Customer relationship management (CRM) solutions help sales teams manage leads, log communications and build campaigns. While such systems were once used exclusively by enterprises with thousands of dollars to spend on software products, the proliferation of affordable SaaS systems has opened the CRM world to small and midsize businesses. Low-cost CRMs lack some of the features more expensive solutions offer, but they are typically easy to implement and manage.
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CRM Software Comparisons
In our quest to find the best CRM software available, we tested full-featured solutions and lightweight cloud products side by side so you can decide what's best for your business. There are advantages and disadvantages to either type of CRM software. As with any business software, the more features and functionality a product has, the more in-depth the implementation process is. Additionally, highly customizable systems often require more knowledge to set up than out-of-the-box solutions, which are designed for small, less tech-intensive teams. However, while lightweight systems are easier and cheaper to implement, businesses that are expanding may outgrow such systems quickly.
To identify the best CRM solutions, we created a replicable ranking system based on product features, usability, scope, implementation process, user interface, integrations, level of technical skill necessary, customer service and user opinions. We then determined a diverse set of use cases to highlight top performers in our CRM software reviews.
Using our replicable testing method, we identified the best CRM solutions for small business users and reviewed dozens of other reliable CRM products.
What to Expect in 2019
According to the CRM giant itself, Salesforce, the future of CRM software will involve further aligning sales, marketing and operations around common goals informed by advanced analytics. Many CRM systems will begin to focus on improving the customer experience as much as the internal employee experience, which has historically been the focus of such software.
More artificial intelligence and machine learning features like chatbots and automated responses will eventually become the norm, but such features are likely to spread through the upper echelon of CRMs before trickling down to the less expensive options.
Costs of CRM Software
For small businesses, there is a world of CRM pricing options to explore. There are free and inexpensive lightweight CRMs, which are best for small teams and microbusinesses, and often offer upgrades as needed. There are also heavy-duty CRM platforms that are priced higher and offer more functionality, flexibility and scalability.
The amount you spend on a CRM system should be a balancing act between your current needs, your potential future needs and what you can afford. Most cloud-based services list the price per user per month but bill annually, while most native software products have a flat one-time, per-user fee. Some software companies further complicate pricing by offering add-on products and services, storage upgrades, mandatory training and implementation fees, and automatic upgrades. Make sure you fully understand the pricing structure of any CRM product prior to making your decision, and specifically ask about automatic upgrades, storage limits and user limits.
To get a sense of the general price range of CRM software, here's our mini guide:
- Inexpensive cloud CRM systems often have a free version for up to 10 or so team members. Usually, entry-level paid subscriptions begin at around $10 to $15 a month per active user.
- Midrange cloud CRM subscriptions tend to run from $20 to $40 per month per user. These systems will meet most small business users' needs. If ultralight solutions aren't working for you, step up to this level.
- Enterprise-level cloud CRM products are available for about $50 to $75 per user each month. These types of systems often offer higher levels of customization, more features, and personalized customer service or training services.
- High-end cloud CRM subscriptions can run upward of $250 per user each month, but such services are not necessary for most SMBs.
- Client-hosted CRM software can run well over $900 per user. These systems should only be adopted by organizations that have strong reasons for requiring a client-hosted system.
It's good to consider how many members of your team will need to access the CRM. As with most business software and cloud services, the fewer users you need to onboard, the less expensive your service will be, and the easier it will be to make a lighter CRM work for you.
The more you know about the type of CRM product you need and what is available for users like you, the easier it will be to find the best deal.
Most CRM software for small businesses offers structured pricing based on features and number of users, but getting multiple price quotes and asking for discounts is always worth a try if you're a smaller business. For larger businesses or those with a popular public image, it may be possible to negotiate for freebie features, additional customer support or add-ons in exchange for displaying the CRM on the "products we use" section of the business's website. In general, though, subscription fees are what they are.
If you're deciding between two levels of subscription services that a single CRM company provides, it may be worthwhile to inquire about creating your own custom plan. Again, though, CRM providers may only be willing to do this for large and/or high-profile clients.
Once we assessed the most desirable features CRMs offer small business owners, we compiled a list of more than 30 established CRM software companies. In the first elimination round, we compared factors like pricing, CRM tools, small business focus, customer service and customer satisfaction to establish the 10 strongest contenders from the initial list.
Next, we vetted our top 10 CRM companies against each other to select the ultimate winners. We created a numeric score based on features available (assessing nine different categories of features in all) and also noted qualitative differences in areas like standout features, training and implementation resources, ease of use, speed of setup, design, cost of additional features, selection and ease of integrations, tiers of service available, and level of technical skill required for high-level use.
Which CRM Features Do You Need?
CRMs run the gamut from lightweight services intended for quick and easy customer relationship and lead management to powerhouse systems with integrated e-commerce solutions and advanced analytics.
