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Free CRM: Should I Bother?

When was the last time you turned down something free? It’s probably been a while, and it’s also probably not a frequent occurrence. After all, who doesn’t love free stuff? As long as it’s of high quality (or at least passable quality), there’s no downside to acquiring free products. But that’s just the problem with free things; they aren’t always quality.

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Customer relationship management (CRM) software in particular is one of the greatest areas of uncertainty when it comes to using free things. A free CRM that fits your needs can be a huge asset, as it can help reduce your costs while improving your contact management and customer relationships. But if you use a free CRM system that doesn’t do what you need it to, you’ll only find frustration and, potentially, do more harm than good to your lead management efforts. So the big question is: should you bother using a free CRM?

Types of Free CRM Software

Before going any further, let’s discuss the two main types of free CRM tools. First off is the free version of a popular vendor. These tools have the same interface and navigation of the paid versions; the features just tend to be “watered down.” We’ll go into more detail on this a little later.

The other type of free CRM is an open-source CRM solution. These systems provide the source code for a CRM software, so that you can make changes and additions to the system as you see fit.

Why You Should Use a Free CRM

You simply can’t beat the power of free. There’s an enormous cost savings available to any business that uses free CRM software instead of a paid version. No matter if you’re comparing it to web-based CRM software (a.k.a. a cloud CRM) or an on-premise CRM tool, a free CRM saves you thousands of dollars.

Take Salesforce, the CRM industry leader, for example. The cheapest version goes for $25/user/month, while the top package goes for $300/user/month. If you have five users — say two marketers and three sales reps — you’d be spending $125 – $1,500 per month, or $1,500 – $18,000 per year. This is a huge revelation for many small and mid-sized businesses, as that money can be reallocated to other important areas of the business.

Although free versions tend to be “watered down,” they still oftentimes have the same or a similar level of customer support from the vendor. So if you ever run into trouble with the system, e.g. it’s not working properly, you can contact their support team to get assistance for free. Bitrix24, SuiteCRM and HubSpot are exceptions to the “watered down” rule, however. These three systems each have a full range of functionality that satisfy the needs of most businesses. This make them great CRMs for most businesses, in particular new and small ones.

If you use a free open-source CRM tool, you’ll find another advantage to free CRM: customization. Businesses with very unique needs oftentimes find that a free open-source CRM application works best for their business. With an open-source CRM solution, these businesses don’t have to pay extra for a vendor to customize the standard solution, since they can have their in-house developers add whatever unique features they need to the source code.

Why You Shouldn’t Use a Free CRM

Although taken at face value, cost savings are an incredible benefit, the potential tradeoff isn’t worth it for many businesses. For starters, as we mentioned earlier, the free versions of popular vendors are oftentimes “watered down” (with the exceptions of Bitrix24, SuiteCRM and HubSpot). This means that they limit the features available, including everything from the number of users to the number of contacts you can store.

Additionally, more powerful features, such as access to the mobile apps or special project management capabilities, oftentimes aren’t included. This simply makes business sense; you’re never going to get the most powerful features of anything for free. So if you need mobile access and project management help when managing leads from a free version, you’re out of luck.

When it comes to open-source CRM solutions, there are a couple noticeable disadvantages. The ease-of-use is a common complaint among open-source systems of all kinds. This stems from the fact that they’re free, which means that there wasn’t a team of dedicated UI/UX professionals making sure it’s as easy to use as possible. Therefore, businesses with less tech-savvy employees might want to avoid open-source CRMs.

Open-source CRMs also typically don’t come with much support. Although there are developer communities available through the system, there aren’t customer support reps ready and available to help. This is due, in part, to the fact that adding your own code to the main source code makes your system unique. Even if there were reps, they can’t due much for you, since there’s a lot of your own code present. That means it’s all up to your developers to find and fix any issues.

On a similar note, there are more maintenance costs that come with open-source CRM systems; namely servers, databases and other infrastructure. These not only cost money (which, yes, means that open-source isn’t completely free), but also require time and effort spent maintaining and fixing any issues that come up.

The Final Verdict

And so we reach the penultimate question: should you use a free CRM tool? It’s a difficult question to answer, since it varies by business. Therefore, here are our recommendations, sorted by type of business:

New Businesses

If your business is just starting out and you haven’t adopted a CRM system yet, a free CRM very well may be worth your while. You may not want to use an open-source CRM yet, because at this point the IT requirements needed for maintenance and the developer requirements needed for customization may be too great for you to handle. But a free version of a popular vendor’s CRM may be perfect. Our top recommendations for free versions are HubSpot, Zoho CRM, SugarCRM, Insightly CRM, Bitrix24 and SuiteCRM.

Small Businesses

A small business may also greatly benefit from free CRM software. If you have the developers and IT staff to maintain an open-source CRM solution, that’s a great option. More likely, however, that’s not the case. Therefore, we recommend using a free version. Assuming you don’t need many users, e.g. you can get by with one marketer and one sales rep accessing the system, a free version should cover all of the basic features that you need.

If you haven’t adopted a CRM before, then a free version is definitely the way to go. Usually small businesses don’t have very specific requirements, meaning that they only need the basic features. These are available in a free version, as is an adequate contact storage capacity. This also provides the added benefit of scalability. If you outgrow the capabilities of the free version but like how it works, you can upgrade to a paid package. In this case, you won’t have to migrate any data or spend time learning a completely new system.

Mid-Sized Businesses

Mid-sized businesses using free CRM is where it starts to get iffy. Usually mid-sized businesses easily exceed the requirements for number of users and contact storage capacity. Not to mention, by the time you achieve “mid-sized” status, chances are you’ll need some of the more robust CRM features available.

However, if you still only need basic CRM features and you can get by with only a couple users, a free version would still work. Open-source may be an option as well, but it depends on how cost-effective you can make the development of extra features and general maintenance.

Large Businesses

Large businesses probably can’t get away with using a free CRM. The main reason is the number of users, which almost certainly far exceeds the limitations of a popular vendor’s free version. In addition, the logistical features needed, such as contact storage, almost certainly exceeds a free version’s limitations, too.

That said, a large business with very specific requirements, the right IT infrastructure, talented developers and a well-staffed IT department might find value in an open-source CRM. If they can handle the continuous maintenance and improvements required for an open-source CRM, the extra work just may be worth it long-term. However, this usually isn’t the case, as maintenance and development costs at this scale usually far exceed that of paying for a vendor.

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