How to Choose the Best CRM for Your Small Business

How to Choose the Best CRM for Your Small Business

Using the right small business CRM has a big effect on your company. How big?

In 2015, 47% of respondents in a Capterra survey said that their CRM significantly improved both customer retention and satisfaction.

When customer experience is the primary differentiating factor between companies, that’s no joke.

But to see big effects like this (or the over-700% ROI reported by Nucleus Research) you need to choose the best CRM for your small business.

How do you go about making that choice?

Choosing the best CRM for a small business doesn't have to be so confusing

It’s not easy. After a while, small business CRMs start to look the same. But some minute differences can have a big impact on whether your CRM is a productivity booster or a time-suck.

So making the right choice is key.

To make sure you get the right CRM for your company, answer these seven questions. Armed with those answers, you’ll get the best small business CRM for your needs.

But before we get into the questions, let’s get this out of the way:

Spend hours now to save weeks later

It’s easy to rush decisions when you run a small business. Especially if you’re just getting started. You have a lot to worry about, and deciding quickly on software seems like a good place to save some time.

And all CRMs are pretty much the same, right?

Trust me when I say they’re not.

Making the right choice now will save you time later. You might take a few hours to read this article and research your options.

That feels like a lot of time right now.

But it could take you weeks to transition from one CRM to another in the future. If your needs change or you discover your previous choice isn’t living up to expectations, you’re going to spend a lot of time fixing the issue.

Taking the time to make the right choice pays off.

Small business CRMs are different

You’ve probably heard of big-name CRMs like Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP. Some of the biggest companies in the world use these CRMs to manage their business.

So they must be good choices, right?

Yes. They’re great choices for other multinational enterprises. But that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for you.

CRMs used by massive companies come with some drawbacks (we’ll touch on a few of them later).

Small business CRMs are made with different priorities. They’re easy to set up and learn. They don’t require a full-time developer to maintain. And they don’t cost a fortune to license.

Here’s how the National Director of Sales of a fast-growing sales team used to describe his experience with Salesforce:

“When I wanted to quickly grow the team, it really hurt my brain the amount of thinking that was required for every change we wanted to make and how it would affect our CRM, and we had to bring in a $200/hour consultant to come in and make those changes. I’m a move quickly guy, I’ve got a lot of ideas. I execute quickly. I have a hard time laying all of that out and seeing what’s going to happen 4 or 5 months down the line. It was really tough for us to figure out "here’s what things are going to be like 2 years down the road" when we were just starting out from ground zero … it’s just not possible, there are so many learnings that are necessary to happen first.”

— David Greenberger

After they switched to using Close.io, this pain was completely alleviated: they were now able to quickly iterate their sales process, run experiments, and optimize faster.

In short, small business CRMs are built for fast-moving teams like yours. And they scale with you as you grow. They’re the perfect choice for growing companies.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s look at how to find the best CRM for your small business.

To make the right choice, start with this important question:

1. What will you use your CRM for?

You’re probably tempted to skip this step. Or say “I’ll use my CRM to manage customer relationships. Duh.”

But almost every team at your company can use a CRM to be more productive. And your choice of CRM will determine which teams get the most out of it.

Capterra found that CRMs are most often used by sales teams, followed by marketing and customer service:

Small business CRMs are most often used by sales teams

These are the functions that you’re probably most familiar with. Sales teams need to track communications, schedule calls and follow-ups, manage sales collateral, and more.

Marketers use CRMs for email automation, audience segmentation, and social media integration.

Customer service reps track issues and streamline communication.

But did you know that other small business teams can use CRM apps, too? IT, finance, HR, customer service, customer success, and development teams find CRMs useful. Even executives can take advantage of detailed reporting.

In short, just about everyone at your company can use your CRM to be more productive.

Some CRMs are set up to work best at certain functions. For example, HubSpot’s CRM packs a lot of marketing features and is well suited to companies who want to run marketing automation with their CRM. On the other hand, Close.io is geared toward inside sales teams.

(Of course, with integrations, you can make most CRMs work for any purpose—we’ll talk about that in a bit.)

