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The Best CRM

Last Updated November 16, 2020
Reading Times:
Summary only: 1 minute
Full guide: 13 minutes

Ratings Matrix

CRM
Ease of Use
Implementation Effort
Reports
Non-sales support
Data Portability
How Far Can You Get For Free
Affordability
SalesforceEssentials
Our take: For those experienced in it, Salesforce was the consensus pick. Everything integrates into Salesforce, and it has workflows or apps to handle any sales challenge. The tradeoff is that the platform is complex to the point where a veteran implementer or guided-setup is required to reap the benefits.
Hubspot
Our take: Hubspot is easy to set up. Founders were happy with it's UX and spoke warmly of it. Concerns about price jumps (even with a generous startup plan for years 1-3), gated features, discoverability, and some reported issues with sequence automation make us hesitate to recommend it.
Streak
Our take: We like Streak as a more general tool and it's the best in-Gmail experience we found for a CRM. It manages merges, templates, and repeatable actions elegantly. The lack of a separate app and mesh with Gmail can prove to be a distraction, and, for most teams, an organized spreadsheet then a different CRM will be the right choice.
Copper
Our take: A blend between a full-on CRM and a Gsuite app. Not our favorite UX for the standalone app or the integration, but a good compromise for teams that want both a robust CRM and an in-Gmail app.
Pipedrive
Our take: Pipedrive zeros in on automation and more pre-built stuff than Close. It's also more expensive once you factor in the higher tier price required for a dialer and more team management tools. Contacts in the app worked well, but the Gmail integration had some hiccups.
Close
Our take: Our recommendation with access to a dialer at the cheapest price point, a simple UI, and documentation. Close has a smaller app store than Pipedrive, but it covers the bases for many of the most common startup tools. A focus on the types of pre-built outreach and reports that will be valuable to small teams, and not many bells, make it the best choice for startup sales.
Zendesk Sell
Our take: Formerly BaseCRM, Sell has the bones of a quality CRM with all the required thinking around organization, documentation, and workflow. It felt polished in our short use, although we had some initial trouble with email integration. Still, distractions from upsells to other Zen-family products and a smaller set of integrations than Pipedrive or Close make us shy from a recommendation.

Our recommendation

The exact bundle of communication/project management tools and customer database that keeps your team selling AND mixes-in with the rest of your ops stack is a sweet spot that Close comes closest to for most startups. The focus on managing higher-touch B2B sales will serve most teams well. The UX is simpler than other listed tools, and it's a good map to milling through a contact list in a spreadsheetIf this is the only thing you're after, there's an update for two other CRMs that fall into the "simple" category as well as a review of dialers in the pipeline. If you have no sales setup, we'd recommend a spreadsheet + mail merge[^article to come] to start, then a move to Close.

Testing and Scope

For each CRMExcept for Streak we signed up for free trials, most 14-days some multiple times, of the mid-tier [usually labeled "professional" or "business"] product. Where available, we signed-up for "Startup" tiers of products when these were marketed with deals or discounts. We then spent time familiarizing ourselves with onboarding processes, sample content, setup recommendations, email integration, deal pipeline customization, and template setup. We also imported a set of contacts/prospects into each CRM. We mocked our "sales process" that focused on contributor outreach, that is a need to talk to, solicit feedback from, and in some cases hire contributors for Satchel. We felt this was a fair proxy for a full-fledged sales effort that would touch on most of the CRMs capabilities. We understand this misses out on testing some of the long term compounding benefits of sharing contacts, communicating in-app, sharing notes, and improving sales observability with this strategy. To counterbalance this, we doubled down on user interviews to try and get more insight into longer-term, and likely more important, benefits of CRM use.

We managed the imported contacts through the CRM — moved them through a funnel, and used the built-in email platform or integrations when available. We did not directly test phone integrations and managed our dialers separately. Sales CRMs can also extend to track potential customers from product discovery to final purchase decisions. For teams that do web-only outreach or those interested in single-view-of-the-customer functionality, we'll write a separate article on tools to consolidate customer views — using a tool like Troops or Windsor.io — soon.

The Salesforce Question

Teams that offered feedback on a draft of this article mentioned that there wasn't much here for experienced teams. Supposed you've gone out and read some good startup sales booksThe Sales Acceleration Formula, High Growth Handbook, Spin Selling, Monetizing Innovation, Impossible to Inevitable, and Lean B2B are among some of the better ones we've read and given some serious thought to your company's circumstances for growth. In that case, it's unlikely that you'll find any novel conclusions other than, for some, our Close recommendation.

That said, some founders we spoke to — notably those with the most growth and sales experience — recommend Salesforce to support a world-class outreach team. They argued Salesforce, combined with its app marketplace, provides pre-built sales business logic for almost every CRM use case under the sun and that fast-growing teams will be more comfortable with it. The tradeoff is that setup costs are higher, but the payoff should be worthwhile for completeness of the integrations, the ecosystem, and the thick market for further customizable development on the platform.

