The best CRM software for every business in 2021

By Chris Hawkins - Last updated February 5, 2021 -

You are reading: Chapter 2 of 5

Selling services over Zoom. Buying software on your phone. Solving a support issue using live chat. Responding to a purchase survey by email. Interactions in business take many forms and occur on multiple channels. You have to be ready to meet your customers on their terms.

The right customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you stay connected with your customers and keep your team productive. To help in your quest to find CRM software that fits your business, we researched and tested over two dozen CRMs. And we selected the following 10 platforms we feel best represent companies, their customers, employees, and the potential use cases.

Click on any app to learn more about why we chose it, or keep reading for more context on CRMs.

The best CRM software

What makes a great CRM platform?

Every business has different criteria when it comes to CRMs. You have requirements for how a CRM should perform, and we tried to accommodate, selecting the elements we feel most universally represent those requirements:

  • Ease of use. While the "don't make me think" approach for websites might be too much to ask in CRMs, it's something to shoot for. If a user can log in the first time and get a good sense of how the basics work, mission accomplished—but not everything will be as breezy. Providing in-app directions, definitions, and help articles is a must and will help with the more advanced features. Regularly available support and onboarding options also contribute to a more productive user experience.
  • Contact management. Because the heart of your CRM, not to mention your business, is people, how you manage them is crucial. How well do you know them? How can you get to know them better? Where should you put your sales efforts? What's the best way to connect and stay in touch? A CRM's contact management features should align with your ideal buyers.
  • Customization. Your CRM should work like your business works. Company-specific terms, data requirements, processes, and the apps you use (see integrations below) are particular to how you operate. CRM software should accommodate your company as much as possible.
  • Reporting. If you don't measure it, you can't manage it. What do you want to measure? How about forecasting? Ideally, your CRM is able to report on any data point you can collect—sales by rep, sales cycle, average value, loss reasons, and dozens of others.
  • Automation and integrations. Automating processes will increase employee efficiency (and make them happier) and help ensure things like communication don't fall through the cracks. No CRM does it all. A healthy selection of third-party integrations can connect department functions and boost data collection power, creating a more complete customer profile.

Best CRM for scaling up a business

Zoho CRM (Web, iOS, Android)

Whether you're a team of one or 100, Zoho CRM provides affordable plans that will grow with you. How affordable? Start with free for three users, followed by their small business-focused Bigin CRM ($7/mo/user ), and up to their CRM Plus ($50/mo/user) that combines sales, marketing, help desk, and other channels into one platform. To top it off, Zoho offers suites—Finance, Custom Apps, and Forms to name a few—for integration depending on which plan you have.

One standout quality of all Zoho's apps is how easy to use they are. And for this review, I'll focus on the CRM Plus as it best shows scalability potential. Each of this edition's built-in channels, such as projects, marketing, help desk, and social is accessed from the main CRM dashboard. To access settings for any one of these, click the settings icon and select the channel. To add social channels, for example, click Social in settings, then Social Channels, and pick the available channel—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram. I added my LinkedIn profile with a few clicks.

As your business needs change, you can change Zoho to accommodate. One example is Wizards, which lets you design the record creation process to make data collection contextual and more streamlined. So if you're creating a sales application, you can design the sequence of steps for each section of the process. The first step might be collecting basic demographics followed by financial info, which may have multiple sources. All of these potential sources can be button options that open to other screens. Select the source by clicking the button and another form screen opens to fill in. Think of it as a decision tree for gathering information.

Fast-growing businesses will appreciate the 360-degree view for every contact. In a contact record, you'll see all activities and touchpoints related to that person, including site visits, sales, social, help cases, emails, meetings, and campaigns among others. The "footprint" potential for any given contact is huge, helping you better understand how each person interacts with your company and providing a more complete picture when employees are making decisions.

