The Best CRM Software
How to choose which one is right for your business
We’re going to be honest: Reading this review is only going to be one step in your journey to find the best CRM software. There are hundreds to choose from, and it comes down to evaluating which has the right functionality to give your business the insights it needs to succeed. We test-drove seven of the most popular platforms to see for ourselves, then spoke with CRM superusers and consultants on how to start gauging which one is the best for different size businesses.
With over 3,000 integrations and deep functionality, Salesforce deserves to be the most-used CRM software on the market. But even though it's available to small businesses, it's most powerful for companies that have the staff and resources to manage its setup and customization.
Sugar costs half as much as Salesforce, but it still has enough capabilities to suit a growing business.
A smaller, simpler CRM that's free for up to 10 users.
“The best way to find the CRM that works for you is to identify what reports are going to be most valuable for your organization,” says Marie Hale, co-founder and marketing visionary of @revenue. “Do you need to track how long it takes a digital suspect to become a qualified prospect? Do you need to hyper-focus on the usage of your website by current clients? A little brainstorming about the results will allow you to create a map that truly works.”
That’s why this review is more about how to start evaluating if a CRM is going to be right for your needs, and less about saying, “This is definitely the one you should get.”
For example, we took Salesforce for a spin with enterprise businesses in mind. It’s undeniably the most well-known CRM on the market, and matching its deep functionality with over 3,000 integrations means there’s very little it can’t do. It even outshines close competitor, Microsoft Dynamics, which is less intuitive and less customizable. But even though both Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics have tiered subscriptions and are marketed to SMBs and enterprise businesses alike, such robust tools may be overkill. In fact, to fully tap into Salesforce, most of the experts we spoke with suggest having dedicated IT and systems admins to manage it.
SugarCRM straddles the line between small business and enterprise a lot better than Salesforce or Dynamics. Its tiered subscription pricing starts at $40 per user per month and reaches $150 — less than half of either enterprise suite we explored. It’s also much easier to set up and learn. If Sugar has the capabilities and integrations your business needs — it boasts about 250 right now — why pay more for functionality you aren’t necessarily going to use? (Also important to note: It has enough juice in its software to serve as the CRM for major enterprise Virgin Mobile.)
For solopreneurs and extra-small businesses, we like Zoho. It’s a much more contained CRM than even Sugar, with just 75 integrations and a smaller kit of features. It’s also much cheaper: its subscription starts at just $12 per user per month, and has a free tier for up to 10 users. It even has some built-in marketing automation features that most other platforms can only leverage through integrations or pricy add-ons.
Our Picks for The Best CRM Software
We took seven of the most popular names in the world of CRM for a spin. There are no big surprises in this list — these are the services you’re inevitably going to come across in your search for the best CRM. We test-drove each of them to see what they were like.
Price per User per Month
* Requires annual contract **Price is based on number of constituents as opposed to user
Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics are two of the biggest names in CRM — Salesforce alone dominates with a nearly 20 percent market share. (In fact, the market shares of the five big enterprise CRMs — Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics, and Adobe — make up nearly half of the entire CRM industry.)
Both are popular. Both are also highly regarded. In 2015, Dynamics was awarded CRM Magazine’s enterprise CRM “winner,” ousting longtime defending champion Salesforce, which was re-crowned the winner in 2016.
CRM Magazine’s rating system is designed by analysts to evaluate customer satisfaction, depth of functionality, company direction, and cost — and where enterprise CRMs like Microsoft Dynamics and especially Salesforce really shine is that deep functionality. If you can dream up a feature, there’s going to be a way to do it within the platform itself or via one of its integrated apps. Do you want to use it to streamline your hiring process? Track your Mailchimp campaigns? Gamify your employees into increased productivity? There are apps (both paid and free) for all of these functions and many, many more.
CRM Magazine’s 2016 rankings for the best enterprise CRM suite. Read the full report here.