While many small business owners worry that they'll sign up for a product that doesn't offer enough functionality down the road, these concerns are often overblown. Higher tiers of service and add-on features are nearly always available. Also, while more features and functionality may seem inherently better, too many options within a system can be overwhelming, make the implementation process longer and more complicated, and cost more than necessary.
The best way to determine the features you require in a CRM is to list what you want to be able to do with it. Technology should never be adopted simply because it's current or common; it should be adopted because it solves a specific problem. If you cannot outline in detail what you want to do with your future CRM system, and why you want to adopt one in the first place, you may not be ready to implement it.
If you already know what you're looking for and why you need it, but you want to narrow down your options, begin by asking yourself (and your team) these questions:
- Should we have workflows with built-in multilevel approvals?
- Will we need to email clients directly from the CRM? What sales tools do we need?
- Do we want something that can be used out of the box, or do we want to do lots of customizations ourselves? If we do want to customize our own system, how much API access do we want?
- Who will be the primary software admins, and what comfort level do they have in that role?
- How much are we willing to spend, either per user or on an annual basis?
Whatever your needs are, list them out in addition to the answers to these questions. Make sure you also list any integrations you need (including proprietary legacy software, if applicable), and inquire about how such integrations are achieved prior to choosing a product. In some CRM systems, integration with an outside solution is as simple as clicking a few boxes; in others, you must use a third-party tool (like Zapier) to click your way through the integration; still others require hands-on coding to make integrations happen.
By outlining your needs ahead of time, you stand a much better chance of getting a product that does what you need without overpaying for features you'll never use. You can always upgrade – a company is never going to refuse to sell you more features in the future, so address your most pressing needs first and go from there. Keep in mind that when you're not a customer yet, nearly everyone you talk to is a sales rep, so treat their advice accordingly.
State of the Industry
In the last two decades, it's become harder to answer the question "what is CRM software?" It's grown from a glorified digital contacts repository to a powerful tool that businesses of all sizes can use to manage goals and tasks interdepartmentally. By aligning sales, marketing and inventory assets, CRM makes it easier for businesses to grow strategically and sustainably.
The proliferation of user-friendly and cloud-based CRMs has led to the adoption of CRM across many industries and increased innovation among competing software companies. Today, the landscape is dominated by feature-rich, easy-to-use CRMs that offer scheduling features, streamline the email marketing process and offer visual data reports. For small business users, the priority is often ease of implementation, and companies have picked up on that. Easy-to-use systems for businesses without extensive in-house tech expertise has become the holy grail for SaaS providers, CRMs being no exception.
Increased demand for such solutions has led to industrywide growth. IBM reported in its corporate blog that, as of 2017, CRM was a $36 billion industry, with Adobe (27%), Salesforce (21%) and Microsoft (20%) leading the market share, and that 87% of all CRM systems marketwide live in the cloud. The trend of moving from natively hosted software to cloud systems is evidence of the changing tide in business software, away from strictly enterprise-level systems and toward customizable solutions that businesses of all sizes can use.
Mona Bushnell contributed to the researching, reporting and writing of business.com's review of CRM software.
Common CRM Software Questions & Answers
In my career I have used Salesforce, Act, Commence and Maximizer for extended periods of time. When working with teams Salesforce has been my favorite as it allows for easy customization and deployment. As System Administrator for a Salesforce installation I created twelve Dashboards, 385 custom reports, the development of contract data in Salesforce and a general reconciliation of customer data with multiple silos of information. It was easy. I also took advantage of Salesforce's AppExchange...
Hi Bill, There are the pros and cons of a lot of CRM systems. What I look at is cost and return. If you are looking for a free type solution or a lower cost solution for smaller businesses you have to think in simple functionality 1) Does it track the lead 2) Is there a sales process you can setup 3) reporting 4) Mobile accessible 5) Support From there use it and build the business. This way as your business grows you move towards a better solution going from...
The sooner the better. There are relatively inexpensive ones that can still be powerful (I know of one that is $20 per month). I started with relatively low-priced one, and then when I needed more functionality than the one I had, I migrated to another one. There are usually easy processes for integrating your existing database onto a new system electronically. With a CRM or not, you must always have a consistent process for staying in touch with your prospects (sometimes called a 'drip...
You might ask yourself the real purpose for a CRM. There are plenty of data bases to store information, you could have avoided the Excel issue with auto backups and duplication... the real value in a CRM is to track and propel the selling process. Set times to call back, or to prospect, separate prospects and clients, track significant facts or personal data about clients but more so to track the progress in your selling process. Maybe the question really isn't if your business is too small for...
CRM software is sales-focused, while marketing automation software is marketing-focused. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems measure and analyze customer data throughout the customer lifecycle. The goal is to improve the business relationships with your customers. - Think analytics, upsells, service levels and support. All activities of a CRM are based around keeping customers longer and happier. There are larger software systems, usually with an emphasis of keeping all of the...