Best For Businesses invested in Zoho solutions
PROSFree for up to 10 usersStellar feature setGamification modulesPowerful email marketing tools.
CONSWorkflow automation limited to Professional TierZIA voice assistant needs more work
Best For Easy to use CRM for SMBs
PROSHas a workable free versionIntuitive user interface makes it easy to get up and runningOutstanding email integration features
CONSPricing can add up once premium functions are added
Best For SMBs with basic CRM needs
PROSFreshsales simplifies the CRM process for small businesses.Extensive customization options.Proactive AI assistantVarious integrations to extend functionality.
CONSNo reports available in the free plan.Determining which is the best plan can be time consuming.
Best For Users of Zendesk products
PROSImproved pricing optionsOffers a 360′ view of contact interactionsPowerful analytics for additional insightsOrganized layout and UI translates well on the web and on mobile apps
CONSUploading .csv files is tediousSMBs seeking a standalone CRM solution might find its feature set overwhelming
Best For Advanced CRM
PROSWide range of advanced features and customizationsPowerful social collaboration options and third-party app marketplaceOutstanding workflows and solid performance
CONSComes with a steep learning curvePricey
Best For Startups that need CRM
PROSNewly redesigned interface is more intuitiveWide range of help and support optionsGreat mobile website implementation
CONSExisting users will have a bit of a learning curve with new interfaceBasic reporting features
Best For SMBs and startups
PROSComprehensive feature set with various customization optionsOutstanding mobile applications, granular security controls, and 24-hour support
CONSPerformance can feel sluggishCould use extended APIs
Best For Growth-stage businesses
PROSFluid and dynamic designPowerful range of functionality with built-in project management chopsExtensive integration options
CONSInsightly’s move to the mid market product might price it out of SMBs considerationSupport costs extra for leads
Best For Sales-focused SMBs
PROSOffers an intuitive interface and deal-driven workflowSolid mobile apps plus call and email synchronizationHelps SMBs keep on top of their CRM process
CONSLimited functionality for the priceNo separation between lists of new leads and contacts
The effects of the pandemic continue to weigh heavily on how companies interact with customers. Between salesforces adopting hybrid work models and many customers still limiting their in-person interactions, the need to modernize how your sales staff communicates with customers (and vice versa) is greater than ever. Digital communications channels have replaced traditional ones and there’s no going back.
Keeping track of these new styles of interactions can be challenging. A spreadsheet certainly won’t cut it. A proper customer relationship management (CRM) system goes beyond simple contact tracking by keeping a complete audit trail of every interaction your staff has with each customer. This can include everything from the customer’s initial purchase, to support calls and what they were about, to a regional sales rep’s notes from a meeting or call, and so on. A CRM system allows you to track, analyze, and surface this data when it’s needed, often including integrations with other software systems.
Even if you already have a CRM in place, it may be time to upgrade to one that is better suited to the modern style of business. We tested and weighed 17 of the top players for this roundup, then whittled down our list to the 10 we see leading the pack.
CRM software helps you track contacts and nurture them to build customer loyalty and repeat sales. A good CRM will also make the information it gathers accessible to other business platforms via smart software integration. In this way, CRM becomes the epicenter of how you manage your customer’s journey, from the first marketing touch, to a closed sale, and on to the next engagement.
To succeed at that, CRMs need to be both smart and agile, and at the same time, easy for salespeople to use. Some very small businesses might try to use a spreadsheet to mimic what a CRM can do. But this type of homebrewed solution delivers but a tiny subset of the features you’ll get with a CRM, and it’s also cumbersome enough that you’ll be frustrated once your customer list grows much beyond 100.
The best CRM solutions are not only easier to use than spreadsheets, but they also do more than just retain user and contact information. They also automate processes, such as dynamically creating calendar events, setting appointment reminders, prioritizing the sales pipeline, and automatically identifying new sales opportunities. They can even rank them by likelihood of success. What makes that possible is integrating your other customer-facing data so the CRM can access it.
A good CRM solution doesn’t simply record your customers’ contact information. It remembers the details of your relationship at every interaction. That includes phone, email, and, increasingly, communications across other channels, such as social media or your help desk.
This information is a goldmine of opportunity. It lets 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 because it prevents multiple salespeople from chasing the same prospect. Choosing the right CRM software can dramatically improve your team’s collaboration and productivity at the same time that it’s increasing sales.
