The Best CRM Software Programs
How We Found the Best CRM Software Programs
4 experts interviewed
7 CRM platforms tested
3 top picks
The Best CRM Software Programs
The best customer relationship management (CRM) software is easy to use while giving you the insights you need to cultivate your customer base. These programs should allow you to parse through the data necessary to know your customers and improve their relationship with 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 which are the most robust, easy to use, and highly rated. Then we looked to CRM superusers and consultants to tell us how to start gauging which one is the best for certain businesses. Our top picks cater to three different business sizes, and they’re excellent starting points as you begin your search.
The Best CRM Software Programs: Summed Up
How We Chose the Best CRM Software Programs
Variety of business needs
To find the best customer relationship management (CRM) software, we homed in on the seven most popular, most widely available platforms — targeted at a variety of business sizes. Why seek out this range? Usually, larger businesses with greater resources will benefit from a program with a wealth of options, whereas small businesses don’t have the infrastructure to handle the more complex integrations. Salesforce, for example, was designed with enterprise businesses in mind; however, Zoho’s smaller feature kit may better suit a business with only a handful of users.
Customer interaction is always evolving, and most businesses are hungry for ways to manage advertising, marketing, and social media strategies all in one place to efficiently drive sales. The best programs are the most intuitive ones — but on the same token, the more intricate the program, the more resources and money you’ll expend to maintain it. We wanted to provide options for every business tier.
The best CRM software lets you operate a variety of functions at once: store customer information, make calls, monitor leads, schedule appointments, and streamline communication. However, CRM functionality doesn’t stop at simply tracking and storing data — it can also be used for marketing and customer service reports to help you better understand your business and its needs. Having all of these resources in one place is key to taking the manual labor out of growing your business. We looked for software that provided robust functionality for all users.
However, as with everything else, you should consider the amount of resources you have to set up and maintain the software. Some, like Salesforce, offer deep, intricate functions that might not be as easily navigated without the initial help of an IT team. In fact, to fully tap into Salesforce, most of the experts we spoke with suggested having dedicated IT and system admins to manage it.
Adjacent to functionality is the option to add integrations to your package. These are applications designed by third parties and offered in addition to the features already present in your CRM software — think Outlook, Zendesk, and QuickBooks. We preferred software with plenty of available integrations, since these help customize and streamline your experience.
Ease of use
The main point of CRM software is to provide a hands-free way to manage sales leads and customer relations; if it’s as difficult to use as a spreadsheet, you probably shouldn’t be dealing with it. The more intuitive the software, the better. Streamlined menus, functional search features, and uncluttered layouts all caught our eye in the best software.
While we analyzed each software and tested ease of use for ourselves, we also consulted third-party opinions to obtain a well-rounded view. We looked to CRM Magazine, CRM and marketing experts, and online reviews to gauge user-friendliness, reliability, and customer satisfaction.
The 3 Best CRM Software Programs
- Salesforce -
The Best CRM for Enterprises
- SugarCRM -
The Best CRM for Mid-Sized Businesses
- Zoho -
The Best CRM for Small Businesses
CRM for Enterprises
Why we chose it
If you can dream up a feature, there’s likely a way to do it within Salesforce itself or 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.
“The great thing about Salesforce is the app marketplace. Being the most popular CRM, there are a lot of companies that develop solutions to problems you may encounter while adapting Salesforce to your needs.”
Salesforce’s AppExchange third-party app marketplace is one of the largest available, giving businesses access to over 4,000 applications. These are broken down into categories, like Sales and IT, and industry, like Education and Real Estate. It’s by far the most customizable CRM we investigated. And because Salesforce is in the cloud (more on that in our FAQ), you can add applications without going through costly infrastructure.
Efficient for sales users
For sales users in particular, Salesforce surpasses the competition by allowing users to interact more with the customer than with the computer. Steve Chipman, a partner at CRM Switch, agrees: “I’d say that sales users generally warm up more to Salesforce than [Microsoft] Dynamics.” It takes more clicks to get things done in Microsoft Dynamics than Salesforce, and this means less time with customers and tending to your business and more time working (manually) through the kinks in the software. While Salesforce’s interface is occasionally complicated, Dynamics’ is even more so.
Don’t take our word for it, though; Salesforce is steadily growing in popularity thanks to the depths of its functionality. In fact, CRM Magazine gave Salesforce the top spot for the second year in a row for its 2017 CRM Market Leaders: Enterprise CRM Suite category. This rating system is designed by analysts to evaluate customer satisfaction, depth of functionality, company direction, and cost, making it a solid choice for enterprises. While it was knocked out of the top spot in 2018 by Microsoft Dynamics, it still outperformed Dynamics in almost every category.
Points to consider
Steep learning curve
Mastering a CRM suite as robust and flexible as Salesforce is not easy. One superuser we chatted with agreed: Salesforce is a “migration of steps,” requiring you to ease in employees slowly. 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 a 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 — despite the extensive help and training available on the website, 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 operating.
