Blogging about tech startup life - Sales, Marketing and Software.

I’ve used some of the most popular CRM systems on the market in the past 18 months, this is what I learned.

(I list my marketing stack at the end of this article for anyone that’s interested).

The truth is, different systems are good for different business needs – I wanted to share my in depth learnings below in the hope that I can save others valuable time and money (I’m still paying subscriptions for a CRM I don’t use, talk about a startup nightmare)!

Salesforce Lightening Professional

This was my starting point almost 18 months ago – my business is primarily sales driven because that’s the area I excel at and so I sat down and thought to myself, “I want the best tool for the job and no matter what the learning curve I’m willing to put the effort in”. Salesforce is famous world wide for being the best sales tool, so I jumped in.

I took the Lightening Professional package priced at the time £70/month – the reason I took this and not the £30/month package was I needed the ability to use the API integrations. Immediately I was locked into a 12 month contract but they did allow me to make payments monthly (at this stage the business was basically broke and I was paying all the bills personally). Big commitment both financially and personally but to get the right tool for the job, “let’s do it” I thought.

First of all, just building out the custom Contact and Company property tags was a mission within itself and eventually I hired a contractor from Upwork to help me get set-up. I gave him a £500 budget and said exactly what I needed to use the system for and he delivered. My newly defined sales process was in place and I was off.

The problems appeared pretty quickly in SF for myself. First the Dashboard – every CRMs core that should show you any tasks due, any fancy reports and most importantly your revenue both closed and projected plus deal flow. The amount of bugs and issues with the SF dashboard was unbelievable – I actually thought I must be using it wrong. No way is such a world famous market leading CRM having the most basic issues like this – I was missing tasks that were due as they just weren’t appearing, couldn’t get a clear picture of my projected revenue and was not enjoying the experience. I reached out to my account manager and he laughed the situation off and just said ‘Oh yeah, the Dashboard does that sometimes.’ I was dumbfounded and couldn’t believe it.

Next up – I do all of my emails from G-Mail in my browser – huge fan of the G-Suite for business tools and I wanted a browser extension that would pull all e-mails into the CRM and enable me to quickly see my current position with a contact when necessary. Turns out, SF can’t do this without a huge customisation or expensive plugin (dwarfing what I was already paying). The other option was bring back in my contractor but at this stage I was starting to worry about how much this system was costing me and I couldn’t get past the dashboard issues.

The final point for me was the inability to make calls from my browser directly within the CRM without paying another £300/month for a custom plugin. Honestly, my Salesforce experience was that feeling of a vulnerable person that everyone was trying to get money from for everything.

To summarise Salesforce,

Not the right choice if you have a low budget or are just starting out. I have some friends who have revenue in the £m that swear by it however they also have part/full time staff working solely with the system. Maybe one day I’ll go back – but I’ve got a fair way to go yet and need something for the now, not the future.

Hubspot CRM (Marketing Professional Pro Package)

The most popular by a country mile – mainly because they offer the basic version of the CRM completely free. If you are a brand new business with zero money to invest in a starting system then I’ll make this article very easy for you – Hubspot FREE CRM is for you until you have money in the bank to invest in a better system or seriously upgrade your HS (not that you need to do either of these things mind, well, maybe for the Reporting suite).

Personally, I used the Marketing Pro pack after claiming the 90% startup discount (read more here) due to us graduating from the Y-Combinator Startup School. There are many different incubators and co-working spaces that qualify for this, just check out the previous link to see if you qualify.

Now, when I started I absolutely loved this – I spent around 2 weeks building out my custom deal flow, adding in custom tags to both the Contact and Company database sections, creating different lists and even used my new automation software to move contacts around the lists based on their interaction levels, deal stage level etc. To be honest, I thought this was me done and I would never move away from HS – and then…

Fast forward a few months, business is going great and I start investing in paid ads, primarily Google & Facebook (shoutout to WebMarketer) and then the biggest issues started to arise with the CRM setup. One of our paid conversion tactics was to offer people a calendar that they could book themselves into, ok pretty simple and HS has a great looking calendar feature you can use. Look isn’t everything – you can’t track conversions from paid ads through to the HS calendar thus rendered useless – enter Calendly that did allow us to track conversion using a custom re-direct URL. $8/ month well spent.

