What’s the best Salesforce alternative? Why (most) startups should NOT use Salesforce

by Ryan Robinson
best Salesforce alternatives should you use Salesforce

One of the most common questions Steli’s been fielding from startup founders for years, is “should we use Salesforce?” Now, as a sales CRM ourselves, our answer is undoubtedly biased, but because we’ve become so well-known as one of the best Salesforce alternatives on the market, we’re very clear in saying that the answer to this question is always—it depends.

For some startups, like those already reaching an enterprise level of scale, Salesforce will likely be the best CRM solution. However, we’re firm believers that the vast majority of startups (and SMBs), especially those not generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, should not use Salesforce. 

And this goes all the way back to why we built Close.io in the first place.

Let me ask you a question to illustrate…

Setting all costs aside, if you want to fly as quickly as possible to multiple destinations around the country (to locations that may change at the drop of a hat based on new information), would you choose to be a passenger on a 747 or would you rather pilot your own fighter jet?

While a commercial airliner will move significantly more people and cargo from point a to point b, they don’t exactly scream speed, maneuverability, or flexibility. Plus, once your ticket is booked, you’re either along for the ride or you’re paying a hefty change fee.

Piloting a fighter jet, your crew is smaller, but you’re lean… light… fast… flexible.

In the time a 747 gets a large number of people to the first destination on your list, your fighter jet has already taken a smaller group of people to five locations. 

Salesforce is a commercial airliner and you need a fighter jet.

As an early to mid-stage startup, you can’t afford to be on anything but a fighter jet.

Which means, unless you’re a later-stage startup with a sales team well into the dozens (or hundreds) of members, when considering Salesforce alternatives, you shouldn’t be evaluating all of the other commercial airline options at your disposal.

You need a solution that’s going to support the goals of your business today.

Some day in the future, once you have a team that can fill a 747, and you have the luxury of slowing down in your journey a little bit, you can (and should) re-evaluate your method of transportation to see what makes the most sense at the time.

But for right now, you should only be considering fighter jets when it comes to the core systems and tools your startup is leveraging in order to grow as quickly as possible.

Should startups and SMBs use Salesforce? Debunking 4 common myths.

The short answer to this question is hell no, but let’s dig into why not.

First and foremost, there are a few pervasive myths floating around when it comes to the question of whether or not your startup should use Salesforce.

1. They’re the biggest, so they must be the best.

Many founders and sales leaders think they should use Salesforce, simply because they’re the biggest, most recognizable brand in the CRM space.

You’ve seen their commercials on television, well-produced video ads on Facebook, billboards lining the freeways in major US cities, and their name all over some of the biggest multi-million dollar startup conferences around the world. 

However, just because they have the biggest brand name, spend the most on advertising, and have been in the industry longer than most, doesn’t mean they’re the best for every startup and SMB—let alone the right solution for every stage of your business. 

This same logic should apply to any product, tool or service you’re considering for your business, especially since bigger industry players in B2B software often charge hefty price premiums simply because they can. 

Moreover, each tool you employ should be evaluated based on its individual merits, as they stand to impact your key objectives and goals at the current stage of your business.

2. We’ll need it eventually, so we might as well get it now.

When you’re in the midst of hiring, you’ll hear many sales managers and reps who’ve worked in enterprise organizations, tout the importance of using Salesforce from day one for the sole reason that you’ll eventually want to be using it down the line, so you might as well get it today and begin growing into it. 

This couldn’t be more wrong, and it’s hands down one of the worst reasons to make the  decision to use Salesforce, because you’re essentially “living above your means” in the here and now. 

You shouldn’t make key business decisions today, based on criteria you’re projecting will come to pass far into the future.

If today you’re looking to buy your first home while you’re straight out of college, single, and earning a decent income at your first job, your financial advisor wouldn’t recommend buying a six bedroom house with a massive estate and garden, simply because you plan on getting married and having several children in the future.

It’s not the right house for right now. Instead, your financial advisor would probably recommend a starter house that’s more affordable within your budget. Something that fits your stage in life and needs today. 

The same goes with your decision to choose a CRM that’s right for your business today—and not the one you think you’ll need two years from now.

There’s virtually no situation where the same tool that’s best for your business at 10 employees, will continue to be the best once you’ve grown to over 100. Getting the wrong  tool for the stage your business is in today, will only harm your sales productivity. 

Don’t worry, you’ll have no trouble upgrading to an option with more features when you genuinely need (and can afford) a product with more advanced customizations.

