The beginner's guide to CRM in 2020

Two colleagues using laptops for customer relationship management

Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, is a vital part of any business's operations. But what actually is it, and how can you get it right? In this guide to CRM, we'll explore everything you need to know.

It's a competitive landscape out there, and delivering a great product isn't enough anymore. Increasingly, the businesses that win are those that offer stand-out customer experiences and a fantastic product.

At its core, a CRM system is designed to do one thing: manage your relationships with your customers and future customers to deliver consistent and personalized experiences.

CRM is about gathering customer and prospect information into one central app and guiding these people through the sales funnel. But it also does more than that.

A good CRM helps you manage customer interactions in a way that will boost customer loyalty and generate profits that’ll skyrocket your revenue.

To help you get all the benefits from CRM in your business, here's our guide to everything you need to know.


Jump to:

How a CRM system works

Your customers want consistency. They expect you and your team to remember what they told you last week and what their interest in your services is. It’s how you show them that they are important to you.

Even if it's just in Google Docs or in Excel, every business has a way of tracking and documenting customer data. You may even have a DIY solution reminding you to do things like send out a newsletter or make a phone call.

A CRM does exactly this, but offers features designed specifically to manage customer relationships and automate tasks. With an integration platform, you can also sync data from your other apps with your CRM for the most enriched and centralized view of your contacts.

Basic features of a CRM include:

  • Storing customer and prospect information
  • Adding notes
  • Logging calls and emails

Advanced features of a CRM include:

  • Automating repetitive tasks like sending out welcome emails
  • Segmenting customers for targeted communication
  • Monitoring social media channels of customers and prospects
  • Visualizing marketing campaigns
  • Tracking results of campaigns
  • Scheduling appointments in app
  • Showing the sales pipeline

As some of the CRM trends for 2021, we predict that more and more CRM software vendors will add AI, social CRM and conversational UI as part of their products.

Benefits of CRM

The most important thing a CRM does is focus on your customers as individuals, rather than as a single entity. This gives you detailed knowledge on what problems you can help them solve and what ambitions they want to realize. By building up this data in your CRM, you can provide a personal touch to your customers even if your customer database runs into the thousands.

With a great CRM, you can send timely and appropriate communication to your contacts until they are ready to buy from you. You can keep tabs on your deals until they close (or not). Whether you're in sales, marketing or support, CRMs help you develop a full picture of your relationship with each customer, or prospect, by packaging all their interactions and engagement with your business together with their profile. You can then send out targeted content and emails tailored to their needs and perspectives.

According to LinkedIn State of Sales 2020, 97% consider sales technology such as CRMs very important to their success.

Graphic showing that 97% consider sales technology very important


With technology this advanced, there’s no excuse for generic email blasts. Many CRMs also keep track of social media interactions and integrate this information with contact records. Your customer service team can respond to customer inquiries on the social channels the customers are, when the customers want it. The added bonus is that you'll get your different departments working together as a team, with a unified view of every individual.

Marc Prosser from Fit Small Business told PieSync that:

"At many companies, sales and support are handled by separate teams. CRM provides a shared record both can use, which means a salesperson can see what kind of support interactions a customer has had and address whatever issues they've had with the product or service. It's a good chance to follow up on that support and make sure they were satisfied with the interaction and are still happy with the product."

With a great CRM and strategy for how to use it collaboratively, you’ll have marketing, sales and customer service in perfect alignment.

CRM as a competitive strategy

In The Discipline of Market Leaders, authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma share that in all sectors, there are three basic strategies through which companies can compete with each other: operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy.

Operational excellence is about delivering the most reliable solution for the lowest possible cost without causing too much trouble for the client. Through excellent operational processes incorporating automation, a company can distinguish itself from others.

Product leadership is having the best possible product on the market. Through constant innovation, short go-to-market times and a very strong brand image, an organization can establish leadership in a certain category. Think Apple.

Customer intimacy is about delivering the best service and constantly adapting your business based on the wants and needs of your customer. Knowledge about individual clients is key to utilizing this competitive strategy.

