Hiring and Growth

These Are the Best CRM Tools, According to 250+ Small Business Owners

Kinjal Dagli Shah Freelance writer and journalist 
The Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners in 2018

We asked over 250 small business owners about the tech tools they swear by. Based on 500-plus hours of research, here is our curated list of the best apps and software for tiny companies—as told to us by real small business owners.


CRM software is like a wizard Rolodex. It stands for customer relationship management, and helps businesses keep track of all the big and small ways they talk to customers. (Think email, text, chatting at the counter, carrier pigeon—you name it.)

Our research found that small business owners use a grab bag of tools that aren’t specifically called “CRM” but still help them manage their outbound communications.

Here are the top tools small business owners use to track all the ways they talk to customers.

The winner: Salesforce

Salesforce _ Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners

One out of three business owners surveyed use Salesforce, with 80 percent saying they would recommend it to other entrepreneurs. Salesforce is a customizable CRM platform that gives users a glimpse into their customer information and activity through dashboards and reports.

Why business owners recommend it

  • It’s the main player in the CRM space. Business owners like that Salesforce is a recognizable name in CRM software. Because of that, some respondents felt more confident going with Salesforce because they believed it could support their business as their sales needs get more intense. “I know I’ll be taken care of with Salesforce, even if it costs more,” says one respondent.
  • You can integrate with a ton of apps. Through the AppExchange, you can make Salesforce endlessly usable with their selection of apps that integrate instantly. The app store includes loads of third-party apps that many small businesses already use, like Xero, MailChimp, and Slack.
  • It has email tracking. The email widget, which shows when a recipient views your email, is extremely useful to business owners. “It can be a powerful tool for sales,” says one respondent, “because you know what stage customers are in and when you last talked to them.”
  • It’s easily expandable. Users like it because it’s easy for businesses to build up their Salesforce system as and when they need it. However, many owners caution that you may need to hire a Salesforce developer to do this, depending on your needs.   

Things to consider

  • It’s not the cheapest option. “It isn’t exactly a budget CRM,” says one survey respondent. The entry-level plan only provides support for up to five users at a time, so companies with bigger teams need to upgrade to the next tier.
  • It can be customized, but it’s hard. It can be tricky and expensive to customize, say a few other survey respondents. You can send emails, but the number is limited—and you can’t send out mass emails, which some small businesses see as a big downside.
  • The tutorials require time to understand. The online teaching tools, like Trailhead, can be difficult to follow, especially if you’re in a time crunch. So be prepared to spend some time learning how to use the platform—or hire someone who already knows what to do.
  • Contracts are confusing. Users complain about a lack of clarity around what’s included and what will cost extra in their subscriptions.

Price

  • The basic option, Lightning Essentials, supports up to five users, while the next level up supports unlimited users and includes additional features like sales forecasting and extra insights.
PlanPrice
Lightning Essentials$25 per user, per month
Lightning Professional$75 per user, per month
Lightning Enterprise$150 per user, per month
Lightning Unlimited$300 per user, per month

Best for business owners that crave more customization: SugarCRM

SugarCRM_ Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners

Next up is SugarCRM. Fourteen percent of the business owners we surveyed use SugarCRM, with over 70 percent of those users saying they would recommend it to other owners.

Why business owners recommend it

  • It’s easy to do everything customer-related within the platform. The business owners we talked to appreciated how all the customer interactions are grouped and easily accessible. Each customer gets their own database, unlike Salesforce, which has a single database for all customers. Users get alerts for when their next customer contact is, along with the ability to call or email customers right from SugarCRM, thanks to its integrations.
  • You can use it on mobile (for free). SugarCRM is web-based, so you can access it on any device as long as you’re connected to the internet. You can also enter data on your phone for free, while other services charge more for this feature.
  • It has more integrations than Salesforce. SugarCRM’s app store, SugarExchange, has over 250 apps in their storefront. On the flipside, the Salesforce AppExchange has over 5,000 apps.

Things to consider

  • You need a developer to access all the features. Similar to Salesforce, SugarCRM requires an engineer to build out all the features. It’s open source, so the upside is that you can do basically anything you want with the tool (if you know how to code).
  • It’s behind the competition, design and speed-wise. While simple and functional, the interface can be a bit slow, and the case management tools are “a little dated” according to one respondent.
  • You need at least 10 users to start. The 10-user minimum is a downside for some smaller businesses.

