Meet the Contenders
Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms track all customer interactions, which makes sales professionals more informed about what’s going on with any particular deal and therefore more efficient. That’s important no matter what size business you’re in; but CRMs also have a long track record of being complex to implement, difficult to learn, and even troublesome to add into the daily routine of your average sales pro. All that overhead means most CRM vendors haven’t made big inroads into the small business market. The cost, the learning curve, and particularly the software’s overall footprint just haven’t made sense for most small sales teams.
But all that is changing as CRM vendors, both established and new, have begun releasing platforms aimed specifically at small businesses and what they need. To give you a taste of how these small business CRMs stack up, we’ve chosen two of the best-known and most capable new releases from Salesforce and Zoho.
Salesforce Essentials, which starts at $25 per user per month, was designed as a small business CRM solution, but still carries much of the same look and feel as Salesforce’s hugely popular big business offering. But where the standard Salesforce Lightning CRM is aimed at large enterprises with lots of customization needs, Essentials seeks to attract entrepreneurs and smaller businesses with pared down capabilities that are easier to digest. This feature sub-set of the company’s larger product also helps ensure an easier upgrade path once the business is large enough to support it. Salesforce Essentials is also backed by the rest of Salesforce’s CRM muscle, including its huge app portfolio, its support engine, and a very large partner ecosystem. This latter benefit in particular should help Essentials address vertical and specialized small business needs quickly. Essentials is our Editors’ Choice pick for small business CRM.
Bigin by Zoho CRM (Bigin), which starts at $7 per user per month on an annual plan, is purpose-built for small companies and aims to fill the difficult void faced by organizations trying to move from a contact spreadsheet to their first real CRM. Zoho’s approach with Bigin is different from that of Salesforce Essentials, because it isn’t looking to give away any of the crown jewels included with its Editors’ Choice-winning Zoho CRM product. Instead, the Bigin platform is entirely its own framework designed simply to be friendly and easy enough so the product can be a fast asset to how a typical small business conducts sales.
Round 1: Plans and Pricing
Apptivo starts at $8 per user per month, while Freshsales‘ Blossom plan starts at $12 per user per month and even small-business-focused Pipedrive CRM starts at $12.50 per user per month. Bigin also offers a free tier, though this is for single users and is limited to 500 records, a single pipeline, three workflows, and one web form, though it also includes access to telephony as well as the Android and iOS mobile apps. Overall, a good starting point for solo-operator startups.
The $7 tier comes with built-in telephony, 50,000 records, 25 workflows, five web forms, IMAP-based email, multiple pipelines, mass email and insights reporting, customizable dashboards, and free phone support. That’s an impressive list and covers many features you might find lacking from even the more expensive players, though not from Salesforce Essentials.
Winner: Bigin by Zoho CRM Winner: Bigin by Zoho CRM
Round 2: Features and User Interface
Zendesk Sell, another entrant that’s similarly easy on the eyes and from a big-name vendor. It places Dashboard, Leads, Contacts, Deals, Calendar, Tasks, Communication, and Reports front and center. Bigin also manages to organize a lot of information on single screen and only Insightly CRM has managed to add a wider range of dashboards and visualizations; however Insightly CRM’s higher price makes it less attractive to smaller businesses.
Bigin’s very top column consists of a universal search field and tiny icons for Notifications, Signals, Create New Record, Settings, and User Menu that are always accessible in case you get lost. The app’s pipeline-focused approach to CRM spotlights its Deals view, which provides an updated overview of all the deals in the pipeline as well as their current status and financial information.
Below Contacts is Companies, which simply lists all the companies in the pipeline as well as contact and website information along with the company owner. Next is Products, which is a list of whatever your team is selling. This section makes it possible to import product lists from spreadsheets or create a product listing that includes key information, like the name, product code, category, unit price, description, and whether the product is active. The Activities section serves as a calendar of sorts and outlines tasks, events, and calls as these are generally the three most actionable components of a CRM.
