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The Best Small Business CRM Software for 2021 – PCMag.com

Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms keep sales departments informed and efficient, both of which are vital to staying competitive no matter what size business you’re in. is a vital component of any size of business. But with a track record of being pricey and complex — both to setup and learn — CRM systems have had trouble attracting small businesses, particularly very small businesses and startups. For some small companies, simple contact management is enough to keep their sales efforts moving, but even here, competitive contact management apps manage data in such a way as to make an eventual transition to CRM an easier process. For many small companies, however, a full-on CRM, even one that’s pared down and simplified for small business buyers, might well be a better initial option, particularly for those engaged in robust digital marketing campaigns.

A Funnel for Customer Interactions

When used to its full potential, a CRM system can take various small business customer interactions and data points to create a dynamic and actionable sales pipeline. For product and service-based businesses, a CRM can maintain a record of post-sales support and client interactions. This is crucial if you’re looking to keep your help desk informed and competitive across multiple channels, especially email and social media in addition to standard phone calls.

Scheduling and data gathering across teams is another area where CRMs can shine. For smaller businesses, managing contacts and schedules can be a tedious and often inaccurate process. CRMs can solve this problem through multi-channel data entry and strong automations. The challenge for CRMs aimed at small businesses is maintaining those benefits while making them easier to setup and use. If you’re using your CRM right, it’s common to have CRM tendrils extending into email marketing, sales calls, meetings, invoice creation, contract management, and even automating various day-to-day tasks. Gathering data for business intelligence (BI) purposes is also important, though often more so to larger organizations with a bigger swath of customers to target.

The challenge for larger businesses when rolling out a CRM is primarily adapting it to the needs of very large sales teams. Implementation and training aren’t as difficult, since these companies have big, dedicated IT staff and probably a lot of premium professional services help from their CRM vendor. Smaller businesses on the other hand not only face the challenge of adapting a CRM so as to help and not hinder their sales staffers, but they also have a steeper hill to climb when it comes to implementing and learning to use all the features a CRM can provide.

Over the last couple of years, however, CRM vendors have begun directly addressing the needs of small business buyers. Some have built brand new products with new interfaces and features designed from the ground up with small and micro-business users in mind. Others have simply pared down their flagship products with the intend of making them easier to use while keeping an upgrade path easy for growing customers. In this roundup we put ten top players in the small business CRM space through their paces.

What Is Small Business CRM Software?

For entrepreneurs and small businesses, trying to emulate CRM functionality on a large and unwieldy spreadsheet could lead to a lot of confusion and redundancy once a company and its contact-base expands. CRM solutions are easier to use than spreadsheets, they also do more than contain user and contact information because they can dynamically create and update calendar events and set reminders. CRM software often integrates messaging and phone calling functionality, usually with recorded conversations that can be used to track and document customer sentiment and better insights.

Many managers can get tripped up with the minutiae of running a business while neglecting potential opportunities. For smaller businesses, where multiple tools and subscriptions may be too expensive and time consuming, an integrated CRM that can handle all these needs can easily become a valuable tool as long as all its features are fully understood and utilized.  

Effective CRM solutions don’t just record your customers’ contact information, they’re designed to surface the details of every customer interaction—whether by phone or email, and nowadays across other channels such as your customer help desk, social media, and certainly any face-to-face encounters. CRMs also function as funnels for these manifold interactions by actually creating and managing some touchpoints, such as website contact forms, phone calls, online chats, and social media mentions.

All that data is stored and correlated so sales people not only know who has had contact with a customer and when, but what that customer that customer purchased, how happy they are with that purchase, what else they’re thinking about buying, and what else the company thinks they should buy. All this information is used to fuel the sales pipeline, prioritizing deals and assigning sales personnel per policies or direct manager intervention. This not only powers the sales pipeline, it also helps build customer loyalty, boosts upsell opportunities, and helps grow the business.

But gathering, organizing, and surfacing all that data can be daunting for smaller organizations. Microbusinesses and entrepreneurs who manage all aspects of their startup will likely be put off by the range and scope of enterprise-grade CRM solutions. Subscribing to these larger and more complex solutions just to use a fraction of their functionality is just too expensive and frustrating for small businesses.

That’s why established CRM players now offer smaller, cheaper plans for smaller businesses. However, most simple offer feature-limited versions of their enterprise solutions. Depending on how this is implemented, users will still have to navigate through potentially large and daunting menus just to manage basic CRM needs. Some larger vendors have made this easier and for them the upside is an easy upgrade path for a growing customer to their enterprise plans. Others have built ground-up small business CRM solutions that can have both innovative feature sets as well as slick and easy interface designs.  

Big Players Are Scaling Down

Understanding that smaller businesses have specific needs has seen various established CRM vendors offer more affordable and less complex solutions aimed at small to midsize businesses (SMBs). Many of these enterprise CRM providers like Salesforce and Zoho may have saturated their captive big business markets so it’s a smart move to look at small business owners who might grow their businesses into the larger and more complex solutions in the future. Rather than offering diluted versions of their enterprise solutions, these top tier vendors are finding features and functionality that make the most sense for small business needs and offering them in all-new packages and plans.