Here's a great graphic from the MaRS Startup Toolkit to visualize these three pillars:

Competitive strategies for market leadership


How does CRM fit in here? In short, CRM makes your business stand out by strengthening customer intimacy.

In the beginning phases of building a business, many companies overlook customer intimacy. But long-term, most of the companies that survive do so by shifting their competitive strategy to CRM and customer experience.

This is where knowing your customers really makes all the difference. You know who they are, what they want, how they use your product or service, why they leave, why they stay and how to influence them accordingly. This is how you make the most of your client base and how you can help the marketing, sales, accounting, support and management departments optimize their processes.

After all, CRM helps both with acquisition and retention. Although it’s important to keep pushing your product’s excellence and to keep innovating, CRM is not to be underestimated for long-term sustainability in your business.

Does my company need a CRM?

Yes, it does! If you want to stay competitive, don’t waste your time, or your employees' time, with manual data entry into spreadsheets or DIY systems. Instead, choose a strong CRM that's actually optimized for the job and spend your time developing your strategy and interacting with customers in a way that is timely and meaningful.

LinkedIn has found that 65% of sales professionals use a CRM, which leaves an astounding one third yet to adopt a CRM system. The time is now to catch up and optimize your operations. If you want to grow your business, streamline your sales and marketing processes, and join the elite group of trailblazing companies who are really getting things done in their industry, a CRM should be a priority for you.


Six signs your SME immediately needs a CRM

There are six signs that your SME needs a CRM that are so urgent you can't overlook them. If you recognize these signs early enough, you’ll save hundreds of hours of data entry headaches - and remain competitive.

  1. You’re losing data - A recent study from Experian found that the average organization suspects 29% of current customer and prospect data is inaccurate in some way. If you find it hard to get an overview of your customers, or that the quality of data you have is poor, you need a CRM. This centralizes data in one system so you don’t have to hunt through various emails, notes, databases and spreadsheets to find the information you’re looking for.

  2. You have more than one person working in the database - If you’ve got more than one person working on your spreadsheets, things get messy fast. One person has a special color code for one thing, the other one likes to put their prospects in a different spreadsheet. A CRM creates a unified view of your data, and you can further sort your customers using tags or by segmenting them. There is no need to have customer information spread across different databases or spreadsheets.

  3. Making reports is time-consuming and often inaccurate - If you find that making reports from your spreadsheet data is painful, time-consuming and often inaccurate, a CRM can produce more reliable reports with a just few keystrokes. A lot of CRMs even do this automatically according to the parameters you set.

  4. You can’t stay in touch with on-the-go teams or remote workers - Sales teams need access to customer information that’s accurate and up-to-date, especially when they're on the road. If their idea of a good system is scribbling customer info on a piece of paper and spending hours inputting that data into a spreadsheet, you need a CRM. You can have your sales team tap that data into their smartphone's contacts app and sync data from Google Contacts, iCloud or Outlook into your CRM in real time and bi-directionally using PieSync! With a system like this, everyone will always have accurate, up-to-date customer information in real time.

  5. Every customer gets the same treatment - You know what the sales funnel is, but you’re finding it hard to implement it. You treat customers who just discovered you the same as you would customers who have been with you for years. A good CRM allows you to segment customers depending on where they are in the sales funnel, so you can then send them tailored content and offers depending on where they are in the buyer’s journey.

Peter Lavers, Managing Director of WCL Customer Management told us that:

"It’s counter-intuitive to send a customer who has just purchased the latest model of your product a discount on a different model, because it signals to them that you don’t care about their decisions and - worse - you look aggressive. For customers who have just made a purchase, you want to reinforce their decision and thank them.”

  1. Your sales and marketing teams hate each other - If your sales and marketing teams are at each other’s throats, it’s time to create transparency in your company. A CRM can help with this by centralizing data in one place, especially after integrating data from your sales and marketing apps for one unified view. You’ll get these quarreling siblings working together, and see an increase of mutual trust.

