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Choosing a CRM Software: 2015 Buyer's Guide

Choosing a CRM Software: 2015 Buyer's Guide

Looking for a CRM software? This article contains everything you need to know about how to choose one. If you're in a hurry, just scroll down to see our best picks and staff reviews. 

As its name suggests, CRM software was originally designed to help businesses build and maintain relationships with new and existing customers. Today, however, CRM software has evolved from a simple contact management system into a robust tool that lets you manage sales, marketing, point-of-sale (POS), accounting, vendor and other types of operational data, all in one easily accessible solution. 

From a growth standpoint, CRM is used to find leads, follow up with prospects and nurture them through the sales pipeline. CRM is also used to maintain customer loyalty by storing key information to boost sales — for instance, by personalizing the experience and providing excellent customer support. 

Although there are many solutions that can do this for businesses, the beauty of CRM software is that it can accomplish these tasks automatically, using just one solution. It can also integrate data from other areas of your business without any additional work. As a whole, CRM software gives you and your sales teams all the tools necessary to grow your business in a central hub with the least amount of work possible. 

Looking for CRM software for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

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CRM can make your life as a business owner much easier, while also helping your sales team get the job done in a more efficient and streamlined way. Although nearly all businesses can benefit from CRM software, it's not for everyone.

If the following statements apply to you, your business needs CRM software:

You need a robust contact management system.

At its core, CRM software is all about keeping information from different sources organized, such that they are easily accessible whenever you need them. For growing small businesses, traditional email, mobile and other address books likely won't be enough — and those methods aren't sustainable solutions for the long term. 

If you're looking for a better way to store and manage customer information, CRM software is the best solution for your business. It acts as an entire database for all types of insights on customers, including contact information, purchase histories, how customers browse your website, ways and times they've interacted with your company (and reasons why), demographics, interests, personal preferences and more. You can then use this information to segment customers for marketing purposes or to easily search for customers who fit specific criteria.

Additionally, CRM can act as a contact management system for other parties you rely on to keep your business afloat, such as vendors, affiliates, business partners and more. As with customer lists, these contacts can include all types of information and can be labeled and categorized based on their specific attributes. 

You're looking for an automated way to boost sales.

CRM doesn't just keep your contacts organized — it also offers a bevy of tools to help you boost sales and execute more effective marketing campaigns. These include:

  • Lead generation. Find new customers by automatically generating leads from various sources like social media, website visitors, inbound calls, newsletter sign-ups and more. 
  • Prospect nurturing. Follow up with leads automatically with preset emails and tasks, or contact them directly yourself. CRM can nurture prospects all the way through the entire sales pipeline, from lead generation to closing the sale.
  • Email marketing. Automatically build email lists, launch email marketing campaigns and measure performance. CRM can also send email reminders to customers and prospects to drive sales — for instance, by reminding them of abandoned carts, suggesting products that they may be interested in (based on preferences or purchase histories) and other ways to make up for missed sales opportunities. 
  • Sales quotes and invoicing. Create and store sales quotes for individual customers and customer groups. When they are ready to purchase, CRM can automatically turn those quotes into invoices, which are then imported to your accounting, POS and other designated solutions. 
  • Order tracking. Get tracking information straight from your CRM dashboard. Order information appears on customers' individual accounts for quick and convenient access.
  • Sales forecasting. Automatically project short- and long-term sales potential and opportunities with just a few clicks, which eliminates the need to gather data and produce charts from scratch.
  • Performance tracking. CRM software typically gives each sales reps their own accounts, which allows them to keep track of their own sales numbers, quotas, incentives and other metrics to help them reach their goals.
  • Competitor tracking. Keep an eye on what competitors are doing — such as their social media activities, press releases and other sources of news — to stay ahead of the game.

You want to deliver better customer support.

Because CRM is all about managing customer relationships, it can help you deliver the best customer support possible. 

As previously mentioned, each customer account includes key customer information, like purchase histories, past interactions, order information, preferences, personal data and more. Having all of this information in one place makes it easier for sales and customer service representatives to answer customer questions and resolve issues because they'll have a readily available point of reference. 

