An SMB’s Complete Buying Guide for CRM Software

Investing in a new customer relationship management (CRM) system for your company can increase sales, boost customer engagement and improve your business’s profitability and efficiency. Discover how to select the right CRM system for your business and learn more about 10 of the most popular and customizable CRM platforms on the market.

What is CRM software?

A CRM software platform is an application that helps businesses manage interactions with customers and potential customers. These solutions create, centralize and update records for every lead, prospect and customer, storing their contact information, communication and purchasing history, support requests and marketing preferences. Sales, marketing and customer support teams have a wealth of available data to help them conduct more nuanced, personal and productive conversations with customers and prospects.

CRM software supports the following vital functions from one centralized platform: 

  • Help marketing teams run multichannel campaigns.
  • Help sales representatives nurture and convert deals.
  • Boost customer retention by improving after-sales service.
  • CRM workflow automation features save businesses time by handling repetitive tasks.
  • Streamline task distribution so sales and service teams don’t miss calls or appointments. 
  • Analyze performance data and generate reports that help managers spot areas for improvement. 

Who needs CRM software?

Virtually any business can benefit from a CRM. Modern CRM solutions are feature-packed and integrate well with popular business apps, including Google Workspace, Microsoft Office, Slack and more. These highly customizable platforms can be tweaked to fit a company’s specific operational needs and processes.

Here are a few examples of how standard CRM functionality can be adapted to suit businesses in different sectors:

  • Real estate agencies: CRM systems help real estate professionals manage their sales pipelines, coordinate online property listings and record client interactions. These platforms can track buyer and seller journeys from initial inquiry to completion. CRM diary and automated workflow functions help real estate professionals stay on top of appointments and follow-up calls and help back-office staff keep clients informed at every stage of the deal.
  • Financial services firms: CRM software helps financial services firms in numerous ways. Marketers can personalize campaigns to clients and prospects based on budget and risk. Sales teams can use client history data to present investment proposals or appealing financial products. Back-end teams can use CRMs to onboard customers while adhering to Know Your Customer guidelines to ensure compliance with financial regulations. 
  • Healthcare practices: Dental practices, hospitals and medical clinics often integrate their CRM platform with their medical billing software to schedule patient appointments, manage patient records and deliver highly personalized care plans. Centralized CRM data and flexible functionality allow healthcare businesses to improve patient treatment management, communicate with patients in their preferred ways and run targeted marketing campaigns for patients (for example, on cancer screening).
  • Hospitality businesses: Hotels and restaurants can leverage their CRM’s power and customization features to manage reservations, track guest preferences and create personalized experiences on arrival. Hospitality professionals can use CRMs to build customer loyalty via rewards programs, analyze guest data to set seasonal pricing and identify opportunities for upselling and cross-selling. CRMs can also streamline complicated tasks such as hotel room and dining room allocations — areas that can make or break a hospitality business.
  • E-commerce businesses: E-commerce businesses typically use robust CRMs that are integrated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to manage entire operations. On the front end, CRMs can deliver excellent website experiences for customers through personalized recommendations, account management and order tracking. On the back end, CRMs offer tremendous efficiencies by helping firms deliver first-class customer service, analyze purchasing trends, track growth opportunities and run marketing campaigns.
  • Professional services firms: Professional services firms such as consultants, accountants and law firms, rely on CRM systems to manage client accounts, track billable hours and collaborate with team members.
  • Nonprofits: CRM platforms are popular with nonprofit organizations that must manage donor relationships, track fundraising campaign success and analyze how target audiences use their services.

How much does CRM software cost?

CRM costs vary widely depending on user numbers, feature sets and pricing models. Lower-end products may cost less than $20 per user, per month, while higher-end offerings can cost upwards of $100 per monthly user. Many CRM vendors offer discounts for upfront pricing.