Zoho includes one of the more comprehensive reporting features of all CRMs. Dozens of premade reports (Sales, Desk, Projects) can be configured to show a range of views (chart, table, tabular, and more), all of which can be customized. A nice feature is the comments sections, where you can have conversations about any of the reports. Campaigns and Social have their own reports section, while the Gamescope app lets you gamify sales using contests for leads converted, deals won, and emails sent. Who wouldn't want to earn badges for the Deal Champ with the striking cobra or the roaring lion Lead Champ?

With Zoho CRM's Zapier integrations, you can do things like add new Unbounce form submissions as leads, create contacts from Facebook Lead Ads, or take action in the other apps you use most.

Zoho CRM Price: Free for 3 users; from $7/month/user (Bigin)

Best customizable CRM

Salesforce Sales Cloud (Web, iOS, Android)

Salesforce Sales Cloud Flow Builder

Companies that need lots of flexibility in their CRM will want to consider Salesforce Sales Cloud. Between its own customization options and both internal ecosystem and third-party AppExchange, the options for creating a bespoke platform are nearly endless.

The Flow Builder lets you create custom process management automations. Click Flows in Settings, and select the type of flow you want to create. For example, a record-triggered flow lets you design what happens after a particular record (like a contact) is created. Using the visual builder, you can then add conditions—for example, contacts created only during a certain date range will be sent a follow-up email.

At the page level, Salesforce lets you control who has access to view and edit fields. So you may want to restrict employees, depending on their roles, from being able to see or edit fields in a contact record that isn't related to their job. This can be for security reasons and also to avoid integrity issues from employees who may not have the specific knowledge needed. Also at the field level, you can create your own help text explaining that field's meaning. For example, for a discount field, you might have an explanation that says: This is the maximum allowed for this account type. Manager approval needed for anything above. These instructions reinforce business practices and are good reminders, especially for newer employees.

The AppExchange provides hundreds of third-party integration options for both paid and free apps. You can search for available apps based on your software edition (professional, enterprise, etc.), category, prices, ratings, and languages. One thing in particular to check is compatibility of an app with your Salesforce edition. For example, integration with D&B Hoovers prospecting app requires Enterprise or above, while similar app ZoomInfo makes the Professional edition the minimum.

If you collect a data point, you can create a report for it in Salesforce. There are dozens of prebuilt reports for deals, activities, top accounts, win ratios, conversion rates, and anything else you could want to measure. And the bane of sales managers everywhere? Reps not updating their deals. With the Login Wall of Shame, you will know which reps aren't even logging in, let alone not making updates.

You can increase your capabilities even more with Salesforce's Zapier integrations. Get Slack notifications for new opportunities, add leads from form submissions, or anything else you can dream up.

Salesforce Sales Cloud Price: From $75/month/user

Best CRM for multi-channel communication

Bitrix24 (Web, iOS, Android)

Bitrix24 CRM dashboard

Remote working is here to stay. For those with dispersed, remote teams, Bitrix24's CRM provides multiple options for staying in touch, collaborating, and sharing information.

With too many features to mention here, we'll just say this app has full CRM, marketing automation, project management, and web design capabilities along with its many communication options. To start, you can create departments (e.g., marketing, sales, service) and add employees to each. Creating departments lets you then easily segment teams for workgroups, knowledge bases, and when communicating.

Workgroups are areas for individual employees, departments, or specified groups to collaborate on projects or ongoing work. Each one has its own tasks app, images, calendar, chat, and knowledge base (Wiki and custom options), so the work and progress of the group is shareable/viewable by all teammates. Knowledge bases, for example, are like mini-websites within your CRM, where users can create pages, post articles, message each other, and collaborate on projects and tasks.

The internal chat feature lets you message teammates individually, as groups, and by departments, with capacity for adding links, tagging, and recording and sending videos. To add a video, click Record Video in the chat window, wait five seconds, and recording will start automatically. Record and then click Stop and Use Video for it to populate in your chat message. You can also save the video to your Bitrix24 drive or other specified places such as Google Drive.

