The pandemic has made staying in touch with happy customers more of a problem than ever, and that'll likely continue in the age of hybrid work. The way your sales staff communicates with customers, and even more importantly how your customers want to communicate with them, is going to change permanently. That means many businesses are going to have client communication problems and therefore, potential revenue and marketing troubles, too. If you're looking at that scenario, then you need the best customer relationship management (CRM) system you can find. To help, we've tested and compared 17 of the top players, though only 10 made the list this time around.
A CRM's value is much more than simply maintaining a customer list for contact tracking. These services also track every interaction your staff has with any given customer and provide a means of measuring those touchpoints. This can include everything from the customer's initial purchase to their support history all the way to what the conversation was about during that last lunch they had with your regional sales rep. But more than just a bucket for comments, CRMs also store this information safely and where they can track, analyze, and surface the data when it's needed.
What Is CRM Software?
CRM is more than initiating contact with potential leads. It involves nurturing contacts and building loyalty while maintaining a dynamic repository of contact information and client history. Making this information accessible for collaborative teams and piping it out to other business software solutions via smart integrations is the logical next step.
User experience (UX) has become more important than ever, and being able to efficiently manage a businesses' relationship with customers through the entire sales and after-sales process is a key consideration. For small to midsize businesses (SMBs) trying to emulate CRM functionality on a large and unwieldy spreadsheet could lead to a lot of confusion and redundancy. CRM solutions are easier to use than spreadsheets, they also do more than contain user and contact information because they can dynamically create calendar events and set reminders. CRM software often integrates messaging and phone calling functionality, usually with recorded conversations that can be used to track and document customer sentiment and better insights.
A good CRM solution 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 help desk.
This information is a goldmine 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 salespeople 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 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 similar players to integrate AI's benefits into their offerings. This will have a significant impact on 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 shows us, 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 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.
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. That said, as we discuss below, many CRM vendors are expanding their products into a variety of areas beyond customer relationships. Just like email marketing vendors, CRM platforms are moving towards managing the sales lifecycle end-to-end with CRM representing the customer journey. The more expansive the tool, the more customization you'll need to make it work for you. That's why evaluating these products carefully is so important.
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.
New Directions for CRM Tools
One of the continuing trends we're seeing with CRM solutions is that they are being consolidated into larger product ecosystems. Some products, like the venerable Zoho CRM, aren't just the flagship suite of solutions in their ecosystem, they set the template for the rest of the solutions the vendor offers. Once a notable standalone solution, Base CRM, was acquired by Zendesk and converted into Zendesk Sell which is a more integrated solution that can feed into Zendesk's impressive array of customer support-driven SMB solutions. Freshsales CRM similarly provides a lightweight and simple SMB-focused CRM solution while offering expanded functionality. This includes providing integrations, workflow automation, and sales intelligence features. Freshsales CRM also synchs nicely with Freshcaller and Freshdesk solutions. A distinct convenience for businesses using those solutions.
Other CRM solutions like Sales Creatio have refined their user interfaces to enable users to switch on specific business processes. Sales Creatio makes it possible to toggle between Marketing, Sales, and Service functioning as a more dynamic control center for running various facets of CRM.
SMBs need to play the long game with their choice of CRM solutions. For growth-stage companies or businesses looking at expansion should start analyzing which integrations will make sense in the future.
Analysis to Boost Adoption
Taking the time to analyze not only what a prospective CRM can do, but also what you need any CRM to do in your particular sales cycle is key, and not just to get the best price on your investment. CRM has suffered from adoption problems in many companies that simply buy these tools and bolt them onto an existing sales workflow. Do that, and your salespeople and even their managers, are likely to see the system as just another hurdle they need to overcome on their never-ending quest for a commission rather than a powerful tool to help them fulfill that quest more quickly.
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 simplifying them. 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.
Most 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.
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.
Seek the Best 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. A fully optimized CRM should automatically capture data from email interactions, not force your employees to manually enter email data.
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. For many SMBs and their agents, the mobile component of a CRM app might even be more critical than the desktop version.'
Many CRM vendors, including Sugar CRM and Zoho, cater to the mobile workforce. Those apps are full-featured with responsive web design and layouts dedicated to a mobile experience. 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 and these kinds of apps fit that bill.
Marketing Automation and Lead Management
The ability to act as a lynchpin for a well-planned marketing automation strategy is one of the most valuable aspects 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. Marketing automation can lead to sales, in such instances where a prospective buyer abandons an online shopping cart without checking out. The system can send a well-timed email to the customer offering further discounts or incentives for closing the sale.
Lead management is the core capability of all CRM platforms. Lead management can track and manage prospective customers (often called leads or "opportunities") across lead generation and acquisition throughout the sales pipeline. Some CRM software providers use a greater degree of marketing automation to trigger actions and sales stages based on lead progression. Lead management is a part of all CRM platforms but how the provider handles it can make a big difference.
