How to Buy Small Business CRM Software

by SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff

Small business CRM software can be the solid foundation supporting your daily operations or, if you choose incorrectly, pillars of sand. Here’s what you need to know to make the right choice.

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Customer relationship management (CRM) software is one of the most important tools small business managers and employees can have at their disposal. Instead of juggling contacts, tasks, proposals, follow-ups, correspondence, sales projections and whatnot in various email folders, documents, spreadsheets and sticky notes, they can have all the data related to customer interactions in a single, searchable repository.

And contrary to what you may assume, CRM software isn’t just for salespeople or businesses that rely on selling. The tools and insight that a good CRM platform delivers can raise customer satisfaction for service-oriented businesses, increase donations and improve delivery of assistance for non-profits, and even keep a sole proprietor organized and on-task.

But selecting a CRM package is a big commitment, not necessarily in terms of money (although some platforms can get pricey) but certainly in terms of the time: configuring the system to match -- or ideally, improve -- your business processes, getting your data into the program, and training all stakeholders in how to use it. So you don’t want to start down that road only to have employees slip back to their personal spreadsheets and Post-its because the system is a poor fit.

Shopping for Small Business CRM

This Buyers Guide should help you avoid that scenario. We present some of the most important factors to consider and features to look for as you examine CRM packages. At the end of the piece, we present an overview of some of our small business CRM favorite tools.

 Sage ACT 2011; small business CRM software
Sage ACT 2011 contact management software bumps up against the CRM category.
(Click for larger image)

Granted, CRM purists will howl at seeing some (gasp) contact management programs in that mix. And yes, strictly speaking there are differences between a CRM tool and a contact manager -- especially for mid-market and enterprise organizations -- such as support for team (rather than individual) sales/service activities, the capability to manage business processes among different team members and departments, and the availability of all customer interaction information in one repository visible to all stakeholders.

But over the years the lines have blurred, so from a functional perspective a small business may be just as well-served by a robust contact manager with CRM features as it would be by a born-and-bred CRM platform.

CRM Your Way -- On-site or in the Cloud?

The first thing to consider when examining CRM software is the type of platform you want: on-site software or a “cloud” product. Traditional on-site software gets loaded on your PCs or server, just like a typical office productivity suite.

While cloud-computing platforms are all the rage right now, on-site software has its benefits. For starters, there is no monthly subscription fee as there is with SaaS (software-as-a-service) offerings: Buy it once and it’s yours forever, and it won’t cost you another dime until such time as you decide to upgrade. On-site software is also always accessible; with a cloud service, if your Internet connection is down you can’t access your CRM data.

Of course, there are disadvantages to locally installed software, too. For starters, there’s a bigger up-front commitment of capital to purchase the software compared to the simple monthly fee to get started with a SaaS vendor. Plus, you are responsible for keeping the system (meaning the software itself and the hardware it runs on) operational, and for backing up the data to be prepared for the unforeseen.

And if you want the latest features a product offers in subsequent versions, you have to pay for the upgrade, and then install it. Finally, most on-site software applications do not support full mobile access to all the features of the product.

Predictably, the weaknesses of an on-site CRM solution are the strengths of a cloud-based offering. First and foremost, a cloud offering delivers the full feature set to any Internet-connected users no matter where they log in. This makes cloud offerings ideal for small businesses that have remote workers, or employees that are often on the road.

What’s more, SaaS vendors are constantly upgrading their platforms and rolling out new features and enhancements on an ongoing basis. The vendor updates the software in the background, and the next time you log on, you have access to the new features. The SaaS host is also responsible for maintaining the servers that house the software and for keeping your data secure and backed up. Indeed, most providers back up to multiple data sites to ensure availability even if one location gets hit by a natural or man-made disaster.

On the downside, the monthly fee you pay for a cloud-based CRM package will eventually surpass what you would spend for on-site software. And as we alluded to earlier, if you don’t have an Internet connection, you may be dead in the water. While many SaaS vendors offer a scaled-down local client applet you can use for times when you aren’t connected, such as on an airplane, the bulk of your data may not be accessible if you are offline.

When SaaS offerings first appeared on the scene, some would-be customers were worried about having their data out “in the cloud” and accessible to hackers. But those fears have not panned out; in fact, SaaS vendors generally have better security than most small businesses could ever hope to roll out on their own.

Small Business CRM for One -- or More?

The other main platform decision you need to make is whether you want a single-user or a multi- user system. Many desktop contact management programs with CRM features are meant to be used by one person; the data is not in a shared repository. That may be fine for a sole proprietor or individual sales folks looking to keep tabs on projects, prospects and clients.

However, the real value of a CRM platform lies in its capability to automate business processes across multiple team members -- and for that you need a multi-user system. Naturally, those are more expensive and complex to set up, but businesses that need CRM to coordinate efforts of salespeople, customer service personnel, mangers and so on will reap the benefits.

