Free CRM: Save and Grow

Monday, May 27, 2019
Michael Zunenshine
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CRM.ORG is a knowledge hub for all things work: digital tools, customer service relationship software, and other innovative methodologies for exploring work-related relationships. In “What is a CRM?”, we break down the meaning of the three-letter monster that is CRM and explore the history, benefits, and features of the customer relationship software.  
 
 

Free CRMs may be the best introduction to understanding CRM, which is great because trying to understand CRM can sometimes feel like trying to understand how headache medicine works in the wake of a migraine. One gets what it does, but one doesn’t know how.

The big difference between the two is with headache medicine, all one has to do is pop a pill and the chemicals do their thing. The effect is welcomed.

A CRM system, on the other hand, doesn’t just get popped into a website to do “do its thing.” People need to work with and understand a CRM. The advantage of understanding how CRM works means welcoming its migraine-reducing effect.

Taking time to make time

Let’s take a step back and approach the CRM question tangentially, using some good old fashioned dialectical reasoning:

  • Thesis: CRM software saves your business time.

  • Antithesis: Setting up and learning how to use CRM software takes time.

  • Synthesis: Good CRM software should be a snap to set up and a piece of cake to learn.

OK, so, customer management relationship software is there to help streamline work for the sales team—or a number of other purposes such as social media management, leads/contacts organization, customer support, email campaigns, subscriptions, sign-ups, etc. But what is streamlining exactly?

“Streamline” is understood as making things faster and easier. CRM achieves this by combining what could be several different programs into one single platform: customer communication, email marketing, phone, data logging and retrieval, reports and analytics, work task assignment, etc. To streamline means to have all that essential data in one place—the ability to analyze, organize, and optimize—so that companies can paint their best customer behavior portrait.  

There’s also an emphasis on the user-friendliness of today’s CRM. This is where a lot of software companies take pride, providing an upgrade from dreaded static spreadsheets complicated funnels and sales pipelines.

With CRM you get readable versions with useful charts featuring extensive data and customer histories. Relevant information like stats and analytics are instantly created from any number of readily-available data sets, while team member task assignments can be as simple as drag-n-drop action.

Today’s CRM is all about removing the friction.

When looking for the best free CRM, try before you buy

To come back to our thesis-antithesis-synthesis, it is how a CRM software gets used that determines its value for a business. This value qua use factor starts with adoption. An overly complicated system can translate to an expensive learning curve.  

One glaringly obvious synthesis, however, is this: free CRM software. A free CRM offers the opportunity to try out a platform with your team and see if you can derive value from it without dishing out on the initial investment—especially if you’re a small business or a budding startup on a lean budget.

So yes, you should 100% try it out. Here’s a good handful of CRMs with enticing free plans:

HubSpot CRM

HubSpot is a mammoth company (on par in scale with the likes of Zoho CRM). They’ve played a part ushering in the rise of inbound marketing. Their free CRM software might be taken as an appetizer meant to entice businesses to buy the full course of the HubSpot suite.

Some advantages to HubSpot are firstly their large wealth of training videos to help speed up adoption. Also, because of their sheer enormity, they have a pretty great reputation for personalized customer service.

Their free CRM software allows for one million contacts and users, as well as unlimited storage. Some drawbacks include limited syncing between contact and deal data, a weak search function, and the inability to log email attachments into the contact record.

Streak

Streak’s platform is one of the only fully integrated Gmail CRMs. It lives inside your Gmail inbox and includes all the G Suite apps too. It simplifies the CRM adoption process for brand new or extreme-lean startups during their learning-to-fly stages, or really any organization or person that already uses Gmail.

With Streak, everything begins with emails, which automatically get grouped together according to common tasks and plugged into a pipeline. There are notices for when emails are viewed, and quick data sharing among team members of email and phone call logs.

The free iteration of Streak is mainly for personal use. It includes all the basic CRM tools as well as the full email power tools. One can also create an unlimited amount of pipelines.

Freshsales

Freshsales is the CRM arm of the Freshworks 360 suite. To get their “free forever startup plan,” they make you sign up for a 30-day free trial, where you get the full stack of their software, after which you’re invited to pay for one of four plans or continue with the bare bones version.       

Freshsales stresses CRM as a total makeover of Excel spreadsheets. One can lend scoring data to every lead, and set custom organizational parameters—that is, create your own ‘sort’ categories. It also has a built-in phone module with automatic dialing, recording, and call routing features.

It might seem a first that there is a large amount of manual data entry required to get a lead and prospect entry into the CRM system. However, this kind of work generally speeds up as one gets more adept at the software.

