Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software and Web Hosting
If you are involved in any type of sales-related activity, you will know how much information there is to keep track of when it comes to your customers and your relationships with your customers.
To meet the needs of client services professionals, there are many different customer relationship management (CRM) products available.
While each individual offering functions somewhat differently, the goal of each is to be the source of truth for your CRM needs, simplifying your overall workflow and ensuring that nothing (be it an appointment or a follow-up email) falls through the cracks for whatever reason.
What is Customer Relationship Management?
Customer Relationship Management — CRM — is the art and science of managing a company's ongoing relationship with customers and potential customers.
CRM software enables and optimizes this process in a number of ways, including by:
- Automating email
- Alerting sales staff of the need for follow-up contacts
- Updating contact information
- Appending additional contact information like social media handles
- Routing incoming phone calls to the right account owner
- Identifying and tracking the status of qualified leads throughout the sales process.
- Tracking sales team and individual employee performance.
- Making sure that a proven process is followed and no accounts fall through the cracks
The Goals of Customer Relationship Management
For the most part, the goal of CRM is sales. As such, CRM is primarily a process used by sales agents.
However, the information contained in a CRM suite might be useful to those in marketing who want to tailor their efforts or those in product and engineering who want to know what the user base (and potential user base) want.
A well-designed CRM process is based on the multi-step path someone (or some company) takes from non-customer (sometimes called 'prospect') to customer (or 'client').
Prospect, Lead, and Customer Segmentation and Management in CRMs
A good CRM system needs to have some way to segregate separate manageable groups. Here is a brief breakdown of the most important ones to acknowledge:
|Type of Management||Breakdown|
|Manage cold prospects||Making sure they are contacted in a systematic fashion is key, to maximize conversion chances.|
|Manage leads||Making sure they are contacted in time, after having shown interest, so there are no wasted leads.|
|Manage warm or ongoing leads||People who have expressed influence but are not ready to buy — contacting them at regular intervals to gauge interest and readiness. This is a whole different category where engagement is key.|
|Manage customers in the buying process||This is key, especially if purchasing is a complicated or multi-faceted process. Customers give up easier than you think.|
|Manage existing customers||Possibly the most important of all - ensuring ongoing satisfaction, encouraging additional purchases, and gathering referrals are key to ongoing loyalty.|
The Rules of Customer Relationship Management
There are some general rules about CRM — you can't lose people's email addresses and you should call them when you say you are going to call them. Keep your word.
However, the specific details of a CRM process are always going to be specific to a particular type of product and business model.
More importantly, it should complement your business flow, not require that you to overhaul the way you currently do things.
A Simplified CRM Process and Data Points
For example, an insurance sales office might rely on cold calling people who fit a particular demographic, or it might rely on paid leads generated by direct mail. Given these focus points, there would then be a fairly short process to follow:
- Call as many people as possible to set up appointments
- Go to appointments and try to sell insurance
- Follow up with customers to make sure policies are delivered
In this case, the CRM software only needs to manage a relatively small number of data points:
- General contact information for each prospect
- Contact and interest status for each prospect
- Personal notes
- Scheduled appointment times
- Products purchased by clients
CRMs and Complex Sales Processes
On the other hand, a more complicated sales process would naturally include many more CRM-related steps and the CRM process might not be as straightforward.
For example, a large business-to-business (B2B) contract might require the following set of objectives:
- Data collection on customer needs and desires
- Research on competing options
- Drafts of proposals
- Meeting preparation notes and documents
Furthermore, a CRM software tailored for a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product might include elements of both of the situations we described above, as well as:
- Drip email marketing
- Add-on modules to accomplish certain tasks like data updating
- Targeted social media advertisement (social CRM features are somewhat limited)
- Free trial period
CRM is not a generalized solution or a standardized process — it is a core business activity that will take a different form based on the needs of the product, the company, and the customers.
Customer Relationship Management Software Options
In this section, we'll look at types of CRM processes and the various options you have for CRM software.
Types of CRM Processes
Sales agents and companies have been doing CRM for decades — maybe centuries — before the advent of the computer. It's easy to forget that CRM exists separate from CRM software.
Realizing that CRM is an activity or business process and that CRM software is designed to manage and assist that activity, can help one understand what features might be needed in a CRM software system.
Some features you will commonly find in a customer relationship management system include:
- Personal data management: keeping relevant data about customers and prospects
- Contact management: tracking each sales team (and other) interaction with a customer or prospect, recording outcomes and notes
- Email management: often, a CRM software system can act as an email client so that inbound and outbound email conversations can be associated with a particular person/company and tracked
- Deal management: tracking in-progress or likely sales, and recording statistic about completion rates
- Forecasting and prediction: Based on average sales statistics and completion rates, forecasting likely sales volume. Or using AI and machine learning to identify those most likely to buy.
- Email list or newsletter management: dripping out timely messages to customers and prospects on a regular schedule
- Prospect/lead management: distributing leads or prospect information among members of a sales team, according to various conditions such as geography, product expertise, or close rate.
- Marketing-related features: whether you're reliant on ads or social media marketing, it can make things a lot easier to manage things from your CRM platform
Customer Relationship Management Software Types
Now you have a better idea of what customer relationship management (CRM) is, along with its expectable features. What are some good options to look at?
In the following sections, we will cover some of the most popular, full-featured CRM software solutions and options to help you get your search started. Not all options are good for all users, so be sure to keep an open mind and, if possible, take advantage of a free trial to see if that option is workable for your company's needs.
Furthermore, we have divided the choices we present into two different categories: open source and cloud-hosted.
What are Some of the Best Open-Source CRM Options?
While open source options tend to be free of charge, you are responsible for getting everything set up and installed, including the server on which it runs.
This means that you may need to seek out a CRM hosting provider.
Setting up a CRM hosting plan does not have to be complicated, but it is a task that you will need to attend to.
The only time you can opt out of using a CRM hosting plan is if you plan to serve your app locally or to make it available only to those outside your office network.
Furthermore, open source CRM tools may be lacking in terms of support.
If you think you might like a bit of hand-holding throughout the installation, set up, configuration, and use processes, check carefully to see what options are available to you.
CiviCRM: Popular Open-Source Choice for Non-Profits
It's worth checking out the CiviCRM demo before purchase.
CiviCRM is an open source CRM software option that is currently in use by over 10,000 nonprofit organizations and charities around the world.
CiviCRM bills itself as "the complete Open Source CRM Software" and "prides itself on high quality, reliable, easy to use software features that work seamlessly across different platforms and devices." What does this mean?
CiviCRM: Full Control and Features
- Contact management, with a holistic record containing all pertinent data for each prospect/client you work with
- Full configuration and customization by your developer available, since CiviCRM is open source
- Membership management, including sign-ups, payments, renewals, and targeted emails
- Accounting integration and contribution management, so you can track gifts, send acknowledgments, and create reports
- Case management, so you can implement the workflow that best fits the need of your organization
- Event management, including records for recording prospect/client attendance
- Email marketing and advocacy campaigns to get the word out about your organization and what you do
- Peer-to-peer fundraising features for personal campaigns
- Reporting -- you can choose from one of the 40 standard reports or you can create your own
If you want to try a demo before going through the installation, set up, and configuration process, you can test-drive CiviCRM using one of the provided demos.
XRMS: Advanced Open-Source CRM For the Tech Savvy
XRMS is an open source CRM software option that comes with features supporting sales force automation, business intelligence tools, and integration with phone lines (as well as third-party apps and tools).
XRMS is not that different from other CRM applications, but do know that there is no provided support for the software. If you ever find yourself stuck or in need of assistance, your best bet would be to consult the general community for help (though obviously there is no guarantee you will get a response).
Nevertheless, we do not want to discourage you from using XRMS. It is among one of the more solid CRM tools with well-designed features and capabilities that is available free of charge. Unless you are comfortable with technology and just making things work for you, look elsewhere.
Zurmo: CRM with Mobile, Social, and Gamification
Zurmo is an open source CRM software suite that comes with mobile CRM, social CRM, and gamification (that is, game-like) features.
Zurmo's goal isn't to beat out other CRM software options by shipping a ton of features -- its goal is the provide a product that is easy to use and customize and can be adapted to pretty much any use case.
One of the potential issues with open source products is the possibility that future updates break existing features. Zurmo boasts that it uses a test-driven methodology when it builds on or improves the existing code base to minimize the instances of compatibility-related issues in the future.
Zurmo was created by developers who used to work for proprietary CRM software companies.
What are Some of Zurmo's Top Features?
Zurmo's feature set includes tools that can be used for:
- Contact management
- Activity management
- Gamification for end-users
- Custom workflows
- Marketing automation, which is the process of automating things that your sales personnel once did (such as setting up reminders and email notifications and the like)
- Product management
- Internationalization (handling other currencies)
Zurmo is mobile-friendly so that you can use it on the go.
If you need additional features, Zurmo ships with a RESTful API that allows you to do things like integrating with Google Maps, currency conversion-related tools, and email archiving.
What are Some of the Best Cloud-Hosted CRM software options?
Cloud-hosted CRM software options are more expensive (sometimes much more so), but the upside is that you do not have to worry about installation or configuration. You are responsible only for setting your app up for use with your business and its existing CRM process.
The biggest downside to cloud-hosted CRM software options? Cost.
Freshsales: Easy to Use CRM
Freshsales, which is put out by Freshworks, is a CRM suite that's intended to be easy to set up, easy to use, and requires minimal customization. It is an alternative to complex setups that require either dedicated manpower or purchased professional services to maintain.
When purchasing Freshsales, you will be choosing between four different plan types. Each option increases in complexity (and monthly cost), with the second-most expensive option the most popular choice.
We will admit that our initial impression of Freshsales was negative -- the call-to-action button boldly proclaimed, "Sign up for free!" and we admit leaping to the conclusion that this was a free CRM software option. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Features and Pricing
First impressions aside, Freshsales looks to be a good option for those looking for a simple option.
Getting started is not as easy as some of the other options on our list since you still have to make plan-related decisions when getting started. Such decisions are not necessarily complicated, but it can be difficult to know what features you need before you have even used the software.
We do note that some features that come standard with other options, such as marketing, are lacking (we found it interesting that if you want marketing features, you'll need to set up an integration with HubSpot Marketing, whose CRM product we review elsewhere on this page).
Prices begin at $12 per user per month.
Hubspot CRM: Is it Really Free?
You know how we just said that the biggest downside to cloud-hosted CRM solution cost? Well, Hubspot is the exception, because it is 100% free (and yes, Hubspot promises that it will continue to be free of charge to use).
To be clear, the CRM forms the foundation for Hubspot's other products: the Marketing Hub and the Sales Hub. Both those have free starter packages with a small subset of features. Be clear on what you're getting when you sign up for the CRM, Marketing Hub, or Sales Hub.
With Hubspot's free CRM solution, you can automate frequently performed tasks, automatically track your interactions with your customers, and manage your entire sales pipeline on a dashboard that is viewable to your entire company (if you decide to share access, that is).
Furthermore, you can track completed sales, as well as everything you need to know about your customers (both current and potential).
How Scalable is Hubspot?
Are there downsides to this free CRM solution? Yes. You can manage a maximum of 1,000,000 contacts and users.
Even though Hubspot CRM doesn't include the Marketing Hub or Sales Hub, the CRM is a complete CRM system, despite these obvious limitations when compared to other more full-featured CRM systems.
If you are new to the world of CRM, we cannot recommend Hubspot's CRM solution more highly.
It will get you familiar with the process of using a CRM system, and you can use it to determine exactly what you need or do not need. Afterward, you can seek a more advanced option -- or you can simply continue to use Hubspot.
Less Annoying CRM: A Simple, Easy-to-Use CRM for Small Businesses
Less Annoying CRM is a platform built especially for use by small businesses.
In one sentence, Less Annoying CRM can be described as the option that makes everything as simple as possible.
First, the pricing: in addition to a free trial, licenses are assessed on a per-user basis each month. There is one rate, and that one rate gets you everything offered by Less Annoying CRM. Setting up Less Annoying CRM for use requires just a couple of minutes.
Notable Features and Pricing
Less Annoying CRM features include:
- Contact management: see everything you need to know about a given client on one simple screen: notes, notes, files, tasks, events, and pipeline information. Find what you need easily with the built-in search features
- A single calendar that displays all of your team's tasks and events
- Lead reports that show you all of your leads and where they are in your sales pipeline
- Collaboration tools
- Simple customization of the user interface that does not require complex or in-depth technical skills
- Email logs
- Mobile-friendly design
If you are just getting started with CRM and you find the task daunting, Less Annoying CRM would be a great option for you.
Prices begin at $10 per user per month with an annual contract.
Microsoft Dynamics CRM
The Microsoft Dynamics CRM is not, strictly speaking, a just CRM software, but a series of intelligent business applications, including a CRM system, that allows you to manage your business' operations in:
- Customer Service
- Finance and Operations
- Talent Aquisition
The cloud-hosted Microsoft Dynamics CRM is a tool that integrates nicely with Microsoft's other cloud-based offerings, including Office 365. The Microsoft CRM is a great option if you are already using multiple 365 solutions. Its strengths include the ability to quickly ship apps, automate your workflows, and bringing data and other insights into your business.
Different Versions and Pricing
Strictly speaking, Microsoft Dynamics CRM comes in three different flavors. The prices per user per month we saw were on the higher end. However, if you find that this is indeed the product for you, you can simply start with and pay for what you need an upgrade to the actual plans as your business grows.
The Microsoft Dynamics CRM system is a solid option, but it is probably not our first choice for those just getting started.
Prices begin at $115 per user per month.
Pipedrive: Visual CRM Popular with Startups
Pipedrive has a very catchy tagline: "A sales CRM built for minimum input and maximum output." Pipedrive's simplicity, however, does not mean that it is not powerful. Its features include:
- Automatic tracking of all your emails, calls, and progress with your customers
- A single, streamlined view of your sales process for a given customer
- Goal setting and tracking
- Full support for mobile access
Pipedrive is easy to set up.
Pipedrive's drag-and-drop interface and visual sales pipelines have made it popular.
It comes with a well-designed, intuitive-to-use interface, and over 100+ integrations so you can add the functionality you need as you need it -- the default package does not ship laden with things that you do not want and will never use.
Prices begin at $12 per user per month with an annual contract.
Salesforce: The CRM Industry Heavyweight
Salesforce, as the leader in the CRM software market, is itself almost synonymous with CRM.
Its products are powerful, full-featured, and well-designed, but its options are certainly not the best option for everybody.
When getting started with Salesforce, you need to make a lot of decisions. Salesforce's service is divided up into many different products, and depending on the needs of your business, some options make sense and some do not.
New to Salesforce? The Salesforce "Trailhead" is a fun, interactive learning platform that uses gamification.
Generally speaking, Salesforce's products can be broken up into the following categories:
- Sales: the products that are closest to what you think of when you think CRM
- Service: Customer service options, including user-facing portals and call-center software
- Marketing: a platform for email marketing, mobile marketing, social media marketing, and digital advertising
- Commerce: integration-type tools to unify the technology-related portions of the shopping experience your customers get, regardless of whether they are using a mobile device, social media platform, website, or visiting a brick-and-mortar business
- Collaboration: productivity tools for your team -- similar to Google Apps or Microsoft Office
- Platform: a one-stop, cloud-based shop for multiple Salesforce business solutions
Salesforce Help Material
Having so many options available is somewhat overwhelming, so Salesforce has Solutions pages where you can get information on how Salesforce can help your business. You can choose your materials based on:
- Your business type
- Your job role/function
- Your business' needs
- Your industry
Additional Salesforce Support Material
If you are new to Salesforce, we recommend beginning your research with these pages. For example, when we looked at the Solutions page targeted toward small business owners, we were presented with more personalized information, including:
- The most appropriate Salesforce product for us
- How Salesforce can help us, as a small business, sell, service, market, and connect
- Customer stories from those who have purchased the recommended options
- Insight into the growth we might expect using Salesforce
- A guide to the basics of CRM, as well as other helpful resources
- A guide to getting started
Pricing for Salesforce is variable, but generally, you will be billed on per-user basis every month. Furthermore, if you are looking for a mobile CRM option, Salesforce cannot be beaten.
SugarCRM: Intuitive and Simple
SugarCRM bills itself as the "cure for overblown, oversold CRM." If you are looking for an easy-to-use option with a simple user interface and intuitive design that is backed by top-notch customer service, SugarCRM might be the option for you.
SugarCRM offers three different versions of its web-based CRM product, all billed on a per-customer basis each month. With the entry-level plan, you'll get:
- Sales automation and forecasting
- Ticket-based, online customer support
- 15 GB storage
Upgrading to the mid-range plan gets you the following additional features:
- Product-level quotes and forecasting
- Lead management and sales campaigns
- Advanced workflows
- Role-based views and permissions
- Portal users
- 12/5 phone- and email-based customer support
- 60 GB storage
The top-tier plans add on:
- Sandbox instances
- 24/7 customer support
- 250 GB storage
Who Is SugarCRM Ideal For?
With that said, who do we think SugarCRM is good for?
Well, if you are in need of a CRM, but you find most of the other options available on the market confusing, you should strongly consider SugarCRM. You have everything you need, even in the entry-level plan, but without the extras that could potentially make your tool difficult or confusing to use.
Furthermore, do not think that a simplified option cannot handle complex cases -- one of SugarCRM's biggest customers is IBM.
Prices begin at $40 per user per month with an annual contract.
Vtiger: Multilingual CRM for Small and Mid-Sized Businesses
So this is what IBM's CRM looks like..
Founded in 2004 with offices in San Francisco and Bangalore, Vtiger offers options aimed at those running small- to medium-sized businesses. Today, Vtiger is available in more than twenty different languages and supported by an active community of business users, developers, and partner networks in more than 110 countries.
While Vtiger comes from (and still shows some hallmarks of) an open source background, the option available today (and what you will purchase, if you decide that Vtiger is the option for you) is known as Vtiger CRM On Demand. This is cloud-based CRM software that you can customize and deploy with little hassle.
The all-in-one option (which is the product for you if you want a full CRM suite) is billed on a per-user basis every month (though you can opt to pay upfront for an annual contract -- this also gets you discount off your fees).
Features and Pricing of Vtiger
The all-in-one options come with the following features:
- Sales: contact management, deal tracking, and sales forecasting
- Help Desk: set up a customer portal, handle and track your support cases, track service level agreements (SLAs), and maintain a knowledge base
- Email marketing
- Task management: manage your calendar/appointments and tasks, gain performance insights, create reports, facilitate collaboration, manage projects and inventory, set up custom workflows, and upload/store/share your files
Need more features or functionality? Set up integrations so that Vtiger does exactly what you want it to do.
Prices begin at $30 per user per month with an annual contract.
