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The Best Small Business CRM Software for 2021

Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms keep sales departments informed and efficient, both of which are vital to staying competitive no matter what size of business you’re running. Although common in large companies, CRMs are less common in small businesses, particularly microbusinesses and startups. You might be able to get away with a contact management app for a while, but if your sales are in any way dependent on good customer relations, you’ll eventually be looking for a CRM. Fortunately, CRMs explicitly built for small businesses can help get you started.

A Funnel for Customer Interactions

If you’re wondering what a CRM can do for your business, then think of it as a sponge that can soak up as much information as your company has about a specific customer and then lets you wring it out so that information flows everywhere you need it to. But what any organization, particularly smaller ones, needs to understand is that these systems aren’t plug-and-play. Getting the most out of your CRM will take a good deal of planning and integration work, but the results can be amazing.

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If you use CRM to its full potential, it can gather all interactions your company has with a customer and combine it with related data, like accounting, inventory, marketing, and purchasing. That can help you maintain a thorough sales pipeline that’s not only accurate but also able to react to new opportunities very quickly. So if a help desk representative realizes a customer is ready for an upsell opportunity while addressing a different support concern, that information doesn’t get lost in an email that the tech may or may not send. That data is automatically snared from the tech’s trouble ticket, added to the customer’s CRM record, and then placed in the pipeline so the sales manager can parcel out the opportunity.

What makes that kind of automation possible is because CRM’s can move data in and out of the system across multiple channels. Depending on how your sales department works, CRM data can show up in a dedicated app interface, in an email, in a Slack message, and on any device, especially mobile ones. Even more important than fast dissemination is intake. That’s where you really want to pay attention to your CRM’s automation capabilities.

If your sales staff, help desk technicians, and accounting personnel all need to enter data on every customer manually, your CRM implementation will probably crash and burn. Even if they actually took the time to do it — and most won’t because it’s just too much work — the data would probably be inaccurate. Only by automating data gathering in the CRM and every app with which you integrate it will you be assured of getting the data you want and moving it where you need it. You’re always looking to build a funnel. A big wide mouth at one end that grabs as much data as it can. By the time the data reaches the other end, the funnel has parsed it into useful units aimed directly at the people who need it.

If you’re using your CRM right, it’s common to have CRM tendrils extending into email marketing, sales calls, meetings, invoice creation, contract management, and even automating various day-to-day tasks. Gathering data for business intelligence (BI) purposes is also important, though often more so to larger organizations with a bigger swath of customers to target.

The challenge for larger businesses when rolling out a CRM is primarily adapting it to the needs of extensive sales teams. Implementation and training aren’t as difficult, since these companies have big, dedicated IT staff and probably many premium professional services help from their CRM vendor. Smaller businesses on the other hand not only face the challenge of adapting a CRM to help and not hinder their sales staffers, but they also have a steeper hill to climb when it comes to implementing and learning to use all the features a CRM can provide.

Over the last couple of years, however, CRM vendors have begun directly addressing the needs of small business buyers. Some have built brand new products with new interfaces and features designed from the ground up with small and micro-business users in mind. Others have pared down their flagship products to make them easier to use while keeping an upgrade path easy for growing customers. In this roundup, we put ten top players in the small business CRM space through their paces.

What Is Small Business CRM Software?

If you’re an entrepreneur or small business with more than 50 customers and you’re trying to emulate CRM functionality on a big spreadsheet, you’ve probably already found that unwieldy. CRM solutions are easier to use and they do a lot more than just store customer and contact information.

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CRMs have two important advantages over spreadsheet contact lists: First, they add internal features that directly handle other parts of your sales funnel, notably pipelining, scheduling, and even commission management among other things. Second, and even more important, they integrate with other software.

Your spreadsheet just sits there, but a CRM platform can move customer data back and forth between itself and other systems automatically. Those can be hugely important synergies for managers that are trapped in the morass of running a business because they’re probably neglecting potential opportunities.  

You can’t overestimate the positive effect smart software integration can have on your sales process. Hooking your CRM to the right tools the rest of your company is using means it’ll be able to surface the details of every customer interaction on demand—whether by phone or email, and nowadays across other channels such as your customer help desk, social media, and certainly any face-to-face encounters. As long as they’re configured to talk to the right software in your company’s portfolio, CRMs function as funnels for all these interactions so you always know how your business is touching your customers. That can cover anything from lunch with a sales rep to things like website contact forms, phone calls, online chats, and social media mentions.

All that data is stored and correlated so salespeople not only know who has had contact with a customer and when, but what that customer purchased, how happy they are with that purchase, what else they’re thinking about buying, and what else the company thinks they should buy. That data is used to fuel the sales pipeline, prioritize deals, and assign sales personnel either using a policy or by direct manager intervention.

