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What Is CRM Software?

September 12, 2018

11:13 am

Customer relationship management, or CRM, is a big buzzword these days. But, it's actually a very old and valued idea. In short, CRM software lets you manage and analyze customer data at scale. Used smartly, CRM software helps you to understand the needs and asks of your customers, and better serves those customers in a way that makes your business more effective. Good CRM software will make all of this feel effortless.

Powerful cloud-based CRM software can do all the tracking to let you monitor key customer data points. This can include purchase history, contact information, upcoming important dates, new sales opportunities, and even a client communication history. It’s a fantastic way for businesses to manage a current client's requirements, track new client leads, and get your team focused on serving your customers.

CRM software is a very useful tool, but it’s trickier than investing in an email service or office productivity suite. Unlike those more standardized applications, there is no way that a generic piece of CRM software could fit every business’ needs. Each company has specific demands that won’t apply to others. But one thing is in common across all businesses, and that's the simple fact that bad customer service can translate to a fortune in lost income.

What works for selling photocopiers in New York City is going to be different from what a caterer in Colorado needs to stay on top of their business. That’s why a solid piece of CRM software must be good at tracking data, but also flexible enough to be tailored to the requirements of a particular industry or business.

Before you buy, let’s take a look at what CRM software is, and what it can do to help you manage and grow your business. Plus, you'll be able to find out exactly how much the average CRM software costs by using our customized quote tool.

In This Guide:

crm software applicationsWhat does CRM stand for?

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. That sounds like a fancy term – it could be applied to a pen-and-paper rolodex or client purchase history ledger that companies have maintained for decades. But modern CRM software is really so much more than that.

CRM software turns customer data into actionable information to help you find and track sales opportunities and better serve your customers. If a client is unhappy with their service or product, for example, a quick glance at the communication history can prompt you to take action before things take a turn for the worse.

The idea is to have a central location with as much relevant data about your customers as possible, and then use that data to build repeat business. It's really that simple.

Don't think if it as a punishing manual task, either. The best CRM software can automate these essential processes for you.

What is Customer Relationship Management?

At its core, customer relationship management – whether software-based or not – is about maintaining and tracking your clientele to better serve their needs, and those of your business. And that means data.

This data may include contact information, or a record of all the interactions you have with those customers – such as phone calls, emails, and (if appropriate for your business) service quotes.

Customer Relationship Management Selling SuitsSelling Suits and CRM

It can all sound a bit opaque, so let's think of a real-world application. I had my first introduction to the importance of CRM when I began my working career by selling suits. A wise veteran of that business advised me to keep a notebook tracking all my major sales and customer information. I used that book to follow-up with customers, talk to them about upcoming sales, and book appointments for future visits.

In my old notebook, I would have single pages dedicated to customers who made large purchases and were likely to need my services on an ongoing basis. Each page would have the person's name, phone number, and address, as well as what they bought from me and when those transactions happened. Every week or so I would go through the book to see who needed a follow-up phone call, who might be interested in a particular in-store sale, or who I just needed to reconnect with.

This record-keeping was about taking care of my clients’ needs and generating repeat business. For the early 1990s, a notebook was one of the easiest ways to maintain my clientele. But, today, CRM software can do that same job far more comprehensively and intelligently.

CRM Software Solutions

These days, CRM software helps businesses to automate vast amounts of customer data at scale.

For instance, a brewery might use a CRM platform to track the various pubs they service. The brewery could use automated mechanisms within the software to alert those pubs to seasonal brews coming up that might fit their particular context (location, pub clientele, and so on), or invite particular buyers to special on-site events.

CRM is well worth the effort in return sales and all around customer satisfaction, and modern CRM software solutions remove much of the tedium of analog solutions or files spread across your office PCs by centralizing the necessary data and making it easier to surface the relevant information with a few clicks.

Best CRM Software to Choose

There are numerous CRM options out there on the internet, and we couldn't possibly name them all in the space we have here. If you're after more detail, we recommend starting with our dedicated Guide to The Best CRM Software. If you're after a brief overview, there are some major names in the CRM space that everyone looking at this type of software should know about. Take a look at our comprehensive table to get a better understanding of the CRM landscape.

