Customer Management Software for Small Businesses

LAST REVIEWED Apr 08 2019 10 MIN READ

By Cyndia Zwahlen

The right customer relationship management (CRM) software system can help your small business boost sales and save time by operating more efficiently and effectively. But with almost 400 brands from which to choose, how can your small business pick the best CRM system for its needs? To make the right choice, you’ll have to strike a balance between three factors: Features, cost and ease of use. To start, be sure you are clear on the answers to these two questions: Why does your small business need a CRM system and how will your small business use it?

Why does your small business need a CRM?

The answer for many small businesses is that they have too many customers and prospects to manage easily with spreadsheets or on paper. In fact, the number of customers you have is the most important factor in deciding whether or not your small business needs a CRM system, not employees or revenue, according to a survey of 500 CRM users by Capterra, a software review site.

What types of small businesses don’t need a CRM?

A CRM isn’t a priority for every small business. In its report, Capterra gives one example: If you and your business partner operate a food truck, you probably don’t need a CRM. You likely don’t have enough customers for the cost-to-benefit ratio to work in favor of adopting one. Not every business, whether B2B or B2C, is a good candidate for one: If your small business doesn’t have a high volume of potential leads to deal with and it isn’t on a fast growth track (a lifestyle business), then a CRM may not be worth the money and time it will take to implement. Companies that sell mostly to government agencies and businesses that operate as nonprofits also aren’t big users of CRMs, according to Capterra.

Core CRM functions

Most CRM systems you adopt will include these features:

  • A central customer database

  • Tracking and managing of interactions with customers and leads

  • A digital dashboard showing a snapshot of your sales progress

  • Custom sales reports

CRM extras

Here are some extra features you may want in a CRM:

  • Click-to-call: Lets you call clients or prospects from within the CRM program.

  • Email integration: Includes customer or lead emails in their records and allows you to email them directly from the CRM program.

  • Document storage: Keeps digital versions of contracts and other customer documents with customer records in the CRM program

Alternate types of CRMs

Here are a few alternate “flavors” of CRMs that tend to focus strongly on a secondary function:

  • Social media access: Allows you to monitor social media profiles and pulls in information on prospects and customers.

  • Marketing automation: Shows you where on your website a prospect has gone, including which blogs were read and which e-books were downloaded.

  • Customer service: Manages communication with your current, recurring customers.

Each of these goes beyond beyond the standard, core function of a CRM (managing leads at a high level as they go through your pipeline), but can be helpful add-ons, depending on your business model. Many CRMs have some features that will help you with these functions, since they’re all closely related to customer management. However, if you need a lot of help in any one of these categories, as opposed to just a lightweight CRM add-on, it’s best to look for a best-in-class specialty software. For example, if you’re fielding 500 customer service requests a day and it’s an important part of your business, finagling a CRM to help you answer questions from existing clients will be difficult — it will be much easier to use a dedicated customer service software like Intercom or Zendesk. For social media management specialty software, we’d recommend Buffer and Hootsuite (both free to start!), and for Marketing Automation, Marketo and Hubspot’s Marketing Software.

CRM integrations and customization

In addition to the CRM features and functions you want, your decision checklist should include your integration and customization needs. Integrations: If your small business has existing software it wants to use with its CRM database, like QuickBooks, you want to be sure the CRM you choose easily integrates with outside software. Be sure to review a CRM’s integration offerings before you purchase! Customization: A CRM can be customized in several ways. Some CRM providers let you customize your software by adding their own modules that give you extra features. And some CRM vendors allow you to program additional function or integration capacity yourself. There are also industry-specific CRMs that offer a more customized experience for everything from automotive dealerships to real estate brokerages to construction companies. Try before you buy: With so many features from which to choose and big differences in how even a core feature works and looks on different systems, the best advice is to try before you buy. Almost all CRM vendors offer demos on their websites. You can also sign-up for a trial version, if one is available, and use that time to get your questions answered. Check review sites like CRMSearch.com, G2Crowd.com and capterra.com can give you a start in creating a list of possible CRM vendors. Capterra ranks CRM systems by popularity, affordability and user-friendliness. Based on those rankings, two CRM systems stood out: Hubspot and Zoho. Both ranked in the top 10 for almost all three attributes. In the top 20 were PipeDrive, bmp’online, and Nimble, which focus on social media.

Cost

Cost is typically based on the number of users, no matter how big your database may get. Some CRMs are free, including HubSpot, or offer a free version if you have only a few users, including Insightly, which is free for up to two users. Otherwise, your small business will typically pay a fee per user, per month. Insightly, for example, charges $12 per user, per month for a basic package or $49 per user for its professional package. These are cloud-based systems, which are usually less expensive than having a system installed on your own computers. CRMs from industry giants like Salesforce that have complex functions and sophisticated features, can be $100 or more per month per user, although Salesforce does own SalesforceIQ (formerly RelateIQ and now owned by Salesforce), which is designed for smaller companies and requires less ramp-up time. Ongoing support may also be an additional cost. And implementing the CRM system will have its own costs as you and your team devote time and resources to learning and starting on the system.

Ease of use

This is another reason it pays to invest time in demos and trials of the CRMs you are considering. Involve your team in this process. If they don’t have a chance to test drive the system and have input into the final decision, they probably won’t adopt it once it’s live. That’s a big reason CRM systems don’t work out at companies big and smalk: salespeople and other team members avoid using them because they don’t see any personal benefits and aren’t bought in to its value. Make sure that you get buy-in from all involved. That can be the difference between enjoying a positive ROI on your CRM investment or having it end up in the crowded trash bin of software fails. Related article: How to Choose Appointment Reminder Software for Your Small Business

Cyndia Zwahlen, a former small-business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance business writer and editor for media, academic and business clients. She founded the Small Biz Mix blog.

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