Data When and Where You Need It

So getting back to the funnel description mentioned above, the primary function of any CRM is data collection. Whether it’s from documents, phone calls, social media chats, or anything else, you’re looking for a solution that can handle grabbing data from all the key channels you’re using to interact with customers. But gathering the data is only half the mission. Parsing and surfacing comprise the other half and that’s where it can get sticky.

Once you’ve decided on your primary customer communication channels and made sure your CRM can grab data from them you then need to tell it what to do with that data. If you’re gathering phone calls and social media chats, what’s the CRM looking for in those data streams? Keywords, like a specific product name? The name or account number of the customer? Some indication of what the call or chat was about, like whether it was a help desk problem or a sales inquiry? This is where the real intuitiveness of a small business CRM can shine.

In an enterprise CRM, this part is handled by a platform-specific developer or implementation staff. Setting up Salesforce in your enterprise, for example, means building an implementation team comprised of your IT and sales staff and a number of Salesforce experts, too. In a small business situation, that kind of manpower isn’t generally available, so it’s up to the CRM vendor to make configuring and customizing your CRM as easy as possible. Naturally, that means you won’t get as flexible a solution as you would with an enterprise platform, but that’s why you’re evaluating your CRM prior to purchasing it. You’re looking to make sure it can grab the data you need it to grab, analyze it for the information you need, and then route that to the people who need to know.

That routing function is less complex than the data gathering and parsing function, but it’s no less important. Your CRM can score an A+ on gathering data and still fail miserably at its job if it can’t get that information to the right people at the right time. Again, this becomes a customization process, but one that’s much more dependent on how your salespeople do their jobs day-to-day. Just like with larger organizations, you can’t drop-and-play here. This part will need meetings between you (the senior manager doing the buying), your IT person, and your salespeople to detail how sales actually happen so you can then map your potential CRM’s notification features to those needs.

The CRM needs to help your salespeople. It needs to be there with information exactly when they need it and make that delivery easier than it was before. Otherwise, what’s the point? But making it useful that way means really understanding how your business is working. Guesswork here can be fatal.

Maybe your sales happen primarily over the phone, in which case a detailed dashboard in a web browser might be your best alerting medium. So how customizable are the CRM’s dashboards and how are they customized? What do your salespeople need to see there? You also might make sales via a roving sales staff that visits each customer on-site. In that case, you’re looking for the best possible mobile interface and you’d also like the ability to tweak that, too. And it needs to be able to relay information quickly to be useful via a mobile network, like 4G or 5G. Retail organizations will also need a mobile interface, but one that’ll probably run on larger devices like tablets and incorporate different features like a point of sale (POS) system.

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While all these features are mirrored in both enterprise and small business CRM offerings, how they’re implemented and how they work can vary hugely. You’ll need to decide between two basic approaches: established enterprise CRM players that now offer smaller, cheaper plans or smaller companies that have built a small business CRM solution from the ground up. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Big Players Are Scaling Down

Understanding that smaller businesses have specific needs has seen various established CRM vendors offer more affordable and less complex solutions aimed at small to midsize businesses (SMBs). Many of these enterprise CRM providers like Salesforce and Zoho may have saturated their captive big business markets so it’s a smart move to look at small business owners who might grow their businesses into larger and more complex solutions in the future. Rather than offering diluted versions of their enterprise solutions, these top-tier vendors are finding features and functionality that make the most sense for small business needs and offering them in all-new packages and plans.

This can fold directly into one of the long-term trends we’ve been seeing with CRM tools over the last three years, which is that they’re being consolidated into larger product ecosystems. Some products, like venerable Zoho CRM, aren’t just the flagship solution suite anymore. They’ve become the overall template or hub into which the other sales solutions offered by that particular vendor plug into.

For example, 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 already using those solutions.

Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, the avowed behemoth of the CRM space, has created Salesforce Essentials, an all-new platform built specifically to entice small businesses. Salesforce Essentials brings features like the Lightning app development framework, the Einstein AI machine learning platform, and its powerful integrated automation features into a more affordable and accessible package for small business users. It also merges sales and support functions into one interface, and it taps into Salesforce’s prodigious technology stack and integration base to offer solutions for every probable small business need. Its range of features and universal appeal make Salesforce Essentials a desirable option and earn it our Editors’ Choice selection for small business CRM.

Small Business CRMs Are Scaling Up

When looking for this kind of CRM product, you’ll find two kinds of offerings. One will be from a small vendor or startup and the other from a large established CRM player looking to serve their small business customers better. Smaller CRM vendors compete by expanding their capabilities as much as possible while keeping the whole solution simple. Some do this by adding AI and business intelligence, but most are focusing on building as many third-party software integrations as possible. For instance, Pipedrive CRM offers quick chatbots customers can drop into their sites, while Zendesk Sell plugs into the wider array of Zendesk help desk tools. Meanwhile, Freshsales CRM has also bumped up its integrations and tacked on workflow automation and better sales analytics.