Next issue, we needed loads of landing pages to send our paid traffic to (because everyone knows you don’t send paid traffic to the homepage, right? Just checking…). HS has an awesome built in landing page builder yet it comes with a steep learning curve.  The team there are excellent at support and they will even copy your existing website headers and footers into a landing page format you can re-use time and time again. I thought this would be great yet in order to fully utilise this you are making a huge, long term commitment and while I plan on being in business for a long time I have no intentions of paying HS north of £1k/ month for the rest of Clockers lifetime. Let me explain a bit further.

One of the big benefits about using landing pages is yes they are excellent for PPC but also a benefit for organic SEO – you want to build these pages and leave them there for good! If you build them on HS and cancel your HS subscription at any time, say goodbye to these LPs you spent so long building and also the SEO benefits that you’ve spent so long building out.

The other issue that pushed me in a different direction here was that I had to put the LPs and blog (if using HS built in blogging platform) on a subdomain – meaning I would need to use something similar to https://landing-pages.clockers.io and https://blog.clockers.io < if you don’t know much about SEO then please take this 1 fact away from this post – Subdomains SUCK for SEO! Each subdomain in the eyes of the search engines is classed as a brand new website, starting from the beginning. You need to be using https://www.clockers.io/landing-pages/page-name and https://www.clockers.io/blog/blog-post-name so you really get the benefits of your whole site being just 1 digital entity. Yes, www. is the best and only subdomain you should be using (unless you have a web application, but that’s a different story).

There is one way to use the LPs and Blog in the preferred method, but that would mean building your new main site in Hubspot and fully committing to the platform meaning putting HS on the www. subdomain with complete domain authority – we recently spent a fair amount on a new website that I wasn’t ready to bin at this stage.

So to sum this section up,

  1. I didn’t want to use a subdomain and build awesome SEO content away from my main site
  2. We already have a nice looking website that I’m not ready to delete and start again
  3. The risk of potentially loosing great SEO content (and their all important URLs) was too high

I resolved this landing page builder issue by introducing a suite of WordPress plugin tools called Thrive Themes – definitely recommend checking them out. The lead generation tools and ease of use is perfect – very cost effective for a startup also at just $19/month for everything (you need to pay annually though).

See the pattern here? I’m starting to pay for tools that while HS does have them, they weren’t fit for my business needs. Alongside all of this – I even brought in a contractor to build out some brilliant automated lead management flows using the HS Marketing Automation and I never got to use these. By this point I was too resistant to keep investing in the HS tools as I knew I was going to need a different solution. At this stage I’m already building LPs and lead generation forms elsewhere and using a different calendar and thought, “what’s the point”?

To summarise Hubspot,

My business has a clear need for both sales and marketing CRM systems and my preference has always been to use a one-size fits all. The HS Sales CRM still is one of the best I’ve used – the custom reports you can build on the Sales Pro plan and the ability to make calls within the browser push the Sales side of the CRM above anything else I’ve used in my opinion and this really comes into its own when you are creating report dashboards from your own custom Contact and Company fields.

The big let down for me was the marketing suite – the combined price tag for all of the above once the Startup discount expires is around the £1k / month mark before you start adding huge contact lists(these can get expensive!). HS wasn’t right for me.

ActiveCampaign

The ActiveCampaign CRM has interested me for a while mainly because I have a lot of friends in the marketing area who say that this is the best tool they have ever used. I’ve stayed away due to not having the huge marketing need but with Clockers having a huge increase in marketing activity I thought this was worth a go, especially since the Plus plan was $70 / month rolling allowing me to cancel any time, there is even a fairly decent trial period.

On signup I was contacted by an AC ‘pro’ to help me get setup and make the most from the system – I jumped on the call and instantly found it valuable. We outlined and identified together my goals and what I needed the system for, followed by getting a weekly date in the diary for the following 5 weeks to continue my setup and make sure I was successful.

The first thing I did was build out my deal flow as we have this fairly nailed down – just like any other CRM this part was straight forward and instantly I felt at home. After adding in a few deals however I noticed the Sales reporting is a lot weaker than Hubspot but I decided to keep going. The main reason I was here after all was to find an all-in-one solution so if I had to sacrifice a bit on the sales reporting to get the marketing side I needed then so be it.

AC integrated with Calendly and Thrive Themes easily through Zapier meaning now I could track all contacts, conversions, activities in one place – I even embedded the site tracking code (just like installing Google Analytics) and was able to use the automation software to notify me when a prospect was browsing my website again so I could give them a call if I really wanted to be creepy, or trigger an auto e-mail based on the content they were reading.