Insightly

Insightly’s free version is not exactly advertised as their big sell, so consider this as a semi-insider tip. The catch is, it’s a good free option for a CRM party of two. But, no more.

The software integrates smoothly with G Suite and Microsoft 365 apps, as well as a gallery of others. They’re known for smooth pipelines between different areas of the CRM experience, from organizing contacts and assigning work tasks. The more robust lead assignment modules, however, are only available in the paid plans.

Keep in mind that a few other shortcomings of the free version include the lack of a data backup system, daily caps for mass emailing, and limits to how many custom fields can be added for each record.

Real Simple Systems

Really Simple Systems (RSS for short) doesn‘t shy away from touting their marketing automation, sales and service platform as simple—but that doesn’t mean it lacks sophistication, it’s just really easy to use. This is especially handy for companies with distributed offices and remote workforces.

While they have paid-for versions, their free option is more than just a temporary trial offer for companies up to two users, so budding businesses and solo entrepreneurial ventures can use the CRM without watching the calendar. It allows for unlimited contacts and up to 100 MBs of document storage.

The free version includes many of the core features including sales automation and customer service. There are also distinct management tools for both contacts, which updates in real time all relevant info and related tasks for contacts, vendors and suppliers; and leads, which aims to convert contacts into eventual sales.

RSS also does reporting their own way, dividing up the action in two parts. First off, there’s ‘Listing reports’ for quick stats on simple questions like, “how many hits did we get this month?” Or you can formulate more complex questions. Then there’s ‘Forecast reports’ which focus on expected sales numbers in a variety of time frames.

For small businesses in the B2B game, RSS makes moving into the CRM zone a snap.

Bitrix24

Whether its passing notes, sharing docs or holding video conference calls, Bitrix24 puts communication and collaboration front and center. They also have the CRM trifecta of marketing, sales and customer service well covered.

You can use the cloud version of Bitrix24 for free, which supports a whopping 12 users and a hefty 5 gigs of storage. It’s not so much that the paid plans will get you more features, just more larger-scale use of the same features.

Their communications toolkit includes their complete phone, chat, email and video features. Task management is divided into group task features, which helps plan and assign tasks, as well as timing them for future planning. Then there’s project management, which utilizes devices like calendars and Kanbans in highly pleasing visuals.

The Bitrix24 CRM covers the gamut of pipeline management from engagement to sales to reporting. Setting quotes for clients and arranging invoices is facilitated with various currency and tax metrics which come as a fixture to their product catalog feature.  

Bitrix24 is a winner for the generous scale of their free version. Also, points to their clean aesthetics, which makes using it that much more pleasurable.

Apptivo

Apptivo has been around a long time since 2009 to be exact—eons in the tech history books. They’ve garnered up a huge client list and an impressive award collection. Perhaps it's due to their flexible suite of apps and their focus on customizability.

The Apptivo starter version is free and good for a cozy team of three users, with 500 MBs of storage. Sadly, though, this version doesn’t support 3rd-party integrations. Otherwise, you do get the core standard tools from their full kit.

Their many features take the form of individual Apptivo-branded apps. The contact app, for example, helps populate contact and lead info by importing data from the web, from emails, or expedites simple manual entry.

There is a suite of project management apps that help organize the workload for both individual employees as well as for teams. When it comes to customer service, there’s a cases app that automates any customer problem from an email into a ticket with a service-level agreement the customer can easily access.

With Apptivo, there are plenty of features available with their free version and what’s great is how well they all work together.

Airtable

Airtable is a non-traditional CRM. A lightweight software and mobile-friendly option that puts pleasing aesthetics as one of its main selling points.

However, this attention to style is not just superficial, as Airtable allows users to play with design to achieve great efficacy data sorting through customization. This is more than just dragging, dropping and color sorting, but also incorporates photos and other attachments, for which free-version users get 2 gigs.

The workflow management database lets users quickly link and interpret data from different sets. Useful? Very. Although the endless combinations can potentially lead to data overload. It’s just up to the user to stop having so much fun relating all those data sets.

Automation for the people

In the end, CRM software makes running several different departments of a growing business easier, faster, and possibly more fun. So long as one never forgets the ultimate aim is to have better engagements with customers, both prospects and paying. Those customers are people, not mere datasets in CRM software.

With that in mind, let's close this article with another dialectical experiment, this time, about the tension between streamlined automation versus genuine human-to-human interaction:

  • Thesis: CRM keeps work and customer relationships more human.

  • Antithesis: CRM automates data entry, therefore it makes things less human.

  • Synthesis: The best CRM automates the laborious non-human stuff as much as possible so that the human element can be increased where it really matters.

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