Video conferencing is a basic and easy-to-use channel with screen sharing, recording, and hand raising features. Copy your video link, and send to your attendees via chat using the quick link or using the internal invite message. Connecting your email account (Gmail, Outlook, iCloud, Office 365, and more) allows you to send and receive mail from contact records in the CRM and keeps a running history of messages.

Not to be forgotten is the telephone. Bitrix24 offers integration with over 70 VoIP providers such as RingCentral, Nextiva, and Vonage. And you can also rent a number and pay by-the-minute through Bitrix24.

All plans include unlimited contacts, deals, and companies. For managing contacts, Bitrix24 allows customizable fields and sections to let you capture data that works for your business. One unique feature is Profile, which shows the communication "load" produced by the contact (is your company spending a lot of time communicating with them) and all relevant data: value of deals, invoices paid, active invoices, conversion percentage, emails, and more.

Bitrix24 Price: Free for unlimited users and limited features; paid plans from $16.80/month for two users

Best easy-to-use CRM

Pipedrive (Web, iOS, Android)

Pipedrive screenshot

If you need an easy-to-use sales-focused CRM, the popular Pipedrive is a smart choice. While the platform offers plenty of flexibility, its singular goal is to help salespeople sell. You won't find other apps such as marketing or service features to distract you.

Pipedrive's UI is straightforward, with all menu items arranged on the left, a search box at the top, and an expandable menu on each page for quickly adding deals, activities, leads, etc. One of the menu items is your mailbox. Once your email provider is connected, you can email directly from the inbox or contact record, tracking opens and email history. You can also sync your Outlook or Google Calendar, managing your meeting availability within the app and creating a link to send to contacts. Another handy feature is Smart Contact Data, which pulls known social and work data for contacts with a single click.

To make calls from the app, you'll have to purchase blocks of call credits (you get five free hours each month), which go toward the by-the-minute charges accumulated each month. Calls can be made from the list view of People and from individual records and can be recorded. When you finish a call, click the outcome from a list, and move to the next one. All call activities are noted in a contact's timeline, including the recording.

Pipedrive offers a few sales-related add-ons: LeadBooster and Web Visitors. The first provides live chat, chatbot, forms, and prospecting capabilities, all of which can help reps connect with potential customers. Prospector provides data on companies and contacts, letting you search by size, industry, keyword, and other attributes that fit your target buyers. Using a tracker code pasted into your site's code, Web Visitors provides you with real-time data on the companies who visit and what pages they view. It will also identify specific visitors you already have in your system.

The Sales Assistant uses AI to make suggestions on what to prioritize throughout your day. And Workflow Automation has premade templates for sales tasks, such as follow-up emails and tasks. Some example automations include creating activities when a deal moves to a new stage, sending a Slack message to a sales manager, or scheduling a call.

Reports include forecasting, deal duration, conversion, won, and average value, while goals tracks activities and revenue each week. Customizable reporting lets you add conditions from each data field, so you can get as granular as you want. And there are standard and customizable dashboards for tracking all of the above. If you want to connect Pipedrive to other apps, the Marketplace offers about 200 third-party native integrations with aapps such as Zoom, Slack, Trello, and QuickBooks.

If you're looking for increased automation power, Pipedrive's Zapier integrations let you add new people to Mailchimp as subscribers and send Gmails when new deals are added to a stage, among many other possibilities.

Pipedrive Price: From $12.50/month/user

Best CRM for automating online transactions

Ontraport (Web, iOS, Android)

Ontraport screenshot

If your business sells online (products, services, memberships), Ontraport offers lots of features that can integrate the entire customer experience, from marketing to transactional sales/payment processing, cross-selling, and coupon codes, all the way to post-sale follow-up and nurturing.