Salesforce’s AppExchange third-party app marketplace is one of the largest available, giving businesses access to over 3,000 apps and integrations broken down into categories, like Sales and IT, and industry, like Education and Real Estate, that keep expanding Salesforce’s deep core functionality. It’s by far the most customizable CRM we looked at, and that is both its greatest strength and weakness.
Mastering a CRM suite as robust and flexible as Salesforce is not easy. We chatted with a Salesforce superuser who has been involved with the integration and administration of the software for a $20 million division of a $100 million company. We can’t identify him due to his company’s policy, but he shared with us his experience because he’s passionate about the power of CRMs when they’re used well. Implementing Salesforce is a “migration of steps,” he told us. You have to ease the employees into the CRM piece by piece because, “if you don’t make them, they won’t.” And the leadership needs to be fully invested in migrating to the CRM, because it will likely take at least a couple of years. At our expert’s company, it took five.
If you’re opting for top-of-the-line enterprise CRM, expect to dedicate some staff to it. Training an employee to do nothing but manage Salesforce for the company was essential for our superuser — and after about two seconds into our own Salesforce trial, it became clear why.
Salesforce’s dashboard reminded one tester of Google Analytics: an amazing tool she could only begin to scratch the surface of.
Despite the extensive help and training available on the website (on-demand courses, articles, forums, known issues, etc.), someone without a background in information technology would struggle to set up and maintain a CRM with so many capabilities and integrations. It felt a little like Google Analytics to one of our testers: She could tell it was an amazing tool, and she could figure out a few things on her own, but there was no way she could tap into its full functionality. Our superuser said that, after hiring consultants and an administrator, Salesforce was customized for the company so that each employee only saw the functionality they used in the system. Very cool — but definitely not what a small business or solopreneur might be interested in or likely capable of.
Microsoft Dynamics boasts similar levels of functionality as Salesforce, as well as its own (smaller) app store, plus native integration with other Microsoft products, such as Office, OneDrive, and SharePoint. Where Dynamics stands out is its on-premise deployment option, which is a huge plus for businesses looking to host their CRM on their own servers — something SaaS-based Salesforce can’t offer. (InformationWeek points out that there are several reasons a business might want to host software on-site, including security, accessibility, and visibility.) For those that don’t need to host their own CRM software, Microsoft does offer Dynamics 365, a cloud-based option that combines the company’s CRM and ERP services with some of its other platforms, including Office 365.
The Dynamic’s dashboard will have a familiar look and feel to anyone who has used Microsoft products before.
Don’t forget mobile. According to a 2014 Software Advice survey, nearly half the people using a CRM access it on their smartphones and/or tablets. A CRM’s mobile app needs to be easy to work with for anyone in a company. Between Salesforce and Dynamics, we preferred the latter’s streamlined looks and more in-depth info on contacts.
Both Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics have tiered subscription models that adjust pricing and functionality to match your business; Salesforce comes out slightly more expensive, ranging from $75 per user per month all the way up to $300 per user per month. Dynamics lands between $70 and $210 per user per month depending on the functionality.
Steve Chipman is a partner at CRM Switch, a consulting firm that helps people select the best CRM and marketing automation software for their organization. “I’d say that sales users generally warm up more to Salesforce than Dynamics,” he told us. “Other user types, such as customer service and operations staff, tend to be more indifferent.” Chipman attributes this preference to the notion that salespeople would rather interact with people than machines, and tend not to be as patient with technology. It takes more clicks to get things done in Dynamics than Salesforce, which presents more opportunities to grow impatient with the system. While we wouldn’t say Salesforce is incredibly intuitive, Dynamics is even less so. The Dynamics mobile app, however, is a pleasure to use, and if you take into account Microsoft’s recent acquisition of LinkedIn, it is poised to keep giving Salesforce a run for its money.
The first thing you’re going to notice about small-business CRM is that a lot of the same names from enterprise CRM pop up. Remember Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics’ tiered pricing and functionality? The lower offerings are designed for smaller businesses with more basic needs and tighter budgets — in fact, SalesforceIQ is a super-stripped-down version for only five users, and it starts at $25 per user per month.
