How to navigate a CRM evaluation

01 August, 2017


Cutting through the marketing, feature comparisons, demos and trials to find the right solution for your business may seem like a perilous road to travel. But when you know what to look for, and the right questions to ask, the ideal solution will become clear. Here's how to back the right CRM for your business, step-by-step.

This website is a great place to start your investigation. It aggregates thousands of CRM reviews and feature comparisons and puts them in industry and business-size specific quadrants. You can then drill in, read reviews and compare. We'd recommend picking 5 to shortlist after reading reviews and visiting their websites.

Demos, customer stories and marketing videos

These can be a great way to quickly understand a platform's value proposition, high level features/benefits and typical customer pain points and how the CRM provides a solution. Remember, they are marketing so take what's said with a grain of salt.

Free trials

For "Out-of-the-box" or "Industry-designed" solutions, free trials are great. As the system won't be heavily customised, free trials allow you to get hands on with the software that is a close representation to the product you'll actually be buying. This being said, they don't provide anything close to the complete picture when evaluating a full-platform CRM. It's kind of like getting a pile of tools and building materials and then trying to decide whether to buy the finished house.

Tip: If you sign up for a free trial, expect a call (or ten!) from sales reps looking to get you to sign up for a full account.

Consultative sales process

If you're evaluating a full-platform CRM, this process will form an essential next step for those CRMs you've shortlisted. It's the only way to understand how a potential solution will work for your business specifically, what mix of licenses and functionality you'll need and what the costs will be. Because this process is a significant time investment for all parties, this process will be completed with your preferred 1 - 3 potential solutions. Due to the time investment, it should also only be undertaken if you're expecting to move forward with the project provided you find a suitable solution.

It begins with a CRM provider's account executive (AE). They may have local, on-the-ground sales staff, or this process may be done remotely from overseas. Typically they have different teams servicing businesses of different sizes. Some work with smaller businesses to a shorter, more transactional sales process, whereas others work with large enterprises on deals that may involve RFPs and take years to close. Typically, this is the process you'll go through:

  1. Initial discovery: your AE will work to understand your business, processes, pain points, technical and functional requirements and will try to define broadly how they think their CRM platform can help you.

  2. Solution engineer and consulting partner engagement: based on their initial discovery, the Account Executive will likely engage a consulting partner who has experience with similar projects and who they feel will work well with your internal team. If a custom demo is required, they'll also bring in a solution engineer (SE) who will work to build out and demonstrate a solution back to your business based on their discovery process.

  3. Joint discovery: the AE, SE and consulting partner (also referred to as implementation partner) will then go into more detailed discovery. This may include a deep dive into core business processes, existing systems, ride-alongs, sitting shotgun with sales or service reps, customer journey mapping or technical sessions with your internal IT team. This process may cover single or multiple sessions depending on the scale and complexity of your project.

    These are the typical outcomes each party is seeking from the joint discovery process:
    • Project team: you'll want to get a sense of how you think you'd work with all parties at the table. Be open to having your existing ideas and priorities challenged, but make sure you feel all parties are well aligned by the end of the session
    • Account Executive: to get a sense of your license volumes, internal decision-making process, potential roadblocks, competing solutions and likely timeline to close
    • Solution Engineer: to get enough detailed information to be able to build a compelling demo and potential future roadmap on the platform
    • Consulting partner: to get an understanding of the phase 1 solution design, future road map, implementation investment and the right engagement model (fixed rate, time and materials etc.).

  4. Tailored solution demo and implementation approach: this may be in separate sessions or combined. The Solution Engineer will take you through an interactive "day in the life" of how your team will work within the system. The consulting partner will explain the solution design (potentially on a whiteboard) and run through how the implementation process will work start to finish.

  5. Commercials and sign-off: you'll then work through the comparison between any competing solutions and then finalise the implementation and license investment with your chosen provider.

That's the process through to sign off, but what exactly should you be evaluating when considering a CRM and consulting partner?

What to evaluate in a CRM platform

Features and licenses

Most CRM platforms have different user licenses, each with their own mix of functionality. More robust CRMs can have seemingly infinite license options for the different parts of their platform, along with optional paid extras. For these more complex evaluations, getting clarity on what features each of your user types (e.g. customer service rep, general manager) will require to perform their role within the system is key. Be sure to dive into detailed feature comparison charts between license editions. If you're in doubt about whether the license you're looking at can handle a specific use case, ask the Account Executive and get responses in writing.