I’d say that AC has made me think about my customer more – how to speak with them, what message to deliver when and most importantly how to ‘nurture’ a lead that isn’t quite yet ready to buy. The automation software took some learning and I’ve been grateful to my weekly calls to tackle the issues that have arisen. I’ve been able to build out delivery of lead magnets to e-mail addresses and based on if a prospect viewed, read or even opened my lead magnet trigger the next activity. This is all what has led me to understanding my customer better to implement the best system I could.

Don’t get me wrong, I have hit some hurdles with the automation yet all in all I’m happy enough and for the price plus integrations I have available to me, this is where my marketing will be staying for a while.

Notice I only said marketing? Truth be told, I’m a sales person. I engage in digital marketing because I’m a startup founder and well, I kind of have to. My thinking here is to use AC to nurture prospects and when they are ready to enter my buying stage either send them via Zapier back to HS Sales CRM or, try Close.com – a fully sales focused CRM that I’m hearing really good things about however I’m not quite finished building out the marketing in AC to a level that I’m happy to let is run on it’s own and until that is done I’ll stick with AC as the deal flow is just about good enough – I just want that bit extra such as browser based calling and detailed financial reporting and forecasting.

To Summarise ActiveCampaign

If you are a marketing driven website that has a lot of leads coming in from lead magnets and other forms of digital ads then AC is definitely for you – the price point and monthly rolling contracts are very attractive and the AC ‘Pro’ that on-boards you can be really valuable. The only issue I’ve found is the in app support has a slow response time (around 48 hours) – this is probably due to mass demand for their product as to be fair it really is worth it.

I’ll update this article once I’ve had the chance to test out Close.com

Side Note – Custom CRM Solutions

Being in the custom software development business here at Clockers I receive at least 1 request a month to build a custom CRM for a business – many of these are early stage startups that don’t really know what they need. I can honestly say that I’ve only come across 2 businesses that truly did need a custom solution. These are when a lot of partners are involved in the supply and quotation stage and they need a way for internal team members to pull everything together and manage the process.

Having a custom CRM solution is excellent however not a cheap investment so before you go this way please make sure to try out the other systems mentioned here and really try to make them work, especially if you are early stage – use your money for marketing or PR. If you do need a custom CRM solution, make sure you map out exactly what you need and be crystal clear on the system requirements from the start. These can get complex and you must be able to clearly portray your business needs.

Conclusion

If you are just starting out or have a low budget for a CRM and just need something to store customer details and monitor where you are with different sales deals, Hubspot FREE CRM is for you.

Have a bit more money to spend and your business is a sales focused one? Hubspot Sales Pro will do the trick nicely.

Larger team with both sales and marketing departments? Just looking for marketing automation for your marketing team to use so you can turn cold leads into Marketing Qualified Leads that you can simply pass off to the sales department? Give ActiveCampaign a shot.

Are you both sales and marketing driven and looking for a complete all in one solution? This is where I am, and personally I’m thinking a combination of ActiveCampaign for the marketing and Hubspot Sales Pro or Close.com for the sales – however, I haven’t tried Close.com yet so to be confirmed.

My Marketing Stack

For anyone that has read this far and is interested in knowing a bit more about the suite of tools we use in Clockers for our marketing, here they are. Happy to answer any questions just reach out to me on [email protected]

  • ActiveCampaign CRM – Lead nurturing and management plus marketing automation
  • Calendly – Calendar booking for prospects and leads to select a day/time that works for them. Integrated with my Google Calendar
  • Thrive Themes – I swear by this at the moment – landing page builder / lead generation form builder / quiz builder / website themes
  • Slack – Team communication
  • Appear.in – All video calls required within the team (we are currently remote)
  • G Suite – Google e-mail with custom domain, Google Calendar
  • Google Analytics – See all website data
  • Google Search Console – How we are performing organically for different keywords within Google
  • Hotjar – Website visitor recordings and heat mapping
  • Funnelytics.io – Funnel mapping and analytics
  • Trello – Planning campaigns and content
  • WebMarketer – These guys are awesome and handle all my paid ads

Over to you…

What’s your experience with any of these CRM’s been like? What other systems do you recommend myself and others try? Really interested to hear thoughts and comments,

    Elliot

    Co-Founder & Managing Director @ Clockers

    Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
    Louis - May 22, 2019 Reply

    Awesome article Elliot the best learnings always come through pain, great that you’ve gone through it so others don’t have to it. Thanks for the Web Marketer shout-out too!

    Martin Shervington - May 23, 2019 Reply

    Hi Elliot!

    As a HubSpot Partner, based in Cardiff, I just wanted to dive in and say you can track Google Ads>Meetings booked using HubSpot PRO.
    (I called HubSpot to double check).

