Salesforce vs. Industry-Specific CRM: What’s best for your business?

From what I’ve observed over the years as a Salesforce and Zoho CRM consultant, when it comes to CRM, there is always a new vendor trying to “build a better mousetrap” – in some cases, justifiably so – but in many cases an industry-specific CRM is just not necessary and ultimately does not end well for the client financially.

While it’s true that some CRM systems are not adequate to meet the needs of certain industry verticals and their specific user requirements, in most cases the leading CRMs like Salesforce and Zoho CRM, can be configured and/or customized by experienced CRM consultants to meet the needs of any industry’s specific requirements, as well as your company-specific requirements within that industry.

Let’s start with clarifying the difference between configuration and customization. Configuration requires “clicks rather than code”. In other words, configuration involves adding custom fields and values, record types, workflows, templates, page layouts and many other things that can be done with tools built into the CRM, without requiring custom development (coding).

Customization on the other hand, involves building custom applications, using CSS to alter the look of pages, using JavaScript to add capabilities, using APIs for 3rd party app integrations, etc. Customization requires a developer that can take an “off the shelf” CRM product and make it do just about anything the client requires. Both Salesforce and Zoho CRM can be configured, customized, integrated with 3rd party products, or a combination of all of the above, to do just about anything your business requires.

But isn’t customizing these CRMs an expensive way to come up with a CRM that meets your needs, when you can buy a purpose-built CRM for your industry? The quick answer is “Yes, it can be expensive”, but often the more educated answer is “No, it’s often a lot less expensive in the long run if you look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) of your CRM”.

Here’s why: Beyond the obvious criteria that a CRM should meet before your company commits to it (features and functionality, data security, ease of use, reporting, etc.), from my perspective, there are three additional criteria that should be considered before deciding if an industry-specific CRM is the right choice for your business:

  • The FLEXIBILITY of the CRM to adapt to the specific needs of your business.
  • The TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP (TCO) – the cost to purchase, implement and maintain your CRM application long term.
  • The TRUST you have in the company as well as the CRM application they have developed

Let’s start with 1) Flexibility. Just because a new vendor comes out with what appears to be a brilliant new CRM tailored specifically to your industry, doesn’t mean you should buy it. New vendors are constantly emerging that have developed industry-specific CRM systems, claim they are the best at what they do, and have developed something unique and otherwise unavailable in other CRMs. In some cases, they are correct and their CRM fills a gap in the market, but in many cases their application is inferior to CRMs that have been in the game for years.

While some new vendors have strong CRMs that become adopted and ultimately regarded highly within the industry they are intended for, others have attractive bells and whistles, such as cool dashboard graphics and drag-and-drop functionality, but at their core are not well-designed, flexible CRMs that can be further developed to do specifically what you want.

In conversations with numerous business owners and stakeholders over the years, it amazes me how many have invested significant amounts of time and money rolling out a rather obscure and virtually unknown CRM they thought would be the end all, be all, but ultimately does not meet the specific needs of their business. While their CRM was developed specifically for their industry, it’s so inflexible that it can’t be configured much beyond the way it comes “out of the box”, so they end up abandoning it altogether. What a waste of time and money for a business.

Often, industry-specific CRMs are developed to manage and report on your data a certain way, but that may not be the right way for your business.  Once you have invested in a CRM like this, the vendor and/or its consultants have you by the dollars. It’s very expensive to change to another CRM.

And that brings us to 2) The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). If the CRM vendor you’re dealing with (or the consultants that do work on their behalf) can’t or won’t help you customize their application, adequately support it long-term, or they go out of business, you risk your CRM becoming obsolete and will need to move to a different one. You’ll wind up paying all over again, not only for new CRM licenses and support from another vendor, but significantly more for the time and cost of another implementation, data migration and training.

Not to mention the often overlooked but significant cost of your internal resources; the people in your company tasked with managing the project and working with the new consultants that are handling the implementation and training. The cost will now escalate far beyond what you were told it would by the original CRM vendor with “The best solution for your industry”.

If you want it done right, implementing a CRM system is relatively expensive now matter how you slice it. It requires strategic thinking, careful planning, CRM-specific skills, and time – all of which cost money. The good news is that a well- implemented CRM system will not only pay for iteself, but will pay huge dividends long-term, due to the efficiencies it creates within your organization, and to support the high levels of sales, marketing and customer service work your teams can deliver to attract and retain customers. That’s why companies invest in CRM in the first place, but getting it right the first time is critical.

Now here’s where 3) Trust should come into play during your CRM vendor selection process. The challenge is that many industry-specific CRM vendors (and many new CRM vendors that aren’t industry specific) are often start-up companies that lack the longevity and proven track record to back up their applications with a known and predictable level of reliability, customizability, customer service and support.

I recently spoke with a prospective client that was debating whether to go with a small start-up CRM vendor’s application I had never heard of, or go with Salesforce Sales Cloud or Zoho CRM, which have been going strong since 1999 and 2005 respectively. I explained that personally, I would not be willing to have a newly established company host my confidential client data on their servers or those they outsource to, nor would I risk the fact that many start-ups fail and could thus disappear in a heartbeat with my money and/or my customer’s data.

I explained that even some of the larger CRM vendors have been hacked, but at least have the experience and resources to mitigate the damage, which does not make me any more comfortable dealing with a start-up CRM vendor, typically backed by investors with deep enough pockets that they can afford to write-off a loss if all goes sideways and the company closes its doors.

My prospective client mentioned the CRM vendor she was considering is a five-person start-up. I asked her, “Do you really want to have your CRM managed by a five-person company, trust that your data is secure, and that they can provide the level of support you need when something goes wrong?” And believe me, something can and will go wrong with any software as a service (SaaS) application that is continually being developed and upgraded. She quickly nixed them as a potential vendor, and we discussed Salesforce or Zoho CRM as options for her business.

Vendors like Salesforce and Zoho, while not perfect by any means, are 15-20 years ahead of the curve in terms of their learnings from years of CRM development and support, their growth and longevity as companies, and their stable of partners and resources to adequately support their applications long-term. The bottom line: they are established, profitable companies that aren’t going out of business any time soon. That alone should be a primary consideration when thinking about investing in CRM. These two vendors have proven over the years that they have what it takes to develop and support strong, flexible CRM applications that can be tailored to suit the needs of virtually any industry and business.

Would you buy a car in its first year of production? Many people would, but not me. It’s a good thing for manufacturers that not everyone is like me, or they would never sell a car and become established. I’d rather wait for the second or third year when the mechanical and electrical issues have been worked out, the safety is improved and the car’s reliability has been tested and proven all around. The same applies to CRM.

Admitedly, I’m not an early adopter of almost anything. I’ll let others line up for hours to get the latest iPhone or Tesla model, then complain in product reviews that it has numerous issues that need fixing. While nothing is perfect, an application or product has to be reasonably well-establisehd before I will invest my time and money into it. I recommend the same to my clients.

So far, I haven’t seen a business where Salesforce and/or Zoho CRM can’t be configured and/or customized to suit. That’s the beauty of the Salesforce and Zoho CRM applications, they are extremely flexible and adaptable. This is not to say that you should never look beyond these two applications to meet your company’s CRM needs, but because they have been progressively developed for so long, there are many industry-specific packs and add-ons, integrations and customizations available from the vendors themselves or through 3rd party developers, almost anything is possible to meet your business requirements.

Ultimately you will decide what’s best for your business, but for my money, I’d stick with the tried and true when it comes to CRM. In the long run, I believe you’ll “catch more mice” at a lower TCO, and with much less risk.


Bob Neudecker, Founder & CEO
Ten5 CRM