CRM for Mid-Sized Businesses
Why we chose it
Variety of functions
SugarCRM offers a vast array of functions and bridges the gap between small business and enterprise CRMs. It offers a modest 270-plus integrations (shy of Salesforce’s 4,000-plus), but that is more than enough if you’re running a mid-sized business. And those 270-plus integrations are diverse enough to customize your experience and take steps to grow your business: They enable you to monitor customer interactions, gauge data, and draw insights.
Sugar felt more accessible than our enterprise-suite experience, with intuitive drag-and-drop modules to customize the dashboard and navigation. We were also impressed by its simple navigation bar across the top of the home screen; users are always one click away from accounts, contracts, opportunities, and leads. It didn’t take us long to learn how to get around. While having a consultant or systems admin set up a software like Sugar would make the process more seamless, its learning curve is much gentler than that of Salesforce. It also offers simple on-site deployment, so you can easily make the transition from any previous software.
Flexible business needs
SugarCRM was designed with small businesses in mind, but it can also expand into a full-fledged enterprise suite. SugarCRM remains a top contender in the CRM Market Awards in 2018, scoring particularly well in the price category. Because it’s made its name in both small business and enterprise arenas, it’s a reputable option for many different business needs.
Points to consider
Too robust for extremely small businesses
Although 270-plus applications may not seem like a lot in comparison to Salesforce’s 4,000-plus, there’s still a good chance that this is more than you need, especially if you’re running a very small business. Analysts from CRM Magazine agree: In a small-business suite report from 2016, 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.”
That said, keep in mind that a ceiling on your CRM’s capabilities could be limiting if your small business becomes not-so-small — which could be the case with a true small-business CRM like Zoho.
Fewer integrations than competitors
On the flip side, if you do have an extremely large business, SugarCRM’s lack of integrations may hinder you. Its 270-plus integrations is suited for true mid-range businesses, but it can’t compete with Salesforce’s 4,000-plus for a business that has more extensive needs.
CRM for Small Businesses
Why we chose it
Easy to use
Zoho stood out in our testing 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. This is thanks in no small part to the intuitive nature of the site.
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 anytime through the navigation, and it’s a nice home base as you get more and more comfortable.
Zoho even consolidates its operating system to give you an all-in-one option, known as Zoho One. You can run your entire business in one place with more than 40 integrated applications. If you don’t like the all-in-one option and want to pick and choose, Zoho gives you that choice, too.
Zoho is undoubtedly one of the most affordable CRM software platforms out there. It was a strong contender in CRM Magazine’s 2017 Market Leaders for small business CRM suites and again in 2018. Brent Leary, co-founder and partner at CRM Essentials, stated in the 2018 report that “the value proposition of Zoho One … is really hard to beat for budget-conscious small businesses.” For those looking for a free CRM, Zoho even offers an edition that lets three users have access to all of Zoho’s basics at no charge: accounts, leads, feeds, documents, mobile apps, and macros. The next tier ($12 per user per month if billed annually) adds functionality like sales forecasting, roles, and call center connectors. Even though there are fewer than 200 integrations for Zoho CRM on the Zoho Marketplace, it has some pretty important ones, like Google Drive and Microsoft Office.
Points to consider
Inconsistent user experience
Zoho has a less-than-stellar report card among the public. Users have cited technical and customer support issues, as well as the fact that workflow automation is only available to those who purchase the Professional (or most expensive) edition. Others have said that it’s difficult to customize the platform and add applications, and that in the process you might end up paying for a lot of applications that you’ll never use.
Granted, the negative feedback could simply be the nature of the market itself. Salesforce doesn’t shine when it comes to customer reviews, either; like Zoho, a lot of the complaints deal with customer service. We take online reviews with a grain of salt, but know that choosing a site as budget-friendly as Zoho may come with a few headaches.
Guide to CRM Software
How to find the right CRM software for you
Identify your business needs
Marie Hale, co-founder and marketing visionary of @revenue, told us that the best way to find a CRM software that works for you is to identify the insights your business needs. “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?” We suggest speaking with customer service representatives to make sure that the service aligns with your current needs — while offering room to grow, if that’s in your future.
Look at the features
When it comes to finding the right CRM tools, efficiency and connectivity are key. “It’s really hard to have a CRM tool that exists in its own environment,” explains Valerie Youman, a CRM marketing consultant. “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.” Double-check the apps you currently use against those offered by your potential software before buying.
Consider the price
It’s especially important to look at the fine print and investigate any hidden costs. You definitely don’t want to overpay for integrations that you never use — and if you do end up with unwanted apps, you should be able to easily switch them. Again, the simpler the product, the less you’ll pay: More functionality usually means higher initial prices and maintenance resourcing (e.g., finding the IT support to help you set it up).
“One of the best tips I can give people who are looking for a CRM is to keep it simple. As someone who specializes in working within the financial services industry (an industry which loves and hates CRMs), I can tell you that getting a CRM used is more important than having all the bells and whistles.”
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