No matter which type of platform you choose -- cloud or on-site, single- or multi-user -- be sure the CRM vendor offers support for the mobile devices you use (or plan to use). At the very least, make sure you can sync your smartphone or tablet of choice to have the data you need with you in the field. And ideally you would have access to your full data repository in real-time from your phone or tablet.

CRM Features to Improve Your Small Business

There are myriad features that can wind up in a CRM package, so the trick is finding the one that matches what you need. After all, you don’t want to pay for features you’ll never use. So here are some of the more prominent features to consider as you weigh your purchase:

Ease of Use: The goal of any CRM package is to make everyday chores easier and ultimately to make your employees more productive. That won’t happen if the software is too complex to use, so an intuitive user interface is paramount.

Any good small business CRM platform will have a wealth of features; the key is to package those features in such a way that your employees can find the ones they need for their job. So look for a UI that offers tabs or another organizational construct that makes particular tasks easy to find.

For example, customizable views, where employees can create their own UI tailored to their roles -- surfacing the information they need and hiding the info they don’t -- is a welcome feature. Better packages will also offer “wizards” to walk employees through executing common tasks. And of course, robust search capability is essential, so you can find a bit of data no matter where it may reside in the system.

Tasks and Reminders: A CRM package should include features such reminders that trigger at a set time interval after a task, so employees are sure to stay engaged with a prospect or keep a project moving. Even better, many CRM programs support automatic follow ups, where an employee can have the system generate and send automatic -- but personalized -- “thank you” and other correspondence a set number of days after contacting a client or prospect.

And your CRM package should support personalized “To Do” lists that aggregate appointments and tasks, and keeps employees (and their managers) alerted to past-due items.

Business process automation:  The difference between a simple contact manager and a full-blown CRM is the ability to automate multi-step processes that involve multiple employees. For example, an administrative assistant may take an initial call or email from a prospective client and hand that off to a salesperson, who then makes contact and informs a sales manager about the lead.

Prophet 5; small business CRM software
Prophet 5 works within Microsoft Outlook.
(Click for larger image)

The salesperson handles the requisite back-and-forth with the prospect, including a proposal that may need approval or input from others. And assuming the prospect becomes a client, the account information may need to be handed off to a customer service rep, keeping the salesperson in the loop so she can monitor that client’s needs for future sales.

Now, all that can be handled with endless email threads and appointments entered into Outlook. Or you can let a CRM system coordinate all of the activities and manage the workflow. Even better, most CRM software will have some common workflows, such as a sales-process pipeline, already pre-built and ready for your customization.

Also look for email message templates -- follow-up, “thank you” and other common correspondence that are pre-written and ready to auto-populate with a particular contact’s name and information. Some CRM packages even include an “instant quote” feature, allowing your salespeople to generate customized quotes -- complete with your logo, products and service description, part numbers, customer info and more -- in just a few clicks

Reporting and Business Insight: Beyond getting things done, a CRM package should let you see how your small business is doing. So look for a program that offers top-level “dashboards” that roll up information such as closed deals, pending deals and so on so you can see status at a glance.

You’ll also want a range of easy-to-run reports and other business analytics so you can see where the business is headed as a whole and where each employee stands in relation to his or her assigned quota. Some CRM packages also include opportunity progress reports, so the manager can see the status of all deals/projects in process across all employees.

Integration: While a CRM system can handle a lot of everyday chores, it clearly can’t be the only software in your small business. Look for a platform that can work hand-in-hand with your other software. For example, employees will still want to use Outlook as their main email program, so look for Outlook integration that allows contacts, appointments and tasks to appear automatically in the CMS.

Once a prospect becomes a client, look for integration with your small business accounting software (such as Intuit QuickBooks), which will simplify migrating CRM-resident contact and billing/payment information to the accounting side.

You can also leverage your CRM data to energize your marketing efforts. After all, your existing customers and contacts are your best bet for increased sales. Look for a small business CRM package that lets you launch and track marketing programs from within the tool, or that offers synergy between your CRM data and a third-party email marketing service such as Constant Contact.

And to uncover new leads, some CRM vendors have partnered with business-information database providers (like Hoover’s) to help you find new prospects and add them directly to your CRM system.

Extensibility: No CRM package can be all things to all businesses. Investigate whether the platform offers add-ins from the CRM provider as well as third-party developers to extend its functionality. Business workflow templates and other features unique to your industry may be available, which will save you a lot of time on the customization front.

Tech support: As with any technology purchase, make sure the vendor offers the service and support to match your needs. Phone/chat/email tech support is a must, and if you tend to work odd hours (what small business owner doesn’t?) or have a workforce spread across multiple time zones, you may want to insist on 24/7 phone support.

Beyond that, find out if the CRM maker offers assistance in setting up and customizing the platform, either directly or through authorized resellers -- and find out the costs. Some packages include some degree of setup in the purchase price; but if not, such services can quickly eclipse the price of the software itself.

