What Is CRM Software?
A successful sales effort means maximizing every interaction with a customer, without the customer experiencing any additional burden. To do that, salespeople need to be armed with the very latest information you have about a lead. Not just who they are but what they have purchased, how they’re using it, and how happy they are with the results. That’s where customer relationship management (CRM) software shines.
Often, small to midsize businesses (SMBs) try to mirror CRM functionality with just a large and ever-growing spreadsheet. However, not only is CRM software easier to use than a spreadsheet, it’s what you’d expect if your contact list decided to evolve a brain and take part in your sales conversations. It records your customers’ contact information and remembers the details of your relationship and every interaction—whether by phone or email, and nowadays across other channels such as social media or even your customer helpdesk.
This information is a gold mine of opportunity, letting you identify prospects for up-sell or cross-sell, convert existing customers to new products or services, target new marketing, or even track invoices. The software is also a fail-safe, preventing sales people from chasing the same prospect. Choosing the right CRM software for your business can dramatically improve your team’s collaboration and productivity, increase sales, and heighten customer satisfaction.
In its September 2018 report, “CRM Software Market Research Report – Global Forecast to 2023,” Market research firm Market Research Future forecasts the CRM market to grow up to 35 billion by 2023. In addition, the CRM market’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) will be 6 percent between 2017 and 2023, according to the report. A key area for CRM growth in 2018 and 2019 will be the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) to leading CRM platforms. Manufacturers like Salesforce and Microsoft are either building their own AI engines to enhance their CRM capabilities or partnering with the likes of IBM’s Watson and similiar players to integrate AI’s benefits into their offerings. This will have significant impact in any CRM’s ability to parse data and draw new insights from all kinds of customer interactions, and that has a direct impact on CRM revenue as market research firm, Statista, details below.
The Revenue Impact of AI Adoption in CRM
Such a revenue impact is possible because AI-enhanced CRM is literally a quantum leap ahead of what many companies still call customer relationship management even today. Even now, employees might use a spreadsheet to simply pass on information about past sales via email threads. Or worse, such information is often left to casual word of mouth, which means it’s often missing when needed or it’s entirely forgotten. CRM software keeps this information in one place, efficiently organizes it, and makes it possible to take immediate action with it. Such actions can include sending a loyal customer a gift card on their birthday or offering an up-sell opportunity to a platform from which you know their business can benefit (based on previous conversations). It’s also a great way to woo back inactive customers. The key is to select the software that’s right for the way your team works. The last thing you want is to see employees fighting new software instead of interacting with the customer.
CRM software isn’t just about tracking and maintaining contact information. While most look to CRM software as primarily a sales tool, it’s moved beyond that space. Marketing and customer service departments can dramatically improve their offerings and operations with CRM as well by using its data to more effectively segment demographics and record and reuse customer incident information. CRM software also helps coordinate interdepartmental actions. For example, the sales team can take advantage of something a customer service representative discovered in a separate transaction. Depending upon the software you choose, you can set and measure sales goals, deliver and track email marketing campaigns, or keep an eye on what people are saying on social media.
Pricing and Add-ons
Price can be a significant factor when evaluating CRM software, but that analysis should focus on more than just the upfront costs. Most of the CRM software we looked at offers per-user pricing but it’s important to check what’s included in that price and which features you actually need.
Training can eat up a chunk of the budget as can upgrades and ongoing support. Consider how much it would cost to integrate the software with existing systems and whether or not you would need additional equipment. That mobile implementation looks slick on the vendor’s website, but will it still look that slick once you’ve designed the customized CRM forms your business will use every day? Does it mean the sales or customer service teams need new smartphones or maybe even tablets? These costs can quickly add up.
