Your definitive CRM selection guide and checklist


The business case is made. The outcomes are clear. The options are endless.

Choosing the right CRM solution is a uniquely daunting prospect.

When confronted with the infinite configurations, vendors and options, trying to decide which serves you best is difficult, so it seems tempting to start talking to vendors and seeing what they offer. But first, you need a solid set of CRM selection criteria.

CRM software sales teams are very sophisticated and will take you on a journey which extols the features of their product and matches them to your needs, but as a potential client if you don’t have a clear idea of what you need, you will be pulled in many different directions by sales teams.

"Choosing the right CRM solution is a uniquely daunting prospect."

This is why we have developed a process to make the decision of how to choose a CRM easier. There are many things to consider when choosing a CRM and although it seems hard, it is best to work out a very clear brief first and work from there. We'll cover:

  • Writing a CRM requirements document
  • Deciding on a deployment method: cloud vs on-premise
  • Forecasting your CRM software budget
  • Shortlisting potential CRM vendors
  • Creating a CRM RFP
  • Evaluating CRM RFP responses and inviting vendors to demo
  • Making your CRM selection decision

This leads us to point one:


1. Write a CRM requirements document

Resist the temptation to start shopping around and first hunker down, ask yourself “what do we want from this CRM?” and look at creating a detailed brief.

On average, most businesses spend 13 weeks selecting their CRM system, according to the most recent CRM research.

If you are a small company, you may not have the in-house expertise to do this so consider buying it in. Think of this as hiring an architect before building a home – an essential step to make sure everything starts off on the right footing.

If you're struggling with features and how to prioritize them, our customizable CRM requirements template could be exactly what you're looking for

Start with what the system should achieve for the business – consider this the benefits part of the brief.

The system will allow us to XYZ. This could improve response time, improve customer outreach or save. Try to quantify this part, so an increase in revenue of 30% or a reduction in customer support queries of 35%.

From here, drive down into a CRM requirements checklist. Below are a few areas you can address in your brief:

  • Email integration 
  • Customization options 
  • Data Migration 
  • Downloads (Excel, PDF into a third party app etc)
  • Hosted versus fully managed
  • Support for mobile devices 
  • Functionality (remote access, call tracking, email marketing etc)

Once you have an idea of outcomes and features you should pay particular attention to the deployment method you’d like for your CRM.


2. Decide on a deployment method: cloud vs on-premise

Around 40% of CRM systems are now cloud-based, and this percentage will increase over the coming years.

Cloud-based CRM systems work well for many companies - those with a moderate upfront budget, limited need for customization and no special security needs. For companies who have the capital for an upfront investment, want total control, and maximum ability to integrate then on-premises solutions can work well.  

Cloud systems can be more expensive over the long term, considering recurring monthly costs which will likely be added per user. If the CRM is long term then the overall cost of cloud can be higher.

For most businesses with modest CRM needs (a sales or contact management CRM ) then the cloud is often the best choice, but on-premise CRM still holds some key advantages, such as security, customization, confidentiality and potential reduced costs. Be clear on these before you make your decision.

This article weighs up the pros and cons of cloud and on-premise CRM in more detail, if you need further information. 

3. Forecast your CRM software budget

Once you have a clear view of what you need, you then need to think about what you are willing to spend and overlay this with needs. This will then give you a final feature set, and you’ll be in a position to seek tenders.

You can use our completely up-to-date pricing guide to forecast baseline CRM costs

When looking at budget don’t just look at the out-of-box price for features. Hidden CRM costs can scupper a project's chances of success, so also consider:

  • Setup
  • Training
  • Integrations and customization
  • Mobile apps
  • Customer support 

You should also think about the time costs required. For example, we suggest putting an hourly rate on senior staff and including these costs in the budget. With time costs included it can make a meaningful impact on the CRM you choose.


