Choosing a CRM: how to compare and evaluate CRM software vendors
By Andy Mason
When it comes to choosing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for your business, there are so many things to consider that it can be challenging to find a starting point.
CRM implementation can be costly and take a great deal of time, and so it’s imperative that you do your research before making such a substantial investment. The problem is that comparing and evaluating the many different CRM vendors can take just as much time and effort as the actual implementation, particularly if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Fortunately, Mason Frank has put together this resource containing everything you need to know about comparing CRM solutions. Not only will this help you understand what to look for in a CRM at a glance, but also help you make a decision based on the industry, size, and needs of your organization. With CRM systems there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’, and so it’s essential you choose a vendor that plays to the strengths of your business.
Download our CRM vendor selection checklist, or read on for detailed information on how to begin your search.
How to approach CRM vendor selection
There is no definitive way to select a CRM system, but with hundreds of vendors to sift through, you must take a logical, structured approach to ensure all angles are covered. We suggest doing this in four stages:
- Decide what you want your CRM to do by identifying shortfalls in your operation
- Evaluate and compare CRM vendors based on history of performance
- Consider how suitable this CRM is given the limitations of your business
- Contact your potential vendors for advice on a suitable product, and a quote
Approaching selection in this way ensures you consult every branch of your business before ruling out or overlooking a particular vendor. Remember that a CRM impacts how your business works on a day-to-day basis, and those tasked with using that system deserve to be consulted before being forced to use it. Likewise, it makes sense to research what others are saying about that vendor before you take the leap — the only accurate way to evaluate a service is by customer reviews, after all.
What do you need from a CRM?
Before you even begin looking at the different CRM options on the market, you should consider why you need to implement a CRM in the first place. What are the biggest stumbling blocks you encounter on a daily basis that a CRM could solve?
In another article, we asked the question ‘Does your business need a CRM?’ and outlined the different problems in day-to-day business that these systems can help solve. For your convenience, here are a few of those questions:
Let’s assume that the answer to each of these questions is yes and that you require a CRM that will help solve all of these problems. Make a list of all of the core features you need your system to have, and use that as a basis for comparing vendors. Identify your problem, consider a solution, and use that to inform your decision.
Eg. Yes, I am failing to see a healthy ROI with digital marketing — I need a CRM with marketing automation.
At this early stage, it is still imperative to speak to core departments of your business. Explore the logistical and administrative struggles that your staff face on a daily basis and how they think the current system could be improved. No issue is too small or trivial — if a task is taking 10 minutes a day longer than it is supposed to, that is nearly an hour of wasted work a week, which soon adds up.
Here is a simple way of constructing your own checklist, which you can complete by ticking boxes or giving a score from one to five on how convinced you are that the vendor in question provides an adequate solution. Alternatively, download our free CRM vendor selection checklist.
|Vendor 1||Vendor 2||Vendor 3||Vendor 4||Vendor 5|
|Data analysis and visualization||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Detailed sales reporting||✓||✓|
Identifying your core requirements will make it much easier to narrow it down from a wide variety of potential CRM vendors to just a handful. With any luck, you’ll find several vendors that offer everything you’re looking for; refining that list of vendors from there will be the real challenge.
Evaluating the CRM vendor
Now you have taken the time to consider what you need your CRM to do, you should be able to narrow it down to a shortlist of vendors that meet your requirements. The question is which of those deserve your business? This is when you should be looking away from the vendor’s official website and focusing more on customer reviews. What have other companies said about the CRM; what are its perceived strengths and weaknesses from those who have used it?
The best way to gather this information is probably to dive into that product’s community discussion forums. While some of these forums may be moderated by the vendor itself, which more than often offers solutions to prominent issues, there is still usually good, valuable discussion about specific features or limitations. There are also usually unofficial forums where the discussion is raw and unmoderated, which may paint a more accurate picture of the CRM in practice.
Take your shortlist of vendors, do your research, and evaluate each of them using the following criteria:
How long has this CRM vendor been trading, and how old is its current product? While not always the case, it’s logical that companies further into their development cycle boast more-advanced, more-refined solutions. What’s more, a vendor who began offering a generic CRM but then moved into a niche area is probably well aware of its core market and may understand your business needs more than others would.
When was the most recent update to the platform, and how often do updates tend to be released? A vendor that is constantly on top of its product, working hard to identify and fix any bugs or issues, is the vendor in which you want to place your trust. A vendor that releases a product but doesn’t offer a fix for months at a time tends to provide a lackluster service. The last thing you want is to be left high and dry.
Finding a vendor with a dedicated customer support team could make all the difference should you ever have a product emergency. Perhaps you’ve accidentally deleted a data set, or an application is failing to load; your business could suffer without immediate product support, so be very mindful of a vendor’s point of contact and how efficient they tend to be.
Data security is immensely important, as loss or compromise of data could lead to sanctions for your business. Does the vendor have a history of data breaches or data loss? Does the vendor offer product security to ensure the safety of your customer records? Does the CRM have a backup feature or will you have to implement this yourself? You must consider all of these things to protect your customers’ personal information.
One of the convenient elements of modern CRM systems is the level of integration with other prominent platforms, such as social media, email, and word processing. While vendors will more than often list the available integrations on their website, there are sometimes additional, less-prominent integrations that users find a way to patch themselves, so be sure to explore community forums for all possible integrations.
