Disadvantages of "free" software in general and "free" CRM systems in particular.

If you are currently using Excel spreadsheets as a startup or SME to control your production and manage your customer communication, you have probably thought about switching to a dedicated software that is specially tailored to this challenge.

The obvious choice is “free” software, either free of charge, open source or for a one-time license fee. We have summarized for you why this inevitably will free won’t be free down the road from our experience and the experience of customer opinions.

TL; DR

Stay with your well-managed Excel spreadsheets before investing in bad software.

If free, then the stripped down version of a real, established CRM system is the way to go. For everything else, at least pay attention to the exportability of your data.

Choose a SaaS CRM system, and one where customer relationship management is the core product, in order for continuous development of the software being almost guaranteed.

Of course, you are constantly thinking about improving your customer communication and your contact lists with some at least basic CRM software. Because customers / clients / patients are your focus and legitimacy to exist as a freelancer or entrepreneur. Obviously, why not look for a free CRM and a quick search seems to confirm your intuition:

  • 7 Best Free and Open Source CRM Software Options
  • Best free CRM software for 2020
  • 6 Best Free CRM Software for 2019
  • Free CRM #1 cloud software for any business large or small
  • Free CRM Software for Small Business
  • 5 Popular Free and Open Source CRM Software
  • ...


But if you start to read through these results, it quickly becomes obvious that "free" is not immediately "free" and certain functionalities are not included in the "free" version and support and setup costs extra, and what do I actually need in a CRM system...

Differentiation of Free CRM Systems

We have found that there are three different types of "free" CRM systems.

  • Basic CRM systems
  • OpenSource CRM systems
  • Limited functionality versions of larger CRM systems

There is no "free" software. You always invest in setting up, adapting and training.

Free Basic CRM Software

Basic CRMs are systems with a minimal range of functions. You can expect that their functions will include a little more than you have with a good address book software, e.g. their deal flow is managed through pipelines.
Users of such systems are often of the opinion that the contact management functions could be improved, similar to something that they are actually used to from a good address book. With HubSpot, for example, you cannot add multiple email addresses to a contact or merge two companies in the database. With Google Contacts this is not a problem.
Basic CRM software usually lacks detailed reports, different language versions, and adjustments to the company's own processes.

OpenSource CRM systems

One of my favorite CRM systems was the OpenSource CRM SugarCRM, more precisely the SugarCRM Community Edition.
Free support can be found in forums, a huge advantage compared to less known software, which is often poorly documented. Likewise, OpenSource software is usually available in a variety of different languages. However, money is always earned from implementing, maintaining and consulting, so that the community and development often depend on the resources of these software consultancies or foundations. And that's where the dog is buried: OpenSource is a coding philosophy and has nothing to do with "free". For example, the SugarCRM Community Edition has not been supported since summer 2017 and so-called forks branch out to do their own thing. Forks like SuiteCRM offer paid support starting at $ 2,000 a year; or, a consultancy offers a German language package free of charge.

Limited Functionality Versions of larger CRM Systems

Some professional CRMs also offer a version with a smaller range of functions free of charge. It's hard to believe that a tool that is so important to your operations won't cost a dime. But their calculations work, because once you invest time in their product, you're more likely to invest in a paid plan sooner or later. And even if you don't, these CRMs offer some free features for free. Such kind of "free" CRM software are generally the most reliable choice.


Long-term disadvantages

Setup, maintenance

If you or a consultant need a 100 hours to set up the system or every time something needs to be adjusted, the free software is as good as a joke during lunch break.
Rather, you should invest in software that is cloud-based, as this means you don't have to develop a costly and time-consuming infrastructure, and the software is constantly evolving and adapting.

Integration

Hitting the same notch is, whether your new CRM can be integrated with other apps. After all, you want your other applications such as email, social media, calling, e-commerce and marketing platforms to be integrated natively or via APIs.

Feature Set

Does the free version really have the functionality you actually need in order for you to be able to manage the basics without having to upgrade? Or, are you restricting yourself because you are skimpy? Good free CRMs include at least contact management, deal tracking and task automation.

Reporting

Reporting is mentioned as one of the most frequently missing functions, in retrospect. After all, once you have set-up your customer relationship systems, you quickly realize that what applies to every management also applies to customer relationship management: what is not getting measured is not getting done.

Product Strategy

No matter if you are looking for free or paid software, you should familiarize yourself with the product strategy!
In the case of Customer Relationship Software you want to know if the CRM is part of a larger enterprise system, accounting software or email program? Then, the development team's attention will not be 100% on developing the CRM. Even the range of functions may suffer or may not even be available for this kind of CRM (and may not even be communicated in the marketing materials properly). For example, at Zoho, one of the leading online office suites, it is often noted that it is “not as functional as the other CRM systems” and that exporting is not as convenient as one is used to.

Unique Take

The question of the further development of the software also falls within the scope of the larger product strategy. If they pursue a certain market strategy, then the likelihood increases that features unique to this market will be developed. I.e. there are many CRMs that e.g. have functions for eCommerce systems and thus differ from other free software.

Branding

With free CRM software some degree of Branding of the CRM vendor will be most likely to be experienced by your customers. If you do not want your emails to be provided with a "Send by Hubspot" or your chat with a "Powered by Freshworks", then you cannot avoid a paid version.
It is precisely these little things that leave a bad impression on an otherwise carefully drafted professional appearance. Our experience shows that obvious branding is something that would keep many from using a product. And for sure because then you just as well might send your emails from your @gmail address.

When you might consider a free CRM

A little more functionality
If you are currently using an address book software, Excel spreadsheets, or your accounting software to manage customer communications and contact lists, you might consider free CRM software. You are already used to the basic options anyway.

Teams
If you need to improve your internal communication and the processes in the management and communication of contacts in your team, i.e. across several people, the next step to a free CRM could be helpful.

Improve
If you're an SME or startup, consider a CRM system that can grow with you if you manage your customer communications more seriously.
Whether free or not, avoid the “too simple” CRMs: you have to differentiate between a simple free CRM and the free version of a larger CRM system.

Therefore the whole question of a "free" CRM is somehow meaningless. The correct question would be the functions that you need today and tomorrow, too. And above all the crucial point is the daily work with a software system: You have to work with it every day!

Ultimate cost-effectiveness: usability / user experience

A CRM is used every day. Just about everyone should be able to use CRM with ease in everyday use. This brings us to the heart of our customer management philosophy: If you don't use your CRM system every day, you don't manage your customer relationships at all. I would even go so far to say that you have no serious relationship with your customers at all!


Conclusion

Free CRM software is mostly too basic to create great benefits for startups, SMEs and freelancers. Free versions of larger CRM systems are in most cases branded and serve to draw you to investment in their systems to later have you upgrade to the paid versions. This is often the case as soon as you need more than one user account or advanced functionality. Or, they offer a free CRM to sell you another product like marketing automation software. This can be even dangerous because the focus of product development is on this other core product and not on the CRM itself that you are using.
The main task of a CRM software company is to continuously develop their CRM system software (for this reason SaaS is preferred) and it is then, that the free version can also be a good choice for you.
Remember, there's nothing like a free lunch. As an entrepreneur, you know that you always invest: Either in setting up the software and your workflows, in training and getting to know the software, or...