Using Ontraport takes some getting used to because it's unlike most of the other CRMs reviewed here. Here's an example: when you click New Contact or New Deal, the entire screen pops up with dozens of fields and sections. You're not sure what you need to fill out, and there's no save button—just a back button to get out. Turns out you just need to type one piece of info (e.g., first name), hit the back button, and presto, a record is created.

This aside, you can see from a contact record the potential touchpoints the platform includes in its capabilities: campaign history and actions, purchase and membership history, credit card info, subscriptions, and coupons, as a start. From a contact, you can email, text, create tasks, and process a transaction with a credit card.

Setting up a payment gateway (e.g., Authorize.net, PayPal, Stripe) using one of their vendor integrations enables you to take payments manually and automatically. For example, Ontraport lets you create a customized membership site, accept payments, and deliver member content. With their eCommerce suite, you can sell physical and digital products using Ontraport's forms and web pages, enable payment plans, offer coupons, and manage transactions such as refunds and voids.

To attract customers, the marketing suite offers pre-built and custom automated campaigns. The builder uses a visual drag-and-drop editorm letting you set triggers, actions (emails, texts, postcards), and filters with "if/then" branching logic to tailor the customer's experience. All of your campaigns can then be tracked for stats, such as conversion rates, lifetime value, and the flow of contacts.

Besides payment gateways, other third-party integrations include eCommerce platforms (e.g., Shopify, WooCommerce), video, voice/text, forms, memberships, shipping fulfillment, webinars, and more. Reporting for sales is based primarily on eCommerce transactions: sales by product and by subscription to name a few. Dashboards include tracking for conversion rate, average time between two things happening, total value of something across contacts, and average value for a numeric across contacts.

Get more out of the software with Ontraport's Zapier integrations. Do things like add contacts to Ontraport from new WooCommerce sales orders or create contacts based on Typeform responses.

Ontraport Price: From $79/month/user

Best CRM for customer prospecting

Nimble (Web, iOS, Android)

Nimble social prospecting tools

With its Prospector engine, contact action lists, and social tracking feature, Nimble keeps prospecting sales teams organized and more efficient. On top of that, there's a playful quality to the UI that makes it enjoyable to use.

Nimble provides lots of instruction throughout the UI, especially when you first sign up, making it hard not to get started and up to speed quickly. The dashboard shows a helpful high-level snapshot of important daily reports, such as deals, tasks, activities, email tracking, and social engagement called Signals. The menu includes these same items when you're ready to dive in. If Nimble has a weakness, it would be its somewhat limited reporting capability, which includes forecasted funnel stages (dollars in each stage) and pipelines, deals won and lost, calling output, and activities.

The contacts screen's menu shows a list of action-oriented lists in various stages of contact: recently viewed, added, and contacted, marked important, and stay in touch. These provide a quick way to see who you need to contact or take action on throughout the day. For example, if your sales manager just passed over contacts from yesterday's webinar, go to the recently added tab, and from there you can segment into a more targeted list. Segment for title, city, keywords, influence groups, and many other attributes that let you find those most like your buyer personas.

When you add a contact, Nimble will show suggestions for LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, asking you to confirm the correct ones if there are multiple options; and it pulls in all related info, such as work experience. This info is then displayed in a Smart Summary providing a handy overview of your contact's bio, work, and areas of influence. Their social feeds will display in the record, letting you monitor and interact without leaving the screen. To get a view of all your social activities, Signals shows Twitter and Facebook streams for you and your contacts, including comments, mentions, likes, and any pending posts you've scheduled.

When clicked, the Prospector extension grabs details about the company and contacts in the sidebar whenever you visit a site. You'll see contact info, company insights (size, year founded, industries, keywords), and Twitter and Facebook profile info. With a click, you can add a company and see if any current contacts are linked to that company. And just like in contacts, all social activities will display in the record.

Nimble's Zapier integrations let you automatically turn new Twitter followers into Nimble contacts, send new contacts to Google Contacts, and anything else you need to do in the apps you use most.

