5 Best CRM Systems for Small Businesses (2017)

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Last July, I was at a sales training course in London when the course instructor asked me what CRM system Venture Harbour uses.

Embarrassingly, I answered “we don’t have a CRM”.

Update: Since writing this post, I’ve migrated almost all of our projects to use ActiveCampaign as a CRM. While their main offering is email marketing and automation, their CRM is one of the best I’ve seen, and have been very impressed using it.

Small business CRM system

For the next five minutes I had my arse kicked about how much money it must have been costing us. The thing is, I had tried.

Over the years I’d used Zoho, SugarCRM, WorkBooks, Salesforce, Pipedrive and countless others.

Maybe it’s just me, but using them felt so contrived. It was an effort to keep the CRM system up to date, and as such, I found myself visiting the CRM less and less each day until the inevitable happened; I canceled my account and went back to my blissful state of CRM-lessness.

With so many people raving about their CRM, I figured it must be something wrong with me – or my approach to implementing the CRM system. So, I went back to the drawing board.

Recommend a CRM Tweet

After the natural wave of self-promotional responses from CRM companies died down, I started to see the names of a few CRM systems pop up again and again.

Zoho CapsuleCRM recommendations

The five small business CRM systems that I want to compare in this post are:

Despite being the market leaders, I’m not going to talk about Salesforce, Microsoft, SAP, or any of the big guys. Their platforms are a long way from being intuitive, and for most small businesses they’re overkill.

Why have I chosen the five CRM systems above?

  • They all provide something unique. Yes, there are probably 50 CRM systems out there that we could compare, but most CRMs are just slightly cheaper copycat versions of each other. These ones all bring something to the table.
  • They’re powerful yet simple. Salesforce may be powerful, but it has a seriously steep and never ending learning curve. All of the CRMs above (maybe with the exception of Zoho) are beautifully intuitive while still very powerful.
  • They’re built for small businesses.
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What’s the best CRM system for small businesses?

Every small business has its own set of unique requirements and challenges. This makes it virtually impossible for a perfect ‘one size fits all’ CRM system to exist.

In this section, I’m going to walk through each of the five CRM system’s strengths and weaknesses.

To be clear, I’m not a customer of all five CRMs reviewed. I have used CapsuleCRM, Zoho, and Infusionsoft in depth, but I’ll be reviewing BaseCRM and Nimble from their free trial.

Infusionsoft

Probably my overall favourite. It’s a bit unfair to compare Infusionsoft with the other CRMs, as they’re so much more than a CRM system. Infusionsoft enables you to set up behaviour-triggered marketing campaigns to your CRM contacts.

For example, if someone in your CRM visits a product on your website but doesn’t add it to their shopping cart, an email can be automatically triggered asking if they need help.

Infusionsoft

We recently integrated Infusionsoft for one of our clients (I did a write-up here), and it’s been pretty transformational for them. Infusionsoft is not cheap (it starts at $199/month), but that’s hardly surprising considering that many businesses report their profits going through the roof after implementing it.

As I’ve written about them before, I don’t want to go into too much detail here. To fully understand the inner workings of Infusionsoft, I’d recommend taking a look at some of their demo videos here.

Base CRM

I heard about Base from a friend who seems to have a knack for recommending incredible underdog products.

This was no let down. Base is awesome.

Base is really strong in two areas; design and reporting.

Fortunately for them, these are two areas that virtually all other CRMs suck at. This is a bit of a paradox, considering how important design and reporting are for interpreting the effectiveness of sales.

Last year, I asked our sales director to prepare a top line summary of sales performance for the quarter. We were using a CRM called Pipedrive at the time. While it was a fairly okay CRM system, our sales director created a set of slides using data that he’d been gathering in Excel spreadsheets.

I asked why he didn’t just use screenshots of reports from Pipedrive. His response:

“The reports look nice, but they’re just vanity metrics. You’d get a headache just trying to figure out whether there was an actionable takeaway from them or not.”

This is, sadly, the case with a lot of CRMs.

Base is an exception. Looking through their reporting, it’s clear to see that their reports are focused on slapping you around the face with what is and isn’t working.

Base CRM Reporting

What we measure, we increase.

If you’re measuring the number of calls you make, you will just make more calls.