Before you choose your small business CRM, you need to know how you’re going to use it. There’s no right or wrong way. But knowing which teams will be using your CRM will help you make the right choice.

Your answer to this question will likely inform your answer to the next one, too:

2. How do you communicate?

Managing customer relationships is all about communication.

That’s true of sales, marketing, customer support, and every other customer-facing team. And the way you communicate will determine the CRM that’s best for your business.

For example, lightweight CRMs like Salesflare focus on email communication. That works for a lot of companies.

It’s worth noting here that most CRMs make it easy to log different types of communication. Finding one that’s built for your preferred means of communication just makes the process faster and easier.

If you plan on using a specific method of communication, you’ll want a CRM that’s built for it.

Let’s say you do a lot of phone-based sales. In that case, a CRM that lets sales reps make calls from the CRM, log call information, and get calling-specific reports is ideal.

You won’t get those from a CRM built for marketers.

Do you send direct mail to your prospects? What about texting? Does your customer support team take requests from customers on social media?

There are CRMs that will help you track all of these communication channels. And it helps to know which of them you’re planning on using before you choose your software.

Don’t worry, though—you aren’t locked into any specific method of communication based on your CRM.

If you decide to start sending handwritten letters and your CRM is geared toward phone calls, that’s no problem. You’ll need to make a few tweaks, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Our CRM with built-in calling and emailing for example has an integration with MailLift that makes it easy to send handwritten letters to your sales leads and customers.

That being said, the better your CRM fits the current needs of your small business, the more efficient you’ll be in the long run.

And that brings us to our next point:

3. What special features do you need?

This is where we get into some really fun things. (Okay, we think they’re really fun. We’re CRM nerds, and we love this stuff.)

Many small business CRMs include special features that are unique to a particular piece of software.

For example, Copper looks a lot like the apps in the Google Suite, so team members can start using it right away. You won’t get this extra-short learning curve from many other CRMs.

Pipeliner predicts your sales revenue based on current performance to make long-term planning easier.

Freshsales monitors prospects’ activity on your website, giving you add segmentation opportunities.

Close.io includes predictive dialing and call automation to help sales teams talk with more prospects, and close more deals.

CRM with built in sales dialer

Not every CRM is going to include special features that help you run your small business.

But it’s worth looking around to see which CRMs best solve your problems. Maybe you have a specific requirement for a mobile CRM app. Or you want a feature that helps you automate a specific part of your workflow.

There’s a huge variety of CRMs out there, and an even greater number of unique features. Be sure to do your research to see what’s available before you make a decision.

These features might seem minor right now. But they can really boost your productivity when you start using them.

4. What integrations do you need?

Your CRM is going to work best if it integrates with the apps you’re already using.

If you aren’t using any other pieces of software yet, congratulations! You’re thinking much further ahead than most people. But there’s still a good chance that you’ll set up other systems in the future.

Most CRMs have at least a few integrations that make your life easier.

For example, if you track issues in JIRA, you may want to hook that into your CRM to give customers updates on their submitted issues. We at Close.io track feature requests in Trello. When we then release a feature that customers and trial users have requested in the past, it’s easy for us to notify them with a bulk email in Close.io that this feature is now available for them.

If you plan on using your CRM mostly for sales, an integration to your marketing software will be useful for sales enablement. Marketing-automation-focused CRMs benefit from being linked to your email software if you’re using a separate app.

Taking stock of what you’re using now will be a big help in thinking about which integrations are valuable to you.

Fortunately, most CRMs are able to handle a wide variety of integrations.

For example, Close.io works with Outlook, Zendesk, Help Scout, Prospect.io, Drip, LeadFuze, Pandadoc, and others. Because it works with Zapier, you can build your own integrations with thousands of different apps.

A small business CRM should integrate well with your existing tools

And you can create custom integrations with the API. So if your tools aren’t on the list—or you’re using a proprietary system—you can still make them work together.

This versatility makes a CRM useful for companies who use several pieces of software to manage their business.

You may not require many integrations. Or you could need dozens. Whatever the case, be sure to check your prospective CRM’s ability to connect with the apps you use.