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What are the considerations of a viable small business-focused CRM? Pricing would be the first and most obvious starting point. These kinds of CRMs begin at $10 per user per month for the more basic solutions but can cost upwards of $50 per user month for more comprehensive services. 

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, it’s difficult to determine how a particular CRM will work for you until you evaluate it in your organization with the people who’ll be using it every day. Solutions need to be easy to grasp by non-specialists. Training need not be in-person and lengthy, but there needs to be a healthy support library, an effective knowledge base that contains FAQs and articles, and a solid onboarding process, too.

Mapping out a growth path is important as well. While this sounds like you’re building an exit strategy even before you buy the product, knowing how this system will grow with your company is an important part of buying the right solution today. Work with sales leads to determine your present and future needs and investigate if your CRM solutions easily allow for more users, a larger contact base, the analytics you think you’ll need, as well as the digital marketing hooks you’ll eventually want to use.

Check Out Those Third-Party Integrations

Once you have that feature list, however, don’t simply abandon your small business CRM for a more expensive platform without first investigating feature alternatives. For example, if you’re looking for improved workflow automation, see how your current CRM works with Zapier, a popular and low-cost third-party automation and integration tool. If you’re looking for integrated digital or email marketing, check your CRM’s integration and partner lists. Even if the base CRM lacks integrated marketing features, opting for a low-cost partner integration may still be cheaper than paying for a larger CRM platform to get those capabilities.

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One of the best ways to keep costs lower when adding new features is by opening the door to platforms from different vendors. Social media listening and selling, business analytics, marketing automation, and even lead management can all be handled by dedicated vendors who might be different than the ones providing your CRM. Making sure that your small business CRM can eventually establish data relationships with other apps, especially those that are low-cost and aimed at smaller companies, is critical if you want to get as much life from your CRM purchase as possible. Vendors will have lists of the canned integrations they can offer immediately. If the service you want to integrate with is on that list, great. But if not, you may have to look at rolling your own.

You can opt to tie different web services together using the aforementioned Zapier, and you might not even need technical help to do it. But while Zapier is a solid tool, its data exchange features are limited by its ease of use. Sit down and decide exactly what you need from a third-party integration, and only then decide whether you want to go DIY with Zapier or invest some money in a developer to build a more flexible integration.

Mobile CRM Apps

One of the biggest differentiators attracting SMBs and entrepreneurs to CRM is the availability of easy yet effective mobile apps that can run on smartphones or tablets. These days, small businesses move around. They’re also increasingly distributed due to the pandemic and the devices being used by sales staff can vary widely. Support is important not just for PCs, but tablets and phones as well. While various Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions try and pass off mobile browser versions of their web apps as being mobile, this kind of setup pales next to a bona fide mobile app.

While browser-based apps can access online databases and services, they do not interact directly with the built-in features that many mobile devices offer. Including security, Near Field Communication (NFC) for mobile payments, and access to cameras and other sensors. As mobile devices become more powerful and approximate the computing capabilities of PCs, having a CRM solution that can run effectively on tablets, smartphones, or convertible 2-in-1 devices has a definite advantage for small business users.

Some solutions, like Editors’ Choice pick Bigin by Zoho CRM and Freshsales CRM, offer both Apple iOS and Google Android apps, but the iOS applications have access to more mobile integrations. Bigin By Zoho CRM and Editors’ Choice pick for small business CRM Salesforce Essentials are mobile-first solutions that offer mobile apps with all the necessary features and controls of their desktop counterparts. Bigin By Zoho CRM goes the extra mile to include Apple Watch integrations with a wearable widget that enables shortcuts. This includes calling, scheduling a task, and creating events all from the Apple Watch. Many of these are conveniences and not breakthrough features, but they do show Zoho’s initiative in making Bigin more personal to users, at least those who’ve invested in Apple’s ecosystem.

A Growing List of Small Business CRM Players

We were pleasantly surprised at the plethora of choices small businesses have when it comes to attractive and versatile small business CRMs. In this roundup, we’ve included stalwart and leading vendors with new products or plans aimed directly at SMBs. But we’ve also covered the cream of new entrants that were designed from the ground up to be used by entrepreneurs and small shops. As such, the solutions we tested run the gamut from reliable standalone systems focused purely on contact management and sales, to apps that add basic CRM functionality to general business management tools.

We found that standout solutions included Bigin by Zoho CRM, HubSpot CRM, and Salesforce Essentials, which garners our overall Editors’ Choice award for this segment. Both Bigin by Zoho CRM and Salesforce Essentials represent small business concentration from large CRM vendors that tap into an established solutions stack. But while these solutions managed to snag top overall grades, remember that CRM is a highly individualized process for any sized company. There is no one-size-fits-all CRM. While other vendors we tested may not have had all the features of our winning solutions, most do offer easy-to-use design, interesting feature sets, and new ways to customize the solution, especially around building your own workflows. Check out all the reviews in this roundup and you might find that a smaller solution may work better for your organization.

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