    Not sure if you received different information when you were using the platform, and totally understand how it wasn’t a fit – esp. without using the Marketing Automation aspects.

    There we go! Thanks for letting me comment, Martin (Founder, Plus Your Business!)

      Elliot - May 23, 2019 Reply

      Hey Martin,

      First, thanks for reading and leaving a comment much appreciated 🙂

      That’s really interesting to know, I spent ages trying to figure this out and even asked my account manager. Any ideas how this could be done? I’d love to know still,

        Martin Shervington - May 24, 2019 Reply

        Hi Elliot,
        I contacted HubSpot again to make sure, and ‘YES – 100%’ you absolutely can “embed the meetings link directly on the landing page – the effectiveness of which will be measurable in conversion rates in HubSpot reports”. What you cannot do is redirect to another page once they book a meeting.
        Glad you’ve connected with Peter now – and you know where I am if can help in any way, Martin

    Peter ODonoghue - May 24, 2019 Reply

    Hi Elliot – your frustration with the meeting booking tracking is spot on. I submitted a change request to Hubspot to add a controllable redirect to a landing page – which can have a tracking code on: https://community.hubspot.com/t5/HubSpot-Ideas/Add-a-redirect-after-booking-a-Meeting/idi-p/189952#comments

    This was about 18 months ago and is a very active thread. There are a few workarounds on this thread to accomplish it.

    If anyone reading is stuck with the Hubspot Sales platform particularly then give me a shout as I was part of an advisory team helping HS build it out when they launched. They didn’t listen to all my suggestions obviously!

      Elliot - May 24, 2019 Reply

      Thanks Peter! Will check out the thread,

    Prince - May 24, 2019 Reply

    Very much agree with your conclusion.

    Here is my summary after working with both Salesforce and Hubspot for various clients.

    -Salesforce for sales
    Pros:
    Very good for established sales teams with more than 10 salespeople.

    Cons:
    Expensive and clunky.

    -Salesforce marketing
    Pros:
    I am yet to speak to any client who loves the salesforce marketing tool.

    Cons:
    Clunky and expensive, I wouldn’t advise anyone to touch it.

    -Hubspot sales starter and sales pro
    Pros:
    Useful for sales if your organisation has less than 10 salespeople.

    Cons:
    Hubspot sales tools are priced separately to the marketing tools so keep that in mind if you want to add marketing automation.

    -Hubspot sales enterprise – is useful for a team of over 10 people with better UI and overall cheaper than salesforce for sales.

    The general criteria if a client asks for CRM advise is this:

    1/ If the business is small: less than 5 people and its sales driven.
    I would recommend Hubspot sales and the free CRM.

    2/ If the business is small: less than 5 people and its sales and marketing driven.

    I would recommend Hubspot sales and hubspot marketing if the business has a 90% discount and the business is confident it can afford Hubspot marketing pro after the discount runs out.

    If the business does not qualify for the 90% discount, I would recommend Hubspot sales and cheaper marketing automation software eg Active campaign.

    3/ If a business is medium (10-100 employees or revenue of £100k to £1M) and is sales and marketing driven.
    I would recommend Hubspot sales and marketing.

    4/ If the business is large (100+ employees or revenue of £1M+ ) and its sales and marketing driven.

    I would recommend Hubspot marketing automation.

    Sales can choose either Hubspot sales or salesforce depending on the requirements of the sales team.

    Hope it helps.

      Elliot - May 24, 2019 Reply

      Hey Prince,

      Thanks for the comments 🙂 Interesting to learn Hubspot Sales Enterprise has a different UI, would love to have a look over that.

    Jon bennett - May 24, 2019 Reply

    We’re currently testing Hubspot and I’d agree the CRM is far better than most on the market but we’re also considering active campaign.

    One of the big problems I’ve always experienced with CRM systems is keeping the data up to date and consistent.

    Have you had any problems pushing data between active campaign and Hubspot? Does find the right people correctly?

    Ta Jon

      Elliot - May 24, 2019 Reply

      Hey Jon,

      Completely agree that making sure data doesn’t slip through the net or disappear has always been one of my biggest frustrations also.

      To be honest, I’ve learned to be a lot stricter with my sales process and through using the automations to move people around based on interaction or lack of and try not to keep people in certain deal stages for too much time.

      In terms of AC > HS – TBC… I’m about to deep dive in this week 🙂 Sorry couldn’t help more however I hear Zapier is great for passing people based on if a Tag is added.

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