This is good advice if you have a veteran Salesforce implementer or user, but for teams that are less certain of what the future holds — and don't anticipate growth in sales team headcount soon — we still recommend Close. We weren't able to identify many use cases for startups where Salesforce's platform adds enough flexibility at a price that justifies the added friction and maintenance cost.[The most-cited example for something the Salesforce platform can tackle that others can't was sales to both sides of a two-sided marketplace — the platform gives developers more control over the data structures that model the sales process. Surprisingly, this use case was harder to model in other CRMs than we thought it'd be.] Ultimately, we don't recommend Salesforce to most startups unless they have a tailored use case they know is supported by the app ecosystem, significant expectations for short-medium term growth,Or to paraphrase one founder "you don't want your newly hired VP of sales to have to implement a new CRM when your hockey-stick growth quarter is happening" or at least one team member who can manage setup and management.

We'll also revisit Salesforce a few times as we work our way through the sales tool universe. The challenge of writing a review that covers everything in a sales stack (CRM, conferencing, dialer, email, playbook, billing) and another on marketing automation (setup, email infrastructure services, content writing) is something we're eager for. We'll come back and mark an updateA demerit for our writing KPIs if we change our minds after more reviews targeted at broader sales needs, but our best guess is that Close's single-mindedness will be more valuable as we re-examine CRMs once we've looked at the long tail of sales tools. If you're not a first-time founder skip straight to our section on Close.

For Newer Teams

If you have no prior sales system in place, build a set of sales spreadsheets. Once you have a handle on who you need to reach, when, and how to sell your product, use Close. Sales are different for everyone, but here's how to think about whether you need a CRM. First, don't be scared to set up sales in a spreadsheet when you're grinding out early customer calls. A good CRM channels your sales work in a way that reduces the friction of collaboration on deals and helps track team performance. So, the more mapping out of sales goals and objectives you do ahead of time, the more effective the CRM will be at scaling it out.

Once you have that done, the question of how to measure success in sales, i.e., what to track,More on this below can help you understand whether or not you need a CRM. If you find that your spreadsheet, a few templates, and a mail merge are enough to get new customers on to your product, then you might not need a CRM. If sales involves multiple plans, stakeholders, meetings, or team members then a CRM can probably help.

This all might seem a bit koanic, but your CRM setup every-day use should be fairly seamless. If you have trouble configuring the tools we described to match your sales there are a few options. First, contact the CRMs support experts/founders since they can often help. If that doesn't work, revisit how you think your customer makes decisions about your productOr perhaps take a step back and think some more about positioning, check with the CRM's support experts, or make sure you haven't aimed at the wrong intermediary metrics.

For Newer Teams II (Tips)

  • Scrutinize settings and setup defaults. Watch for tracking pixels, sometimes on by default, before sending emails. Be considerate of customers' feelings about privacy, but know that the notifications that will be available for most usersLook up disabling image autoload to prevent these in your own client are nice for peace of mind and follow-up. Also, Check for prescheduled emailing times[If you sign-up for a plan with automated email sequences this can be a concern].

  • Whatever your choice, ask the vendor how to set up the CRM and for advice on use for your specific use case. The information you're looking for often exists but is buried in content marketing blogs or documentation, and people who know the platform best can dig out what you need fast. For first-timers, the value around help with onboarding will be the highest.Don't get upsold on anything, though The founders of our recommended product, Close, seem to have a reputation for quality support and setup help, so if you're confused, reach out.

  • Break off customer outreach from your CRM. That is, leads should go into a CRM once they're qualified or a potential customer has expressed interest, and cold outreach canshould be managed in a separate app. Approaches for outreach and lead generation keep your CRM as the sales tool for the users you think you can best help. Focus on the customers that need to be managed on the CRM, rather than all contacts, to reduce unhelpful noise.

  • Again, make sure to set up your contacts in a spreadsheet first. Although all the CRMs will have manual options for adding in leads, import them from a CSV or tag contacts/emails.

For Newer Teams III (Metrics)

Metrics are a natural next consideration. Consensus advice from our research, with plenty of input from folks with AE/SDRAccount executives vs. sales development representatives which is the default delineation for sales roles for many startups backgrounds, is that the most important metrics are the length of your sales cycle[^Fom the qualification of a lead to opportunity to close, broken down into steps] by stage, conversion rates for different outreach methods, and new leads/lead quality for your funnel. If you keep track of these, you'll have a good start at a bootstrapped sales process.

Measurement of success rates by contact method is important, but don't let it slow down whoever books meetings on your team. For quotas, prefer meetings set over leads contacted since different teams have their own outreach strategies.This also has the sometimes positive effect of getting team members to try unconventional, but often successful, outreach to get to their quotas. Meetings or demos should be your focus rather than the volume of emails, calls, or texts.