How to pick a CRM

Emotions and intuition play a large part in how you choose and interact with your CRM. Your contact management tool is going to be your buddy at work, so you’ve got to make sure the two of you get along. You have to like the look and feel. Trust it. Feel comfortable using it. Know where to turn if something breaks.

It's much like buying a car. And just like there are small cars that give you a luxurious feeling or large cars that suit a growing family, there are CRMs to cater for every need. Finding the right one is all you have to do.

Doing your research, defining your needs and then getting the tool that’s just right for you can be a real turning point for your business. On the flip side, using nothing might be the cheapest option but, at a certain point, the cost of a system doesn’t weigh up against the stress involved in the endless carousel of Excel sheets and poorly managed shared contact lists.


Three steps that will lead you to your perfect CRM

The internet can be like a slick car salesman. Make sure you’re in charge! The key to feeling empowered before you approach vendors requires three simple things:


1. Ask yourself: why do we need a CRM?

Ask yourself and your team the most important question first: what do we want to achieve by getting a contact management solution?

Do you mainly want to:

  • Manage a large set of contacts
  • Share contact information with a (remote) team
  • Keep contact information up-to-date when it is stored in different places

Or do you have broader requirements, such as:

  • Follow up on your sales leads
  • Sales funnel management
  • Invoicing
  • Task management
  • Managing price quotes
  • Bids tracking
  • Integration with landing pages and forms
  • Time management

There are CRM systems out there that offer these things and more, in various combinations. Where you could go wrong is looking at what vendors offer before you decide on what you want to achieve.

If you start by taking a deep dive into vendors’ websites, you’ll end up reverse engineering their offers to your needs.

The internet can be like a big candy shop sometimes. You set out to buy a CRM for your five-person PR agency. All you want is a way to share a list of press contacts and potential customers with your team. Several months, twelve unproductive meetings and a slap on the wrist from Accounting later, you are stuck with an overpriced and underused CRM. All because on the vendor’s website, all those features really looked like something you needed.


2. Write down what you want to achieve with your CRM

Leverage the power of the written word. Put a document together with your team, so that you are all on the same page on how you would ideally manage your contact database. This can be in a few short bullet points or in long form. Keep this document near you when researching and use it as the North Star in your search.


3. Google your heart out – but remember what you are looking for

Sometimes when you start looking around for a new SaaS app for your business, you will find what you need immediately. Go for it!

Other times, you will find a solution that offers much more than you need. Resist the urge to start wanting those features, because you think “it would be so great if we could do that too”. If it is something that you’re not doing now, it is going to require extra work to start doing that.

Remember, your reason to buy a CRM in the first place was to make your workday lighter, not to add more to your plate.

Keep in mind that CRM platforms are in constant evolution, and you can also change to a more comprehensive solution later if you need to. Most contact management tools for SMEs don’t require a long commitment, and if you make sure that you can easily export your contact data, you could make a switch when your needs grow.

What if many solutions look really similar?

  • Contact the vendor, talk to a sales rep and check your list of requirements with them.
  • Read product reviews and ask peers what system they use.
  • Compare prices and really focus on getting the features you need.
  • Take advantage of free trial periods to extensively try out the tool and decide which one you feel most comfortable with.
  • Ultimately, choose the software that you consider best, and stick to your decision. Indecisiveness just ends up costing everyone involved a lot of time and money.

Overview of top CRMs

We've compared a few CRM tools that deserve your attention if you’re looking for contact management software for a small or mid-size company.

These include:

  • HubSpot – Ideal for freelancers and small businesses that want a popular free CRM with plenty of scope to scale their sales, marketing and service with paid "Hubs" in future.
  • Salesforce – The most popular CRM in the world, but not always a good match for small businesses because of its complexity and costs. Salesforce Essentials is available from $25 user/month as the bare-bones plan, but it has very limited features.
  • Pipedrive – One of the strongest sales-focused CRMs on the market to organize your pipeline, starting at $15/month.
  • Teamleader – A Europe-based CRM with a well-rounded solution including project management and time tracking features that are great for agencies. Available from €50/month for two users.
  • Salesflare – A simple and popular CRM for B2B sales teams starting at $30 per user/month.
  • Less Annoying CRM – A simple CRM choice for small businesses that want something straightforward without the fluff for $15 per user/month.
  • Capsule – A CRM with beautifully clean and simple user experience that small businesses love, especially consultants and consulting firms. It's free for up to two users (and only 250 contacts), or $18 per user/month for the Professional plan.
  • Nimble – A great CRM for small businesses that stands out with social media enrichment, starting at $19 per user/month.
  • Copper – The ideal CRM for small businesses that are heavy G Suite users, available from $19 per user/month.
  • Zoho CRM – A budget-friendly CRM for small businesses in the Zoho product family. There's a limited free edition and the basic plan starts at $12 per user/month.

CRM key terms

Automation - A good CRM automates many repetitive tasks, such as sending out welcome emails. This helps you to streamline your lead nurturing and campaigns and save loads of time.

Customer profiles - This is an in-depth look at your customer and their behavior patterns, including demographics, persona category and interactions. Depending on your CRM, you can obtain in-depth reports about what your customer has downloaded, what they have clicked on, and which videos they have watched.

Dashboard - The homepage of your CRM, or the first thing you see when you login. It’s easy to customize so you can keep an overview on your contacts or accounts that matter directly to you.

Lead - When a prospect shows interest in your product, such as by downloading an ebook about your product or attending a webinar, they move down the sales pipeline and turn into a lead. If they're a good match and nurtured properly, they may well do business with you in the future.

Opportunity - Once your lead has shown they want to buy your product - such as by requesting a demo or asking a quote - and they have the budget and authority to make purchase decisions, then they are a sales opportunity.

Deal - This is the bottom end of the sales funnel, where you’re making your sale.

Contacts - In essence, this is your list of customers and potential customers in your CRM.

Fields - All the different data your CRM captures from your contacts. This often includes first name fields, last name, email address, phone number, as well as custom fields you can create depending on how your company operates.

SaaS or Cloud CRM - Many moons ago, CRM systems used to be an in-house affair stored on a mainframe somewhere onsite. These days, most CRMs store data in off-site cloud technology as SaaS (Software as a Service) apps. This is essential for teams that are remote, on the road, or who prefer to be location independent. It also means you save lots of money on not servicing your on-site hardware and software.

Workflows - These are an automatic work processes that you set up with your CRM. A workflow uses a series of automations to carry out its task, such as sending a drip email campaign to an appropriate lead.

How to improve CRM adoption in your team

If you remember one thing from this post, make it that when you’re considering which CRM to use, don’t be swayed by fancy features and big talking products - the most important thing is to keep in mind is your business goals.

However, getting a CRM is one thing, making sure everybody uses it is quite another. CRM success boils down to three simple things:

  • Preparation - researching and choosing a CRM that fits your business needs and goals.
  • Execution - onboarding your team, importing your contact data and setting up key functionality successfully.
  • Maintainence – keeping your database clean, optimizing data quality, implementing reporting, and continually training your team for proper use.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that each step is important. Ignoring just one aspect could ruin your investment made in CRM software.

Sync your CRM with your other apps

One important consideration when you're choosing and implementing a CRM is how it fits with the rest of your app stack.

To get the most power from your CRM and other apps, sync your contact data two ways between your tools using PieSync. This enriches your data everywhere and gives sales, marketing and support a unified view of the people you serve, no matter where you are or who entered the data.

PieSync will help you to:

  • Save time spent on data entry
  • Eliminate imports and exports of your contacts
  • One database across all your cloud apps
  • Sync changes, including deletions and unsubscribes, in your favorite cloud apps and CRM
  • Keep track of your contacts, so you never lose a contact again
  • Share accurate customer information across your marketing, sales and customer service platforms
  • Migrate your contact data from one CRM to another
  • Update contact information on your mobile phone - perfect for remote teams!


About Lucy Fuggle

Lucy Fuggle writes for PieSync, the two-way contact sync tool for hundreds of apps. She also works with her clients to make their brand matter with a content-rich marketing strategy.