At the same time, some integrations listed by a vendor may not be as efficient as you are lead to believe, and some users may find the interface more complicated than just using the third-party service separately. This is why customer reviews and discussion forums are so critical; no vendor is going to tell you that its integration with other software is poor, so you’ll have to rely on your own intuition to find this out.
CRM vendors will usually set out a clear timeline for implementation, but this is not always accurate. Unanticipated problems on your end are often the reason that timelines are extended, and deadlines missed, but finding that a vendor has a history of missing implementation deadlines through its own doing should be a red flag.
Many CRM vendors don’t oversee their own product implementation but recognize third-party companies as implementation partners. If you need to use an implementation partner, always check that they are verified by the vendor itself to ensure you are receiving a service that the vendor deems up to standards.
Consider your own position and limitations
One of the things that makes CRM such an essential component of the modern business is its diversity. CRMs can accommodate small businesses with just a few employees, to large corporations with huge sales teams and support departments. The important thing is to be realistic about your own position and tailor your CRM solution around your business, not the other way around; the reality is that you won’t be making radical changes to your business simply to accommodate a new CRM system. Here are some additional questions you should be asking before committing to a particular solution.
Is it easy to use?
Do you already have technical professionals working in the organization, or do the technology-related jobs in your business usually fall upon a non-expert? It’s important to consider whether the CRM is easy to use and, if not, whether you currently have the expertise in your business to operate it. Then again, you could always hire an expert to manage your CRM if you have the budget; this will relieve the pressure on other departments, particularly during the data migration and implementation process.
Will employees require training?
The likelihood is that your CRM solution won’t be so self-explanatory that your workforce will immediately be able to use it. Some will require basic navigation to become familiar with the user interface, whereas others will have a steeper learning curve. Training, while worthwhile, can be costly and takes time, so has to be a consideration before you commit to a particular solution. If you would rather avoid training to minimize costs or for logistical reasons, be sure to focus on solutions that are simple to use.
For how long will I be contracted?
If your business is relatively new, or you don’t yet have a stable income stream, it can sometimes be irresponsible to commit to a lengthy contract when subscribing to a CRM. Many systems are available on a month-by-month basis, but always be conscious of committing to longer than you should, as it could result in unpaid bills or increasing debts. This is a particularly important thing to consider if your business operates seasonally, as you may have no use for a system while your sales aren’t active.
Is this appropriate for my niche business?
If your business is particularly niche or unusual, you may be better off choosing a less conventional CRM vendor. It may not have the prestige or notoriety of more-established CRM systems, but if the vendor is well-suited to your operation, is within your price range, and has a good customer service team ready to answer your every query, then why not? You shouldn’t go into the process looking for a niche CRM, but if you can’t find an adequate solution from the mainstream options, you should definitely consider a niche provider.
Does my organization have high-speed internet?
While this may not seem very important, you won’t enjoy much success from a cloud-based CRM if you don’t have the internet speed to support large file transfers. Having said that, if you want to get the most out of your CRM, then you should probably prioritize an internet upgrade, as only by adopting a cloud-based solution can you ensure your system is future proofed.
Naturally, it always comes down to budget
For all you might have a clear idea in mind of what you want your CRM system to do, the ultimate stumbling block will always be your budget. After all, you can always compromise on the features you want, but you can’t imagine money out of thin air.
Typically, CRM vendors will charge you for a subscription to their system, usually on a per-user, per-month basis. This isn’t set in stone, as some charge a flat fee for a maximum amount of users, but be mindful that the overall cost tends to depend on how many of your staff members will be using the system.
You tend to get what you pay for with CRM platforms, which is why the higher-end systems tend to cost more. What’s more, the basic subscription cost of a CRM isn’t necessarily the overall implementation cost, either, as you may have to contract someone to implement the CRM and then train your staff to use it. This is why it’s important not to choose an option that completely exhausts your budget — aim for a solution that costs around 75% of your budget, reserving the remainder for training, or otherwise unexpected costs during implementation.
Contact vendors for more information
It’s finally time to contact the vendors themselves for more information. This is the stage at which you will get a recommended product, a bespoke quote, and possibly even a rough implementation plan for your business. It’s vital that you have all the relevant information at hand to brief the vendor on exactly what you need. Thankfully, all of the research and due diligence you have done so far will come in handy for this, as you will already have built a profile both on your business and what you need your CRM to do, ready to tell the vendor all about it.
Vendors will have different approaches to pitching you their product, but it’s crucial that you find out the following things, to the best of your ability, while you’re still shopping around. These are the vital stats that will ultimately inform your decision, so make a note of the vendor’s answer to these questions for the last stage of product comparison.
- How much is a subscription to the product?
- What is the overall cost of implementation?
- What is the minimum contract term for a subscription?
- Will my product be an out-of-the-box solution or a bespoke solution?
- Will I need to connect with an implementation partner?
- Can you give me an estimated time of complete implementation?
- Will I need to hire a trainer to train my staff?
- Will I need to hire an administrator or developer to operate my CRM system?
- Does the product come with its own security?
- Do you have free product support?
- Do you have a mobile app?
When you have the answers to these questions, all that’s left to do is make a decision. The logistics of implementation and/or data migration will no doubt be taxing, but long-term investments usually are. You must always be mindful of the potential of your new CRM, and how streamlined your business can become as a result of it. Hopefully, this insight into how to compare CRM vendors will prove the launching point for your selection process.
For more tips on how to get the most out of your business, including how to make data migration a breeze during CRM implementation, subscribe to the Mason Frank blog.