If, on the other hand, you’re measuring the conversion rate of those calls along with the use of different approaches, you’ll quickly learn how to make more sales with less calls. Given that time is everyone’s biggest limitation, we need to be extremely wise with what we focus on.

Reporting determines what we focus on.

As for other features, Base does really well. Their call tracking is a life saver (I hate manually entering data after a call), and they have a huge list of partner integrations, making it easy to sync contacts across multiple tools.

Curious about whether my experience with Base was a fluke, I read several other reviews on the net. The only negative thing I can find is that their pricing is a bit high compared to other CRM systems.

In my opinion, this is completely justified. I’d rather pay $15 per user for a CRM that sales love, than paying $12 per user for one that the sales team resent using.

All in all, I give Base a 5/5.

CapsuleCRM

When I asked for CRM recommendations on Twitter, there was a resounding vote for CapsuleCRM. At first, I was a big fan of Capsule as they integrated beautifully with other tools we were using.

When we sent a proposal via QuoteRoller, the contact was automatically added to the CRM. We also synced Capsule with Freshbooks, Google Apps, and various other SAAS tools we use.

This is an extremely underrated feature, as you’d be amazed at how many contacts can slip through the cracks. It’s also a massive time saver as it prevents having to enter the same contacts into five different places.

The larger your team, the more valuable these integrations are.

Capsule’s organisation system of cases and files was a little bit unintuitive to begin with. After figuring out an effective way to manage our contacts, using Capsule became quite effortless.

Now, we didn’t end up using Capsule for long. While the user interface was nice and everything did what it was supposed to do, there was something missing.

It’s hard to explain what the missing ingredient is, but my best guess is that it’s just not very inspiring.

When I use Infusionsoft, I get excited. It’s a really fun CRM to use because you’re constantly imagining the impact that your campaigns will have. Similarly, the way BaseCRM visualises sales data is really inspiring and motivating.

While CapsuleCRM did everything it should have, it just wasn’t sticky enough.

Zoho

Out of the five reviewed, Zoho is probably my least favourite due to the clunkiness of their design. I spent about an hour trying to love their service, but it just wasn’t a good fit.

That said, Zoho has 10 million users and gets a lot of great reviews from small business owners, so I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt.

Out of those reviewed, Zoho has been around the longest. While CRM is their core feature, they do enable everything from invoicing, to email marketing and help desk services. For some, this a nice touch. Being able to have everything in one place saves having to set up accounts in ten different places.

For me, though, I’d rather use Survey Monkey for surveys, Freshbooks for accounting, and GetResponse for email marketing.

The reason I didn’t gel with Zoho was similar to why I wasn’t a huge fan of CapsuleCRM. Their user interface feels like a relic of 1999. Learning and navigating their platform is a headache, and as you might expect, their reports are a complete headache to work with.

That said, it does everything a CRM should on paper, and it does them well. Like CapsuleCRM, my lack of love for them is based on an elusive lack of some X-factor.

The best way I can describe it is Zoho and CapsuleCRM feel like driving a Volkswagen, while Base is Porsche and Infusionsoft is a Ferrari.

What about Nimble?

Nimble

Nimble are a really interesting alternative to the more traditional CRMs reviewed above. The focus of Nimble seems to be on gathering social data, and ensuring that you have detailed information about your contacts wherever you go to contact them.

Social CRM is nothing new, but few do it well.

With their own social listening tool, Nimble pulls in social data from your prospects Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts. For a company like ours this is an awesome feature. For us, it’s really valuable to build relationships over platforms like Twitter with our prospects.

For some, though, I can see this being largely irrelevant.

What I do love about Nimble is their integration into the email inbox. For years, I’ve used a handy tool called Rapportive to display social media information on anyone who I’m emailing.

Nimble replaces Rapportive and combines social information with extra information on who else in the company has emailed them, what deals they’re involved in, and where they are in our funnel.

Comparing the price of different small business CRM systems:

Most CRM systems have a tier-based per month per user pricing system, making it difficult to objectively compare how much a CRM will cost as you require more users.

As you’ll see below, some options are more cost effective with less users, while others are the opposite.