Taking the time investment into consideration is why trying out more than one program is key. This way, you can choose the software that will be most efficient for your company. If you have the resources to train and onboard staff and customize the software yourself, then eventually it will start to work for you. But smaller teams can’t afford to invest in software that asks a lot up front; you need something that will be up and running in a day in most cases. Read the support documentation and you’ll get an idea of setup complexity and any issues you might bump into with the software you already have. Use the free evaluation period to try out important features: import data, add information manually, connect accounts, and assign tasks to other users. Take note of how helpful the software is and whether or not it creates more work. Keep track of how often you have to consult the help system to complete a basic task.
As CRM software has grown more sophisticated, it has branched out into many different directions. There are plenty of options for implementing your CRM in a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model or for deploying it on-premises by using your own server. Cloud-based CRM is rapidly growing in popularity because it means you can quickly get up to speed and don’t have to worry about managing software on your own servers, which adds complexity and cost. You can look for the software that has deep hooks into social media management and analytics platforms so you can record customer interactions on Facebook or Twitter. Plus, you should definitely consider CRM software that integrates with your business phone system so you can capture call and conversation information. Look closely at your business processes, discuss with employees what they need and want, and contrast that with your bottom line. By doing so, you’ll quickly have an accurate picture of the right CRM software for you.
It’s tempting to forgo this homework and simply pay for one of the big, all-inclusive CRM software packages just to have access to every feature you might need now or in the future. But that approach will almost certainly wind up costing you more in both time and money, while probably delivering less flexibility than you’d expect. That’s because these large CRM software packages are often platforms rather than tools. This means that those myriad features they advertise are really the product of integrating with a host of third-party solution providers, not options you can simply turn on. Third-party integration means not only added licensing dollars but also new integration costs.
A better approach is to understand how your employees have to use the software as well as how they want to use it. Think about what tools your team is currently using and what processes they follow. Figure out how those tasks map to the CRM software you’re evaluating. Consider what some of the most common tasks are. For example, if the users have to dig through menus and submenus every single time they want to log a call or email, then the tool will actually complicate their jobs instead of simplify them. Form a small group of users who understand these day-to-day issues to help you in your evaluation; frontline salespeople and managers as well as IT managers are a good start. You don’t want to impose a tool that actually makes key tasks more difficult or complex just so you can pay a premium for features those same employees may never touch. More and more CRM tools are also combining the email and sales experience into a single smart inbox or centralized dashboard view to manage all or most daily communications and tasks, without leaving the CRM tool.
As with any piece of software, it’s essential to take advantage of free trials when available. No matter how many reviews you read or demos you watch, you can’t get a real sense of how the CRM software works until you use it yourself. Be sure to have colleagues from different departments try out the software, too, so you can understand how successful it is in different situations and business processes. This way, you can eliminate programs with too many or too few features as well as understand how much training will be necessary.
Most of these companies offer at least a 14-day trial (and we consider that fairly short as 30 days is better) and some, including Apptivo CRM, Insightly CRM, and Zoho CRM offer free plans, albeit with limited features or users. These can either serve as a full-time solution for small companies or as a long-term trial for larger companies. Apptivo CRM, Insightly CRM, and Zoho CRM also offer free trials as do Base CRM, PipeDrive CRM, and Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional.
Ease of Use and Support
CRM software must be intuitive or you’ll never want to use it. Make a note of how many clicks it takes to conduct a basic task and how easy or difficult it is to find the features you need. Beyond being easy to use, CRM software should be able to manage user error. For example, if you try to conduct a task on the wrong screen or input the wrong data, then the best software will identify your error and suggest the right way to do it. On the other hand, poorly designed software will either let you make the error unchecked or will throw up an unhelpful error message.
One way to figure out if CRM software is really easy to use is by training others on how to use it. If you get stuck while training someone else, then that’s worth noting. Think about the time it will take to get your team up to speed and whether or not it’s worth that investment.
Finally, when you run into problems, whether it’s a software bug or a problem using a feature, you’ll need a responsive support team. Verify what type of support is included with your subscription and the hours of availability. If available, read through the support documentation, FAQs, and other self-service help (options include blog entries, public knowledge bases, and even online training videos). If there aren’t any self-service options, then consider that you’ll have to contact support whenever you get stuck. That said, you should contact support while you’re trying out software and make a note of the response time. Ask a lot of questions; this will also help you familiarize yourself with the product. CRM software is complicated, but support shouldn’t be.