Some CRM platforms have email marketing built in while others can connect with a third-party service, such as Campaigner or Mailchimp. Automation can also play a part in email marketing, where an action by a prospect, lead, or customer triggers an email or email campaign. For example, if a user signs up for a webinar on your website, then that can trigger a series of emails about what to do next. Likewise, if a user cancels their account, then that action can trigger an off-boarding campaign that prompts them to save their data or it can trigger an incentive campaign offering discounts or other perks if they decide not to cancel after all. Automation can also mean changing the status of a customer or prospect based on an action on their part.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are also starting to show up in CRM software. Sales Creatio uses automation and predictive technology to remind users to complete tasks and guide them on what to do next. Salesforce launched its Einstein AI-based business intelligence (BI) platform, which can also provide automation across email management, lead and opportunity scoring, and forecasting. These technologies have a huge potential to save time and to help sales teams perform even better.
Third-Party Integrations Are Key
It's important to determine which features are included with your subscription and which require a third-party add-on. It's also worth looking at the software you already use to see if it's compatible with the CRM software you're considering. Maybe you already have email marketing software that you love or you want to connect your cloud storage service, lead management tool, or customer service management platform. As we've mentioned, you'll definitely want to be able to connect your email account and perhaps your calendar, too.
Another excellent example of a value-add integration with CRM would be your product support or helpdesk platform. Next to your sales staff, your product support professionals probably have the most direct contact with your customers and the information they gather in the course of even a short conversation can be gold to a salesperson. Problems with one product line can mean upsell opportunities to another.
Integration today takes two basic forms. The easiest is if the CRM system or the system to which you're trying to connect supports the other as a "native" integration. That simply means that the company in question has a prebuilt integration module you can simply select, download, and implement as needed. You'll have the best luck with big-name targets here as many companies pre-build integrations for companies such as NetSuite or Salesforce, for example.
The other method is that, if both systems support an open application programming interface (API), usually one based on Representational State Transfer (REST). With an API, you can have your in-house IT staff (provided they can do some coding) or an out-of-house contract programmer build a custom integration for you. That option certainly provides the most flexibility and customization but it can also add significant cost depending on the level of your coding talent.
Analytics and Dashboards
Once you've been using CRM software to manage your leads and deals, you can see how successful you've been and where you're falling short. Look for CRM software with reporting features that can be customized so that you can see how employees are performing and which types of customers are responding. Look for a tool that lets you export reports if you need to present high-level data to company stakeholders.
Next, take that API or native integration and plug it into whatever business intelligence (BI) tool your organization likes best. That's because BI can turn that humdrum CSV or PDF file reporting data into live data visualizations and IT dashboards. These can keep you, your sales team, and anyone else with access to the CRM data completely current on sales statistics, demographic information, product popularity, and any number of other metrics. Additionally, only today's BI tools let you combine data from multiple sources—such as your CRM database on one side of the business and your warehouse and supply chain on the other—and ask complex queries that take multiple data sources into account to provide new insights that any single data source simply couldn't.
Security Should Be Top of Mind
Invest in security. There's no simple way to put it. When you're working with the sales pipeline and customer data, make sure security is top of mind—especially if you're using a SaaS-deployed CRM solution (which means not only the app but likely also a big chunk, if not all, of your customer data resides in the cloud). You should feel comfortable with the company's security requirements. It is a warning sign if your CRM software lets you select a password but doesn't generate an audit trail whenever someone makes a change, or if it doesn't let you define the access controls for each user. Customer data is an extremely valuable commodity especially now that customers are more reluctant to part with it. Securing it isn't just about maintaining privacy; it's about protecting profitable relationships that directly impact your bottom line.
Integration plays a role here but it's mostly about research. From an integration standpoint, you can make sure your chosen CRM software can integrate with as much of your current IT security software as possible, such as your identity management system, for example, so your employees can take advantage of single sign-on authentication. But even more important than that is doing your homework. That means digging deep into the vendor's service level agreement (SLA) and ascertaining exactly where your data resides, who is responsible for its safety, and what happens if there's a problem. Doing some Google surfing to see whether this vendor has been breached in the past and what their response was is another good indicator of just what you're getting your data into.
Putting Top CRMs and New Entrants to the Test
In this roundup, we tested some of the most popular CRM software packages on the market today. The packages include Apptivo CRM, Zendesk Sell, Sales Creatio, Freshsales CRM, HubSpot CRM, Insightly CRM, Less Annoying CRM, Capsule CRM, Pipedrive CRM, Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, and Zoho CRM. We've worked hard to evaluate this CRM software with the aforementioned criteria in mind, so check out each of the reviews below to figure out which package is right for you. All have their strengths and weaknesses—some are geared more toward small to midsize businesses (SMBs) while others have broader email marketing capabilities. Some CRM systems are easier to use out of the box, with simple navigations and standard workflows, while others offer deeper and more complicated degrees of customization. Some are dirt cheap while others can be quite expensive when you start moving up tiers, scaling up your sales workforce, or adding premium functionality.
Our top three selections remain Apptivo CRM, Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, and Zoho CRM, which have all earned the Editors' Choice distinction for balanced feature sets and thoughtful integration features. Not all CRM solutions fit all business needs' however, this is why surveying the landscape and trying out newer entrants like Capsule CRM or Zendesk Sell (formerly Base CRM) makes sense. New solutions can bring just the right amount of innovation to capture an SMBs attention. In the end, it is the balance of a businesses' needs, the size and scope of its sales team, and how the company engages with it is customers that will determine the best CRM solution for a business.
Editor's note: Molly McLaughlin and Rob Marvin also contributed to this story.