General Recommendation: Close

Close best embodied the software philosophy startups will seek out when searching for a CRM — do sales well in one piece of software and integrate with other tools as needed. Close combines major channels for customer contact in one place and organizes all sales activity with a thoughtful onboarding process and pre-built reports. All of this matters because sales work is a bit easier in Close than in other CRMs we tested. It's fewer clicks and scans to understand what's going on, especially if you're a small team.

The lack of a Gmail extensionInstead it pulls in your email as do many other tools we reviewed felt conducive to sales and managing efforts within the CRM's bounds. Close's onboarding wasn't quite as slick as Hubspot or Streak, but that there's less to explain is part of why we believe it's the best CRM for startups' sales challenges.[^Note that to use some of Close's features, like the dialer, you'll have to install their desktop app for Mac or Windows.]

This isn't to say Close was without fault. We found ourselves digging through the documentation, however well-organized, much faster than in almost any other tool except for Zendesk. It's fine to learn this way if the answers are easy to find, but it felt like half the searches could have been avoided with more exposed buttons/selectors and fewer nested options menus. Also, service cancelation and data deletion after testing required a dreaded and poorly documented contact with the sales team, often a negative product signal.

For GSuite Specialists: Streak

Streak is an add-on that adds automation and tracking to Gmail and organizes an additional UI that doubles as an org-tool/CRM.We may re-review it later with other email organization tools like Superhuman We've used Streak for investor outreach, customer interviews, and sales and are happy to have them as an organization tool on top of one of the most popular email clients. The "box"-based interface still feels slower and harder to share than a manicured spreadsheet or Airtable, but it's polished, and — other than some occasional UI stutters — we saw nothing to suggest it can't scale to larger sales efforts. Streak's goal is to upgrade your email to fulfill a CRM's functions, from lead/opportunity management to plug-in dialers for contact sheets. It lives up to this ambition until sales get complicated enough that it requires multiple API integrations — i.e., with an in-house ERP system — or if you want a tool with more presets that handles sales email outside of your default client.

Most startups will still be best served by a spreadsheet. We chose to review Streak because it is a benchmark for a within-email-client sales tool. But after testing, and learning more about how teams organize their sales, we still think Close's all-in-one philosophy is the best fit for most startups. Because many of us spend a large chunk of our lives in Gmail, and Gsuite's email domain handling and service bundle is a deal for many startups, this is often the first stop for designing a sales workflow. If your team starts there and finds itself productive with tags and bundles of emails as a good-enough tracking unit, we'd still recommend kicking off a spreadsheet. Ultimately that spreadsheet will kick-off a full-CRM faster, a tradeoff we think is worth stepping out of the Gmail interface for.

Something that's been a consistent thread amongst startups we've interviewed is a desire to keep things underoptimized — shaggy — until they are certain they've hit product-market fit. Streak fits this category of tool more than Close since it provides a bundle of useful things that, at some point, you'll want to break into separate services.

Other Options

Almost everything reviewed was a good solution to tackling startup sales work. Pipedrive came closest to matching Close's ease of use and had a straightforward process for setup and email integration. The CRM had useful presets and our favorite onboarding short of just having it done for you. Still, Close comes out on top for better value and fewer bells and whistles. Close's bundle, notably at the "startup" price point, felt more appropriate to startup sales challenges, i.e., access to a dialer and SMS at lower price tiers vs. Pipedrive's web forms and lead generators.

Copper is a great in-betweener for teams that want a sales pane but with that Gsuite feel. We recommend Close over Copper because of a better user experience, the absence of a Gmail app, more straightforward onboarding, and a startup deal. Close again comes out on top as the tool most concerned with just-CRM functionality.

Hubspot had our favorite onboarding process and was flagged as easy to use by teams. Besides a gentle onramp, Hubspot offered clear triggers to integrate other tools — phone and email, and it felt in-line with the one-sales-tool that will be best suited for most startups. But, service complaints from teams that use it, challenges around discoverability, upsells into the company's marketing suite, and the potential for a big price jumpYes, even with the startup deal and the fact that Hubspot CRM is free without sequences and some reports make us hesitant to recommend Hubspot. Although Hubspot might be cheaper in year one, Close still offers a better value for teams thanks to more positive support reviews and an emphasis on just sales.

If you're unhappy with all of the above, try SugarCRM for a self-hosted solution or wait for our review of customer data aggregation tools where the primary purpose for outreach often isn't sales.

A Note on Deals

Except for Copper startup deals are available for all of the tools listed above. Additionally, Streak offers a lifetime discount for YC startups. Close, Hubspot, Zendesk, and Salesforce all offer first-year-off deals, with Close and Hubspot's being the best of the lot.

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