Moreover, this ensures that all support staff have access to the same updated information, which allows anyone on your team to help any given customer at any time. This also lets them easily collaborate if more than one person is needed to help customers with particularly difficult or unique situations.

CRM software offers myriad features to help businesses efficiently manage customers and nearly every area of their operations. But because there are so many features available, it can be difficult to figure out exactly which ones your business actually needs. 

To help narrow it down, we asked small business owners what they think makes the perfect CRM software for a small business. We also asked what features they've found to be the most useful in growing their businesses. Here's a good representation of what many of them had to say:

"An ideal CRM would be easily customizable, easy to pick the tools you use, has extensive capacity for using your data, [is accessible] from a mobile device, and be properly secured against data loss and [unauthorized] access." — Jonathan Hurdman, IT specialist at J & J Automation, a small business IT services provider

"CRM alone only tells our sales team a piece of the puzzle — who they are trying to sell to. It doesn't say anything about what was actually sold, to whom, at what discount, where, etc. A perfect CRM offering must work seamlessly with other solutions to give a more holistic view into sales." — James Mayfield, business analyst for Cascade, a distributor of prosthetic supplies

"The perfect CRM software is intuitive, but flexible, so that you can manage leads easily and make automated actions based on client segmentation." — Kenny Kline, partner at JAKK Solutions, an SEO company

"The perfect CRM software is flexible, accessible from any device, user-friendly and provides meaningful reporting capabilities." — Susan Connor, president and chief CRM strategist at SquareBlue Consulting, a marketing consultancy

"CRMs really need to be designed specifically for your business, and it's rare that you're going to find a CRM system that will work for you out of the box." — Max Schmidt, co-founder of 1701 Bespoke, a custom men's clothing boutique based in downtown Detroit

"One that is simple and makes life easier!" — Erika Yost Kumar, project manager at EPW Small Business Law PC, a law firm that caters to entrepreneurs, artists, consultants and other small businesses

Here are some of the key features to look for, and why they're important: 

  • Easy to use. Like any other technology, you'll have to train yourself and your employees to use CRM software. There are some that are so complicated that they aren't worth the training time and monetary investment for a small business. Save yourself the headache and frustration by choosing one with a clean, simple user interface that doesn't have much of a learning curve. Note that while many CRM software products claim to be easy to use, be sure to test or demo them yourself first to get a feel for how each one works and whether it fits your tastes.
  • Customizable. As many small business owners told us, there is no one-size-fits-all CRM solution for small businesses. CRM software encompasses so many areas of a business that customization is key to getting the most out of your investment. Choose a CRM software that you can customize according to your business's unique needs. For instance, some options offer different packages based on the included features, whereas some let you select only the features your business requires. Customization can also take the form of expanding capabilities using extensions, plugins, themes, templates and add-ons to completely tailor the software to your business.
  • Third-party integration. CRM software works with all types of third-party solutions so that all your data is streamlined throughout different areas of your business. This means you don't have to manually export or import data between, for instance, your CRM software and POS system or accounting software, thus saving you time that you would have spent performing repetitive tasks. The key, however, is to make sure that the CRM software you choose is compatible with the apps you already use. Double-check by consulting the vendor's website or contacting customer support before making a purchase.
  • Niche-based. Does your business deal with a specialized industry or niche? There are CRM software options designed specifically for your type of business. For example, if you work in finance, there are CRM software products that comply with transparency and financial regulations. There are also some that are designed specifically for restaurants, retailers, real estate and more.
  • Cloud-based. Get access to your CRM data anytime, anywhere from any device with an Internet connection by choosing a cloud-based CRM software. Avoid those that are described as "on-premise," which means you're forced to access data from the device or location in which the software is installed.
  • Mobile access. Similarly, get access to your CRM data from your smartphone and tablet by choosing a solution that is accessible from mobile devices. Look for those that have their own mobile apps or can at least be accessed and easily viewed using your mobile Web browser.
  • Security. CRM software will easily become the core of your operations. Your CRM software should have stringent security measures to prevent cyberattacks and data loss, as well as provide a means to access your data in the event of an outage or cyberattack.

The cost of CRM software varies greatly. Vendors typically use a subscription-based pricing model, which can depend on a variety of factors, such as the number of users and features available. 