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. A key area for CRM growth in 2018 and 2019 will be the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) to leading CRM platforms. Vendors including Salesforce and Microsoft are building their own AI engines to enhance their CRM capabilities. Others are partnering with the likes of IBM’s Watson and similar players to integrate AI’s benefits into their offerings. This will significantly impact any CRM’s ability to parse data and draw new insights from all kinds of customer interactions. That directly impacts CRM revenue, as market research firm Statista shows us; details are below.
The Revenue Impact of AI Adoption in CRM
This revenue impact is possible because AI-enhanced CRM is a quantum leap ahead of what many companies still call customer relationship management.
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. Modern products can help your marketing and customer service departments with more refined demographic data. They can also coordinate automatic workflows across different departments, so you can seamlessly hand off customers to whoever is next in your sales chain.
Choosing a CRM is a significant investment, but bear in mind that the lowest number won’t ensure the best value. Knowing how your salespeople operate and having some idea of the features that can help them is where your pricing decision needs to start. Only by knowing what you need and then matching that up against the appropriate pricing tier are you going to get yourself the best deal. But there are gotchas beyond that, too.
Training can eat up a chunk of the budget, and so can upgrades and ongoing support. Consider how much it would cost to integrate the software with existing systems and whether or not you need additional equipment. For example, that mobile implementation looks slick, but will it still look slick once you’ve re-designed your customized CRM forms to fit on a smaller screen? And does it mean the sales or customer service teams need new smartphones or tablets? These costs can quickly add up.
Smaller teams can’t afford to invest in software that asks a lot upfront. These teams will 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. Much 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 carefully evaluating these products 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, such as importing data, adding information manually, connecting accounts, and assigning tasks to other users. Take note of how helpful the software is or whether it creates more work. Keep track of how often you have to consult the help system to complete a basic task.
One of the continuing trends we see with CRM solutions is consolidation 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. For example, Base CRM, once a notable standalone solution was acquired by Zendesk and converted into Zendesk Sell, 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 syncs 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. Growth-stage companies or businesses looking at expansion should start analyzing which integrations will make sense in the future.
The toughest part of making a good CRM choice is understanding what the product can do and what your salespeople actually need. Sales is a difficult and often fast-paced profession, which means your employees could actually feel burdened by the very tool you purchased to help them. That’ll kill adoption rates, so you need to understand what they need before tossing more technology into the mix.
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. That way you can kick the customization can down the road to someone else, usually a sales manager who is even busier than your salespeople. 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. The numerous features they advertise are the product of integrating with a host of third-party solution providers, not merely options you can turn on. Third-party integration means not only added licensing dollars but also new costs.
A better approach is to understand how your employees will use the software. 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 a tool forces users to dig through menus and submenus every time they want to log a call or email, the tool will complicate their jobs instead of simplifying them. More and more CRM tools combine 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.
Once you’ve looked at requirements from the sales team’s perspective, flip it around and think about your customer. Maybe even run an online survey or focus group. What is their best sales experience? Once you know that, you can tailor your CRM to fit.
Data quality should be a key focus of that tailoring process. You’ll need to pay attention to customer information that originates inside the CRM and the supporting data imported from other systems, such as finance or service desk tickets. Ensuring this data is “clean” means it needs to be verifiable, in the proper import format, and directly on-target to the CRM’s queries.
A study published in 2022 by Validity surveyed more than 600 CRM-using organizations globally. When asked how CRM data impacted sales, 75% of respondents said that poor quality data had cost their firms customers. Another 44% estimated their businesses had lost at least 10% in annual revenue that was directly attributable to bad CRM data (see graphic below).
Estimated Annual Revenue Impact of Poor-Quality CRM Data
Ensuring good data quality is a matter of testing and constant vigilance. You’ll need to run regular and repeatable tests on your system. Depending on the size of your staff and your CRM investment, the Validity report recommends you should also consider appointing a data management professional as the lead on keeping your CRM data clean. That person should manage the entire data flow, including not just your CRM but any apps connected to it. They should also handle the full spectrum of data management tasks, including automating data workflows, data protection, and backup. If you feel such a hire is in your future, you should pull that person in as early as possible, preferably at the evaluation stage before you purchase anything.