3. Sophisticated or complex software will help us succeed.

When I first started selling online courses on my blog, I made the decision to invest over $2,000 (and $250/mo moving forward) into using a very sophisticated marketing and sales automation tool before I’d even made enough sales to pay for the tool each month.

Every influencer in my industry was using this tool at the time, it had all the features I could ever conceivably use, and then some. It seemed like a dream come true that’d magically unlock massive sales growth for me. 

So, what do you think happened next? Did I immediately rise to the occasion, selling ten times as many courses now that I had this fancy Ferrari of a tool for my business?

Uh no, not quite. About three months after buying this expensive, full-featured tool, I was still selling just a small handful of online courses each month. Exactly like I was before. Literally nothing had changed except the fact that I was now spending way more money on this tool than I could afford—so I had to pull the plug.

Using a new, perceived “better” tool didn’t change the fundamentals of my business.

It forced me to confront the glaring truth that I didn’t actually have product-market fit for my business yet, and that became a very expensive lesson. I went back to the drawing board, spent more time talking to my customers, and eventually moved into using a more stripped down version of that marketing and sales automation tool that fit my budget & stage of my business. 

I’m not alone in this predicament either.

Steli recently spoke to a founder of a startup with 30 to 40 employees that recently signed up to use Salesforce for their relatively small team. The cost was a bit of a stretch for them, but they thought it’d be worth starting now so they could grow into product—and that they’d unlock some unexpected benefits of using the platform.

Fast forward three months into using Salesforce, they realized nobody on their sales team could even use the product effectively without a ton of implementation and customization help. So, they reached out to a Salesforce consultant and ended up spending another $100,000 getting their version of the product customized so that their team could actually use it well on a day-to-day basis. Ouch. 

Just because large, successful companies in your space are using a CRM solution like Salesforce, doesn’t mean that you’re in a position to actually benefit from using it at this stage in your business.

Take an honest look at your fundamentals today and find the CRM that has the right product-stage fit, which if you’re an early or mid-stage startup, will rarely be Salesforce.

4. Members of our sales team have used it before, so let’s just use a CRM they already know.

It can be tempting to go with a CRM solution like Salesforce, when your only salespeople or primary sales leader have worked with the product for years throughout previous jobs.

They know all of the features like the back of their hand, can help with more advanced customizations that’ll lead to sales productivity gains, and have seen first-hand how the tool functions within the kind of sales organization they’re working to create at your company. You can already anticipate the complaints about having to learn a new system.

Going back to our product-stage fit argument, unless all things are held equal between your sales organization and the previous ones your team members were a part of, the same products, tools and services simply aren’t guaranteed to be the right fit.

In fact, they likely won’t be. And at the end of the day, choosing to simply give your team a CRM they’re more familiar with, won’t let you cut corners on the more important fundamentals like properly training your sales team.

How to evaluate the best Salesforce alternative CRM for your startup.

Now that we’re on the same page about not needing a Salesforce, enterprise-focused CRM for your early to mid-stage company, let’s dive into the criteria you should be using to evaluate all of the Salesforce alternatives that’ll be a better fit for your startup. 

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Begin by asking yourself these questions.

1. Does this CRM have product-stage fit for our business?

This is by far the most important question to answer with any Salesforce alternative you’re considering. You need to make sure you’re evaluating the right class of CRM that’s designed to help your sales organization grow at this stage—rather than saddling yourself to something larger and cumbersome that has features you’re expecting to need in a year. 

Look for clear callouts about which team sizes the CRM is perfect for on the homepage and feature pages of each of the Salesforce alternatives you’re evaluating to make sure you’re choosing the right tool for where you’re at today. 

Carefully read the product reviews, either on the company’s own website or on platforms like G2 Crowd and TrustRadius to see what actual salespeople who work with the product  day in and day out have to say about it. For both positive and negative reviews, assess the size and stage of those companies by looking up them up on Crunchbase or Angel List and see if the review is heavily influenced by the stage their company is at.

2. What kinds of customers does the CRM appear to make most of their money from?

If your sales team has under ten members, but the Salesforce alternative you’re considering prominently displays “featured client” logos of only Fortune 500 brands that have sales teams in the hundreds or thousands, that’s cause for serious concern that the tool isn’t designed for you and your company’s current sales process.

Beyond just ensuring that there’s product-stage fit in terms of the features and pricing that need to work with both your budget and needs for today, taking a closer look at the customers each of your prospective CRMs are serving, will tell you a lot about how much attention you’ll be able to get from their support team when you have questions.