4. Shortlist your CRM vendors

You need to sell your company to vendors.  This is counter-intuitive, and many companies are unwilling or unprepared to do this, they feel like the buyer should be in a position to sit back and listen to vendors scrambling over the project.  In reality, this is how most companies go about this process, but that is why 63% of CRM implementations fail to meet management expectations

So you need to be in sales mode; you need to sell your process to the best vendors. Here are five tactics to help get the best vendors engaged in your process:

  • Use an intermediary who has the contacts to approach the most suitable vendors. 
  • Explain why you are a great company to work with. Quote great relationships, professionalism and that you are looking for a partner.
  • Be humble. Yes, you will be clear about what you want but also explain what you will bring to the table. If it’s nothing more than a can-do attitude at least it’s something.
  • Give a clear timeline and go through the decision-making process.
  • Thank them for their time and interest.

Then you should approach the best CRM providers. It is very possible that you have no idea who the best providers are. There are lots of comparison and review sites so do a little research into what will suit you. We have a comparison tool on our site HERE.

"Ask for references and follow them up by asking specific questions - like how the company deals with problems, the weaknesses in their training and how key customizations work."

Also dig around to see what your competitors are using and try and get some information on how well their CRM solutions are performing. Speaking to your network and reaching out to contacts online or on LinkedIn may give you insight. Ask for references and follow them up by asking specific questions - like how the company deals with problems, the weaknesses in their training and how key customizations work. Finally, you can send out Requests for Information (RFIs).


5. Create a CRM RFP

Once you have developed a brief, you need to turn this into a Request for Proposal (RFP). An RFP helps you go to market with a clear plan. This invites CRM vendors to provide a proposal because they shows them you are serious about the process and allows them to make a judgement as to their suitability for the contract. You should include:

  • The objectives of the CRM as discussed earlier in this proposal. Break this into essential and desirable. Mark areas where you are open to suggestions.
  • Include some form of weighting which shows vendors which areas are the most important, which are essential and the areas where you need the most input in the proposal. This should be tabulated to make the proposal more digestible for the bidders.
  • Define what you will be delivering in-house and what you expect from a vendor. For example, will you be completing the migration and training staff or will you expect the vendor to do this?
  • Have a small section on acceptance testing. The expectations of the client almost always outstrip what vendors consider ‘acceptable’, which is a big turn off for vendors because they can end up wasting huge management time helping a client get up to speed.  If you have at least acknowledged this, you will be in the minority. You can suggest a small beta test with a small number of users before going live as a good compromise.
  • Outline the level of training required from the vendor. You don’t need to dictate this too specifically but broadly looking at a range of outcomes is fine here. For example, ten senior managers will need between two days and one week of training. 
  • You may need to document your process so highlight here whether this will be an internal process or something you expect from the vendor.

You can find a template structure for your CRM RFP here.

If the budget is available hiring an external company to run the tendering process is often good – even if you have the expertise in-house. It allows intermediation for the process and having someone in the middle can make the process much smoother. A good intermediary will be able to work on your behalf to negotiate, and they will also know people in the CRM companies and approach them to quote.

These intermediaries are expensive but often well worth it to make sure you get the best range of quotes. An external company will usually set up a selection meeting where the selection committee will individually collate scores and then come together to compare results. The company will then facilitate debate and steer the group to focus on the key areas before arriving at a decision which best serves their brief.


6. Evaluate CRM RFP responses and invite vendors to demo

Once the responses come in you should then narrow this down to companies who are going to make a presentation or demo. Depending on the size of project and level of response three to seven advanced presentations/demos is reasonable.

Get more info on CRM demos by downloading our CRM selection survival guide

These presentations should be framed in a certain way. Continue to be clear with vendors, explaining the time scales and selection criteria before their presentation. A good tactic for understanding about a likely vendor is by leaving parts of the RFP open ended and seeing what level of detail they cover.

"Continue to be clear with vendors, explaining the time scales and selection criteria before their presentation."

Some of the presentations will be by highly skilled sales people. Be wary of promises made – these sales professionals need to hit targets, and it won’t be them meeting your expectations, so they are incentivized to oversell. What we suggest is asking for a member of their technical team to be present at the pitch as well - these people will be who you are working with more closely so meeting them will give you a better idea of outcomes.


