Updated February 9, 2015

Study: Best CRM for Small Business - Salesforce vs SugarCRM vs Zoho

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Your business is all about juggling customers and prospective customers. When it's grown to the point where you can't keep all the people and suppliers straight, then you need a customer relationship management (CRM) program. The software is one way to enable you and your employees to manage interactions with customers and better foster current and future relationships. In other words, it's a tool that - when you use the right one and use it correctly - will help your business grow.

These programs can help you and your employees manage all aspects of the sales process (lead qualification, opportunity management, forecasting, closing deals), and can track all aspects of communication, including email, phone, and even social media interactions, so nothing falls through the cracks and your business is able to better track and serve its customers.

© Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Roundup Methodology

Here are the factors we considered when comparing the best CRM programs:

  1. Contact Management/Tracking
  2. Ease of Use/Support System
  3. Social Capabilities
  4. Price

A CRM system is primarily designed to manage a business’ contacts - its clients, prospects, vendors - and track interactions with them. Without it, you’d have to have constant status meetings with all of your employees to see when they last spoke to certain people. You don’t want too much time to pass before following up with a potential client, and you also don’t want your business nagging anyone either. Tools that manage all this well and provide easy access, at any time, should be high on your consideration list.

Even when the information you need is in place, it doesn’t matter if not everyone in your company can get to it. Some people who are not the most tech savvy may need to get into the tool, so ease of use and a strong support system are also important factors. You need to know who your staff can contact for help while they’re getting up to speed, as well as whether you will get adequate assistance when the inevitable questions and issues arise.

Lower on the importance scale is the tool’s social capability. This can vary from in-house social programs that allow communication amongst contacts to connectivity with social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. The different types may appeal to certain businesses more than others, but this is an area worth keeping in mind. The point here is to consolidate the information you have for customers (less up-to-date systems could have John Doe Customer listed as three separate people: under his email, his Twitter handle, and his LinkedIn, for example) and have it be as up-to-date and accurate as possible.

And of course, there’s the issue of cost. Some CRM programs are very involved, with lots of configurations, applications, and bells and whistles (which will all add up on your monthly bill), while others are pared down to meet all the necessities without any fluff. Fortunately, most CRM programs also have different pricing tiers to fit your budget needs.

Related: Best Accounting Software

Best for Companies on the Big-Business Track: Salesforce

  • Contact Management/Tracking: A variety of streamlined ways to manage contacts and tracking, 5/5
  • Ease of Use/Support System: Large staff, variety of support channels and online resources, 5/5
  • Social Capabilities: Integrated social functionality, a leader in this area, 5/5
  • Price: Annual contracts, most expensive provider, 3/5
  • CreditDonkey score: 4.5/5

Salesforce is considered the Goliath in the CRM category. It has the widest array of package offerings and the ability to serve businesses of any size, with an emphasis on the large, like Siemens and Starbucks. “It takes some serious ingenuity to support such corporate behemoths and yet still remain relevant to small business customers,” notes Jamie Lendino in a review for PC Magazine. “My latest test found that the company has done it, in spades.”

Salesforce, considered the founder of cloud-based CRM, works across iOS and Android devices, providing a way for your employees to get into the system anytime they want. And it offers a lot of customization. You can start off with one of the two entry-level editions, which offer some of the bare essentials found in CRM software:

  • Contact Manager Edition ($5 per user per month) tracks customer interactions and tasks, and links to Outlook and Google Apps.
  • Group Edition ($25 per user per month) tracks sales opportunities, captures leads from your website, tracks Google AdWords performance, has pre-made dashboards, and offers basic reporting.

Or you can act like the big guys. After all, Salesforce was really designed for enterprises, the entities that truly need the more costly bells and whistles. The more complex packages include:

  • Professional Edition ($65 per user per month) offers email marketing, sales forecasts, real-time data sharing, full reporting and analytics, and custom dashboards.
  • Enterprise Edition ($125 per user per month) and Unlimited Edition ($250 per user per month) are built for large businesses.

