Recently, Zoho Corporation – who offers customer relationship management and other business applications to small and medium sized businesses – released a lighter CRM product called Bigin that also comes with a free version. This is not a new thing. Many other excellent and popular CRM applications, from Insightly to Agile CRM, also offer “free” versions of their products. Chris Hawkins, writhing for data connector Zapier, provides a great summary of a few of these products here.
But are free CRMs worth it? They are, as long as you understand why.
For starters, most of these free versions accommodate very few users. In Bigin’s case, you can only have one or two users at a time. Some, like Agile CRM will allow up to ten users. But for the most part, a free CRM application is really just for an individual to use as an individual contact manager. You will find many of the features offered to be similarly found in office products provided by Microsoft 365 and Google G Suite such as creating contacts, taking notes and creating tasks. If you have – or plan to have – a workgroup of more than a few people then you’ll quickly run into limitations that will force you into stepping up to the next paid level.
The features offered by free CRMs are limited, but enticing. Most of the popular versions will give users the ability to create a few opportunities and simple campaigns. Bigin will allow tracking “multiple pipelines”, sending and receiving emails and even integrations with other Zoho and outside applications. Agile, Zoho and Insightly will even let you create a workflow or two to automate some of the things you do like auto-responding to messages or creating follow-ups based on a prior activity. The purpose of all this is to entice you into wanting more and therefore upgrading to the next version.
This is a good thing. You want to be enticed. Moving up to the next version means that you’ve accomplished something: you’re working with a CRM application well enough to want more.
Using a free CRM will help you avoid costly mistakes when deciding and ultimately implementing your final product. Because, let’s face it: you’re not an expert in CRM. You’re not an expert in these products. For you to fully understand an application’s strengths and weaknesses you’re going to need to take it out for a spin, and not just a test drive but a long meandering journey.
So if you’re researching a CRM application my advice is for you to start first with a free CRM. Maybe it’s one of the products I mentioned above or maybe it’s a trial version of another product (by the way – many vendors say that trials are good for 30 days but most will extend the time period for another month or two if you ask).
I recommend that you pick a good, independent person or two in your sales and service team and ask them to jump into it. Have them use the free version for a period of time and then report back their findings. If all goes well, you can start expanding the usage throughout the company and you’ll be encouraged to start paying. You’ll also have an in-house person now that – while not an expert – is certainly more intelligent about the application’s capabilities and will be instrumental in mapping out how the application will be used company wide.
You might decide, after using a free CRM for a while, that it’s not exactly your cup of tea. It may also be the cause of you deciding not to get a CRM at all because you or your organization doesn’t have the culture for it. Good.
Disqualifying a software product can be every bit as profitable to you as moving forward with one. You didn’t waste your time. You got smarter about what you need and what you should be looking for. Your next choice will be even better. I have some clients that worked their way through two or three free or trial CRMs over the course of a year before settling in on the one that’s best for their organizations. I have other clients who abandoned their CRM search altogether after discovering that they actually needed a different application, like something for e-commerce or order entry.
Those clients have done well with their choices. But they wouldn’t have had the choice if they didn’t use a free product for a while. Free is good. Paid is better. Use both to make your decision.
Note: My company, The Marks Group, implements some of the products noted in this column. I have not been compensated by any of these companies to write this column.