CRM Software Buyer's Guide: Top 10 Solutions of 2017

With so many CRM systems to choose from, we've put together this free comparison guide for buyers to sift through some the best CRM software providers for your specific needs

Guided Onboard
Manage Leads
Marketing Automation
Helpdesk Ticket
More Details
Zoho CRM with Sales, Marketing & Helpdesk
2-Way Email & Telephony, Pipeline Management
Forecasts, Dashboards, Reports & Analytics
Workflows & Macros, Zoho Office Integration
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Industry Veteran with Flexible Deployment
Forecasting, Notifications, Reports & Analytics
Lead Generation & Campaign Management
Call Integration, Customer Self-Service, Mobile App
Fees Apply, Optional
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Adaptable Platform for Enterprise & SMBs
Account, Opportunity & Pipeline Management
Process Automation, Relationship Analytics
Prospect Targeting, Customer Journey Management
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Powerful CRM with Enterprise Integrations
Sales, Marketing & Service Automation
Customer Lifecycle Management, Mobile Solutions
ERP & Ecommerce Integration, Oracle Integration
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Acclaimed Sales & Marketing Small Business CRM
Sales & Marketing Automation, Online Storefront
Pipeline & Management, Landing Page Builder
Lead Scoring, Dedicated Onboarding, Mobile App
Fees Apply, Required
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All-In-One CRM for Enterprise and SMBs
Sales, Marketing & Service Process Automation
Solutions Tailored for Company Size & Industry
Customer Research, Flexible Deployment
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What is All-Inclusive CRM?

Customer relationship management (CRM) refers to the practices and policies undertaken to cultivate and sustain positive engagement with customers throughout the customer lifecycle. Some of these practices are as old as business – personal customer engagement, for example – but modern customer relationship management also seeks to optimize communications on the deepening and diversifying channels over which companies can interact with their customers.

In doing so, customer relationship management software provides tools aimed to refine the use of company resources towards the ‘three pillars’ of CRM – sales, marketing and customer support. Some CRM solutions specialize for individual disciplines with sales automation, marketing automation and online ticketing helpdesk solutions. Other vendors try to address all three pillars with an all-inclusive CRM solution.

All-inclusive CRM seeks to automate routine tasks, improve productivity and enhance the customer experiences offered by marketing, sales and customer support departments with the benefit of a common platform between them. All-inclusive CRM has traditionally been aimed at enterprises, but scalable solutions have become available for growing small to midsized businesses.

Key Benefits & Features of All-Inclusive CRM:

The benefits of all-inclusive CRM are essentially the combined advantages of specialized CRM solutions for a particular department. How effectively these advantages coalesce as a common platform depends on the vendor and its implementation by CRM administrators. In general, all-inclusive CRM provides effective contact management, automation for sales, marketing and support, analytics, reporting, and the mobile advantages of a cloud-based solution.

