Our 2018 award for Best Overall CRM Software goes to Salesforce, because it's an established full-featured CRM that can meet the needs of even the largest businesses.
Salesforce has been in business for nearly 20 years and has the bulk of the market share when it comes to sales applications, marketing applications, and customer services applications. SMB and international enterprises alike use Salesforce products, including its highly reviewed customer relationship management SaaS solution.
In 2016, Salesforce was named Innovator of the Decade by Forbes, and, today, Salesforce is one of the top five fastest-growing enterprise software companies worldwide. One major edge Salesforce offers clients is access to the massive Salesforce App marketplace, which makes installing third-party integrations relatively painless. Additionally, the sheer size of the CRM giant makes it an excellent option in terms of scalability; your business is highly unlikely to ever outgrow the Salesforce ecosystem.
To understand how we selected our best picks, you can view our methodology as well as a comprehensive list of CRM software, on our best picks page.
Why Salesforce CRM?
Powerful, customizable, scalable
Salesforce dominates the CRM market because it can be scaled and customized to meet the needs of a diverse range of businesses. The implementation timeline for Salesforce varies wildly due to different subscription levels and integrations that require varying levels of hands-on setup. However, once implemented, Salesforce offers one of the best user interfaces available.
Salesforce's modern UI is intuitive enough to use that very little training is necessary for non-admin users. Navigation within Salesforce is easy, too. Each tab is separated into easy-to-understand categories, such as Home, Contacts, Accounts, Leads, Campaigns, Opportunities, Forecasts Files and more. This tab-style layout makes it easy to see all the information available and jump from task to task. Additionally, Salesforce admin controls make it easy to maintain different permissions and displays based on user groups or individual users, and since the SaaS product is mobile-ready it can be accessed from anywhere.
While some CRMs we reviewed are focused solely on small business use, Salesforce has a much broader scope. This SaaS solution goes beyond the functionality of a typical customer relationship management software by delivering project management and workflow tools, content management, and a bevy of third-party integrations. Through Salesforce AppExchange, business users gain instant access to easy third-party integrations. While third-party app integrations are not unique to Salesforce, the variety and quantity of apps offered in the Salesforce store are far greater than what the competition offers.
Additionally, companies that use legacy systems or proprietary software and want to integrate them with Salesforce may either do so themselves in-house or take advantage of the software giant's comprehensive team of implementation and customization support staff. Since Salesforce regularly works with enterprise-level clients whose needs are specific and numerous, small and medium-sized businesses can rest assured that the SaaS provider has more than enough consultation services available to assist with any level of customization needed (for a price).
For entrepreneurs who prefer to keep things in-house, Salesforce has an active online user community, and since it's so widely used, there is also an inclusive catalog of training resources and implementation documentation available online. However, it should be noted that going the DIY route with Salesforce requires some serious tech chops, if you do not have a dedicated in-house tech team, consider the added cost of consultation services prior to adoption.
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Salesforce isn't a budget CRM solution. While the company's tiered SaaS pricing is affordable enough on the surface, popular customizations, integrations, additional users and additional storage all comes at a premium. Additionally, implementation and consultation services cost a pretty penny, but it is possible to adopt Salesforce without breaking the bank. Below is a price breakdown for the cloud CRM. As with most other customer relationship management solutions, Salesforce quotes prices per user, per month but bills users annually.
- Lightning Essentials: The entry-level Salesforce CRM, Lightning Essentials, is only suitable for small businesses. At $25 per user, per month, this relatively affordable SaaS solution offers price-conscious business owners an opportunity to buy into the Salesforce ecosystem without massive upfront costs. However, Lightning Essentials only provides support for up to five users at a time, so plan on upgrading to a more expensive subscription level if your team is growing.
- Lightning Professional: Organizations that require support for more than five users may upgrade to the next available Salesforce tier, which is called Lightning Professional and costs $75 per user, per month. Despite being three times the cost of the Lightning Essentials package, this subscription tier is the least expensive Salesforce CRM level for unlimited users. Functionality wise, Lightning Professional includes most of the features of Essentials (with the exceptions of Einstein Activity capture and inbox mobile app) plus more in-depth lead management and marketing tools, like the ability to mass email and manage campaigns.
- Lightning Enterprise: The most popular Salesforce CRM tier, Lightning Enterprise is significantly more expensive than most SMB-focused solutions at $150 per user, per month, but the extensive customization options make it a good fit for businesses with highly specific needs. Unlike lower tiers, this CRM level offers users full access to all of Salesforce's package-inclusive features as well as unlimited roles and permissions, unlimited record types, unlimited processes, unlimited profiles and page layouts, and one partial sandbox for lightweight dev testing.
- Lightning Unlimited: Ideal for highly tech-oriented businesses with extensive dev needs, Lightning Unlimited offers the same access as Lightning Enterprise as well as access to a full developer sandbox and developer pro sandbox. For $300 per user, per month, this instance of Salesforce also grants users access to Premier Success Resources, 24/7 toll-free support, developer support, unlimited online training, configuration services, and access to accelerators. Features like these are not available at any other subscription level but are likely not necessary for the majority of SMB.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is a contentious topic among Salesforce users, and small business owners should carefully consider how much time they're willing to spend learning a new CRM before making a purchasing decision.
In general, mid to large-sized companies that have ample in-house tech support tend to describe Salesforce's CRM as being relatively easy to use. They describe a long implementation process, which is to be expected when you're dealing with a highly sophisticated and customizable system, but a very slight learning curve when it comes to getting users to understand how the CRM works.
This assessment of ease of use is understandable and echoes some aspects of our experience with Salesforce. Throughout the testing process, we were impressed with the overall intuitive design Salesforce offers, and layout of tabs and menu items are easy to navigate without much direction. However, as reviewers, we have an above-average understanding and knowledge of CRM systems, so to get a more comprehensive view of ease of use, it's important to pay attention to responses from a diverse range of sources.
