Salesforce Essentials review: Stripped-back CRM wins on functionality
The SMB edition of one of the world's most popular sales tools dials down both cost and complexity
Salesforce is one of the industry leaders in online customer relationship management (CRM) software, with a key focus on enabling businesses to keep track of clients, potential clients, sales and support issues.
While its higher-tier Professional, Enterprise and Unlimited subscriptions are both expensive and complex due to the sheer number of advanced features they pack in, Salesforce Essentials is cheaper, at 24 per user, per month or 240 per user billed annually. You can have a maximum of 10 users and a minimum of one, which helps to keep costs down compared to its other tiers, which start at 720 per user, per year for Salesforce Lightning Professional.
While the Classic edition of Salesforce is still available to both new and existing customers, we've focused on its latest Lightning Experience, which presents a more polished and modern user interface but doesn't have the traditional layout that longtime users will be familiar with. Although Salesforce hasn't indicated when Classic will be retired, Lightning will ultimately supersede it.
Essentials also limits the number of extra features it includes. Although you get access to third-party extensions, it lacks advanced forecasting and lead automation tools. A 14-day free trial gives you enough time to work out if this is the CRM solution for you.
Salesforce keeps all user data in the US, with data protection covered by the EU-US Privacy Shield.
Salesforce Essentials review: Getting started
Salesforce Essentials' Sales home screen opens with a healthy array of dummy data for you to play with and a genuinely helpful guided setup box, which takes users through basic tasks. These include connecting a Google or Office 365 account to easily track customer communications, as well as introducing you to the sales funnel classification system for prospective customers in a variety of industries, You can customise the information you store about contacts, import existing customer data, add your colleagues - if your budget extends to that - and, once you've learned your way around and tried a few things out, delete all the trial data so you can start using Salesforce for real.
The first time you log in, you're asked what you want to get from Salesforce, such as keeping your contacts organised, closer collaboration with colleagues or closing more deals - to help it present you with a set of appropriate guided tours around the service's features.
Essentials is much more approachable and far lighter on the business buzzwords than its sibling, Salesforce Professional, which makes it a far better choice for anyone who isn't already fully initiated into the deeper secrets of specialist sales and CRM systems and terminology.
SalesForce's key advantage is that it replaces the databases, contacts books and spreadsheets a business might use in concert to keep track of clients and sales, and instead provides a unified environment where tracking the status of bids and opportunities is as simple as dragging them from one column to the next, with detailed profiles for you and your colleagues to annotate, so you know exactly where you stand with every customer and project.
The guided tours are rigid and not terribly interactive, but they provide a useful introduction to the service's terminology and systems. Other tutorials open Salesforce's integrated help and documentation system, while extensive tutorials are available on Salesforce's dedicated Trailhead site.
Very early on, you're pointed towards material showing you how to use features like Leads to record and look up details about potential customers that you've not yet contacted or done business with. Although by default only the most recent data you've worked with is shown in each category, you can pin a number of different views to be shown by default. We particularly like being given a list of all our active leads and contacts.
Everyone who works with a lead can add notes to their entry so your entire business's knowledge about and dealings with each client can be assembled in a single, easy-to-find location. Once you're ready to take your business relationship to the next step and send them quotes and proposals - or at least regard them as someone likely to make a purchase - you can convert that lead into an Opportunity at the click of a button. This process already creates a contact and a customer account for their business.
Once you've got an existing relationship with a customer, Salesforce becomes home to your complete archive of data on that company and your contacts there, complete with tools to help remind you to check in and manage recurring business and customer support needs.
Everything's searchable via a bar at the top of the screen and a powerful setup interface allows you to customise the appearance and behaviour of Essentials' various modules.
Salesforce Essentials review: Apps, extensions and integrations
The Essentials app launcher is, once again, far less bewilderingly cluttered than that of Salesforce's higher-cost tiers, limiting itself to three core web app interfaces for sales, customer support tickets and your sales and support usage metrics.
There are also shortcuts to useful tools such as a calendar for keeping track of appointments and targets, which you can configure to sync with Office 365 or Google Calendar; your master list of leads; note-taking tools and a social-media style Chatter tool to help communicate with your colleagues and keep track of their activities. Once open, each of these tools is given its own tab within the Salesforce web app interface, making it easy to navigate between them.
As well as lead tracking and conversion, the Sales interface allows you to assign tasks to yourself and your colleagues, see past and future tasks and client communication events on a calendar, upload and share files and generate reports.
We're great fans of the Service Console, which lets you log, track and respond to customer service and support requests. You can forward email addresses and link Twitter and Facebook accounts so that all messages and mentions they receive are automatically added to your Salesforce Service Cloud queue for attention, making it incredibly easy to manage your customer support and communication channels.
You can email customers from within the console if you've linked a G Suite or Office 365 email address, view both the active ticket and your business's full history with that customer, upload files, add notes and even link your corporate or staff Twitter profile to pull in social media posts by your customer.
There is, of course, a mobile app to help you do business on the move. Thankfully, rather than simply trying to cram the web browser experience into an app, it's a genuinely optimised piece of design, opening by default on your business' Chatter feed to keep you abreast of your colleagues and providing easy access to your organisation's contacts, support cases, leads, opportunities and more via an expanding list at the right of the screen.
A number of third-party integrations are available, although Salesforce Essentials isn't as well supported as higher subscription tiers - for example, the QuickBooks integration listed on Salesforce's small business solutions site doesn't work with it. However, integrations are available for services including DocuSign digital signing for contracts, Slack for office communication, MailChimp for external announcements, and Dropbox and G Suite for storage, among others.
Salesforce Essentials review: Verdict
Salesforce Essentials is powerful, but accessible enough not to be entirely overwhelming for small business users and its Service Console support ticketing system for customer support is outstanding. It's also a good introduction to the Salesforce ecosystem for those who'd rather not jump straight into the significantly more complex Professional tier.
However, this is also among the most expensive CRM solutions for small enterprises. Those that just need basic sales tracking and relationship management may be better off with a more inexpensive rival, such as Zoho CRM, which is free for businesses with up to three users and costs just 10 per user, per month after that.
Salesforce Essentials provides powerful contact, sales lead and support ticket tools that are nonetheless approachable for small business users. It's rather expensive, though, particularly if you need multiple user accounts
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