Customer relationship management (CRM) is the process of managing an organization’s interactions throughout the entire customer life cycle. CRM software applications support the automation of these processes and best practices.
Note: This page focuses on general CRM systems. If you're looking for customer service-oriented software, check out our guide here.
CRM systems vary widely in capabilities, pricing and underlying technology, from basic contact management to sophisticated enterprise suites for sales, service and marketing, to platforms that foster customer connections. Moreover, the market includes industry-specific CRM solutions (e.g., real estate or pharmaceutical sales) and best-of-breed solutions for specific CRM functions (e.g., field service or help desk).
We developed this guide to complement our CRM reviews. The following sections will help potential purchasers find the best customer relationship management software package for their business:
Here’s what we’ll cover:
What Is CRM Software?
A Comparison of Top CRM Solutions
CRM in Action: A Use Case
Common Functionality of CRM Software
Market Trends to Understand
Pricing: Web-Based vs. On-Premise
Recent Events You Should Know About
The primary purpose of CRM software, sometimes known as contact management software, is to consolidate customer information into one repository, so users can better organize and manage relationships. Additionally, these applications automate common processes and provide tools for monitoring performance and productivity. Systems vary, but the best CRM software will include at least the following four core functions:
Customer data management. Most products provide a searchable database to store customer information (such as contact information) and relevant documents (such as sales proposals and contracts). While most general CRMs offer this functionality, it can also be incorporated into other industry-specific systems. For example, customer management is a core component of salon management software, which is described in more detail here.
Interaction tracking. These systems document conversations held by phone, in person, through live chat, email or other channels. These interactions can be logged manually, or automated with phone and email system integrations. Depending on the product, some systems can also track interactions on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms.
Workflow automation. This standardizes business processes, usually through a combination of task lists, calendars, alerts and templates. Once a task is checked off as complete, for example, the system might automatically set a task for the next step in the process.
Reporting. Management can use these CRM tools to track performance and productivity based on activities logged in the CRM system—for instance, how many new contacts were added to the database that day, or how much revenue was generated. These tools can also be used for forecasting, such as for the next-quarter sales pipeline.
There are many popular CRM solutions on the market, and it can be hard to understand what distinguishes one product from another and which is right for you. To help you better identify how these solutions stack up against one another, we created a series of side-by-side product comparison pages that break down the details of what each solution offers in terms of pricing, applications, ease of use, support and more:
Top Infusionsoft Comparisons
Top Hubspot Comparisons
Top Marketo Comparisons
Let’s say you currently store customer contact information in Excel spreadsheets, appointments in a calendar and files in Dropbox, Google Drive or another document management tool. When someone calls, you have to toggle between each of these tools to figure out whether they’re a prospect or existing customer. Worse, you don’t immediately know if they’ve spoken to anyone else in your company. Past interactions might be trapped in someone’s inbox, paper notes or only in employees' memories.
Depending on where this caller is in the customer life cycle, not having this information in one place can lengthen their time to conversion, limit return sale possibilities or slow issue resolution.
If you had automation software in this scenario, you could simply pull up that account and see every meeting, phone or email conversation you or your team has ever had with that person, as well as past agreements and marketing materials sent. You might also see, for example, a contract attached to that opportunity that’s awaiting signature and a task for one of your sales reps to follow up. So you transfer the call.
A contact profile in Swiftpage ACT!
After the sales rep hangs up with the contact, he might close the task to follow up, then pick the next step in the process from a dropdown menu: “Did they return the contract?” The due date for this task is set for the next day, when the rep will receive an alert to follow up if the agreement isn’t returned.
You can see how this alternative scenario increases efficiency and productivity. And it prevents important activities from falling through the cracks. Managers benefit, too, by having ready access to reports that show key performance metrics and progress toward goals.
Reporting dashboard in Infor CRM
This scenario described core functionality, but these technologies are also widely used in a broad range of CRM applications. Below is a brief explanation of each of these application types.
When comparing CRM software solutions, it’s important to understand the functionality included in each. The most common functions in this type of software are listed in the table below:
|Marketing Integration||Lead management (including tools for lead generation, scoring and nurturing), email and event marketing, landing pages, Web and marketing analytics tools and campaign management.|
|Sales force automation||Contact and opportunity management, workflow automation, territory management, sales forecasting, pipeline analysis and reporting.|
|Customer service & support||Trouble ticketing, knowledge management and knowledge base systems, self-service solutions, case management, live chat and surveys.|
|Field service management||Dispatching, scheduling, invoicing, inventory management and order management.|
|Call center automation||Call routing, recording and monitoring; load balancing, call list management, autodialing, scripting, computer telephony integration (CTI) and interactive voice response (IVR).|
|Help desk automation||Trouble ticketing, knowledge management, self-service, IT asset management, network management, service level agreement (SLA) management and remote control.|
|Channel management||Lead and contact management, partner portals, partner relationship management and market development funds management.|
As you compare CRM software, it’s important you keep the following industry trends in mind.
Social CRM. The biggest trend is the convergence of customer relationship management and social networking technologies, loosely referred to as “Social CRM.” In fact, five top industry analysts have predicted this trend as having the biggest impact on how customer tracking software programs evolves.
Today, this intersection of social and client management software can be as simple as adding Facebook data to customer profiles. Or it can be more complex, with niche social media analytics products that tap into social APIs and generate leads, mine for customer sentiment or traffic and prioritize social customer service requests.
An example of a social media stream with contact details from Radian6
Mobile CRM. Mobile applications for customer relationship management are becoming increasingly sophisticated and popular. These tools don’t just port functions to a mobile interface—top CRM software vendors will offer apps that leverage the unique capabilities of mobile devices, such as GPS and voice (click here for a more detailed description of common iPad CRM features).
An outside sales rep could, for example, pull up a map of their current location and see pinpoints for accounts in that area. Or, a customer service rep might have the ability to speak a query into their mobile app, rather than try and type everything out on a tiny smartphone keyboard.
In 1999, Salesforce.com entered the market as the first major player in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) CRM space. Today, a majority of CRM products—particularly those built for small businesses—are now SaaS solutions, though on-premise options still exist. The deployment method you choose should be a key consideration when conducting your CRM software comparison. Pricing between these two models usually (but not always) differs in the following ways:
Salesforce acquires MinHash. In December 2015, Salesforce acquired MinHash, a small startup that specializes in marketing intelligence. MinHash’s platform was designed to crawl the Internet, pull out relevant trends for marketers and help them construct campaigns around those trends.
Hubspot launches free CRM for SMBs. This CRM solution allows small businesses to manage content, channels and marketing performance, and promises to provide a “flexible, intuitive solution for managing your prospects and sales pipeline.”
NetSuite acquires Bronto. In June 2015, NetSuite Inc. announced its acquisition of Bronto Software Inc., a cloud-based marketing software provider. Andy Lloyd, general manager of commerce products at NetSuite says, “Together, this technology can help brands to deliver relevant and consistent digital commerce experiences throughout the customer journey.”
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