5. How much time do you have for setup?

Small businesses don’t have time to set up complicated software. When you’re running lean and fast, you need software that you can use right away.

Fortunately, you can start using most modern CRMs with very little setup. And they’re easy to learn, so your teams can start tracking their customer interactions quickly.

Highly customizable solutions like Salesforce and paid versions of HubSpot require more setup and training.

There are entire agencies that only do Salesforce development. That should give you an idea of how much time you can spend getting it set up.

You can do anything you want with these flexible, extensible platforms.

Want to create automated custom workflows that interface with other platforms at your company? No problem.

How about design custom apps that work with your CRM? That can be done.

You can fully customize interfaces, behaviors, reports, and anything else you can think of.

With a skilled development team and some time, you can tweak an out-of-the-box software package to create the best CRM for your small business. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but you get something uniquely powerful.

Most small businesses won’t need (or be able to afford) this sort of customization. In fact, most small businesses shouldn’t have this level of customization.

Why?

Because they don’t yet have a scalable sales process. And until they do, it’s better to have a CRM that allows them to experiment, iterate, and optimize. Learning, adapting, and operating an agile sales team is more important in this stage of business.

Most small business CRMs require little setup. They’re web-based, so you don’t need to worry about server space or extra security. You buy the licenses, go through some in-platform training, and you’re ready to go.

Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about the setup and training costs of your CRM.

On the other hand, big CRMs like Salesforce often have hidden costs that can run to the tens of thousands of dollars every year. That’s in addition to the sticker price.

That doesn’t matter for large organizations and established enterprises. But for small and medium-sized businesses, these costs are prohibitive.

Here’s another question to keep in mind that will affect your setup and training costs:

6. How many users will you have?

How big is your company? How many people will be using your CRM? And what are your plans for expanding?

The answers to these questions influence which CRM is best for your small business. If you’re currently running solo, you might not need a complicated system.

For example, a one-person team might be alright with a small, free CRM like Streak. It integrates into Gmail and lets you track customers through your pipeline. A slightly larger team looking for Gmail integration might like Insightly’s longer list of features.

If you’re working with a larger team and sales isn’t an important function in your business, a small business CRM with features like project management, task assignment, and reporting could be useful. If however the primary users of your CRM will be the sales people, and your sales team is really the one in responsible for getting more customers and growing revenue, you absolutely should have a CRM that’s focused on helping them move sales conversations forward. It should have all the tools they need to communicate with prospects natively built-in: calling, emailing, and text messaging.

(It’s also worth noting that if you’re going to have a larger team using your CRM, they may need different levels of subscriptions, which will affect your total cost.)

Of course, the big names like Salesforce, HubSpot, and Zoho can support massive international teams.

As a small business, you don’t need that. And it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on complicated CRM when you don’t need it—even if you plan on scaling.

You wouldn’t pay for a huge office when you can only fill half of it, would you? The same idea applies to your software.

Okay, let’s get to the question that you’ve probably already started answering:

7. What can you afford?

You’ll notice that I’ve listed this question last. That’s not a coincidence.

If you look at small business CRM prices before you figure out what you need, you’re more likely to jump at lower prices simply to save money.

Now that you know all of the things that your CRM can help you with, we can talk about cost.

If you’ve purchased software in the past, you know that prices can swing between free and wildly expensive.

The best CRM for your small business is one that you can afford.

Because of the wide variety of small business CRMs out there, you shouldn’t have trouble finding one that solves the problems you need it to without bankrupting your company.

Keep in mind, though, that you get what you pay for. Free CRMs are great, even though they aren’t going to provide you with as many features.

Sometimes you may find that free or budget CRMs do have a lot of features, but that designers added them without much thought to how they improve the workflow.

Which is how we get bloated CRM software that cumbersome (and usually inspires a sense of dread among the people who need to use it).

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a free or budget CRM. But you need to be aware of the drawbacks. As with every question on this list, the best choice for you depends on your business priorities and the CRM options you’re looking at.

Remember too that there are costs other than licensing that you may need to consider. Maintenance and upkeep can become an issue if you’re running a large, complicated CRM. And if you need to get training for your employees, you’ll probably pay for it.