To help you understand the true investment your CRM will represent better, consider the following costs: 

  • Subscription fee: CRM platforms offer a range of per-user, per-month subscription charges. Typically, the higher your subscription fee, the more features you can access. (Thryv CRM is an exception; this vendor charges by location.)
  • Add-on fees: Some features incur an extra per-user fee not included in the subscription’s bundled functions. For example, HubSpot CRM charges an extra fee for transactional email functionality.
  • App fees: Most CRM providers have online marketplaces with third-party apps that add new features or improve existing functions. Many third-party apps are industry-specific. For example, they may improve functionality for travel firms or manufacturing companies. App pricing models vary from a one-off flat fee to a per-user, per-month charge.
  • CRM implementation: Some vendors charge to set up your CRM and train your staff. Depending on the customization level you require and the size of your company, a CRM implementation project can take a few days to a few months. Some vendors offer data migration from your old system to their system for a fee.

What are the benefits of CRM software?

From generating new leads to closing deals, implementing CRM software can deliver the following significant benefits to your business:

  • Bring more and better leads: Most CRMs feature fully integrated marketing suites to help you launch targeted campaigns, track customer interactions on each campaign and run post-completion engagement reports. Typically, you can personalize individual marketing pieces based on previous customer interactions and transactions for greater relevance.
  • Improve the sales process: CRM sales features include lead scoring, which helps reps pinpoint leads that are most likely to become customers. Reps can also create sales pipelines with unique milestones, helping them improve their lead management skills and close more deals. Sales managers can run reports on team members to identify opportunities to deliver ongoing training to improve future sales.
  • Improve customer satisfaction: CRMs help your service and support teams better manage customer relationships. When customers call or email, your support team can access their history and deliver a truly personal service. You can set up ticketing systems to handle post-sale inquiries faster and more efficiently. 
  • Allow accurate reporting and forecasting: CRMs collect information on all customer and staff actions. That data allows you to run real-time custom reports on marketing, sales and support activities. For example, sales forecasting features can fuel reports predicting how much revenue you’ll generate. Customer analytics reports can help you identify market trends and what your highest spenders are interested in.
  • Centralize data: CRM platforms allow your staff to work from one platform and database, not multiple data sources. Critical business information is no longer siloed, allowing more meaningful collaboration and cooperation between departments. Many CRM systems can find and merge duplicate data for even greater accuracy. Some can even populate customer and prospect data with information from LinkedIn. 
  • Improve business processes: CRM workflow automation functions free your staff from time-consuming but necessary administrative duties. This allows them to focus on more impactful and productive activities that can lead to more successful lead generation, higher sales conversion rates and lower customer churn.  
  • Improve decision-making: With CRMs, senior managers benefit from a bird’s-eye view of their marketing, sales and customer service teams. C-suite and board teams can spot areas for improvement and opportunities for growth. CRMs provide real-time data to inform investment and growth decisions and strategies. When connected to other business apps like ERP software, leaders benefit from clear visibility into business operations.

What are the key features to look for in CRM software?

CRM platforms present various out-of-the-box feature sets and you can typically enhance your platform’s functionality with apps and plug-ins. Consider the following CRM features to look for to handle your business’s unique needs.

Marketing, sales and support functionality

The best CRM systems manage the customer lifecycle from initial contact to first purchase and beyond. Look for a system with a fully integrated marketing, sales and service suite or powerful third-party plug-ins that add this functionality. For example, many platforms come preloaded with libraries featuring professional-looking email templates you can modify to send to clients.

Your CRM should support the following functions:

  • Marketing: Help your marketing team contact customers and prospects via email, social media, text messaging and telephone.
  • Sales: Help sales agents communicate one-on-one with customers and prospects, managing leads efficiently until the deal closes. 
  • Support: Help your support team assist customers via several channels.

Contact management

CRMs with fully integrated sales, marketing and support functions record and store every customer and prospect interaction and transaction. This data gives your marketing team insights into segmenting customers and running more effective and personalized campaigns.