This can fold directly into one of the long-term trends we’ve been seeing with CRM tools over the last three years, which is that they’re being consolidated into larger product ecosystems. Some products, like venerable Zoho CRM, aren’t just the flagship solution suite anymore. They’ve become the overall template or hub into which the other sales solutions offered by that particular vendor plug into.

For example, once a notable standalone solution, Base CRM, was acquired by Zendesk and converted into Zendesk Sell which is a more integrated solution that can feed into Zendesk’s impressive array customer support-driven SMB solutions. Freshsales CRM similarly provides a lightweight and simple SMB-focused CRM solution, while offering expanded functionality. This includes providing integrations, workflow automation, and sales intelligence features. Freshsales CRM also synchs nicely with Freshcaller and Freshdesk solutions. A distinct convenience for businesses already using those solutions.

Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, the avowed behemoth of the CRM space, has created Salesforce Essentials, an all-new platform built specifically to entice small businesses. Salesforce Essentials brings features like Lightning app development framework and Einstein AI machine learning into a more affordable and accessible package for small business users. It also merges sales and support functionality into one interface, and it taps into Salesforce’s prodigious technology stack and integration base to offer solutions for every probable small business need. It’s range of features and universal appeal make Salesforce Essentials a very attractive option and earn it our Editors’ Choice selection for small business CRM.

Smaller Players Are Scaling Up

Smaller CRM vendors are competing with the small business offerings from large CRM players by increasing their capabilities. Some do this by adding AI and business intelligence integrations or enabling interoperability with other products. For instance, Pipedrive CRM offers chatbot creation for websites, Zendesk Sell plugs into a wider array of Zendesk help desk tools, while Freshsales CRM has increased its integrations as well as added workflow automation and sales intelligence features.

What are the considerations of a viable small business-focused CRM? Pricing would be the first and most obvious starting point. CRMs for small business begin at $10 per user per month for the more basic solutions but can cost upwards of $50 per user month for more comprehensive services. 

As with any piece of software, it’s essential to take advantage of free trials when available. No matter how many reviews you read or demos you watch, it’s difficult to determine how a particular CRM will work for you until you evaluate it in your organization with the people who’ll be using it every day. Solutions need to be easy to grasp by non-specialists. Training need not be in-person and lengthy, but there needs to be a healthy support library, and effective knowledge base that contains FAQ’s and articles, and a solid on-boarding process, too.

Mapping out a growth path is important as well. While this sounds like you’re building an exit strategy even before you buy the product, knowing how this system will grow with your company is an important part of buying the right solution today. Work with sales leads to determine your present and future needs and investigate if your CRM solutions easily allow for more users, a larger contact base, the analytics you think you’ll need, as well as the digital marketing hooks you’ll eventually want to use.

Mobile CRM Apps

One of the biggest differentiators attracting SMBs and entrepreneurs to CRM is the availability of easy yet effective mobile apps that can run on smartphones or tablets. These days, small businesses not only move around, they’re also distributed due to the pandemic and the devices being used by sales staff can vary widely. Support not just for PCs, but tablets and phones is important. While various Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions will try and pass off mobile browser versions of their solutions as a mobile component, these pale in comparison to bona fide mobile applications running natively on Android or iOS devices.

While browser-based apps can access online databases and services, they do not interact directly with the built-in features that many mobile devices offer. Including security, Near Field Communication (NFC) for mobile payments, and access to cameras and other sensors. As mobile devices become more powerful and approximate the computing capabilities of PCs, having a CRM solution that can run effectively on tablets, smartphones, or convertible 2-in-1 devices has a definite advantage for small business users.

Some solutions, like Bigin by Zoho CRM and Freshsales CRM offer both Apple iOS and Google Android apps, but the iOS applications have access to more mobile integrations. Bigin By Zoho CRM and Editors’ Choice pick for small business CRM Salesforce Essentials are mobile-first solutions which offer mobile apps with all the necessary features and controls of their desktop counterparts. Bigin By Zoho CRM goes the extra mile to include Apple Watch integrations with wearable widget that enables shortcuts to be invoked. This includes calling, scheduling a task, and creating events all from the Apple Watch. Many of these are conveniences and not breakthrough features, but they do show Zoho’s initiative in making Bigin more personal to users, at least those who’ve invested in Apple’s ecosystem.

A Growing List of Players

We were pleasantly surprised at the plethora of choices small businesses have when it comes to attractive and versatile small business CRMs. In this roundup, we’ve included stalwart and leading vendors with new products or plans aimed at directly at SMBs. But we’ve also covered the cream of new entrants that were designed from the ground up to be used by entrepreneurs and small shops. As such, the solutions we tested run the gamut from reliable standalone solutions focused purely on contact management and sales, to apps that add basic CRM functionality to general business management tools.

We found that standout solutions included Bigin by Zoho CRM, HubSpot CRM, and Salesforce Essentials, which garners our overall Editors’ Choice award for this segment. Both Bigin by Zoho CRM and Salesforce Essentials represent small business concentration from large CRM vendors that tap into an established solutions stack. But while these solutions managed to snag top overall grades, remember that CRM is a highly individualized process for any sized companies. There is no one-size-fits-all CRM. While other vendors we tested may not have had all the features of our winning solutions, most do offer easy to use design, interesting feature sets, and new ways to customize the solution, especially around building your own workflows. Check out all the reviews in this roundup and you might just find that a smaller solution may work better for your organization.