  1. Centralized Contact Information. As with contact management software, all-inclusive CRM solutions bring your contact details into a central repository. Certain solutions will scour publicly-available information to automatically populate property fields, and users can add custom fields or tags to adapt contact profiles to suit their business needs. Contact databases can be searched, filtered, exported or visualized in reports.
  2. Task Management. A basic component of CRMs, large or small, is task management; users and admins can add tasks linked to specific contacts, organizations and events; tasks can be automatically generated and assigned based on certain CRM activity, like the creation of a new contact or lead, the progression of a deal to a new pipeline stage, the completion of a report or contingent on the completion of a previous task.
  3. Schedule Management. CRMs typically integrate with third-party calendar applications to import events and schedules; these calendar events can be linked to specific contacts, organizations, leads, tasks or other CRM records. Custom notifications can be configured to alert users to schedule changes or upcoming events.
  4. Reduced Data Entry. A hallmark feature of modern CRMs is the ability to configure workflows to automatically complete routine tasks. This pertains to record creation or updates, pipeline management, task management, notifications or integration with third-party apps. Properly configured workflows can streamline performance of unprofitable but necessary tasks while freeing agents to focus on the creative aspects of their work.
  5. Activity Tracking. CRMs are able to track user activity within the platform, such as record creation and update, pipeline management, ticket resolution, data sharing or task assignment and completion. This allows managers to obtain insight through sales reports, marketing analysis, team performance and other advanced reports.
  6. Lead Generation. The marketing automation aspects of CRMs offer lead generation through well-placed ads, social media outreach, content marketing, custom landing pages and so on. Leveraging the scope of online and mobile channels with customer segmentation insights lets companies tailor marketing messages towards known customer interests.
  7. Lead Management. All-inclusive CRMs include lead nurturing tools, such as email marketing – with email tracking and templates – custom landing pages, calls to action and A/B testing. Email campaigns can be personalized, click-through rates and conversions measured, marketing assets compared on the basis of these metrics and campaigns optimized for highest customer engagement. Users can implement lead scoring models to qualify leads based on explicit, implicit and negative criteria to determine when marketing-qualified leads are ready for sales contact.
  8. Personalized Customer Engagement. Website visitors can be enticed to exchange some small personal identifiers, and their website activity tracked, to segment them according to personal characteristics. These can include demographic details, such as age range, gender and location, or professional details, like title, company, industry, buying authority and so on. This allows marketers and salespeople to engage customers based on their known traits, in addition to any other personalized notes that can be stored within the CRM.
  9. Online Ticketing. Customer support agents can address support issues from a central platform that notifies them in real-time to service issues. Tickets can be created through a variety of channels, such as email, web chat, SMS, calls, social media, forum post and others. Helpdesk agents are able to respond to these channels from within the platform, including calls.
  10. Unified Helpdesk Inbox. Helpdesk agents have a variety of ticket management tools, including merging, sharing, reassigning or resolving tickets. This means that the same issue (with the same customers) over separate channels can be combined into a single ticket. A customer creating a ticket via phone call and continuing through email will interact with a support agent who views all communication on the same screen.
  11. Advanced Custom Reports. Most modern CRMs provide a level of analytics and reporting that turns granular CRM data into visualized charts. Higher end, all-inclusive CRMs typically offer advanced custom reports so managers can view cross-sections of data to evaluate product performance, marketing ROI, helpdesk quality, customer satisfaction, down to individual metrics.
  12. Mobility. Business is increasingly mobile; most CRM solutions will provide a mobile app tailored to departmental needs. Sales agents will have access to deal data and reports, marketers will have access to leads, helpdesk agents will be able to resolve tickets from mobile devices. Some mobile CRM apps simply grant access to CRM data and select functions, while others extend CRM functionality with mobile-specific features like call and SMS sync and geolocation.

What to Look for in an All-Inclusive CRM Solution:

  • Scalability – Most modern CRM solutions are offered through the cloud through tiered subscriptions. Higher level subscriptions offer more features, increased storage and expanded support. As your needs grow, your CRM should grow along with you.
  • User Interface – The CRM will be the primary access point for many essential business functions; this is more true for all-inclusive CRMs, which address user roles in multiple departments. An intuitive and visually-friendly interface can increase user adoption, which gets the most out of the platform and increases ROI.
  • User Permissions – Administrators can manage user permissions to simplify the user experience and centralize access to key configurations. This maintains a hierarchy with the most experienced users able to make system changes or design workflows.
  • Contact Management – Modern CRMs all include contact management features, such as importing contacts through webmail sync, advanced search, filter and export options, custom fields and tags, custom reports and social media integration. Certain solutions will scour emails, email signatures and public data to automatically complete contact and organization profiles.
  • Task Management – CRM users can create, reassign, share tasks and link them to contacts, organizations, events, opportunities or other CRM records. Custom workflows can automate task creation and assignment contingent on criteria such as pipeline activity, customer interaction or time-based triggers. Custom notifications can alert assignees to pending or overdue tasks as well as newly created ones.
  • Calendar Integration – All-inclusive CRMs will allow at least one-way sync with existing calendar functions to import schedules and events. Users can link scheduling details to CRM records, such as contacts, organizations, notes, and follow-up tasks. Once linked, the scheduling detail will appear in activity feeds relevant to that CRM record.
  • Custom Workflows – Certain solutions allow users to configure workflows to automate repetitive CRM functions, such as task creation, record updates, notifications, email drip campaigns, ticket assignment and so on. Workflows typically depend on logical operators (‘if and then’ statements) with increasing complexity for multiple rules. Automation can reduce the number of clicks required to update CRM data and allow businesses to gain the most functionality from the platform with a minimum amount of busy work.
  • Sales Pipeline – A visual sales pipeline is a staple of sales-oriented CRMs; modern solutions allow multiple pipelines with custom stages with user-specified attributes (such as percentage likelihood of win) and a drag-and-drop interface. Custom notifications can alert team members when a deal changes pipeline stage and workflows customized to create, link and assign tasks and events depending on the change. Sales reports can visualize the sales pipeline and put sales activity and team performance in context over time.
  • Project Management – CRMs also provide built-in or integrated project management functions to notify team members of project statuses and updates. Collaborative tools like group messaging, shared file storage and project pipelines keep stakeholders involved without a need to switch applications.
  • Social Media Integration – Businesses with an active social media presence can unify social media monitoring and customer engagement with a CRM that offers 2-way integration with popular networks. Businesses can integrate web-to-lead forms on their Facebook page as well as all Twitter functions, with alerts for brand mentions, particularly in association with certain keywords.
  • Automatic Logging – CRMs with multichannel integration should also offer sync and automatic logging of communication over those channels, which includes email, calls, SMS and tweets. Certain solutions require manual email logging, but a robust all-inclusive CRM can be expected to perform this automatically.
  • Email Marketing – Email marketing is an essential modern facet of online lead nurturing; email marketing features include custom templates, calls to action and landing pages, drag-and-drop email design, email tracking, email triggers, A/B testing and reporting on marketing asset according to metrics like click-through and conversion rates. Drip campaigns can be personalized according to automatic triggers based on links clicked, pages visited and known customer segmentation data.
  • Website Tracking – Tracking website visitors online activity yields insight to their interests; this data can be used to qualify some leads over others. Visitors who download white papers or case studies, spend time on pricing pages and scroll to the bottom of the page are more likely customers than visitors who bounce from the site shortly after arriving.
  • File Management – Modern CRMs provide file management in addition to contact management; in addition to storing common files among team members, files can be linked to specific contacts, organizations, deals and events, allowing for simpler search and management of contact-specific documents, photos, and so on.
  • Online Ticketing – All-inclusive CRMs also provide helpdesk features for customer support, allowing agents to engage support issues over multiple channels through a single interface. Ticketing features often include formatting options and custom templates so agents can shorten response times and streamline resolution of frequent issues.
  • Ticket Management – Support agents have a variety of ticket management tools including the ability to split, merge, reassign tickets, adjust ticket status, and add custom tags; custom notifications can alert agents to pending, overdue or unassigned tickets; tickets can be searched, filtered and visualized in custom reports by administrators, who can also add custom fields to tickets. Certain helpdesk platforms gamify customer support to create friendly competition and performance incentives for agents to respond to tickets quickly and effectively.
  • Custom Macros – Support agents are able to customize, save and share effective responses as macros, which can also be personalized for individual tickets without additional input from the agent. This reduces response and ticket resolution time while keeping the warmth and variability of person-to-person customer support.
  • Service Level Agreements – Businesses that provide custom SLAs can set custom alerts, ticket status and response parameters exceeding normal restrictions, such as support outside standard Monday to Friday hours. Helpdesk solutions may restrict the number of custom SLAs for lower-tier subscriptions but an all-inclusive CRM should allow them without restriction on upper-level plans.
  • Customer Self-Service – Helpdesk solutions allow companies to create online knowledge bases with how-to articles, FAQs, instructional videos and webinars that allow readers to gauge the helpfulness of the asset. Companies can also create branded community forums for general support or developer communities; admins can elevate specific posts to support tickets to address the support issue directly.
  • Mobile App – Most modern CRM solutions provide mobile apps to allow users to access essential data and functions on the go. As mentioned earlier, some mobile apps go even further, and supplement CRM data with mobile sync to supplement call and SMS logs or provide geolocation within the app.
  • Analytics and Reports – Any modern CRM will track activity on a very granular level. Built-in reports present common metrics (total sales, sales per rep, tickets resolved, click-through rates per asset, etc) over time; custom filters allow user-defined cross-sections of data to be filtered and exported in a variety of formats.
  • Integrations – All-inclusive CRMs can do quite a bit for sales, marketing and customer support, but related business needs are often best left to dedicated third-party apps. Official integrations for accounting, HR, productivity, reporting, email marketing or other specialized apps allow exchange of data with the CRM without loss of function or productivity.
  • Developer API – Integrations with proprietary software or apps lacking official integrations can be built using the developer API. While this requires development talent, it allows businesses to build integrations suited to their specific needs; most CRMs, all-inclusive or specialized, provide a developer API to offer this flexibility to their clients.

What to Look for when Comparing All-Inclusive CRM Solution Providers:

  • Scalability – Compare the features CRM vendors offer at which subscription tiers. Ensure the features you’ll need in a year’s time will scale with your growth – changing horses midstream will cost you time, resources and lost work.
  • Multilingual Support – If your products or services sell in multiple countries, you’ll want to have multilingual marketing, sales and support communications. The same goes for team members in other countries – CRM solutions come in a number of language, and customer support asset translation comes in even more.
  • Reporting – Data is only as good as how it’s interpreted; analytics and reporting functions present your CRM data in a digestible format. Moreover, as CRM providers incorporate machine learning into their platforms, all departments – particularly sales – will benefit from predictive analytics analyzing past data and recommending courses of action.
  • Price – All-inclusive CRM providers can be vague about the cost of their features. Their packages may be marketed separately from one another; this is useful to companies that may not need certain functions, such as social media integration or mobile advertising, but it can make the cost difficult to calculate. Determine your needs, then ascertain the price per vendor to acquire the features to fulfill them.
  • Service & Support – Any vendor that provides all-inclusive CRM solutions will have a library of online knowledge base articles, community forums, and online ticketing support. Low to mid-tier plans usually include email support and upper tier plans involve phone support. Service level agreements, which may entail a monthly quota of individual time or a number of issues with dedicated account executives, may vary and can be negotiable per client. Certain vendors require paid onboarding sessions while others keep them as optional. Depending on the CRM experience of your administrators and team, the extra outlay for onboarding may be excessive to your needs.
  • Mobile App – Business is increasingly mobile, and a company with a need for all-inclusive CRM likely already has plenty of team members who occasionally work remotely. While SaaS CRMs (which most are) are remotely accessible by virtue of the cloud, a well-designed mobile app ensures that team members can access their data on any device, and even leverage the device’s unique capabilities to enhance their role. If your team is often mobile, a strong mobile CRM app adds significant value.
  • Integrations – If your company uses a variety of business applications from separate vendors, you’ll need a CRM that can link them all. Certain CRMs provide a wide range of official integrations, which can lower deployment time for a new system and allow your team to hit the ground running.

The Role of a CRM Administrator:

A CRM, whether all-inclusive or specialized for a department, functions best when adopted universally across departments. Acclimating team members to a new system is time-consuming requires retraining and coordination. A small company may be able to redirect a staff member to deploying the new CRM, and have the close-knit culture and direct communication to achieve this, but there will still be a learning curve and bumps in the road. The more complex functions the CRM is expected to perform – such as customizing workflows and integrating current systems – the more the platform will require dedicated attention; a fully-featured CRM solution is best deployed, implemented and maintained with a CRM administrator.

An effective administrator would be able to learn how to implement business processes into the new platform. (They would be the one to go through a paid onboarding session.) The ideal administrator would have an IT background, understand the needs of the various departments the CRM is intended to address, be able to explain to end users how to adapt to changes, and troubleshoot the software when required.

The cost of hiring a dedicated CRM administrator adds to the expense of the new platform. Companies with a strong need for CRM yet who cannot afford the budget for an administrator may be able to offload CRM responsibilities to existing staff – creating email templates, managing account access, configuring simple workflows – but CRM software tends to grow beyond the capability or attention of an employee working in a dual capacity. At this point, the employee could be spun off into a dedicated administrative role – and sent for certification if needed – so that the company’s CRM needs can be handled across departments.

Of course, for larger, companies, this isn’t really a choice. When employees have specialized roles, the pool of people with the IT background to handle systems suited for large organizations are already the candidates to become CRM administrators. Employees shouldn’t be working in dual capacities; in fact, you might require more than one administrators, because data security management, the configuration of complex automations, management for a large hierarchy fo user permissions and integration of ERP applications demand full-time oversight.

Some Final Thoughts to All-Inclusive CRM Shoppers:

All-inclusive CRMs profess to fulfill a wide range of business functions, but whether all these functions are truly needed, and how effectively their features are implemented, are highly circumstantial to individual company use cases. CRM software derives much of its value from automation of repetitive processes, so consult your team for which routine processes take the most time – and what additional tasks might be accomplished if they had more time or team members. This should point you towards where your CRM should immediately be applied.

When comparing CRMs, make distinctions between the features you immediately require, which are desirable, and which you won’t foreseeably need in the near future. An all-inclusive CRM can do many things, but if you don’t need many of these functions, a leaner, specialized solution might suffice, especially one that’s extendable through add-ons or official and custom integrations. Some CRM vendors sell bundles of features – either directly or through a marketplace – separately from core CRM services. This type of model may save you on monthly subscription fees while keeping your investment limited to only the features that produce value for your business.

Lastly, your CRM is only as good as your adoption rate. A powerful platform is wasted when employees are unable or unwilling to tackle the steep learning curve accompanying any major platform switch. Your company will need to allocate time to train employees to use the new CRM, identify power users who could be ‘deputized’ to reinforce best practices with their colleagues, and keep an open mind; many vendors offer a period of free trial, so if many employees (in other words, the end users) voice frustration with a platform, it may be a sign there’s a more appropriate solution to be found. Accept there will be a learning curve, aim for universal adoption, try before you buy, and onboard users for their specialized roles to get the most out of our CRM investment.

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