Whenever a sales rep deals with a client, they’ll see full details of the contact’s purchase history and previous queries. Reps can use this information on their pitches to increase the chance of a sale.

Customers will no longer have to explain their problem to a new rep every time they call or message. Your reps can service them immediately because they can see the client’s history, increasing the chance of a first-contact resolution.

Excellent contact management is critical because the more an existing or potential customer feels that you know and understand their needs, the more likely they are to buy from you and stay with your brand.

Customized workflows

The more customizable your CRM, the better. Customizable CRMs allow you to personalize everything from sales automation to support ticket management to streamline operations and improve outcomes. Here are some examples: 

  • Sales workflows: Create customized workflows to control the sales process from initial contact to the point of closure, setting up deal stages and milestones to guide reps through their pitches. This ability is especially vital for complex deals with multiple contacts. Customized workflows help reps stay organized and looped in on every deal. They can organize their time better and their manager can oversee the entire pipeline. 
  • Communication workflows: CRMs can parse incoming emails and text messages to divert customers and prospects to the right person. This new action gets added automatically to that employee’s to-do list and managers can monitor their response time. Additionally, marketing teams can send emails and set follow-ups to check in 48 hours later with recipients who didn’t open the message. This can stimulate a second round of responses.

Automating workflows saves time and ensures that leads, service calls and other opportunities aren’t missed.

Analytics and reporting

Many small-business owners struggle to understand their operations. Finding accurate marketing or sales data is challenging and it’s even harder to see which employees are performing well and which need help.

Modern CRM systems provide granular analytics on all aspects of company performance, from assessing a website’s effectiveness to determining the number of outbound calls individual reps make within a specific time frame. 

Business owners can use these reports to drive improvements across their departments and teams to produce better results.

Omnichannel communication

CRM software can extend your business’s reach via mass emails, text blasts and social media and pay-per-click campaigns.

CRMs also facilitate one-to-one communication. In many businesses, you still must speak with prospects to close a sale. After the sale, many clients prefer speaking with someone instead of using a ticketing system. The best CRM systems allow you to communicate individually with customers and prospects through their preferred channels, including email, social media, WhatsApp or short message service (SMS). All interactions are stored to ensure heightened customer knowledge.

Collaboration tools

CRM systems include collaboration tools for better customer management. For example, you can tag colleagues in conversations and support cases to gain specialist knowledge and answer a customer’s questions.

Internal collaboration can also improve company performance. For example, marketing teams can tag a sales manager into a conversation to learn about prospects’ primary objections. This knowledge can help them refine future marketing strategies and campaigns. 

Third-party integrations

Most CRM providers have a marketplace with hundreds and sometimes thousands of third-party plug-ins that add to or improve the platform’s features. 

Modern CRMs integrate seamlessly with the most popular apps on the market, including Slack, Gmail, Dropbox and Mailchimp. Robust integrations are ideal if you want to continue using your current business software.

CRMs also often feature specialist integrations with accounting software packages like QuickBooks, inventory management platforms, document signing solutions, point-of-sale system software and more. 

When you integrate your CRM with your current tech stack, you’ll experience less disruption to existing workflows and less risk of data duplication and inconsistencies.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

The launch of ChatGPT changed the business world and many CRM vendors have been quick to integrate inventive and intelligent AI solutions into their software.

For example:

  • Pipedrive‘s Sales Assistant AI bot can help sales teams find workflow shortcuts by analyzing structures and outcomes. 
  • In Freshsales, Freddy AI analyzes sales engagement data across multiple channels to suggest ways to improve sales team performance. 
  • In Zendesk, sales and support reps get on-screen AI prompts to improve the chances of a first-contact resolution. The platform’s AI-powered chatbot can even detect when a query should be transferred to a human. 
  • Salesforce‘s Einstein AI is excellent at predicting which deals will close and can provide decision support systems using live statistics to assist CEOs.