And watch out for gaps in the support plan. Many of these solutions, especially the SaaS entries, have tiered, subscription-based pricing. That often means different levels of support depending on the subscription you choose. If your business process requires access to the CRM on weekends, for example, then make sure you’ve got access to support during those hours.
Email, Mobile, and Social Features
Don’t get distracted by CRM capabilities you won’t use. Make sure the software you ultimately select captures the information that’s essential for your business, allows effective follow-up, and is easy enough to use that your team will work with it, not around it.
Remember that new technologies, while slick, aren’t automatically pervasive. For example, social media is a game-changing technology for interacting with customers. But as much as social and collaboration applications such as Slack are catching on, that doesn’t mean email is dead. Most customers still expect to interact with you via email, and an email can still capture much more data than a Facebook post or a tweet can. Understand how your company interacts with customers over email and make sure your CRM software acts as a complement to that relationship, not as a hindrance. CRM software should automatically capture data from email interactions, not force your employees to manually enter email data. Similarly, integrating your CRM software into your email platform means that entering the customer’s name or ID in one platform automatically brings up data from the other.
Take the time to also properly evaluate the mobile app; this should be considered a separate app, not just as a mobile “capability,” and you also shouldn’t be asked to pay anything extra for it. Mobile devices are an entirely different breed from desktops or notebooks. Employees use them differently and software renders them differently, which means that business processes that involve them will behave differently. Make sure your CRM software of choice can support the mobile device platform your team uses and carefully evaluate what the app can do. Some apps offer a read-only view of your sales pipeline or contacts so that you can look up the relevant information while out and about. Those apps won’t let you make updates until you get back to a computer. Others offer a seamless and responsive experience, letting you do everything you would do on a mobile device that you would on a computer (but usually presenting tools and features differently, which can be difficult for some users to get used to). Don’t commit to CRM software until you’ve actually used the mobile app in a way you and your team would on a day-to-day basis.
Companies, including Sugar CRM and Zoho, cater to the mobile workforce, with full-featured, responsive apps, and mobile layouts. If you have a field sales team that leaves their laptops behind and instead works on their tablets and smartphones, then you need to give them the tools they need.
The ability to act as a lynchpin for a well-planned marketing automation strategy is one of the most valuable aspect of CRM software, and it’s a shame that not all software packages offer it—though most are beginning to get there. Marketing automation is a popular term these days and it refers to the software’s ability to remind sales and marketing representatives to follow up with customers at the right time. Automation reminds you—or, in some cases, actually handles the task for you—of needed activities such as following up 30 days after a sales purchase with a coupon or calling the sales prospect 14 days after the individual signed up for a trial of the software. It can also extend to other software, such as kicking off an email marketing promotion based on criteria that are reached during a phone call with the customer, even if that call was initiated with the CRM system.
Best CRM Software Featured in This Roundup:
HubSpot CRM Review
Free at HubSpot
Pros: Free version available. Very intuitive interface. Excellent email integration.
Cons: Gets costly when you start to add premium functionality. Relatively new, so some minor feature oversights, such as only allowing a single email address per contact record.
Bottom Line: HubSpot CRM is an excellent choice for smaller companies looking to get into CRM for the first time, especially since it’s free. But while it’s an easy step to take at first, be aware that it can get pricey if you flesh out its features as your organization grows.
Zoho CRM Review
$12.00 at Zoho
Pros: Free for up to 10 users. Stellar feature set. Gamification modules. Google integrations. Valuable reports. Powerful email marketing tools.
Cons: Workflow automation limited to Professional edition.
Bottom Line: An early player in the CRM space, Zoho CRM offers plenty of power, a decently intuitive interface, and a vast collection of advanced features and third-party integrations. All in all, an easy pick for Editors’ Choice.