Security: Last but certainly not least, consider the security the platform offers. At the very least, you should be able control which users can see which data. For example, an assistant does not have access to a client’s sensitive personal data.

Also check to see if the platform offers encryption for stored data, to keep it safe from hackers. But since the bigger threat is not from hackers but from employees within your own company misappropriating the data for their next job, look for a platform that limits user access to just their clients, and prohibits (or at least warns about) unauthorized copying/exporting of the database.

Small Business CRM Products to Consider

There are dozens of small business CRM packages on the market, built to suit every need and budget. Here are some of our favorites:


Salesforce.com is the original cloud-based CRM platform. It offers pretty much all of the features touched on above, and many more. It lets you and your workforce manage all your contacts, tasks, and meetings in one place, as well as track your leads, sales deals, and customer interactions.

It integrates with all the leading email packages and lets you access data via any mobile device. You can also extend the functionality of the platform with Force.com, the company’s platform for cloud-based business applications such as HR and inventory. Pricing for the Group Edition of the classic CRM package starts at $25 per user per month.

Sage ACT 2011

Sage ACT 2011 is the latest incarnation of what is arguably the best contact management solution for small businesses, and over the years Sage has added features that have ACT bumping up against the CRM space. A history of past deals and interactions -- including email messages and your personal notes regarding phone calls -- are available when you drill down into a particular customer’s entry.

Zoho CRM; small business CRM software
Zoho CRM is a cloud-based CRM program designed for small business.
(Click for larger image)

The program helps you manage prospects with built-in sales-process workflows that you can customize to fit your business. You’ll be able to keep detailed progress notes as an opportunity unfolds, and even see the probability of successfully closing a given deal. Need to see how you and your staff are performing? ACT offers 85 built-in reports and quick-view "dashboards" that let you see at a glance opportunities by status, the percentage of deals that do and do not close, potential revenue of deals in the pipeline and more.

Sage E-marketing for ACT is a cloud-based email marketing service, powered by Sage partner Swiftpage, that lets you execute sophisticated multi-stage email campaigns right from within ACT.

Sage ACT 2011 is available in two versions. The Premium edition lists for $459.99 and includes all the program’s features -- contact and customer management, Web access, group scheduling, dashboards and more. The Pro version, which sells for $229.99, delivers the basics, but does away with Web access, group scheduling and dashboards. Sage also offers specialized editions targeted at financial professionals and real estate offices.


Another contact-manager-turned-CRM-platform is GoldMine, from FrontRange Solutions. The platform delivers strong contact management features, naturally, along with opportunity management, marketing/lead management, forecasting and much more. The platform also offers native Outlook integration and a Web client, so your employees can use any browser-enabled device to access data. The company offers GoldMine Enterprise, GoldMine Corporate and GoldMine Premium editions starting at $275 per user license.

Avidian Technologies Prophet 5  

With the Prophet 5 contact management and CRM package, Avidian Technologies took a different tack, building the CRM functionality inside Microsoft Outlook. Prophet leverages Outlook’s existing data and functionality so you have calendaring and email along with centralized contact management, sales opportunity management, reporting and more within a single, familiar interface.

This also eliminates the need for your employees to constantly flip between two applications or to manage multiple contact databases. And Prophet is available in both on-premises and cloud-based versions (Prophet 5 Personal Edition, Prophet 5 Professional for Teams, Prophet 5 Enterprise for Teams, Prophet OnDemand Premium Edition, Prophet OnDemand Enterprise, Prophet Mobile Solutions for Blackberry, Windows, Palm Devices) to match your organization’s size and needs. Prices start at $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year.

Zoho CRM

Zoho CRM, from online business application expert ZOHO Corp., is a cloud-based CRM platform tailored to small businesses. It helps you integrate sales leads, marketing campaigns, the sales pipeline and forecasts, and it offers an integrated inventory management system to help you with post-sales processes.

The plug-in for Outlook lets you synchronize contacts and create mail-merge documents, and its reports and dashboards help you analyze business trends. Zoho CRM comes in a free edition that offers basic functionality, or you can step up to the more full-featured Professional ($12 per user per month) or Enterprise ($25 per user per month) editions.


KarmaCRM is an online contact management and CRM offering that offers an extremely easy-to-use interface and accessibility from any Web browser. It lets you stay on top of sales contacts, tasks and proposals, while also creating deals and setting deadlines. While it doesn’t offer Outlook integration per se, you can forward (or bcc:) to your KarmaCRM dropbox and they are automatically attached to the correct contact.

The integration with the MailChimp e-newsletter service lets you easily send newsletters to your CRM contacts. The company offers five editions: Basic ($19 per month), Individual ($24 per month), Professional ($49 per month), Enterprise ($89 per month) and Premier ($139 per month). You can sign up for a free trial of any of them.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday May 17th 2011
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