While not as slick-looking as Bigin’s base view, the Salesforce Essentials dashboard is also well organized. But it has the additional benefit of being familiar to any sales staffer you may have hired with experience in Salesforce’s larger CRM platform (and these days that can cover a lot of people). This is by design as Salesforce wants its customers on the same interface as much as possible regardless of whether they’re Essentials or Lightning Professional subscribers.
The Essentials Home tab displays the news feed with updates and notes from other users as well as lists of pending tasks and scheduled activities. The bottom half of the screen shows a dashboard that you can customize via drag-and-drop. By default, you can see graphs showing your pipeline, number of open activities, Potential Revenue Source, and closed sales. The one downside of sharing user interfaces between the enterprise and small business products is that various Salesforce’s menu items will not apply to Essentials users, which could lead to confusion. That means some training time and therefore a longer implementation process.
Still, even though Salesforce Essentials presents a more traditional layout compared to some of the newer players in the small business CRM space, it’s a popular and highly familiar layout. Depending on which features your sales team needs, this not only helps with training, but likely will also make it easier to work Essentials into a sales pro’s daily routine. And it’ll make an eventual upgrade to Salesforce’s bigger business offering easier, too.
Winner: Salesforce Essentials Winner: Salesforce Essentials
Round 3: Contact Management
contact management application.
Because it’s so pipeline-focused, once contacts are imported in Bigin by Zoho CRM, it’s easy to attach deals to them. In fact, the Deals section within the contact information page allows you to Create Deals directly from this view. This is where you input key information, including the deal name, the company name, the stage of the deal (Qualification, Needs Analysis, or Proposal/Price Quote). You can also specify negotiation review and whether the deal status is Closed Won or Closed Lost. You can also see or add the amount, the closing date and the description. The ability to quickly access the sales pipeline, be it from the desktop app or from mobile devices, is convenient for managers that need to quickly reference their CRM tools during calls.
Organizing a CRM to optimize the sales pipeline is an excellent way to attract small business customers, even those working with a limited number of pipelines. Still, it isn’t a very big issue with startups or small businesses that probably have only one pipeline to consider, however that’s where Bigin really shines. More traditional CRM users may take some time to get accustomed to this approach, but these aren’t really Bigin’s intended customers anyway. Bigin is designed so anyone regardless of their CRM experience can dive right in and manage contacts and sales pipelines. One thing about the pipeline view is that the data presented always feels actionable and not static. The psychological effect is one of wanting to push towards negotiations and closings, exactly what small business execs want their sales staff thinking about.
Salesforce Essentials can automatically capture email and calendar data to help organize contacts and touchpoints for the business. This is a big first step to kickstart sales and support activity in most smaller organizations. Like its larger counterpart, Essentials can provide a complete view of contacts, their corresponding opportunities, as well as all associated records, and even support cases. Other solutions may be able to do this, but they would require a high level of automation and some manual input. Essentials employs Einstein Activity Capture, which automates manual data entry to make sales and service reps more productive.
When reps receive emails and calendar events, Salesforces’ Einstein AI automatically adds messages to the appropriate record in Salesforce, freeing up the rep’s time to focus on engaging with customers. All of the captured messages provide a rich history of engagement with each customer, giving all team members the context they need to make the next customer interaction more personalized and productive. Salesforce Essentials can pull this data on the fly and present it in an actionable manner. This includes pulling in all email conversations as well as meetings that have taken place with a contact along with social media touchpoints.
Both these approaches to contact management can be highly effective. Which is best depends not only on your company’s developmental growth stage, but how your sales team does its work.
Winner: TieWinner: Tie
Round 4: Mobile Integration
tablets, smartphones, or convertible 2-in-1 devices is a definite advantage for most small business users.
As a modern CRM solution, Salesforce Essentials gives businesses the option of running various processes through mobile Android and iOS apps that, for the most part, have feature parity with its desktop web client. That said, Salesforce cautions that, “the Salesforce mobile app puts key data and features at your disposal, wherever you are. But there are business activities that are probably better done from your laptop or desktop.”