Nimble Price: From $19/month/user with 25 Prospector credits/month ($10 per additional 100 credits)

Best CRM for sales management

Nutshell (Web, iOS, Android)

Nutshell CRM dashboard

Nutshell is a sales-focused CRM with features that will make the lives of sales managers and their reps easier and more productive. These features include highly-specific customizations to match how and who you sell to and reporting options to measure any data point.

As a manager, you have complete customization of the many notifications (e.g., new leads, watched leads, activities, tasks, mentions), so you can stay informed on your team's work. Customized pipelines let you set confidence percentages, days overdue in a deal stage, and automatic closings for overdue deals. Other helpful, company-specific features include fields for competitors, industries, and markets.

Creating territories for your team lets you assign and organize leads based on the geography assigned to your reps and can be created by area code, city, state, and postal code. So if Hondo is assigned to the South, I could automatically distribute all leads to him based on his defined territory. Multiply this by a handful of territories and hundreds of monthly leads. Lead distribution also works with industry, market, and sources.

When you add a contact, it will find the appropriate LinkedIn profile and link to it and other social accounts. It will also add your employer and pull in your job profile. Scheduling tasks and other activities let you @ team members. Nutshell's plans include unlimited contacts.

If you have multiple lines of business (e.g., products, services, reseller), you can create different pipelines for each based on your sales processes. Automatically assigning leads for each pipeline based on territory, market, etc. keeps your deals organized and on the screens of the right reps. For each stage of a pipeline, you can create tasks that need to be done as part of your sales process and schedule automated emails to follow up.

There's stock reporting for sales value, average value, losses, and new leads among others. Pull each of these by territory, assignee, or source. Forecasting is included for pipeline, quota, and projected sales. And if you want to measure data not in the prebuilt versions, custom reports provide a nearly infinite combination of filters gathered from the fields your team has completed.

Boost your business capabilities with Nutshell's Zapier integrations. You can do things like automatically creating Trello cards from Nutshell leads and adding people to Nutshell from new Mailchimp subscribers.

Nutshell Price: From $19/month/user

Best CRM for managing a business

Apptivo (Web, iOS, Android)

For companies that want to manage multiple business functions—sales, procurement, expenses, invoicing, marketing, contracts—with one app, Apptivo is a solid, inexpensive option. And though the UI feels a little dated compared to some of the other CRMs reviewed, it's highly customizable, so you can adapt it to how you do business.

Tailoring the homepage and six main apps might be the first place to start. Click Customize My Apps at the top, and then arrange the order of menu items or hide them all under a sandwich dropdown for a cleaner look. Each of the apps are then customizable for layout, fields, and sections. Just click Settings at the top, and a long list of options appears on the left side. A drag-and-drop widget lets you create the look for each app, including the number of columns for each section, adding data fields, tables, and the naming of all these.

Once you have contacts, customers, or companies created in the CRM, it's easy to associate these to other business functions. Click 360 View in the record to see what, if anything, it is already associated with, or select one and click Create. For example, pick Estimates, and all of the relevant terms for that customer will populate. If you've created services or products in Product Management, then it's easy to add line items and costs with a simple search. If not, add it on the fly in the estimate, and it will be included in your inventory with an auto-generated item number. You can also add a SKU, price, cost, sales commission, manufacturer, and inventory details to track supplies.

Then, with a few clicks, convert the estimate to an invoice, order, or project. When you're in the customer record, you can also always view or create available features from all the apps quickly. And in the record, you'll see related customers, contacts, and leads and be able to set appointments, tasks, email, and other actions.

The Supply Chain suite lets you add suppliers, manage orders and inventory, and process and track shipping. For orders, all required info such as shipping address, terms, contacts, and currency are auto-populated based on the customer's details. Create packing slips, choose type of shipping, and convert to an invoice with a few clicks. You can see all your shipped and orders awaiting shipment and other categories such as booked, closed, back order, and partially shipped.