Freshsales CRM Review
$12.00 at Freshsales
Pros: Offers a variety of native and third-party integrations. Great customization capabilities. Intuitive interface. Free version available.
Cons: Fewer third-party integrations than the competition. Reports not available in the free plan.
Bottom Line: Freshsales CRM is an easy-to-use customer relationship management platform aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. A friendly price and a good feature set make this app well worth considering.
Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional Review
$75.00 at salesforce.com
Pros: Smooth workflow processes. Tons of advanced features. Highly customizable. Social collaboration. Robust third-party app marketplace. Free 30-day trial.
Cons: Steep learning curve. Expensive, especially when accessing more advanced lead generation and managerial features.
Bottom Line: Salesforce combines a formidable feature set with a matching learning curve, but the platform offers everything you could want as far as CRM capabilities for organizations of any size.
$25.00 at bpm’online
Pros: Task automation. Personalized tools for event planning, ad campaigns. Predictive unified business process. Feature hiding capabilities. Automatic triggers for marketing campaigns, like programming emails.
Cons: Relatively short trial period. Initial experience can be daunting. Forms require some coding skills. Doesn’t work directly with social networks as Zoho CRM does.
Bottom Line: Bpm’online CRM has long been focused on larger businesses and enterprises, but it works fairly well for midsized companies, too. This popularity is based on the product’s evolution, which now includes excellent analytics and reporting as well as marketing automation features.
Less Annoying CRM Review
$10.00 at Less Annoying CRM
Pros: Simple, uncluttered user interface. Low monthly price. Multiple active pipelines for each lead. Straightforward lead management tools.
Cons: Basic reporting. No notifications of lead handoffs within the application.
Bottom Line: Less Annoying CRM might be the simplest of the simple CRMs we reviewed for small businesses. While you’ll need to be careful that this entry-level solution still gives you the features you need, it’s an excellent package for beginners at a reasonable price.
Insightly CRM Review
$29.00 at Insightly
Pros: Email tracking and templates. Granular sharing settings. Power BI integration greatly improves reporting capabilities. Expanded workflow management features in mobile apps. Creates web forms to harvest leads.
Cons: Lead assignment rules only available in Professional and Enterprise plans. No automatic email forwarding. Lead and contact info split into separate tabs. Pipelines not available for leads.
Bottom Line: Insightly CRM ticks all the boxes that most small businesses want when it comes to customer relationship and lead management. However, this platform adds some tools you don’t see under a CRM hood every day, including data gathering and project management features.
Pipedrive CRM Review
$10.00 at Pipedrive
Pros: Simple, intuitive interface. Helpful guidance. Easy setup. Solid mobile apps. Customized web forms for collecting leads. Can create more than one pipeline.
Cons: Limited functionality for the price. No separation between lists of new leads and contacts.
Bottom Line: Pipedrive CRM is a solution that drops feature depth in favor of ease of use to attract small businesses. If you’re satisfied with basic functionality and you want to implement CRM quickly, then this package might be for you.
Apptivo CRM Review
$10.00 at Apptivo
Pros: Do-it-all, customizable solution. Affordable. 24-hour support. Great mobile apps. Granular security controls. Workflow and campaign management tools.
Cons: Integrations still custom rather than based on standard APIs.
Bottom Line: Apptivo does a great job of checking all your CRM boxes. A fair price, a friendly interface, and lots of customizable capability makes it an easy Editors’ Choice pick, especially for smaller businesses looking to get into CRM quickly.
Base CRM Review
Pros: Simple interface. Free 14-day trial. Free training webinars. Full-featured mobile apps. Innovative predictive analytics reporting.
Cons: Customization ability is limited. Deeper automation, reporting, intelligent analytics, and permissions only available at higher tiers. Significant price increase.
Bottom Line: Base CRM does a solid job of delivering a simple to use CRM aimed at small business customers. It even manages to set itself apart through some advanced analytic capabilities and reporting.