Managing contacts can be the lifeblood of a growing business. Contacts represent longstanding customers, partners, and those who might become either. While managing this treasure trove of business data can be done with a mammoth spreadsheet, today’s organizations, especially small to midsize businesses (SMBs), are far better served tracking their company’s known associates using customer relationship management (CRM) software.
Not only easier to use but also much more versatile than a spreadsheet, CRM software is a contact list with a brain. It records your customers’ contact information but it 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. That information is a gold mine of opportunity, letting you identify prospects for up- or cross-sell, convert existing customers to new products or services, target new marketing, or even track invoices. Choosing the right CRM software for your business can dramatically improve your team’s collaboration and productivity, increase sales, and heighten customer satisfaction.
The best CRM software can deliver those benefits because it organizes and records the institutional knowledge all businesses maintain about their customers. Employees might use a spreadsheet to pass on information about past sales or share email threads that show a customer has been a loyal patron. But 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 upfront; 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 in order 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, Bitrix24, Insightly, 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, Insightly, and Zoho CRM also offer free trials as do Base CRM, PipeDrive CRM, PipelineDeals, 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.