February 23, 2015

ProTips: How to Compare CRM Software Like an Expert

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is one of the most widely-adopted solutions in business technology. That’s because every company, at some stage, is supported by customers, and smart businesses need efficient, innovative ways to get the most out of relationships with those customers. According to recent estimates, over 60 percent of service businesses now use CRM systems.

Although your need for a CRM system may be perfectly clear, the buying decision itself is far from straightforward. There are hundreds of different products on the market that vary by scale, pricing, features, and industry use.

You probably have a few ideas about what tools your business needs and how much you want to pay. You may even have some specific vendors in mind. That’s a great start, but when the time comes to make a decision, you’ll need to be able to justify your investment with cold, hard facts.

Teach a man to fish

We specialize in recommending IT solutions to businesses. But we also understand the importance of discovery. Why just tell you which CRM to buy when we could teach you how to compare CRM software like a pro? In this article, we’re giving you an inside look at how a TechnologyAdvice analyst thinks. (For a concrete example, check out this comparison of Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics CRM we did in-house). 

Here are five key areas we examine when evaluating CRM solutions (hint: they’re the same ones you should also evaluate):  

1. Features

Features don’t necessarily make or break a CRM, but they do bear heavily on how useful it will be. The tricky part of features evaluation is finding out what the features actually are and what they do. Unfortunately, not all CRM vendors are forthright about their products. For any given industry-standard feature (e.g. reporting and analytics), there can be dozens of different names and descriptions (e.g., FancyCRM custom reports give you a real-time, centralized view of the entire universe). In order to get past this:

  • Dig deeper than the marketing promises: try to find a downloadable data sheet or a features checklist that corresponds with pricing.
  • Read descriptions of each feature to make sure they aren’t being mislabeled or falsely diversified.
  • Pay careful attention to which features are included in the base price (“out-of-the-box”), and which require add-ons or extra subscriptions.   
  • Find out what native integrations the system has. “Native” means the CRM is prebuilt to sync with a given third-party add-on without manual API configuration. If there are productivity tools or programs your business relies on for core operations, this is an important step. You don’t want a CRM that doesn’t play nice with your existing workflows.
  • Does the system have any unique capabilities that set it apart from other products, like an integrated project management module, for example?

2. Market presence

Popularity doesn’t constitute value; there are plenty of lesser-known CRMs that offer reliable functionality and a solid user experience. But you should be cautious about considering new, unestablished vendors, as they don’t have the proven reputation or longevity of some of their competitors. You don’t want to sign a contract only to see the vendor discontinue support a year later.

Strong market presence usually correlates with sustained success in customer support and system performance. There are other benefits to choosing a vendor with strong market presence, such as more native integrations and access to online user support communities.

Here are some easy ways to measure market presence:

  • Read user reviews and ratings on third-party sites: these will give you both a quantitative and qualitative understanding of how a CRM product is fulfilling its promises.
  • Do research on the vendor’s company size and history. Was the company founded last month? Or does it have a longstanding global presence?
  • See what kind of social media following the company has. While this is somewhat superficial, it can serve as a rough indicator of how many people trust or appreciate the brand (Salesforce, for example, has over 200,000 Twitter followers and 400,000 Facebook likes).

3. Support

Even if a CRM has been rated excellent by thousands of users, there will come a time when you need support—anything ranging from migration services to outage issues or help setting up user permissions. Never take support availability for granted; some smaller vendors may offer only limited resources for issue resolution, such as an online ticketing system with no response time assurance. Some larger vendors, on the other hand, are known to charge for support “packages,” meaning if you don’t pay extra, you may have a harder time getting help, or have to turn to third-party forums.

Decide what support channels are most efficient for your business and try to find a CRM that offers them (e.g. a 24/7 phone line, instant chat, email, a user forum, a dedicated social media support page).  Too see which solutions rank highest in customer service and support, check out our 2014 CRM Market Index

4. Pricing

The monthly subscription fee or upfront license fee is usually not the only charge you’ll incur. Read the fine print (in the pricing datasheet or software contract) to check for other fees, like data import fees, installation fees, and charges for additional users or storage. If you’re considering a modular system (separately-billed functional subsets), figure out which modules and add-ons you’ll need to purchase to build your system, and then calculate the total cost of ownership. Cheaper upfront subscription cost doesn’t always mean cheaper cost of ownership.  

5. Product demo

In addition to having the right features and a reliability, it’s important to test out a CRM’s user experience and interface, which requires using the software to firsthand. Most vendors will provide a software demo or even a free trial upon request, but video walkthroughs can also be a great resource. You wouldn’t buy a car before you test drove it, and you shouldn’t buy a CRM without demoing the actual product. When doing so, here are some questions to ask:

  • How do the dashboards look?
  • Are the menus easy to find and navigate through?
  • Does the program quickly return requests and queries, or is it slow and confusing?
  • Can you customize the layout and make it unique to your brand?

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If you haven’t already, use these assessments to create a shortlist of CRMs for final consideration—usually three or four is a manageable number. At that point, your findings should make the front-runner clear, and your decision will be determined by which standards are top-priority for your business. 

Seem like a lot of work? Good news: we’ve already done it all. At TechnologyAdvice.com., we’ve compiled features and product information, user reviews, video walkthroughs, and side-by-side comparisons for hundreds of business IT solutions, including CRM software. All you have to do is use the Product Selection Tool or talk to one of our experts about your priorities, and we’ll give you a list of the best CRMs for your business.

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