Keep the future in mind. Remember what I said earlier—that it’s much easier to get it right the first time than to change software later. You might not need much now, but if you’re planning on scaling soon, it might make sense to invest more heavily in a better solution now.

Let’s take a look at an example. Here are three different small business CRMs with their pricing information (price per user per month paid annually):

CRM Basic plan Midrange plan Premier plan
Close.io $59 $99 $149
Pipedrive $12.50 $24.20 $49.17
Zendesk Sell $19 $99 $199
Salesforce* $75 $150 $300

* Salesforce pricing is remarkably complicated. There’s also a cheaper plan that can be used with five or fewer users. This is pricing for their cloud-based sales CRM, which differs from other versions of their CRM. Good luck getting all of that figured out without hiring a consultant.

As you can see, pricing varies widely for different CRM products. This is why it’s a good idea to answer the previous questions before you look at your budget.

Because if you look at your budget first, you might be tempted to grab Pipedrive. But you might not have realized that Pipedrive doesn’t have features like automated dialing.

And it’s not always clear to new users that Pipedrive’s visualizations become less meaningful as you start dealing with a higher volume of leads. Or that managing those leads becomes more difficult.

Of course, if your business is set up to deal with a lower volume of prospects and customers, this might not be a problem. In that case, Pipedrive could be a great choice.

If your business isn’t set up that way, though, you might not realize that Pipedrive is the wrong CRM until you’re already invested in it.

So make sure you know exactly what you want, and then find a small business CRM that has as many of those features as possible without breaking your budget.

How to find answers to these questions (and others)

That’s a lot of questions. And chances are that you don’t have simple answers for a lot of them. That’s okay.

But before you start figuring out which CRM is best for your small business, it’s important that you take some time to sniff out as many answers as possible.

Unless you’re the only person at your company, you probably don’t know exactly how every process goes. That’s totally fine. But that means you need to seek out input.

Schedule meetings with various teams—marketing, sales, customer support, customer success, maybe even development—and ask what they’d like to get out of a CRM.

Start with getting a walkthrough of their processes, including the tools they use right now. You might be surprised to find out that they need Microsoft Office integration, or that they already have detailed reporting tools.

After that, ask what would make their jobs easier. It doesn’t have to be anything realistic. Think big. You never know what you might find in your search for the perfect CRM. Picture an ideal world.

Once you know what everyone wants from the CRM, it’s time for a difficult step: prioritizing all of that input.

You won’t be able to find a CRM that meets every need of everyone in the company. That’s just not going to happen. So take the time to identify who will be using the software most and what they really need to succeed.

Here’s an issue we’ve seen a lot in the past:

Salespeople are the ultimate end-users of your CRM. They spend the most time there, and it’s most important for their jobs. It makes sense to prioritize a system that makes your salespeople’s communications easier.

But the CEO wants a particular reporting feature or integration. And because the CEO usually gets the last word, the sales team’s requests get deprioritized.

This happens all the time. But these companies have their priorities backwards.

The solution is often a simple conversation with the CEO. Explain why it’s in the best interest of the company to satisfy the needs of the sales team. Make it clear that you’ve done your research and tried to choose a CRM that works for everyone (including the CEO).

Explain why you chose the CRM you did, and thank everyone for their feedback. People appreciate that you weighed their requests and did your best to choose the best option for everyone.

When starting the process, ask yourself a simple question: “Who will use the CRM more than anyone else?” Use that to guide your decision-making process and explanations.

Pro tip: once you’ve collected this information, talk to CRM vendors about your needs. It’s a common misconception that getting on the phone with a sales rep means you’ll just get a hard sales pitch.

But vendors can help you get a better handle on what it is you need and which CRMs will help. Our own reps often recommend other CRMs to prospective customers if they determine that Close.io isn’t the best solution for their needs.

Take the time to make the right decision

The best CRM for your small business might not be obvious right away. There are a lot of choices out there, and they all advertise themselves as the best available.

To make the right choice, you need to have a solid understanding of what you need. If you can answer the seven questions above, you’ll be on the right track to choosing the right CRM.