Bigin by Zoho CRM, on the other hand, is a mobile-first CRM for SMBs. This means that iOS and Android devices will be at full feature parity with the experience you’ll have using a PC, and that right out of the gate. Zoho has also put in the extra work to be one of the first vendors to offer compatibility with Apple’s iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur operating systems. Understanding that SMBs may prefer to use iPads or iPhones as conduits for their business apps, Bigin has baked in a lot of native and new Apple functionality into its apps for optimal performance on these latest release versions of Apple’s operating systems.
For example, Apple’s iOS 14 now supports widgets and with Bigin, it’s possible to set reminders on device home screens using widgets that serve as post-it-note-style reminders. Bigin’s widgets display tasks, events, and calls while allowing you to create new activities, too. Bigin even provides an Apple Watch hook, which is a widget that enables shortcuts to be invoked from the wearable. This includes calling, scheduling a task, and creating events all from the Apple Watch.
Winner: Bigin by Zoho CRMWinner: Bigin by Zoho CRM
Round 5: Pipeline Features
help desk, any interactive social media channels, and certainly any face-to-face encounters. However, those capabilities are especially useful to larger companies where the number of touchpoints multiplied by the number of customers can be daunting.
For small businesses, CRMs add much of their value by fueling the sales pipeline. That means they help prioritize deals and dynamically assign sales personnel per policies or direct manager intervention. It’s less about mining the data put out by tens of thousands of customers and more about closing sales now and increasing revenue. This not only powers the sales pipeline, it helps build customer loyalty. It also boosts upsell opportunities, and certainly can help grow the business.
Salesforce Essentials implements these capabilities via its well-known Einstein AI. This automatically adds messages to the appropriate record in Salesforce, freeing up the rep’s time to focus on selling. All of the information that Einstein captures is collated into a customer history record that’s meant to be easily and quickly digestible by anyone calling up the information. That means team members can hand customers off to each other and very quickly be able to talk to that prospect with full knowledge of what the customer needs and their previous history with the company. For business owners, Salesforce Essentials gives them the advantage of being able to check their sales pipeline and instantaneously see what opportunities are on the horizon. That includes leads that need to be accelerated, as well as outstanding support issues that might require solutions before any new sales efforts can be pitched.
However, while we like Salesforce’s continued customer-driven approach, Bigin chose a different and at least equally effective path, namely organizing its CRM around a sales-driven perspective. Once contacts are imported, Bigin immediately wants to attach deals to them (see above). Combining contact management and pipeline management this way makes Bigin a highly streamlined sales aid that’s both easy to grasp and quick to implement, and that’s exactly what many small businesses and startups tend to seek.
Overall, we found the Bigin approach to be easier for sales professionals to understand and use almost immediately with real impact to their sales performance.
Winner: Bigin by Zoho CRM Winner: Bigin by Zoho CRM
Which Small Business CRM Rules?
Salesforce Essentials and Bigin by Zoho CRM are representative of the very best new options small businesses have when it comes to a CRM purchase. Still, Salesforce Essentials is likely best for the slightly larger and more sophisticated small business and not just because it’s more expensive. Essentials offers more feature options than Bigin because it’s a multifaceted app based on one of the most sophisticated CRM platforms on the market. That helped it win Editors’ Choice for feature excellence, but also means that it’ll probably need user training and at least some customization to get working at peak efficiency. However, it keeps all its doors open to the rest of Salesforce’s excellent and popular sales technology stack as well as its huge partner ecosystem, which can be a real boon when your company grows and it’s time to upgrade.
Bigin by Zoho CRM, on the other hand, certainly has a much more affordable price, and yet it still offers an outstanding, full-featured CRM solution designed from the ground up for the typical small business buyer. It may not be as refined as Essentials, but it does a better job at leveraging mobile app integration, as well as offering users a fresh and intuitive user interface. All of that adds up to Bigin by Zoho CRM edging slightly ahead of Salesforce in this comparison because it’s simply easier to use for a wider swath of small business customers looking to leverage CRM for the first time.
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