Why I joined Zoho’s affiliate program

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I recently purchased a yearly subscription to Zoho One, and soon signed up for their affiliate program.

If you haven’t yet heard, Zoho One is one of the most remarkable SaaS services you are likely to come across – for about $250/year/user (when paid in my local currency, Rupees), you get all the apps listed here!

Yes, it is a bit crazy! Please note that the price seems to vary by country, because my understanding is that the same plan when bought from the USA costs $30 per month. That’s still very inexpensive.

In this article, I will explain what I have seen in my ~1 month of use, and what prompted me to sign up for their affiliate program, and how I rank various aspects of Zoho.

The Excellent Stuff

There are a few places where Zoho really shines.

Zoho SalesIQ Live Chat integration with Dialogflow

The main reason I signed up for Zoho is to test their SalesIQ live chat + Dialogflow integration, and I am happy to report that they have done just an outstanding job. It helps that their competitors have not even thought through a lot of issues, which makes their integration look even better.

I will be writing and discussing this a lot more in my upcoming articles, but here is an overview of the Zobot (Zoho’s chatbot API) Dialogflow integration.

Zoho One

Another reason I signed up for Zoho was their Zoho One plan.

On the one hand, you pay nearly as much for Zoho’s individual apps (such as Zoho CRM Plus) as you do for the entire Zoho One suite.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to see that to get full value from your Zoho account, it makes a lot of sense to go for the full suite of products. By the way, when I say Zoho One is excellent, I don’t mean all the individual products are excellent (more on that later). I mean the idea of bundling it in such a way is a very smart idea!

Budget friendly

I don’t really need to emphasize this. But if you are on my website, you are mainly here for the chatbot stuff.

One way to add a chatbot to live chat is to use Drift. Here is Drift’s pricing when you add their chatbots:

Someone will point out that it is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

That’s right, it’s not. Drift charges much more for much less, when it comes to website bots 😉 OK, maybe that’s a little bit opinionated. I think you should read my article on Zobot + Dialogflow integration, and read the rest of this article, and try out the 30 day Zoho One free trial, and decide for yourself.

Unorthodox bets

When I first heard that Zoho came up with their own cloud and serverless platform, I chuckled a little.

And then when I heard Zoho created their own programming language called Deluge Script, and then saw what it looked like, I thought that the Zoho folks had just completely lost the plot 🙂

Then I spent some more time looking at both, while trying to figure out the motivations for these unorthodox and unconventional bets, and it is making a little more sense now.

To be clear, Deluge Script isn’t actually very easy for non-programmers, although my reading is that Zoho employees disagree on this.

Your app/service will not be cancelled on you in the future

There is something very important about paying for the stuff that you use nowadays.

Let us take Dialogflow, the main subject of this website, and how Google has removed previously supported features.

Will Google deprecate Dialogflow itself some day?

Who knows?

The real problem with relying on any large company is that sometimes they stop supporting your product, and they don’t even feel obligated to help you migrate (beyond their “generous” 6 month window to take your data out).

Contrast this with what Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, said during the annual Zoho conference in 2019 (you can click on the image to go to the relevant video location)

Prices won’t be raised on you in the future

Another oddity, in these days of high SaaS margins, is Zoho’s commitment to “reduce the cost of your inputs” over time. For example, Zoho One remains at the same price*, but you keep getting new apps added into the suite as your requirements change.  By not having to buy another app, the cost of your inputs have been lowered (in relative terms).

No venture funding = better long term plans

Zoho has never taken venture capital, and doesn’t plan to do so in the future.

Here is what Sridhar Vembu says on refusing to take venture funding:

Continuous improvement

You can say a lot of things about Zoho products, but you definitely cannot say they are stagnant. The Zoho team is continuously improving its products, and this is a reason why a subscription like Zoho One keeps becoming more valuable over time.

One of the best resources on this topic has to be Zenatta Consulting’s Zoho focused podcast. I learnt a lot by listening to those podcasts, but probably the most useful stuff (once you listen to a few podcasts) is Brett Martin’s views on the latest Zoho features. He seems to assign them a mental rank of great, good and not-so-good, and you can observe a pattern over time which reinforces what I am saying. A lot of Zoho products seem to go from “meh” to “wow” in a span of about 12-18 months.

While I am on the topic of Zenatta, they actually maintain a list of recommended vs not-recommended Zoho apps. 🙂

The OK stuff

Now let us get to the stuff which is OK.

Customer Support

If you thought, “Wow! There is no way they could manage so many apps and still provide excellent customer support”, you would be correct.

Their customer support is definitely OK. But that’s about it. I wish I had some insight into why, but it seems to me that they have too many people handling single error reports from customers. (In other words, the message is passing through a lot of hands before getting to the concerned developer).

Besides, you can read reviews of Zoho products on sites like G2 and similar review sites.