Likewise, SugarCRM, which is one we explored with small businesses in mind, can expand into a full-fledged enterprise suite: It’s one of CRM Magazine’s 2016 enterprise “leaders,” and in 2016, SugarCRM became the CRM of choice for Virgin Mobile USA.
This underscores Hale’s point that truly understanding what information and functions your company needs to succeed will help you find the right CRM partner. In CRM Magazine’s small-business suite report, Kate Leggett, vice president and a principal analyst at Forrester, commented that a full-featured CRM like Salesforce, Dynamics, and even Sugar “may offer a depth of capabilities that is more than what a small business requires.” On the flip-side, a ceiling on your CRM’s capabilities could be limiting if your small business becomes not-so small — which could be the case with Zoho, the other small-business CRM we tested out.
Right off the bat, both SugarCRM and Zoho felt more accessible than our enterprise-suite experiences. Both had drag-and-drop modules to individualize the dashboard, plus obvious navigation. Zoho’s dashboard actually felt downright minimalist compared to some of the others we looked at, although it’s easy to customize to have as much relevant information as you need.
Zoho’s dashboard feels sparse compared to the colorful visualizations of SugarCRM (below).
Sugar’s dash has more eye candy, but we were most impressed by its simple and powerful navigation bar across the top of the home screen: users are always one click away from accounts, contracts, opportunities, leads, and just about every other function Sugar offers. It didn’t take us long to learn our way around. While there’s no doubt having a consultant or systems admin set up and customize a software like Sugar would make the process better, its learning curve is obviously much gentler than with either Salesforce or Dynamics. (Sugar also has the added bonus of an on-site deployment option.)
Like its enterprise counterparts, both Sugar and Zoho have tiered subscriptions that increase the software’s functionality and customer support the more you pay. SugarCRM starts at $40 per user per month and increases to $150 per user per month — and all tiers require at least 10 user subscriptions. In stark contrast, Zoho actually has a free edition for up to 10 users, and then offers tiered pricing from $12 per user per month up to only $100.
These prices are less than half of either Salesforce or Dynamics, and that is because they have less functionality — you simply aren’t paying for as robust a product. Sugar Exchange, Sugar’s third-party app marketplace, maxes out at 252 integrations; Zoho has around 75. Compare that to Salesforce’s three thousand integration options.
“Connectivity is really important,” explains Valerie Youman, a CRM marketing consultant. “It’s really hard to have a CRM tool that exists in its own environment. You end up copying data from tool to tool, which is inefficient and complicated. What makes a good CRM is when it’s all integrated and it’s connected to the other tools that make a business a success. That integration is really critical.”
But if Sugar and Zoho have the capabilities, reports, and integrations you need, who cares? There’s no need to pay for a car that can go 200 miles per hour if you’re only going to drive it in Manhattan traffic.
Even though we test-drove Zoho with small businesses in mind, it really stuck out as an excellent option for solopreneurs and very small businesses — those who want to dip their toes into CRM with a free or low-priced subscription, but still grow over time. Ten users have access to all of Zoho’s basics at no charge: accounts, leads, contacts, feeds, documents, mobile apps, and macros. Stepping up to the $12 tier adds functionality like sales forecasting, roles, and call center connectors, and functionality keeps increasing from there. And even though there are only 75 integrations, it has some of the big important ones: Google Drive, Microsoft Office, even Chrome.
In CRM Magazine’s review, Zoho is “one to watch” for small businesses, with Leslie Ament, senior vice president of research and principal analyst at Hypatia Research Group, saying that “businesses can accomplish a lot on Zoho, and the cost of ownership is low.”
We compared Zoho to Insightly, one of the friendliest little CRMs on the market. (If you thought Zoho’s building-block logo was cute, check out Insightly’s bouncy font with a heart that dots the “I.”) Both prioritize ease of use, especially during onboarding — these two platforms are designed for people without a lot of IT support.