Through research, we found that many smaller organizations (especially those that are not particularly tech savvy) describe Salesforce as very confusing and extremely difficult to implement and use. Many such users expressed great frustration at figuring out how to set up basic user permissions and manage the admin side of the implementation process. Several such clients said they had to resort to expensive support services from Salesforce and many said the entire process entailed far more work than they initially thought it would be.
Our advice: If your staff is familiar with customer relationship management software and you employ a fairly tech-savvy group of professionals, you probably won't have difficulty with Salesforce. If you've never completed a software implementation project, have limited in-house technical expertise, and aren't familiar with CRM systems, you may be better off adopting a simpler solution.
Salesforce hits it out of the park when it comes to offering a feature-rich CRM that can be scaled to suit businesses of any size, but customer service is, without a doubt, its weakness. Judging customer service as a reviewer is difficult, because media inquiries are often given priority over small clients, but at Salesforce, the customer service response time is consistently lacking.
Ignored requests are the norm whether you're a client or a member of the media and getting anyone to return a call or email is challenging at best. Finding even basic information is frustrating and getting anything other than a price and feature list requires emailing and filling out request forms with personal information.
It's unclear if Salesforce's customer service is lacking because they want customers to opt for paid consultation services or if the company simply pours its resources into servicing enterprise-level clients, but small businesses should seriously consider the level of customer service they require before joining the Salesforce ecosystem.
Ask up front about how much consultation services cost, how Salesforce reps communicate with their charges, and what type of response time to expect before you estimate the cost of adoption for your business. Assume that if you require assistance from Salesforce, you will have to pay for it.
Some CRM solutions have one or two standout features that make them worthy of consideration among business users, but Salesforce's sheer variety of features and nearly limitless service options make it an award winner in our book. Here are a few of the best CRM features Salesforce offers business users. Keep in mind that some of these features are add-ons and aren't included in the tiered pricing structure we outlined.
- Customizable dashboards: The CRM dashboard is arranged in an intuitive way, with reporting widgets and real-time summaries of sales numbers and customer data. Dashboard views can easily be customized, so employees with varied roles see only what's important to them.
- Advanced analytics: Basic business analytics are built into Salesforce's CRM, but advanced analytics are available as an add-on for those with robust data analysis needs. Products like Salesforce's Einstein Analytics family includes a variety of products designed to boost sales and productivity by interpreting data gathered.
- Click-to-call: While it's not included in any of the tiered subscription plans, Salesforce CRM users may opt to pay extra for the addition of Lightning Dialer. Salesforce's proprietary click-to-call add-on is a must for high-volume call centers and eliminates the need for a third-party calling solution.
- B2B marketing tools: Pardot B2B Marketing Automation is a Salesforce add-on that allows B2B users to streamline the marketing and lead-generation process and maximize on ROI. Very few CRM solutions offer tools specifically for B2B industries, so this is a standout feature.
- Salesforce Trailblazer Community: For the self-serve set, the Salesforce Trailblazer Community is an invaluable online resource. The comprehensive help forum features knowledge articles, best practices for implementation, interactive groups, a space for Q&As and more. Since Salesforce is so widely used, the Trailblazer community is more active and responsive than other branded CRM user groups.
- Customer Service Console: You'd be hard pressed to find a company with more customer service support tools than Salesforce. In fact, this CRM provider offers an entire customer Customer Service Console add-on that's designed specifically for small businesses and help desks. Through the service console, users may view customer inquiries from social media, phone, chat, and emails in one place, route questions to the correct agents, and maintain records of conversations and response time.
- Project management: Salesforce has lightweight project management built into its CRM solution, primarily in the form of workflows, task assignments, approvals and permission levels. However, if you require more advanced project management or already use a popular project management system you can integrate it with your Salesforce CRM through AppExchange. There are currently 112 different project-management tools (paid and free) that can be paired with Salesforce, including popular solutions like Taskfeed and Tracker by Deloitte as well as industry-specific products like the AdvoLogix Legal Suite.
- AppExchange Free Integrations: There are plenty of paid services Salesforce users can integrate with their CRMs through AppExchange, but there are also hundreds of free integrations available, some of which are pared down versions of more expensive products (ideal for very small businesses) and others that are open source or simply available free of charge. Browse the Salesforce AppExchange store by category to get a sense of the scope of add-ons available.
With nearly 20 percent market share as of 2015, Salesforce owns more of the CRM market than tech giants SAP, Oracle and Microsoft. While size may seem irrelevant when it comes to the end user, some companies prefer to implement products from major companies, because larger SaaS providers tend to continue to build out the types of services and products they offer. Getting multiple solutions from one provider can also make it easier for large businesses to keep a handle on the tech they use.
Salesforce isn't necessarily the best solution for every business user. Like other business software companies, Salesforce offers so many packages and options that simply sorting through all the products and figuring out what you need, what you don't need, and how much it will all cost will require at least a little help from a sales rep. Even gathering general information or viewing a demo requires filling out a form, and many SMB and multitasking entrepreneurs prefer a more self-serve approach.
Pricing may also be an issue for some small businesses. While the $25 per-user fee seems like a win, it can only be used for teams of five or fewer people. Businesses that need more than five subscriptions will have to pay at least $75 per user, per month. Customizing the software and adding on third-party solutions may result in additional fees, and if you lack the requisite skills to implement or customize the software, there are additional costs to hire developers to do it for you. Some small business owners we talked to said they were quoted hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars from developers to help them implement Salesforce.
Ready to choose a CRM solution? Here's a breakdown of our full coverage: