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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 helps this process by automating email, alerting sales staff of the need for follow-up contacts, and generally making sure that a proven process is followed and no accounts fall through the cracks.

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.

A well-designed CRM process is based on the multi-step path from non-customer (sometimes called “prospect”) to customer (or “client”). Therefore a good CRM system needs to have some way to:

  • manage cold prospects (if applicable), making sure they are contacted in a systematic fashion
  • manage leads, or people who have shown interest, making sure they are contacted quickly after having shown interest
  • 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
  • manage customers in the buying process — especially if purchasing is a complicated or multi-faceted process
  • manage existing customers, ensuring ongoing satisfaction, encouraging additional purchases, and gathering referrals.

CRM is always specific

There are some general rules about CRM — you can’t lose people’s email addresses and you should call them when you say you’re going to call them. However, the specific details of a CRM process are always going to be specific to a particular type of product and business model.

For example, an insurance sales office might rely on cold calling people who fit a particular demographic, or paid leads generated by direct mail. There might then be a particular, fairly short process to follow:

  • Call as many people as possible to set up appointments
  • Go on appointments and try to sell insurance
  • Follow up with customers to make sure policies are delivered

In this case, CRM only needs to manage a relatively small number of datapoints:

  • General contact information for each prospect
  • Contact and interest status
  • Personal notes
  • Appointment time
  • Products purchased

On the other hand a more complicated sales process — for example a large business-to-business (B2B) contract — might not have quite as straightforward a process. In this case, CRM encompasses a different set of objectives:

  • Gather data about customer needs
  • Research competition
  • Draft proposals
  • Prepare for meetings

In another example, CRM for a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product might include elements of both of those situations, along with:

  • drip email marketing
  • targeted social media advertisement
  • 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.

CRM Software

Sales agents and companies have been doing CRM for decades — maybe centuries — before the advent of the computer. Still, though, 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.

Common CRM system features include:

  • personal data management — keeping relevant data about customers and prospects
  • contact management — tracking each interaction with a customer or prospect, recording outcomes and notes
  • email management — often, a CRM system can act as an email client so that inbound and outbound email conversations can be associated to a particular person
  • 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
  • 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.

Customer Relationship Management software

CiviCRM - CiviCRM is an Open Source CRM system designed primarily for non-profit organizations. It bills itself as Constiuent Relationship Management.

CiviCRM is unique in that it is not a standalone software system, but only works as a plugin or module with Drupal or WordPress. It is very popular among non-profits, especially political campaign organizations, and includes a number of features to assist in canvassing and fund raising.

SugarCRM - SugarCRM is one of the most popular commercial CRM solutions. Sugar CRM is provided as a cloud-hosted, SaaS subscription service, and includes a full range of web-based and mobile apps for sales people and managers.

Zurmo - Zurmo is an Open Source CRM system that features a built-in “gamification” system. While good sales people are naturally competitive, and closed deals can easily be quantified, it is sometimes hard — especially in a long sales cycle — for individual sales people to stay motivated and work on the little things that contribute to the big sale at the end. 

Zurmo’s built-in gamification allows managers to assign points and awards for the activities that lead to sales, like phone calls and appointments.

vtiger - vtiger is a SaaS subscription CRM system with a focus on small teams.

XRMS - XRMS was an Open Source CRM tool which is no longer under active development.

More on CRM Software and Hosting

Is this a complete list of CRM applications?

A complete list of CRM applications could go on for many, many, many pages. The applications above are just a short list to show the variety and options available in the somewhat over-flooded CRM market. 

Regardless of the industry you work in, there is likely a unique CRM designed for you, or there are several CRM offerings that specialize in that industry. Several major technology companies offer their own CRM solutions (Microsoft, IBM, Oracle), most of which are offered in the cloud-based, SaaS model, which tends to work well for enterprise clients who need the software tailored to their business and automatically maintained. 

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. Still other companies choose to design their own CRM from the ground up, allowing them complete control over the data points and operations that are managed.

My company has specific data points we need to manage. Will I have to write my own extensions to make a CRM work for us?

Probably not. Most CRMs come with a core set of data points that are installed by default, or they provide you with options during the install process, but that’s just the starting point. Any decent CRM will allow you to select from hundreds, even thousands, of predefined data points, or create your own.

Many CRMs will also offer extensions for additional features, such as agent scripting modules, tools for managing discount codes, and other business-specific add-ons. If, however, you need to integrate the CRM with another system, particularly if it’s a homegrown or highly-customized system, some type of custom build will likely be required.

Most of the listed CRMs are cloud-based or SaaS. Can I install a CRM directly to my server, and would there be any advantages to doing so?

There are plenty of CRM applications that can be installed directly to your server, some of which are available for free as open source software, others that come with a one-time or subscription fee. A number of CRMs are even available via one-click installation through install wizards such as Softaculous.

There are several advantages to installing a CRM directly to your server. The most important advantage is that you have direct control over all of your data. With cloud-based CRMs, that data is hosted somewhere else, so you have to factor that into your security procedures. 

With server-based CRMs, particularly open source software, you have considerably more freedom to customize the application to fit your needs. They also cost significantly less than cloud-based alternatives, because you’re not paying for the hosting and continuous maintenance. 

Of course, there are some downsides. You will have to manage the hosting, maintenance, upgrades, and regular backups. And server-based software, particularly open source software, typically does not come with the type of support available via a cloud-based solution.

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.

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.

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