The number of AI applications in CRM systems is constantly growing, so it’s worth investigating the AI features available on the platforms you shortlist for your business.

Mobile CRM access

Many CRMs have accompanying mobile apps with desktop-level functionality. These apps help managers and team members stay in touch while on the go and not miss a beat when they’re out of the office. 

CRM mobile apps allow you to set specific alerts to inform you of developments and changes that must be addressed immediately. 

What factors should you consider when choosing CRM software?

When choosing CRM software for your business, take these factors into account.


Ask your vendor for a specific CRM implementation timeline for your company. Getting a platform running precisely as you envisioned can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year. 

In general, the more customization you need, the longer implementation will take. In many cases, you’ll launch with a minimum viable product version of your CRM that provides enough features to meet your core business needs. From there, you’ll add additional features and automations slowly in a phased rollout, eventually building your organization’s complete system.


CRM systems represent a significant investment for businesses, particularly if they want to take advantage of discounted rates for paying a year’s fees upfront instead of making monthly payments.

Most CRMs charge per user, per seat. You may have to pay extra for services outside the subscription package, fees for third-party plug-ins and overage fees (for example, using application programming interface calls over a certain limit each month).

You may also incur charges for the CRM implementation process. For example, on specific service tiers, HubSpot charges $3,000 and upward for “professional onboarding fees.” Similarly, highly customized Salesforce CRM setups may require hiring authorized implementation agencies and programmers. Premium customer support may also attract additional charges (more on this below).

Vendor support

Many vendors provide support during implementation and beyond, often appointing a client success manager. Businesses can often access a designated rep and broader customer support offerings when they need help with initial setup, customization, advanced feature integration and general troubleshooting.

However, not all CRM providers offer 24/7 service. This service level may incur up to 30% extra on your fees, including access to phone support, which is essential for many clients.

If your business operates during typical office hours, a less comprehensive 24/5 or 8/5 support package should be fine. However, if you operate around the clock or in different time zones, you may need immediate access to support if your business relies on the CRM and you encounter a problem.

Ease of use

CRM user adoption is critical. Effective user training is essential whether you’re migrating from a previous system or deploying a CRM for the first time. However, introducing new technology to your workforce can be challenging — and it’s even harder when the solution is unintuitive and clunky. 

When choosing a CRM platform, consider how easy it is to use out of the box. The more intuitive the solution, the more straightforward the rollout will be. Customizability is also critical. When a CRM has easy customization options, you’ll have more control over the platform without having to resort to consultants or programmers to fine-tune the solution.

Free trials and demos

Taking advantage of a CRM platform’s free trial is a great way to evaluate its ease of use. Many vendors offer trials that last between 14 and 30 days to test drive their systems. You can experiment with loading data onto the platform, building automations, setting up pipelines and more.

If one of your shortlisted providers does not offer a free trial, request a video demo. Ask the rep to demonstrate how the system handles crucial tasks like creating and managing contacts, tracking customer interactions, generating reports and customizing dashboards. 

Online reviews

During a free trial period, you’ll see the very best of a vendor because it wants to impress you enough to sign up for its system.

However, online customer reviews can l give you a clearer idea of a vendor’s responsiveness and a product’s effectiveness. This feedback will tell you how quickly customer service reps respond to tickets, a system’s uptime level, common frustrations and more. 

What are the top CRM software vendors?

Dozens of excellent CRM systems are available for businesses of all sizes. We’ll highlight 10 top-notch providers and share what makes them stand out.

Salesforce CRM

Salesforce is the original modern CRM — and it’s one of the most popular CRM solutions worldwide. Thanks to its head start, the vendor’s app marketplace has an enormous range of features and functionalities you can add to your platform. Salesforce is also highly customizable, even at a granular level, giving users tremendous flexibility in configuring their systems. Additionally, Salesforce’s adoption of AI is among the most innovative and helpful on the market.

monday Sales CRM

monday began as a top project management tool. The company built on that solid foundation to create an excellent CRM system with a wide range of features to help businesses generate leads and drive new revenue. monday Sales CRM has a highly intuitive user interface and makes it easy for managers and teams to build customizable workflow automations. The platform excels at client life cycle management, from a customer’s initial contact to the point of sale and beyond. Its team collaboration tools are first-class, as is its ability to analyze customer and user data to produce engaging and informative performance reports. 

