understand how much of a pain it is to install and configure the plug-ins on each of their office, home and laptop computers. Desktop support staff are faced with Outlook plug-in problems every day. One CRM consultant told us that they tell their customers to plan on four support staff visits per desktop to deal with re-installing/fixing Outlook plug-in issues. And, when you upgrade your version of Outlook, Exchange, desktop OS, etc., you get to start all over! Customers with plug-ins understand the support and maintenance costs associated with deploying a client-side solution are definitely not free.

Sales Managers understand that they can’t depend on individual users to remember or want to synchronise information to the CRM. This means they can’t achieve their corporate mandate of ensuring customer information is up-to-date. They understand that if end-users are frustrated with the CRM integration, they won’t bother updating opportunities and the value of the CRM investment and end-user adoption will be severely impacted.

These forum posters are looking for the server-side, seamless functionality that Omni customers get when they buy Riva Integration Server.

So, when else is free not good enough? Free is definitely not free if the plug-ins don’t work because you use a Mac or Outlook Web Access or want to access and modify your CRM information on a BlackBerry or ActiveSync device. Unless you are running in a Windows Exchange Server 2007 and “pure” Windows desktop environment, the free Windows Outlook plug-ins are probably not good enough to allow you to sycnhronise your CRM contacts, appointments and tasks with your BlackBerry or mobile devices. Most CRMs require third-party applications to allow your mobile users to manage their CRM contacts, calendars and other CRM information. And those applications usually aren’t free.

Free is not good enough if you want to deliver server-side, transparent integration. For example, Maximizer requires you purchase their MaxSync solution to provide server-side integration with Exchange. This, of course, incurrs additional servers licences, backup licences, etc. Most free Outlook CRM plug-ins are Windows-only and only deal with email, calendar and contact/account information. Free is not good enough to deal with or integrate business processes or workflow into the CRM integration.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the free Outlook plug-ins deliver the ability to automatically convert an email into a CRM opportunity, quote or support case and/or automatically create the CRM contact and account if that information is not already in the CRM and then, automatically synchronise the new account information back down to their email client so the CRM information can be managed – from ANY email client. This is the type of functionality that customers start looking for as soon as they get over the initial free plug-in integration piece.

Yes, it would be WONDERFUL if CRM companies provided free server-side integration, but they don’t. I recommend you take some time and review the on-line Quick Tour Videos on our web site:

In summary, the advantages and the cost savings that Riva brings to customers are the direct result of Riva’s game-changing server-side, transparent integration. These advantages are: simplicity; end-user satisfaction and adoption; decreased training, installation and support costs and better integration.

Here are some other reasons why customers purchase Riva instead of staying with the free Outlook plug-ins:

  • a single installation on a single machine
  • nothing to install on any of the clients
  • works with ALL email clients which means it works with Macs and Outlook Web Access
  • no training costs on how to use the plug-ins because end users just keep working with their email client
  • automatic access to CRM contacts and calendar information on your BlackBerry and mobile device with no additional software to install or learn
  • gives access to the advanced SmartConvert, AssignTo and ConnectBar CRM interoperability and integration functions
  • no desktop support visits to fix broken plug-ins
  • no help desk calls for help on how to use the plug-ins
  • no “broken” plug-ins or re-installation when you upgrade your Outlook client or desktop

I look forward to receiving your feedback on Riva’s transparent, advanced CRM integration and other functionality.


Aldo Zanoni
CEO and Managing Director
Omni Technology Solutions Inc.