Cost for 3 users:
Infusionsoft – $199/month (+$1,999 one-off kickstart fee)
CapsuleCRM – $36/month
Zoho – $0
BaseCRM – $45/month
Nimble – $45/month

Cost for 5 users:
Infusionsoft – $379/month (+$1,999 one-off kickstart fee)
CapsuleCRM – $60/month
Zoho – $60/month
BaseCRM – $75/month
Nimble – $75/month

Cost for 30 users:
Infusionsoft – Quote on request
CapsuleCRM – $360/month
Zoho – $600/month
BaseCRM – $1,350 / month
Nimble – $450/month

Conclusion

One man’s medicine is another man’s poison. As such, there’s no point trying to conclude which CRM is best for small businesses.

That said, I’ve done my best to try and summarise which CRM system I think is best for different types of small businesses.

If you’re on online business, selling eCommerce products or information products, I cannot recommend Infusionsoft enough. Providing you’re already generating of revenue and can afford the $199 price tag, it’s probably one of the best investments you can make to systemise and scale your business.

If you’re in the consulting business like us, or have a multi-stage sales pipeline, I’d recommend BaseCRM.

If you rely heavily on using social media to identify, qualify, and convert leads, I’d look into considering Nimble.

I wasn’t a huge fan of CapsuleCRM or Zoho, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending them. But, it’s no harm giving them a try. These companies are all dynamic, and by the time you read this review they may be very different.

I’d love to hear about anyone’s experiences with different CRM systems in the comments below – both good and bad. If you work for one of the services, please add a disclaimer in your comment so that others are aware.

6 thoughts on “5 Best CRM Systems for Small Businesses (2017)

  1. Hello,

    I actually test drove many of these for a personal CRM (Imagine a 1 man SMB). I finally went for Upvise Pro, which is free for 3 and less people. Zoho was not flexible and had a limit on “records”, and its mobile app was sucky. Bitrix24 was interesting as well. As you saw, other than Zoho all others are expensive for personal CRM use

  2. Nice Review. I would like to recommend another CRM service from SenServe Limited. CRM Company which provides many features like stay in touch with colleagues and customers, manage tasks and contacts, track deals and team performance and many other useful features. You should check out their services also and should include it into the above list of CRM services.

  3. Thanks for the post James – really helpful. Just wondering why you decided on Active Campaign in the end instead of Infusionsoft as it looks like they are very similar! Was it price or functionality? For the record I implemented Infusionsoft for a client and although the product was (on paper) everything they wanted we had an issue where there was more than one address within the business and they wanted to send email marketing from these different addresses. Regrettably Infusionsoft only allows one Head office address that apparently ‘legally’ has to appear at the bottom of every email. This would be fine if you had two or three differently branded business streams that were all happily housed at the same address but if you specifically wanted to keep those business streams separate then there was no way round it. Anyway they stopped using it and they got their money back it was a shame though as a lot of energy and been put into the implementation. It just wasn’t clear at the pre-sales stage. Having said all that I want to recommend Infusionsoft to another client who wouldn’t have the multi site issue but just want to be sure there isn’t a better option out there that integrate marketing integration… Thx again…

  4. Great comparison! If your customer keys part of running an organization than managing them is foremost priority for any organization and CRM helps them in many ways. It keeps control of all your contacts and customers and manage them with very efficient way. Having a custom CRM in place can help a lots to meet business requirements and fulfil goal.

  5. Marcus:

    Thanks for your report. I have recently moved from an executive position at a large medical device organization attempting to implement SFDC to a consulting role. Yes, they let me go. I completely believe in CRM as I can go back to my days, years ago, as a sales representative using ACT and QwkiQuote for my needs to stay on top of my business. Now, as I look at consulting, I am considering what best fits my needs and I have landed on Zoho, Base and Nimble. I reviewed all the notes on Zoho and wanted to like it but somehow was left FLAT. Base was, and remains, intriguing because I am looking for something that utilizes Mac and IOS. I want something mobile and intuitive and I think this may be the best fit. That said, I have also looked into Nimble. I am liking what I’m seeing with the social networking connections so it may be between these two. I have also tried Nutshell, but I found that to be more challenging. Integrating my Apple platform and Exchange email is critical so I am eager to hear if you’ve found others that may be of interest to me. Thanks for any further information you may provide.

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