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How to choose the best CRM for your business needs

By Sarah Olson, Senior associate, content marketing

Published March 31, 2020
Last updated July 14, 2020

If you asked someone 30 years ago what customer relationship management (CRM) meant, you’d get a very different answer than if you asked that question today.

Back then, says Jon Aniano, vice president of product at Zendesk, CRM was a process for tracking sales. It was simply a way for your sales team to get visibility into their sales pipeline and understand how the business might be doing over the next quarter, next month, next year. There was little to be said about customers or relationships, ironically.

Today, smart business leaders know that relationships are the business, and CRM software is the tool that allows you to manage, measure, and grow those relationships at scale.

“The new world of CRM is not built just for salespeople—it’s built for the customer, and it’s built for customer experience,” says Aniano.

So, given these high stakes, how do you choose the right CRM software for your business?

The vetting process for a CRM solution can be intimidating. You want to choose CRM software that’s powerful enough to drive your customer relationships forward, but at the same time, you have your own unique business environment to consider. You have internal stakeholders, existing software infrastructure, and operational complexities that will impact your CRM decision. Most businesses donʼt have the time or resources to build a custom CRM, so that means you՚re going to be looking for CRM software from an external partner.

Ultimately, your CRM software should meet your needs, not the other way around. Every business is going to have different requirements, but if you need advice on how to choose a CRM, here are a few factors to consider:

1. Your customer experience

The goal of CRM is to improve the customer experience, so you have to know what kind of experience you’re trying to create, Aniano says. Every business is different, so you should have a clear sense of how sales reps, marketing, and customer service need to operate in order to deliver the best possible experience for your customers. You also need to consider your customers’ needs and preferences because these will influence the customer relationship. Customers are going to come to you from many different channels—they might fill out a form on your website, send you an email, message you on social media—so you want to have a CRM that is ready and able to handle customer interactions wherever they show up.

2. Your pain points

What are the pain points or roadblocks that keep you from providing the best experience for your customers? If you have existing tools, what are some of your biggest challenges? These are the problems you should be trying to solve when choosing a CRM platform, whether you’re doing it for the first time or switching to a different platform. Ask your sales, marketing, and support teams, and chances are they’ll be able to name at least a few grievances. Make sure key stakeholders—the people who will use the software every day—are given the opportunity to share their input before you start vetting CRM tools. Your sales reps, marketing staff, and support agents know your product (and your customers) better than anyone, and their feedback can be illuminating. They should also be invited to weigh in on CRM features and functionality in the trial phase before a vendor is selected. “The best CRM implementation starts not with a purchase but with an open ear and open mind,” Aniano says.

3. Your existing software

A CRM tool is probably not the first software solution you’re going to adopt as a business, so it’s important to make sure your CRM platform can integrate with the other tools you already depend on. You probably already have an accounting system or order-tracking system. Your CRM solution needs to be flexible enough that it can be integrated with your existing platforms. It should also be easy to add new apps and integrations as you continue to expand your software ecosystem over time. This is especially important for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) that may not have the time or resources to do the heavy lifting when it comes to integrations, says Aniano.

4. Your long-term vision

When choosing a CRM, you should look for a solution that’s scalable over time. While you might be looking for a low-cost option to start, you could outgrow the software in just a few years. It’s important to balance your current needs with your long-term vision. You know what kind of business you want to be, so choose CRM software that has the functionality to be able to grow with you as your work toward your goals.

5. Your workflow

CRM software should make your life easier. It should be simple and easy to use—that’s a given—and it should help you do your job more efficiently. CRM software can be a powerful workflow engine, surfacing the right customer information at the right time to the right person. For example, you might learn that your customers have particular engagement patterns, and if somebody slips outside of those engagement patterns, they may need a little love or an extra nudge from you and your brand. The right CRM can be configured to deliver these nudges automatically, saving you time, effort, and probably some exasperated sighing.

6.Your CRM implementation

When looking for a cloud-based CRM, you need to evaluate both the product and the implementation process. While on-premise CRM software is an option, it tends to have steeper costs in terms of implementation and ongoing maintenance. When you work with a software vendor, you can get your system up and running much more quickly. Before you choose a partner, you should be able to sign up for a trial of the product and see how it integrates with your existing software platforms and business processes. Your CRM vendor should also have a support team that can help answer questions as you prepare for implementation. If you aren’t getting good customer service from your CRM vendor in the trial phase, chances are you won’t get it down the road. “The best indicator of CRM success is day one to day five as you go through that trial,” Aniano says.

The question of how to choose a CRM is not necessarily an easy one. It requires input from sales, marketing, customer service, and likely many other stakeholders. You are probably looking at a laundry list of CRM features, while also considering your overarching CRM strategy and trying find a solution that can propel your organization away from the CRM of 30 years ago and toward the future of good CRM—a future in which CRM systems are embraced as a vehicle for the customer experience, stewarding the customer relationship above all else.