Price

  • SugarCRM is billed annually and requires a minimum of 10 users. So for the basic plan, Sugar Professional, it starts at $4,800 a year.
EditionPrice
Sugar Professional$40 per user, per month
Sugar Enterprise$65 per user, per month
Sugar Ultimate$150 per user, per month

Best for budget-savvy business owners: Pipedrive

Pipedrive _ Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners

While only five percent of respondents currently use Pipedrive, 100 percent of those users say they would recommend the platform to others.

Why business owners recommend it

  • It’s perfect if all you want help with is following up with clients. Pipedrive is a solid option if your sales needs aren’t huge. “I use Pipedrive and it works for us because of its simplicity,” says Kenny Tjay, owner of Nevada-based production company, Indiemarch Film. “We don’t do a lot with our CRM, only follow up with clients. It’s cheap and affordable if you don’t need all the bells and whistles.”
  • The visuals make it easy to track where leads are. The platform lets you move contacts from different stages in the pipeline with drag-and-drop functionality, making it “stupid easy” to track where leads are, says Tjay. The bold colors also make the important data points pop in the dashboard, like new deals, won deals, and lost deals.
  • There aren’t any contracts. No contracts make it less stressful for business owners to give the tool a go; you’re not locked in if it doesn’t work for your sales needs.

Things to consider

  • The reports aren’t as sophisticated compared to its competitors. Pipedrive doesn’t offer the sophisticated data collection features that CRM tools like Salesforce and Insightly do. However, Pipedrive can help business owners visualize pipeline and sales performance, along with a breakdown of all the activities (like emails sent).
  • It has limited functionality for a CRM software. For instance, it doesn’t have a desktop software component, and the features reduce significantly for users who don’t have admin accounts. You also can’t make calls through Pipedrive like you can with SugarCRM.
  • The trial period is on the short side. Pipedrive offers a 14-day free trial period compared with the standard 30 days offered by other CRM software companies.

Price

  • The basic plan is Silver, while Gold, the next one up, includes email tracking and templates. The Pipedrive plans are 17 percent cheaper if you get billed annually.
PlanPrice if billed annuallyPrice if billed monthly
Silver$12.50 per user, per month$15 per user, per month
Gold$24.20 per user, per month$29 per user, per month
Platinum$49.17 per user, per month$59 per user, per month

Best for business owners with basic CRM needs: Airtable

Airtable _ Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners

The unconventional pick? Airtable. For Maia Bittner, the CEO of Pinch, Airtable’s spreadsheet-database hybrid is the perfect CRM tool for collecting customer contact information—even though it’s typically used for project management tasks.

Why business owners recommend it

  • It’s easy to pick up if you have experience with spreadsheets. “It’s the best spreadsheet you’ve ever seen,” says Bittner. “It helps us track customers and their statuses, along with a variety of operational processes.” For many business owners, it’s easy to go from using a standard Excel or Google Sheets to Airtable.
  • It’s designed for highly collaborative teams. It’s easy to link entries in the same base together and embed media files into specific cells so you can access them throughout the project. Plus, any changes someone makes are visible to the whole team—but you can also set individual views. For example, each project can be viewed in a way that only presents the information absolutely necessary for the viewer—without having to delete anything.
  • You can copy the Airtables that bigger companies use. Airtable Universe is like a next-level help center that lets you go into the Airtables that actual companies use and see why they’re using them in that way. You can also copy the bases directly and try them out for your business.

Things to consider

  • Excel nerds might not like the limited features. While different than Excel or Google Sheets, it doesn’t have some of their features, like multiple-line pasting or the ability to add formulas within a field. You also can’t link records across various projects, only from sheets that are in the same base.
  • You need to upgrade in order to fully take advantage of its functionality. The free version doesn’t come with personal views and only has 2GB of storage for attachments. If you’re serious about using it for CRM, you’ll most likely have to upgrade.

Price

  • Airtable offers a free plan with two-week revision and snapshot history, but limits you to 1,200 records per base. The upgraded Plus plan starts at $10 per user per month.
PlanPrice
Free$0 per user, per month
Plus$10 per user, per month
Pro$20 per user, per month
EnterpriseContact Airtable to get a quote

What you need from a CRM tool is basically a journal-spreadsheet mindmeld that gives you the most accurate snapshot of your relationships with customers and clients. Here are some questions to think about to help you pick the best CRM software—whether it’s called that or not.

  • Is it flexible enough to customize?
  • Does it play nicely with other applications?
  • Are upgrades available (and affordable)?
  • Can you and your team pick it up quickly?
Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners Pinterest Image

Updated: December 17, 2019

Kinjal Dagli Shah
Kinjal Dagli Shah Kinjal Dagli Shah is a writer and journalist living in Toronto. She has worked in newsrooms in India, the US, and Canada over a span of 15 years and counting.

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