If you’re going to be the smallest fish in a pond full of giant customers, you can expect to have a more difficult time commanding support resources for things like integrations, customizations and troubleshooting that can take up a good amount of time in the early stages of implementing a new CRM.

Find the right CRM that serves customers similar in size, stage and ideally even more specific areas like industry and general business model—they’ll have more experience working with similar brands, which will translate into clear benefits for you.

3. Will we get all of the features we need out of this CRM?

Does the Salesforce alternative you’re considering have a feature set that reflects the way your sales team is actually selling? 

If your team spends time on the phone calling prospects each day, the options you’re considering better have built-in calling connected to their CRM—otherwise, you’re going to have a much more disconnected sales process. 

If your reps spend most of their day working in their inboxes, scheduling meetings, selling individual accounts via email, or otherwise, then you’ll need a CRM that helps them intelligently organize their email communications with each account, so that they’re not regularly wasting time trying to search their inbox in Gmail or Outlook. 

If you’re regularly booking demos, calls or meetings with your prospects to explain your product and explore whether or not it’ll be the right fit, then you’ll want a CRM that has smart integrations to the other products and tools that are integral to your sales process.

4. Will we get too many features from this CRM?

Just as important as it is to make sure you’re getting enough of the right features in your Salesforce alternative, you need to be just as vigilant in making sure you don’t sign your company up for a CRM that needs countless hours of customizations and integrations because of feature overload. 

If there’s not a current business use-case for each core feature of the CRM you’re considering, the chances are high that your team will end up with more distractions in front of them than it’s worth.

The reality is that every hour your sales team spends on activities where they’re not selling—moving more deals through your pipeline—is a waste of time. Your CRM features need to support only those handful of mission critical selling activities in your sales process.

In fact, whenever you’re evaluating adding a new tool to your company’s tech stack—whether that be marketing platforms, support software, bots to book more meetings from visitors on your website, project management tools, team communication applications or otherwise—having too many features can be just as damaging to your team’s productivity as not having enough.

5. What does the onboarding process look like for this CRM?

One of the things we’re most proud of about the CRM product we’ve built here at Close.io, is that the entire onboarding process for most new customers takes about 2 hours. The same goes for getting new teammates up to speed on our platform. That’s it. 

Right off the bat, some of the Salesforce alternatives on the market will can take up to 2 weeks of hands on, dedicated time from someone on your team just to get all of the custom integrations handled and data transferred over to your new system.

That doesn’t even take into account the time and productivity you’ll lose when adding new members to your team if it takes them days or weeks just to develop an understanding of how to use your CRM within their workflow.

Again, going back to the stage your business is in today, sales productivity and closing more deals need to come first above all else on your sales team. That’s your number one priority, so you shouldn’t be as worried about forecasting tools, data structures, security and integrations at this point. Those are all distractions from empowering your team to spend more time selling.

6. What do online reviews say (and who’s saying what)?

Beyond just a thumbs up or thumbs down review for the Salesforce alternative you’re considering, you need to take a closer look at who is saying what.

Are the positive reviews coming from a certain size or industry-focused company? Are they written by consultants or affiliates just looking to earn more from the sale of another seat?

Be vigilant about filtering for biases within the reviews you read, and even more importantly, focus on determining the role of the person leaving each review. 

Are negative reviews coming from salespeople who are actually using the product? The CRM might have the best reporting features in the world for managers who want to gauge the effectiveness of each rep, but if you can clearly read in reviews that the product isn’t designed with reps in mind, run for the hills.

Final thoughts on choosing the best Salesforce alternative for you.

Check your product-stage fit and be rigorously disciplined with your CRM decision.

Choosing the wrong CRM for the stage your business is in today, can have disastrous consequences for the future growth of your company. Don’t cripple yourself by choosing a solution for the primary reason that it’s popular, has great branding or looks cool.

Know your sales process inside and out. Do your research. Compare features. 

As an early to mid-stage B2B startup or SMB, your number one company objective—and sales goal—is to close more deals and grow your revenue.

Without growth in that key top-line metric, nothing else will survive in the long run.

Any CRM you choose to employ that doesn’t reinforce that goal with everything from their core features, to the level of support you can expect, how long it’ll take to migrate, the onboarding process for new teammates, and more—is just plain not worth your time and money.

And at the end of the day, nothing beats actually taking all of your CRM options for a free test drive to see which one is the right fit.

Start a 14 day free trial of Close.io today (no credit card required).

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