Zoho kicks off with a Getting Started landing page that links to tasks essential for setup: migration, inviting colleagues, personalizing the CRM, and workflow automation. You can access that page any time through the navigation: It’s a nice home base as you get more and more comfortable. That said, Insightly is by far the easiest CRM to get up and running out of the seven we tested. It relies on a simple interface, which lets you turn on and off the features you want to use, and its welcome video felt like plenty to get us started.
You can always return to Zoho’s Getting Started page to add more features and functionality.
As is the theme for all aspects of CRM: ease of setup and ease of use go hand-in-hand with functionality. Insightly is about as far from intimidating as a CRM can get, but that’s because it has the fewest features. Even though its core functionality is similar to Zoho — contact management and sales automation — there are only 30-ish integrations and fewer add-ons than Zoho.
In the end, it’s critical to know what you want your CRM to accomplish. Maybe Insightly’s project management features speak to your team’s workflow, or a strong contact management software is all your business really needs. Maybe Zoho’s scalability maps to your business’s growth plans. If it helps tip the scales: Although the subscription tiers of Zoho and Insightly are priced very similarly, Zoho’s free offering is available up to 10 users, while Insightly’s free option is only for two.
Other CRM Software to Consider
Best CRM for Nonprofits
The needs of a nonprofit organization are similar-yet-different to those of a business — a lot of the data and reporting will end up looking the same, but you’d have to hack a business-focused CRM to track and organize, say, donation levels, fundraisers, and constituents. There are a handful of CRMs focused specifically on nonprofits and we looked at two of them.
Salesforce for Nonprofits looks and feels just like Salesforce — just tweaked a bit. All our same first impressions still apply: It’s an incredibly robust and powerful tool that’s likely going to be too overwhelming for a nonprofit that doesn’t have a dedicated person to manage it. (Nonprofits do get a break on pricing, though: Eligible organizations can receive 10 free subscriptions to the Enterprise Edition, its lowest tier. Costs range from $36 per user per month to $72 per user per month for the Unlimited Edition. By comparison, Unlimited functionality for its sales-focused product is $300 per user per month.)
NeonCRM, on the other hand, was built specifically for nonprofits: Its pricing is based on number of constituents as opposed to number of users, and its functionality natively extends to features such as solicitation methods, congressional districts, donation levels, wealth screening, membership levels, and more. We found it easy to set up and use, with on-demand training and live chat support. Subscriptions start at $50 per month, which covers up to 1,000 constituents.
Did You Know?
You might actually need a marketing automation tool, not a CRM.
Early CRM tools were not what they are today, says Beatrice Blatteis, chief customer evangelist for the MarTech Team with over 30 years of marketing consulting experience. “Today, CRM is salesforce automation. That’s not what customer relationship management originally stood for. It was about gathering information on your customer so that we could personalize your marketing interactions with them. And that is what marketing automation has come to mean.”
“I have discovered many people say, ‘I need consulting to set up the right CRM.’ But what they need is a marketing automation tool.”
Marketing automation is top-of-funnel: attempting to hook customers who visit your website, interact with another email, fill out a form, and so on. CRM lives at the bottom of the funnel: tracking qualified sales leads and customers as they engage with your business, be it making a purchase, calling customer service, or being pitched to by salespeople.
The line between CRM and marketing automation has never been blurrier. In an ideal world, both sides of the funnel are connected, and marketing and sales have a direct line of communication to current and future customers. Some CRMs, like Zoho, have acquired technology so they can also serve up some marketing automation tools within their platform. Others just make it easy to integrate with a dedicated email service, like our top pick for marketing automation, GetResponse. Others still have add-on marketing tools within their suite of products: For example, the Salesforce Marketing Cloud includes Pardot, Salesforce’s robust B2B marketing automation software.
Unfortunately, this is only going to make your hunt for the right CRM a little harder. As David Daniels explained in our email marketing review, “Triggering and automation is within the grasp of every marketer, small and large,” and it should be something “every email marketer embraces.” But just like CRM, different marketing automation services have different levels of functionality and vastly different prices. If your CRM has a GetResponse integration, you can tap into its marketing automation for $165-$800 per month, while a service like Pardot will add an extra $1,000-$3,000 per month to your Salesforce bill.