What tools do you have at your disposal to configure and customise the system? Can you create your own page layouts? Data validation rules? List views? Objects? Workflow processes? Reports? Dashboards? User security permissions? Can you insert your own branding? Can you develop on the platform using custom code?


User experience

A great UX isn't just a slick interface. It's really about how intuitive it is for a user to perform their day-to-day role within the system. How many clicks does it take them to log a task? Does the system automatically open the customer's details when they call the helpdesk? How is the desktop version translate to a mobile device? Are the reports and dashboards easy to interpret?


Customer experience

Does the CRM have functionality that allows your business to compete on customer experience? Auto-assigning leads to ensure faster response times. Personalising and automating rep-to-customer communication to enable more consistent, professional interactions. Giving customers access to tailored, interactive content through their own personalised community login to drive engagement. Leveraging marketing automation to deliver the right content at the right time.


Ease of integration

Is the CRM platform able to connect to your existing systems via an API integration, or native, pre-built connectors that have the bulk of the work already done for you? This is especially important for your email, VOIP phone system, document management system, accounting package, ERP or other critical business systems.


System upgrades

Does the system have a strong commitment to stay at the forefront? How often does the CRM release system upgrades? Are these upgrades free or paid? How does the company decide which features to prioritise? At least two major releases a year should be a benchmark for any full-platform CRM.


Ease of system administration

Once the system is live, what level of time and skill is required from your internal team to keep the system delivering for users? Is their online training courses, certification exams or in-depth training workshops to support members of your team to upskill on the platform?


Customer support

This is an important one. Does your licence entitle you to phone support, email support, live chat or simply an online knowledge base? Are there service level agreements on response times? Is there an option for premium support at an additional cost? Make sure you're confident that the CRM you're considering has a service model that will work for the needs of your business. There's nothing worse than being left in the lurch and unsupported.


The community

One of the greatest benefits of a leading full-platform CRM is the community of customers, users, developers and consultants that it fosters. Does the CRM have an Apps Marketplace where external developers can build applications that bring new functions, integrations and tools to the community? Does your city have a user group where members regularly meet to learn from and support each other? Is there an online community where members can collaborate and share ideas? Is there an annual conference? A vibrant community is a great sign of a satisfied, innovative and engaged customer base.


Long term road map

Is this a point solution that solves one problem (e.g. lead and pipeline management) and will have to be ripped out and replaced with something else as your needs evolve? Or is it an underlying technology platform that can expand with your business. Make sure you don't just evaluate your solution against your first project, but that it can handle phase 2 and beyond.


Cost and contract

The terms of a CRM contract are typically a negotiation for larger deals and can comprise a mix of user licenses and support or service contracts. Factors that can get you a better deal on your per-user license rate include signing up for a longer term, paying annually in advance, or a commitment to take further licenses on at a defined stage down the track.

Although buying more will reduce the per-user price, our advice is to only buy the mix of licenses that will address the business challenges that will from the focus of your first project. Don't get sold on additional bells and whistles that aren't aligned with your business case and may only become relevant down the track. Pay for what you need, when you need it.


Local customer references

Nothing is a substitute for hearing it direct from a customer. Speaking with other local businesses in similar (but non-competitive) industries who have successfully implemented the CRM you're evaluating, gives you an opportunity to learn from the experiences of those who have already travelled the road you're considering going down. Account Executives will of course, only connect you with customers they're confident will speak highly of their product, but if a CRM provider can't point you to any similar, successful customers, this is a red flag.


Quantifying likely ROI

Many CRM providers have designed ROI templates to help prospective customers quantify the benefits they're likely to see post implementation. The numbers factor in variables such as increased lead generation, faster lead response times, reduced administration time, improved sales conversion rates, greater customer retention, higher spend per account and smoother onboarding of new team members. These templates are genuinely helpful when preparing your business case. This being said, it's best to enter conservative estimates to ensure your investment return is likely to stack up even if your real-world results end up less than industry averages.

Tip: Know the jargon. CRMs not only have different functionality, but they also have different terms for that functionality. Most will publish a glossary of their terms as well as plain-English functionality definitions in their product data sheet. We'd recommend familiarising yourself with both. This will help you communicate knowledgeably with your Account Executive and consulting partner and also give you a full picture of the platform's capability.


Continue to the next post in this series: Selecting the ideal CRM consulting partner