Prebuilt sales reports include opportunities, funnels, contacts, activities, territories, and market, plus the ability to customize your own to capture any data point you're recording with fields. The Financials suite provides expense reports for employees, and you can track customer payments, receipts, and invoices, but there are no reporting capabilities. For that, you would have to integrate with a platform such as QuickBooks.

Apptivo Price: Free for 3 users; paid plans from $8/month/user

Best CRM for inside sales teams

Close (web, iOS, Android)

Close screenshot

Inside sales teams spend lots of time sifting through thousands of contacts, making calls, and sending email follow-ups. The easier it is to perform these core functions, the more productive they'll be. Close packages all of this in a CRM that makes communication uncomplicated and deciding who to contact as easy as clicking a button.

With all of the Close plans, you get a built-in phone with free monthly calling credits, texting, and email-sending right from the web app. Every plan except Starter includes unlimited contacts and unlimited custom fields. Phone plans are through Twilio, but setup and billing is done through your Close app to keep management simple. You can rent phone numbers ($1/month/number) and then pay outbound/inbound call rates ($0.013/min and $0.0085/min, respectively) or port an existing number with an existing plan. You can also add an existing number (e.g., mobile) to make outgoing calls.

It took me just 30 seconds to select a number and make my first call from the contact record I had previously created. Additional phone features include call recording, call coaching, and pre-recorded voicemail messages. Texting (separate rates apply) and emailing from the record were just as easy with a timeline recorded in real time, tracking all communications. An inbox displays all of your incoming calls, texts, emails, and tasks, and it lets you respond and filter based on Done and Future activities.

Smart Views show sales reps who to call and when to follow up. Some of the categories include leads to call, leads never called, and no contact in over 30 days. According to Close, the purpose of these lists are so you don't have to think: 1) Should I call this person? 2) What should I say? You set the parameters of the lists using statuses (e.g., in a trial), best times to call, and other filters that build only the most relevant leads.

Supercharge Close's capabilities with its Zapier integrations. Do things like automatically adding new Wufoo entries to Close as leads or posting Slack messages for new Close leads.

Close Price: From $21.25/month/user

Best CRM for Gmail power users

NetHunt CRM (Gmail, iOS, Android)

NetHunt CRM dashboard

NetHunt CRM is a CRM designed for Gmail, which means you manage contacts, deals, tasks, reports, and email campaigns right from your inbox. For users who already spend more time in Gmail than anywhere else and don't want to toggle between separate apps, NetHunt is the ideal CRM solution.

When you sign up, you're given the web app to work from; to get the inbox version, you'll need to download the Gmail extension. In a few clicks, the company's blue icon appears at the top-left to access settings, import data, and integrate with companies like Zapier. From settings, choose where you want NetHunt's features to appear in navigation—before or after your inbox. Here you'll find a customizable dashboard that shows activities, tasks, deal progress, and other functions. Below this are a deals list, Kanban pipelines, contacts, companies, tasks, campaigns, and reports.

To create a contact record, click the blue icon next to your email's name, click on the name that pops up, and that's it. If you want to add more details, tasks, or comments, or create a deal, click on the name again to open the record. To add custom fields or folders, click on the settings wheel next to the contact's name. Pipelines are customizable for stages, names, probabilities, and which details are visible for each card.

Finally, if you use LinkedIn for prospecting, NetHunt's (separate) extension lets you create contacts with a few clicks while you're viewing profiles. Contacts are then enriched with details such as social, email, phone, company, and position. Companies can also be added the same way. While prospecting, each profile will show whether they're already a CRM contact (blue icon) or not (white icon). Plus, details from the contact record, such as emails and tasks, show up in a sidebar on each LinkedIn profile.

You can do even more with NetHunt's Zapier integrations. Create records in NetHunt from new spreadsheet rows, or create to-do list tasks based on comments in NetHunt.

NetHunt CRM Price: From $24/month for one user

Header photo courtesy prettyinprint on Flickr.

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