CRM Software buyers guide by Inspector Jones

CRM software helps you get the most out of business interactions and relationships, by tracking your contacts. Whether you’re looking to become more effective at email, ensuring you follow-up with your most important contacts, or automating your sales process, Inspector Jones can help find the CRM tool for you.

Our buyers’ guide for CRM software compares the best simple CRM tools available, for small businesses, freelancers, and small sales teams.

What will you get from CRM?

The best CRM software makes you more effective at the things you do today - like keeping in contact, checking and writing email, making telephone calls, and following-up on sales opportunities.

Here’s what you can do with good CRM tools:

  • Keep up-to-date with your business contacts, with all the relevant information in one place
  • See where you are with all of your active deals at-a-glance
  • Stay in contact, and remain top-of-mind with your contacts, so you don’t miss out on sales opportunities
  • Get reminders so you remember when to follow-up (and what you promised to do!)
  • Reduce the time you spend reading, writing and searching your email
  • Collaborate with your team faster, by seeing what people are working on
  • Track and improve your team’s sales performance
  • Get updates about what your business contacts are posting on social media, like Twitter and Linkedin
  • Work both at your desk, and while on a mobile device

What we reviewed

We’ve reviewed the top CRM software against the most important features for small businesses and individuals. Here’s what we looked for:

  • Contact Management All of your contacts information in one place, including a timeline of activities, and ability to add your own custom fields
  • Sales Pipeline Track and view all of your deals inside your sales pipeline, with customizable stages.
  • Automate Sales Leads Forms to automatically capture sales leads from your website, and track them in the CRM. Automatic scoring and routing of leads.
  • Calendars and Tasks Calendars for every person, plus shared calendars for the team, and reminders for planned activities. Assign tasks to team members.
  • Email Automation Automatically load all email you send and receive, and attach it to your contact records. Some CRM also allows you to send template emails, and/or bulk emails.
  • Team Collaboration See what other members of your team are working on, and assign them tasks. We also looked for good control over security and permissions.
  • Sales Analytics Reporting and dashboards to manage your team and individual sales performance. The top CRMs also include sales goals and forecasting.
  • Telephone Integration Automatically dial contacts, log what calls were made, and record telephone conversations.
  • Social Media Integration Feed of recent activity, and the ability to “clip” information from Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.
  • Task Automation Automatically trigger actions, based on your configured workflow.
  • Mobile access Mobile-friendly website, or mobile apps. We look for Android, iPad and iPhone support, with full features. Offline access to data.
  • Data Import/Export Ability to load people, deals, companies and users, and export a copy at any time. We also looked for an API to build your own custom integration.
  • Ease of use Simple to understand, with minimal training needed
  • Pre-built integrations We look for a library of pre-built integrations with your customer-service, sales and marketing, reporting and other business systems
  • Ability to grow An upgrade path to larger enterprise-level CRM systems
  • Price We’ve only reviewed simple CRM software that is available for under $50/user/month, and this review is based on the average or mid-range cost. We’ve also reviewed any free-tier if offered

Free CRM

Some CRM software is free for limited use - usually 1-3 people, and a few hundred different contacts. While there are some great options, you might feel limited by the free CRM features, and want to upgrade to a paid version.

We recommend Zoho CRM as the best free CRM available. Zoho provide one of the best-value feature-packed (paid) CRM’s on the market, and they also offer a generous free tier. Their free CRM is limited to 3 users, 5,000 records, and basic features.

Beyond Zoho, the other options you might want to review are:

  • Highrise, free for 2 users and 250 contacts
  • Insightly, free for 3 users, up to 2500 records, 200MB storage and 10 custom fields
  • Capsule CRM, free for 2 users, with 10MB storage and up to 250 contacts
  • Nimble, free for 1 user, with 5 deals, 1GB storage and up to 3,000 contacts
  • Contactually, free for 1 email address, 1 user and 1 weekly follow-up

Best value-for-money

For the best value-for-money, we recommend aiming under $10 per user per month, or looking for a flat-fee which is the same cost regardless of how many users you have.

Our favourites for best value are:

  • Pipedrive, at $9 per user per month, and a strong focus on sales
  • Highrise, with a fixed cost of $24 per month, and a solid set of features

All of the CRM tools listed in this review offer great contact management features, a solid sales pipeline, plus calendars, tasks, mobile access, data import and team collaboration.

If Pipedrive and Highrise aren’t for you, the other good-value CRM tools that we like are Salesforce Contact Manager, Insightly, Capsule CRM, Nimble, Nutshell, Zoho, and Batchbook.

Sales Management

For making your sales as effective as possible, we recommend looking for some more advanced sales features.

Look for comprehensive sales-pipeline features with configurable pipeline stages, sales performance reporting, dashboard, sales goals, sales forecasting, team collaboration, plus team and individual reports.

Our favourite CRM’s to maximise your sales performance are:

  • Pipedrive, for great, simple, low-cost sales management
  • Pipeline Deals, a solid, feature-packed CRM for sales management
  • Base CRM, a beautiful, easy-to-use CRM with some powerful features for sales teams

If you work with a lot of telephone sales, you might also be interested to look at Zoho CRM, Base CRM, and

Making Email Easier

If you spend a long time in front of your email, we recommend you look for a CRM that automates your email as much as possible.

We looked for tools with deep email integration - those which sync your inbox and outbox, automatically linking emails to the right contacts. The best CRMs have plugins for Outlook, Google Apps, Office 365, and more. We also looked for functionality to send bulk emails, and template emails.

Our favourite tools for automating email are:

  • Contactually, which is powerful (even for a one-person team) at automating your sales emails
  • Nimble, which merges email and social media into a single inbox, and
  • Zoho CRM, which has a great breadth of email features

You might also be interested in Sugar CRM, which has a great set of plugins for more features.

Reducing Work Using Automation

Some CRM software tools help to reduce your workload by automating tasks. This includes things like rules which automatically create tasks, send emails, or raise alerts; programs for drip email marketing campaigns; or automatically routing jobs to the right people.

This is a feature that is more common at higher-end CRM tools that are beyond the prices we’ve reviewed here. However, if you do need automation, the best options are:

  • Zoho CRM which offers automated lead capture from your website, workflow, a custom rules engine, and alerts
  • Contactually which does a great job at automating email, including custom programs for drip email marketing campaigns and follow-up reminders
  • SugarCRM, which has a strong engine for workflow, approvals, communicating, and routing tasks to the right people.

Growing to Enterprise-Scale

The CRM services we’ve reviewed here are at the simple end of the market - they are all under $50/user/month, and have foundation features.

If you are a growing organisation, it makes sense to choose a CRM which has an upgrade pathway to bigger and better things. That includes more enterprise levels of security, support and integration, plus expanded features for customer-service and marketing. We also looked for a solid enterprise customer base.

Our recommendation is Salesforce Group Edition, which is a good CRM, with plenty of room to grow to more fully-featured Salesforce editions. You might also want to consider either Zoho CRM or SugarCRM.