7. Make your CRM selection decision

The key to a good decision-making process is sticking to the structure above, garnering different viewpoints from around the organization, and having some gut instinct is valuable.

Regarding gut instinct, the key is when this should be deployed and about what. Team members who have been heavily involved in the process and have met technical members of the vendor's team will have some basis for gut instinct. Be more wary of gut instinct coming from someone drafted in late to the process who is impressed with a slick sales presentation.

Overall, be rigorous with the figures. Examine the scores and where possible use this quantifiable process to make your decision. We often see scores that are so close that they’re almost arbitrary. If that happens rather than immediately relying on gut instinct go back over the scores, look at the macro question of who will be the best vendor and if necessary re-weight the selection criteria.

Below is a simple example of a scoring criteria; a more detailed selection process may see these fields broken into multiple areas. The greater the importance and/or spend then the more detailed you can make the selection criteria.

An example CRM vendor evaluation matrix created by Demand Metric. View the full document here.


If, as often is the case, scores are still very tight then it’s ok to explain this to vendors and back with further qualification questions.

Sometimes there will still be nothing in it, and you have a couple of options:

  • Make a marginal decision
  • Run a small project with each of the teams to see which one works best

Option two carries a cost but might be a huge saving in the long run if it helps make the right decision.

Good luck! The waters are murky, but if you follow some of this advice it will help you make this very tough decision.

CRM selection checklist

Use this simple checklist to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Requirements Document

The key for this section is to think clearly what you need the CRM to deliver and the resources you have available.

  • Detailed brief
    • Business objectives the CRM is meeting (be specific, we want to increase x metric by x).
    • User groups and their specific needs.
    • Known technical requirements:
      • Email integrations
      • Third-party software integrations
      • Customization requirements 
      • Data to be migrated
      • Hosting
      • Device compatibility
      • Specific features (call tracking, email marketing)
  • In-house capabilities. 
  • Budget allocation.

Deployment Method

The primary decision is between on-premise and cloud-based, a reminder of the pros and cons can be read here

There are a few initial questions that will quickly help you decide, if you answer yes to any of these questions then on-premise may be an option.

  • Is there a need for highly specific features?
  • Do you require specific security features?
  • Is there a budget in place for upfront investment?
  • Are there in-house skills to develop a customized on-premise system?


For each of these elements, you need to consider budget, in-house expertise, and the time your team can spare on the project.

  • CRM shortlisting 
  • CRM selection 
  • Initial configuration and setup 
  • Data migration
  • Integrations and customization 
  • Training 

Shortlist CRM Vendors

You need to narrow down the best vendors for your project.

  • Are there specialist vendors in your sector?
  • Do established vendors operate in your sector?
  • What vendors do your competitors use?
  • Does the vendor match your key list of requirements?
  • How much does the vendor cost?
  • How does the pricing structure work (e.g. per seat, per feature etc)?
  • Ask contacts for a reference on working with the vendor, focus on a few questions:
    • How well does the CRM suit your needs?
    • How quickly did your team get up-to-speed on the CRM?
    • How did the vendor deal with any problems?
    • Would you recommend the vendor?

Request for Proposal

This is the beginning of the vendor engagement process.

  • CRM objectives
    • Essential 
    • Desirable
  • Most important factors (create some form of weighting).
  • Define what you will deliver in-house.
  • Outline the expected level of training required.
  • Provide details on the selection process. 
  • Provide details of budget. 

Evaluate Request for Proposal and Invite Vendors to Demo

Once initial proposals are submitted these need to be narrowed down.

  • Be clear on the demonstration process (time, requirements etc).
  • Include an open-ended section so vendors have scope to be creative.
  • Re-emphasize the selection process.
  • Have a set of key questions. 

Make Your CRM Selection Decision

  • Make sure the right team members are involved in the process (ones that understand the process and requirements).
  • Ensure everyone in the process understands the selection criteria.
  • Build a probation period into the contract.
  • Make sure someone at the vendor is responsible for your project.
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Doug Haines

About the author…

Doug Haines has worked on a variety of CRM implementation projects and now writes on a wide range of topics. He is a regular contributor to Discover CRM

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Doug Haines

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