Why we like it: It’s the most comprehensive and well-renowned CRM program out there. There’s a reason companies of all sizes are users of the program and why Salesforce has the largest share of the market, at 16.1 percent, according to Gartner. It’s known for integrating well with other programs, and its popularity has made Salesforce a mainstay as employees change jobs and expect to see the CRM at their new employer.

Moreover, the company is known for keeping up with the times. The recently updated Salesforce Console is a multi-tab design to allow for working with several apps at the same time, so you can easily create, find and update records. Top-of-the-line social media integration with Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn allows for monitoring and responding to social media through the tool itself.

The downsides: You won’t be disappointed with Salesforce’s capabilities if you decide to go with its CRM, but as the most-expensive option on the market, you have to decide if it’s worth the premium. Budget-conscious companies will probably end up looking elsewhere.

Who it works best for: Salesforce is mainly aimed at larger businesses and their larger budgets. If cost is a deciding factor for you, Salesforce is not the way to go. If you’re projecting to significantly ramp up your business and sales management in the next few years, or are already a larger business, then Salesforce has the infrastructure, experience, and features that you may need.

The True Small Business Solution: Zoho CRM

  • Contact Management/Tracking: Missing elite features but includes everything small businesses need to run a successful CRM, 4/5
  • Ease of Use/Support System: Without the large staff of Salesforce, Zoho still has all the necessary tools for support, 4/5
  • Social Capabilities: Full social media engagement, 4.5/5
  • Price: Lowest prices while not sacrificing quality; available month-to-month or annually, 5/5
  • CreditDonkey score: 4.375/5

Whether you’re looking for a full-featured CRM or have a low budget, Zoho was created for you and your small business. While Zoho has been described by some, including Forbes, as the “poor man’s Salesforce,” others have embraced this more affordable option, and not just because of its attractive price tag. According to PCWorld, “it’s the closest to Salesforce in power and scope.”

Although it takes some time to learn Zoho’s system, it is completely customizable and laid out in an intuitive way. Once you understand the inner workings of Zoho, its drag-and-drop interface make using it a breeze. It’s not considered to have the most beautiful design by any means, but it gets the job done at an affordable price. Zoho particularly shines in managing the data from a sales perspective.

A free version, available for up to three users, is marketed as a CRM for entrepreneurs. If you’re willing to pay $12 per user per month, you can get the Standard Edition, with sales forecasting, reports, marketing campaigns, and email marketing. Reporting includes time-based reports that delve into time needed to cultivate sales with prospects, people-based reports that measure the effectiveness of each of your salespeople, and revenue-based reports to break down the profits and where they are coming from. Pay more with the Professional Edition at $20 per user per month and get full email integration and inventory management, or get all of that plus territory management and full help desk integration with the Enterprise Edition, which costs $35 per user per month.

Why we like it: Zoho’s selling point is that it is a good value for an affordable price. If your budget is small, you will still be able to get the job done with Zoho. It’s smoothly designed for efficiency and has a useful reporting system that you can use as is or customize.

You can also use Zoho to manage your inventory from beginning to end, before a sale and after a sale. And you can use it to easily buy products directly through the system, which can keep your suppliers nicely organized. Another neat feature is the Opportunity Tracking Tool, which gives you an overview of all sales activities so you know where all customers are in the sales cycle. It also allows you to view information on competitors.

The downsides: It doesn’t have all the added features of other CRM platforms, such as Salesforce and SugarCRM. If your business is looking for a variety of applications or very specific ones, then you may want to look in another direction.

If Zoho is the option that fits your needs and budget, be aware its marketplace is a little light, so you will have to use the developer API to build in other applications to customize it exactly how you want. This may or may not be a downside, depending on the capabilities of your business.

It will also take a little time to get up to speed if you or your staff do not have experience working with a CRM. “To get the most out of it, you need to spend plenty of time setting it up,” according to PC Magazine.