For the most part, you can expect to pay on a per-user, per-month basis. You may also come across vendors that charge a flat monthly fee for a set number of users but require larger packages or extra fees for additional users. Pricing can range from $10 per user per month to hundreds of dollars per month, depending on your business's unique needs. 

Don't have a budget for CRM software? Or maybe you're not sure that CRM software is right for your business, but would like to see what it has offer. One option is to try a free trial offered by many vendors. There are also free versions of popular CRM software — some are full-featured but limit the number of users or records, while others offer only the bare-minimum capabilities.

There are many benefits of using CRM software that extend beyond day-to-day operations. CRM software doesn't just help businesses keep track of information and boost sales — looking at the big picture, it can help you save time and money, while allowing your sales team to be more efficient at their jobs. 

Here are the benefits small business owners said they love most about their CRM software:

  • Save time. One of the biggest benefits of using CRM software is that it can save you a lot of time by automating a good chunk of your operations. Jeffrey Arnold, president of 4Spot Marketing — an Internet marketing, SEO and Web design company — said his CRM software allows him to spend more time growing his business, as opposed to wasting it on mundane, repetitive tasks. For instance, because the software he chose is so powerful, it can automatically track prospects through the entire sales funnel so he doesn't have to manually follow up with leads.
  • Save money. There are many affordable CRM options for small businesses. But they can also reduce costs because having a comprehensive solution can save you from having to implement multiple tools to get the job done. Ramon Khan, business development manager at National Air Warehouse, an HVAC wholesaler, said he loves that his company's CRM software offers several integration features and can be customized and scaled at an affordable price.
  • Better email marketing. Ty Swartz, owner of Chief's Touch Consulting, an inbound marketing agency, said his company's CRM software has enabled it to reach more customers. For example, the software has allowed him to send large quantities of personalized emails that are segmented by type of audience, which, in turn, has substantially increased the company's email marketing open and click-through rates. Louis Altman, CEO of GlobaFone, a satellite communications service provider, added that his company's CRM software offers detailed email marketing reports, which includes specifics like opens, clicks, opt-outs, bounces and spam reports.
  • Extra functionalities. Altman said that, in addition to email marketing, the CRM software offers a comprehensive database of other functionalities, such as auto-responders, shopping cart, invoicing and storage of any data a company would need in the normal course of business. Moreover, Kline, of JAKK Solutions, added that the software his company uses is a comprehensive CRM system that includes built-in tools, such as billing and project management.
  • Helps sales teams reach their goals. CRM makes it easy for employees to keep track of their own performance. Mayfield, of Cascade, said CRM software — in conjunction with a third-party solution — gives the company's teams direct insights into their commissions, quota attainments, deal valuation and other critical sales information, straight from the CRM dashboard. Mayfield said this capability helps paints a clear picture of their sales pipeline, from initial customer contact all the way to the final sale. Additionally, Cory Cannon, president and CEO of WePresent, a wireless presentation system provider, said the CRM platform his company uses includes blogging, social media marketing and SEO capabilities, all of which are fed to sales teams to help them close leads and become more involved in the marketing process.

Ready to invest in CRM software? There are many different types available, so choosing the right one is key to making it work for your business. Here's what small business owners said you need to ask potential vendors:

  • Is it built for small business?
  • How easy is it to use? Can I easily train employees?
  • How customizable is the software?
  • What features are available to help me with sales, marketing and other aspects of my business?
  • How easy is it to integrate with other solutions I already use?
  • What limitations are there to using the software?
  • What is the total cost of the software? Are there any setup or additional fees? What if I need to add more users?
  • What type of security features does it have to protect my business's and customers' data? What happens if there is an outage? How is my data backed up in the cloud, and can I access it immediately?
  • If I need help, what type of customer service do you offer? Can I reach you any time, or is there a long turnaround period?

Looking for CRM software for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

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Sara Angeles
Sara Angeles

Sara is a tech writer with a background in business and marketing. After graduating from UC Irvine, she worked as a copywriter and blogger for nonprofit organizations, tech labs and lifestyle companies. She started freelancing in 2009 and joined Business News Daily in 2013. Follow Sara Angeles on Twitter @sara_angeles.