Three themes will repeat often:

  • people are sometimes annoyed by the many, many messages it takes for your bug report to reach the right person
  • but not enough that they want to cancel their subscription
  • because even if they use only a fraction of the apps, it still saves them money compared to the alternatives

User Interface

I am not very good at explaining or identifying why, but sometimes the user interface becomes an extension of your brand. For example, I recently used Algolia’s search service for a project, and you can just tell Algolia’s user interfaces are a very unique and distinct part of their brand. You know a company takes their UI design very seriously when even the annoying GDPR popup and button looks nice. 🙂

But back to Zoho.

Zoho’s user interface is simple, and functional. I don’t think they are going to win any design awards. However, one nice thing is that they are very consistent. Plus the interface isn’t too cluttered (given the range of options they support), which I appreciate.

Privacy friendly

Normally, this should be under the “Excellent” stuff. Zoho doesn’t allow any third party trackers across their entire site.

So why do I have it under OK?

Because I am not sure how feasible it is to run a business anymore, without using third party trackers. If you have never gone down that rabbit hole, you should know that at the moment it is just all-pervasive.

  • If you are using (for example) Dialogflow, you are anyway storing potentially sensitive data on third party servers
  • Almost no business can run entirely on Zoho.
  • It is much easier to take this stance if you are actually a Zoho. I doubt that even 1% of Zoho’s customer base could entirely avoid putting third party trackers on their site.
  • You cannot embed YouTube videos or tweets from Twitter without adding third party trackers on your website.

So: well done, Zoho.

But I just don’t know how practical it is to choose Zoho for this reason, considering that you cannot stop using for e.g. Facebook, GMail, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Android, Windows 10 etc. and still have a business left over. 🙂

The 80/20 principle

Zoho seems to use the 80/20 principle when building a lot of features.

That is, in many Zoho apps, you will find that your basic use cases are satisfied (the 80% that all of us use). And then there is this other 20% that you want to do, and you just cannot.

This is where dedicated apps win, of course. Otherwise, by now Zoho would have put everyone else out of business. 🙂

The Poor stuff

There are a few things about Zoho which are poor and could be improved.

Unskimmable documentation

Zoho’s documentation is not great, nor is it particularly bad. Exactly the same thing could be said of Google, Microsoft and Amazon’s documentation.

But the real issue is that you discover so many things while watching videos created by the Zoho team. And you cannot find those things in text format even when you go searching for them.

This is really odd, considering that it is actually much easier and quicker to update text documentation than other formats.

Many ways to do the same development task

It also looks like there are many different ways to extend Zoho apps: for example you can use Zoho Flow (like a Zapier alternative), or Zoho Creator (a no-code app platform), or simply use Deluge Script to extend your Zoho app.

I haven’t seen much documentation on when to use which approach. Although I am willing to bet I could find it if I spent enough time and went through the online video tutorials, which emphasizes my previous point. 🙂

Lock in if you extend Zoho with your own apps

It looks like exporting your data out of Zoho is possible without much difficulty. But porting over your custom apps is an entirely different thing.

Remember the unconventional bets, such as Zoho Catalyst and Deluge Scripting language? The flip side of this is that they are not really embracing any open standards, and are more like Apple in that sense. So expect a fair amount of lock in if you decide to extend Zoho with a ton of custom apps and scripts.

On the other hand, they do seem to have a track record of doing their best to support their existing customers, so that counterbalances the issue somewhat. 🙂

I am not sure if this can actually be improved, but it is definitely something to consider before you jump into Zoho.

Zoho Commerce isn’t a part of Zoho One

Initially, I thought 100% of apps were included in Zoho One (my fault, I never checked). But that’s not true.

Note: apps keep getting added to (and sometimes retired from) Zoho One quite frequently, so the list above may look different when you look at it.

I am actually quite surprised that Zoho hasn’t added even a limited version of Zoho Commerce (their eCommerce website builder, and an alternative to Shopify) into their Zoho One suite. With COVID causing a giant spike in online shopping, I would have thought that this would have been a good way to get some new customers for the Zoho One suite.

Why I became an affiliate

So I have decided to become an affiliate because of these reasons

  1. Obviously Zoho Live Chat + Dialogflow is the best live chat integration at the moment for Dialogflow
  2. The positive aspects/traits of Zoho easily outnumber the negative ones
  3. There are a few Zoho apps I could use for my own business
  4. I like their quirky bets, although I don’t know how successful they will be
    1. they are developing their own serverless platform
    2. they own every single aspect of their technology stack, including their own programming language
    3. their stance on data privacy

I am very interested in seeing how they develop over the coming decade.

* What happens if there is runaway inflation at some point? 🙂 Can Zoho keep the price of Zoho One the same? I don’t know. Although Zoho One’s price would probably be the least of our worries during an actual runaway inflation. 🙂

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