Pipedrive CRM

When salespeople must simultaneously deal with dozens of leads at various stages, opportunities can be lost due to a lack of organization. Pipedrive excels at automation across the board, from AI-powered lead management for sales reps to campaign management and customer segmentation for marketing teams. Its range of built-in and third-party features is extensive, with tools ranging from power dialers and chatbots to deal filters and sales forecasting.

Freshsales CRM

Your marketing team will appreciate the sheer level of functionality built into Freshsales CRM, part of the broader Freshworks software suite. They can send bulk emails, plan social media campaigns, run telesales campaigns and more. All bulk and one-to-one communications can be done within the platform, so its customer profile and behavior reporting and analytics are extensive and granular. AI integration is excellent, as are the platform’s workflow automations and sales pipeline management.

NetSuite CRM

NetSuite CRM is a highly capable system that can bring marketing, sales and support departments under the same level of supervision as other facets of your business. Stand-out features include its powerful reporting and analytics, the CPQ (configure, price, quote) module for sales teams selling complex products, commission management for reps and partners and its e-commerce customer portal. You can plug in third-party marketing apps to run campaigns and manage sales pipelines from within the platform.

Zoho CRM

Zoho CRM can be a great fit for businesses with a firmly established work-from-home and hybrid work culture. Zoho’s workflow automations, analytics and reporting, AI-powered tools and dashboard customizations make it much easier for managers to control team members’ activities and measure their performance. The Motivator app, which gamifies team activities, is well executed and will encourage healthy competition among staff. Zoho also has a superb omnichannel communications suite and an extensive app marketplace.

HubSpot CRM

HubSpot’s interface is easy to use, relying on intuitive dragging and dropping to build automations, workflows, customer segmentations, sales pipelines and notification events. It is fully omnichannel, allowing you and your customers to contact each other by email, SMS, WhatsApp, social media and more. HubSpot’s impressive range of 1,000-plus apps and integrations stands out; its marketplace is packed with tools to drive new leads and sales.

Insightly CRM

Insightly CRM prioritizes end-user customization, making it an excellent choice for businesses that need a fully tailored sales solution. Sales rooms can be chaotic and disorganized, but Insightly CRM brings order through features like action-triggered sales pipelines, which prevent reps from losing or forgetting about opportunities. Managers benefit from a bird’s-eye view of their individual reps’ performances. Many excellent and intelligent features, such as the social profile enrichment tool, which adds extra details automatically to contact records, can be game changers for sales teams.

Zendesk CRM

Zendesk CRM was originally a highly versatile and popular support ticketing platform. The company has added to that solid base to create a well-rounded and very functional CRM that excels at customer lifecycle management. Notable features include smart lists, which allow tailored and segmented marketing; omnichannel functionality, including a powerful autodialer; an AI-powered customer services suite; and a unified customer database. Zendesk’s analytics function offers depth and granularity in performance reporting and its workplace collaboration tools are excellent.

Thryv CRM

Thryv’s unique feature set makes this CRM ideal for any business that relies on close communication with customers and between staff members. The platform’s omnichannel functionality is executed brilliantly and is ideal for companies that book client appointments. The ability to build customer portals, allowing customers to contact you, book their own appointments and make payments, is also impressive. 

Find out more about each of these suppliers in our guide to the best CRM software.

When selecting the right CRM software for your business, take time to research the market and all available options. Ensure the platform you choose has the flexibility to improve how your marketing, sales and customer service teams communicate with customers and collaborate with each other to drive your business forward.