Scroll horizontally on mobile devices to see the whole table:

SalesforceHubspotMicrosoft DynamicsZendeskZohoApptivoamoCRM
Salesforce logoHubspot logoMicrosoft Dynamics logoZendesk logoZoho logoApptivo logoAmoCRM logo
Data cap in basic plan612 MB/user5 documents10GB + 5GB/20 usersUnlimited1 GB base + 512 MB/user3GB/User200 MB/user
Email integrations
Social media integrations
Marketing Campaigns
Intuitive, easy to understand
Email Support
Live Chat Support
Phone Support
Free trial/version
Cheapest paid plan (user/month)$25$50$80+$89$12$8$15
Most expensive plan (user/month)$300$1,200$255$149$100$20$45
VerdictA market leading CRM for good reason and a great all-rounderA strong CRM system with an attractive free tierA robust CRM platform that embeds brilliantly with Microsoft productsAn inexpensive, simple CRM tool that can combine with other plug-ins and apps.Flexible, friendly and effective, Zoho also starts at low price plansStripped-down but a solid CRM platformIntuitive and simple, AmoCRM is a CRM suite that impresses

Compare Quotes On Leading CRM Software

Many people are familiar with Zoho for its online document-editing suite, but it also has a popular CRM software platform. Its most basic paid offering includes housing customer contact data, tasks, events, call logs, lead tracking, and sales forecasting. Higher priced tiers include added features such  an interactive automated assistant, email integration, and greater levels of customization. There is also a free option.

Salesforce is undoubtedly the biggest name in CRM software. While it may not have been the first to enter the market, it certainly nudged the concept of customer relationship management into the mainstream. The company's basic offering includes tasks, leads, accounts, contacts, notes, files, call-tracking, and more. Salesforce has a number of additional services beyond its CRM offering. These include managing individualized marketing campaigns and personalized shopping experiences. It's a very full-featured offering and the current leader in CRM.

Salesforce is in fact such a big name that there's a temptation to view it as the only game in town. That's not the case, of course – there are lots of great Salesforce alternatives, and the important thing is choosing the best software for your own business needs.

Hubspot takes something of a freemium approach by offering its CRM for free, and then requiring paid subscriptions for supporting CRM-style services called hubs. These complementary services are similar to Salesforce and address other facets of your business including marketing, sales, and service. Even these premium services have free offerings on Hubspot, however, with the price escalating as you need premium features within each category. The sales hub, for example, offers the ability to create customized email templates in its paid tiers.

It wouldn't be a proper business software platform if it didn't get attention from Microsoft. The Windows publisher also offers a CRM solution called Microsoft Dynamics. The advantage with Microsoft's offering is that it can integrate seamlessly with other Microsoft software you might already be using from email to the company's “augmented reality” HoloLens headsets. It also uses an interface that will be familiar to users of other Microsoft software.

If you’ve ever had to deal with a customer service representative online it’s likely you’ve interacted with a company using Zendesk software for customer support. While Zendesk isn't a CRM platform in the strictest sense, some companies will use it as such since it can house customer contact information, and support tickets can be used as tasks, and provide space for notes, and these can be assigned to employees. Zendesk can also integrate with a number of third-party CRM platforms such as Salesforce and Zoho. The company recently acquired Base CRM and the company behind, it suggesting Base will have deeper integration with Zendesk in the coming months.

Rounding out our top examples of CRM software is Apptivo. This company's focus is as a CRM for small and medium businesses. It offers email lead generation, lead conversion, and a customizable interface. It also integrates with many popular services including Google's G Suite for businesses, Microsoft Office 365, and Slack making it easy to get your data into and out of Apptivo's CRM.

CRM for Small Business

Is customer relationship management software right for your small business?

If you're having trouble keeping all your customer data organized, or feel you're not as connected to your customers as you should be then the answer is likely yes.

The idea with CRM software is to track all opportunities – whether that's leads for new business, or ongoing customer contracts and contact information. That way, you can get a better idea of what your customer's needs are, since all the data is right in front of you.

It also helps you get a solid sense of how to communicate with individuals, since their conversation history can be captured and made available to everyone from salespeople to customer service reps.

Should You Use Free CRM Software?

These days you can get a free version of any software product and CRM software is no exception.

It may be tempting to choose a free version that offers all the main features you're looking for in a CRM platform; however, this isn't a particularly wise choice.

A CRM service will host all relevant data for your customer base. That's not something you want to entrust to just anyone, and paying for a service puts a responsibility on the part of the service provider that may not be there with free services.

For a good example of what you can enjoy with free CRM, vs paid-for software, check out our guide to Hubspot (free) vs Salesforce.

Plus, with paid services often come enhanced features and greater flexibility to customize the product for your specific needs.

If you really want to transform your business, finding a CRM solution within your budget is often a better choice than the completely free options. The good news? It only takes a moment to fill out our CRM Software Compare Quotes tool – this can match you with tailored quotes from CRM suppliers.

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Ian is an independent writer based in Israel who has worked as a technology industry reporter and critic for more than ten years. He’s written for PCWorld, Macworld, TechHive, Yahoo, Lifewire, and The Huffington Post. He primarily covers Windows, PC and gaming hardware, video and music streaming services, security software, and browsers.