Who it works best for: Zoho is best for the smallest of businesses - those budget-conscious companies where only a few employees will be using it. It has all of the main features a small business needs to level the playing field with big-budget competitors, including strong design, effective reporting, inventory management, mobile access, social media capabilities, and solid support.

Solid Middle-Ground Program: SugarCRM

  • Contact Management/Tracking: Offers most of the necessary features but missing some features available in other programs, 4/5
  • Ease of Use/Support System: Support system in place but varies according to how much you pay, 3.5/5
  • Social Capabilities: Full social media integration, 5/5
  • Price: Not as expensive as Salesforce per user per month, but requires minimum commitment of five users and an annual subscription, 3.5/5
  • CreditDonkey score: 4/5

SugarCRM is a solid option that fits nicely between the options offered by Zoho and Salesforce. Built on an open-source platform that allows for customization, this CRM option includes sales and marketing solutions, such as sales collaboration, order tracking, and generation of sales quotes. SugarCRM is able to store a lot of information, allowing for the creation of in-depth reports such as marketing reports to measure the effectiveness of campaigns, customer reports to monitor how effectively your team handles issues with customers, and profile reports to gain a better understanding of your customers.

Moreover, SugarCRM is considered to be very intuitive and easy to pick up for new CRM users and veterans of other programs alike. It does so without cluttering up the interface with nonsense. P.J. Connolly raved about this fact in his review of the software for eWeek: “It gives users the information they need to chase opportunities, close deals, and service customers, without fuss or muss,” he wrote.

Further, SugarCRM provides wizards for many of the processes in the software for easier creation of reports and campaigns. The wizards also allow for drag-and-drop features for many tasks, making it quick and easy to use.

The Professional Edition of SugarCRM costs $35 per user per month. This entry-level edition offers all basic necessary features, including sales automation, reporting, dashboards, mobile use and the option between cloud or on-premise deployment. If you’re able to spend more, SugarCRM also offers an Enterprise Edition for $60 per user per month; it includes an option to implement Sugar Private Cloud, providing faster access and a separate dedicated database for each customer who uses it. The top-of-the-line Ultimate Edition costs $150 per user per month and gives you 24/7 customer support, an assigned account manager and automatically includes Sugar Private Cloud.

Why we like it: SugarCRM is very flexible and user-friendly. Its ease of use is helped with the wizards and drag-and-drop abilities. SugarCRM also recently updated its interface to streamline how users navigate the program. If you have the manpower for customization, SugarCRM can be built any way you need through the open-source platform.

The downsides: SugarCRM lacks some tools available in other programs, including email marketing campaigns and the ability to track competitors. You also can’t connect via telephone directly within the application, an option that’s available in many other CRM programs. You can still input notes from calls into the program afterwards.

You also do not have the option of a free tier, as you do in other CRM programs, but you do have the option of a seven-day trial period.

Who it works best for: It’s really a middle-ground option. If you don’t quite have the budget to splurge on Salesforce but also want a little more than what Zoho offers, SugarCRM hits that sweet spot in between. If having your CRM tool hosted in-house, rather than in the cloud, is a necessity, this is also the way to go.

Other Options

Although it is not as fully integrated and powerful as the options mentioned above, if managing social media interactions is your main, or only, concern, then Batchbook is a strong and affordable contender.

Insightly is an affordable CRM in a similar price range to Zoho, but it is not nearly as strong as Zoho when it comes to reporting features. When your only concerns are affordability and simplicity, Insightly is a strong option, but it does not go beyond basic CRM features.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM
For businesses that heavily rely on Microsoft’s software offerings, Dynamics is a logical option for complete software integration, but it is very pricey. It’s in a similar price range to Salesforce, but its lowest price point is $65 per user per month. It’s geared towards larger businesses that need enterprise-style features rather than small businesses. If you’re looking into Salesforce and have a love or reliance on Microsoft’s other products, it’s worth a look. If not, look elsewhere.

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