Zoho CRM: Multi-channel CRM with AI
Zoho CRM helps you manage your contacts across multiple channels, including email, telephone, social, live chat, and customer portals. Zoho's Zia artificial intelligence feature helps you gain more insight from your data. You can:
- Ask Zia for specific information, for reports, or to add data to CRM
- Identify trends or any irregularities based on the data that you've seen recently
- Calculate and identify the probability that you'll land a sale or lose it based on your contacts with the customer
- Perform sentiment analysis on emails
- Automate the workflows that run your sales process
- Set reminders on when to contact customers
- Track all of your customer information in one place
Zoho's Exclusive Features, Licenses, and Plans
Remember, the above features are just for Zia. Zoho itself includes the following features:
- Workflow automation using macros and rules
- In-depth performance tracking and analytics
- Process management
- A fully customizable user interface
- Robust collaboration tools
- Developer tools, so you can extend the platform to do everything you need it to, even if the feature/functionality doesn't ship with the default Zoho app
When purchasing Zoho CRM licenses, there are four different plan types from which you can choose. All are billed on a per-user basis each month.
Prices begin at $12 per user per month with an annual contract.
Summary of CRM Software Tools
Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which is the act of managing your company's relationships with potential and existing customers, is not new. What is new, however, are the spate of CRM systems to help you manage all CRM-related tasks digitally.
Choosing the best CRM software option for you can be daunting, but in this article, we covered the features you can expect to be commonly found in CRM software.
We also covered the highlights and lowlights of some of the more popular CRM systems available to help you get started with choosing the option that best fits the needs of your company.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
Is it possible to automate daily tasks, beyond email management, with CRM software?
Absolutely. Most CRMs can be used to handle operations such as billing customers (additional software may be required to handle the actual card processing), managing automated phone calls, and posting content to your website or an online help system.
They can also handle alerting team members when they have tasks due or when tasks have been assigned to them, posting interactions to a calendar, managing postal mailing lists, and much, much more.
If there is a task you need to automate for your teams, there is probably a CRM that can manage it.
With so many CRM options, how do I choose?
For smaller businesses, or companies looking for more control over their CRM, open source programs that can be installed to a server and modified as desired are a popular option, and many, like CiviCRM, specialize in a particular field. Salesforce and Zoho are popular managed SaaS services.
Are CRMs available for managing existing customers or accounts, or are they just sales focused?
While most often thought of in terms of sales and lead management, CRM software is designed to manage the entire customer relationship, from initial contact to becoming a customer to no longer being a customer. In a single-sale environment, say auto-sales, this typically involves managing leads, contacting those leads on a regular basis to let the know about current promotions, reminding them you’re there to help, etc.
Once a sale is made, you don’t have to do much with that account until it’s time to reach out to them about trade-in offers. For a subscription-based business or service, the sales process may be the smallest part of your over-all CRM requirements. Once someone signs up, your CRM can be used to manage their membership, make changes to their account, send notices, handle billing, automate services, and just about anything else you can imagine.
And if a member decides to cancel, the CRM can also be used to automate the process of trying to win them back.
If I want to host my own CRM, what things do I need to consider when picking a host?
Requirements will vary based on the specific CRM, but there are a few things you absolutely need to consider. First, all CRM software needs a place to store the customer data, and that’s typically done through a database.
Most hosting plans include some type of database access, but make sure it’s the right database for the CRM you’re considering. When hosting a CRM, storage space can become a concern, particularly if you plan to add lots of customers/prospects or use your CRM to manage ingoing and outgoing mail. If the CRM you’re considering includes mail server functionality, you need to make sure your host supports it.
The last, and most important thing you should consider is the security you’re going to need in place. What type of data do you intend to collect from your customers and prospects? Email addresses? Personal information? Are they going to require a login and password (which you can be they’re using on other sites too)?
These things all need to be protected in some way. A shared hosting plan probably won’t include the type of safeguards you need to ensure the security of this data, or it may require you to purchase additional security measures, such as a dedicated firewall.