Careful evaluation before buying is essential. As with any piece of software, it’s critical to take advantage of free trials when available. No matter how many reviews you read or demos you watch, you can’t fully understand 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.
Most vendors offer at least a 14-day trial (which is relatively short; 30 days is better). 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 a long-term trial for larger companies.
Complexity is a common blocker to CRM adoption. Some of the CRM products we review here tout a “highly customizable interface.” That means a lot more than simply changing the look. Next to data gathering, a CRM’s next-most important function is as a workflow hub. That means you can decide which data you want to collect, who should provide it, when they should provide it in your usual sales flow, and where it should wind up.
Along the way, you can retool your CRM’s interface to show only the tools and features necessary to complete those steps. Everything else can stay in the background until it’s needed. It’s a good deal of work getting your CRM to this point, and not all the tested products can do it. But taking advantage of deep customizability is one of the most effective ways to make sure your CRM instance is as easy to use as possible. That’s step one for successful adoption.
The other end of the spectrum is what to do when things go wrong. Whether it’s a software bug or simply some difficulty using a particular feature, you’ll need a responsive support team. You can make that part of your SLA if you’ve got one, but if you don’t, then you’ll need to do your own verification:
New technologies aren’t automatically pervasive. For example, social media is a game-changing technology for interacting with customers, but 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 do that manually.
Take a close look at the solution’s mobile app. This should be a separate app, not just a mobile “capability” (which almost always means a mobile-optimized version of the desktop website) 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. Are you providing every employee an iPhone or is yours a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environment, which inevitably means supporting multiple platforms? Next, carefully evaluate what the app can do. Some apps offer a read-only view of your sales pipeline or contacts but don’t let you make updates until you get back to a computer. Others offer a seamless and responsive experience, letting you do everything on a mobile device that you would on a computer. Don’t commit to CRM software until you’ve used the mobile app in a way you and your team would do on a day-to-day basis. For many SMBs and their agents, the mobile component of a CRM app might be more critical than the desktop version.
Many CRM vendors cater directly to a 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.
Larger CRM platforms, such as Salesforce, have huge feature stacks that are sold as modules, with each module having a host of related features. If the features are what you need, then you can configure your entire solution simply by accessing the right set of modules. But if something is missing or your sales staff is simply more comfortable using something else, you may need to use software from third-party vendors to fill gaps. At that point, how well your CRM can integrate with other software platforms is key.
Integration 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 means that the company has a pre-built integration module you can just download and use 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 rolling your own integration. This is easiest if both systems have an open application programming interface (API). The most common standard here is representational state transfer (REST). With a REST API, you can have developers build a custom integration for you. That option certainly provides the most flexibility and customization, but it can also add significant costs depending on the level of your coding talent.
It’s also worth looking at any third-party software you’re considering, or indeed any software you already use, to see if there are integrations available from that side. 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 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 help desk 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.
Any plans you’ve got for your customers’ purchasing journey can also be affected by third-party software. For example, in these pandemic days and likely well beyond them, many buyers want an online-only experience and a personal touch. Video conferencing has become the most common solution here, and some CRMs have that included. Others still need a third-party integration to products like Zoom, which might actually be better if your customers are more familiar with it. Using video conferencing, you can attach recordings of sales and service calls to your customer records, parse keyword data for problem-solving and upsell, and even route evolving opportunities to appropriate staff. You can get similar results by integrating your business voice over IP (VoIP) service, especially if you’re using an interactive voice response (IVR) menu.
Bottom line: Simply knowing that your CRM supports third-party integrations isn’t enough, even at the outset of your purchase. The depth of integrations can vary hugely, so you need at least a semi-accurate understanding of the experience you want your salespeople and customers to have, now and in the future. Take your time and map this out as much as you can. You’ll vastly decrease the likelihood of a deployment failure and get your staff excited about the new system at the same time.
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 CRM solution (which means 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’s a warning sign when 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 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. 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 if they have, what their response was—is another good indicator of just what you’re getting your data into.
In this roundup, we tested 17 of the most popular CRM software packages on the market today. A few of them didn’t make the cut this time, but the packages that did include Apptivo CRM, Zendesk Sell, Sales Creatio, Freshsales CRM, HubSpot CRM, Insightly CRM, Less Annoying 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 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, all of which have 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.
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