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Understanding the 3 types of CRM systems

To get the most out of a CRM system, organizations must decide whether an operational, analytical or collaborative CRM system is right for them.

The right customer relationship management software can help organizations communicate with customers and foster a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

However, before purchasing CRM software, an organization must understand the differences between the three main types -- operational, analytical and collaborative -- and how to determine which is the right choice.

3 types of CRM software systems

A CRM system manages and analyzes customer data and interactions to improve customer service, aid in retention and drive sales growth. Over time, the number of tools and functions of a CRM system has expanded to cover every period in the customer lifecycle. But how does an organization know which of the three types of CRM system is right for it?

The three types of CRM systems include the following:

  • Operational CRM streamlines the various processes for customer relationships and helps apply them to the central business process. Operational CRM helps companies generate leads, convert leads into contacts and provide service infrastructure needed to retain customers.
  • Analytical CRM enables organizations to better understand the data gathered on customers and their interactions with the business. It's a key resource for turning large amounts of data into actionable insights.
  • Collaborative CRM bridges the gap between teams and departments to share information and create a seamless customer experience.

Operational CRM systems

An operational CRM system is the most common type and covers the broadest range of functions. It blends all business processes, such as customer service, marketing and sales, into one within a company. Its primary goal is to help streamline business operations, centralize customer interactions and sales, marketing processes, and service and support efforts in one place. Further, it stores information on customers, leads and employees using a shared platform to better support existing and potential customers.

A CRM system manages and analyzes customer data and interactions to improve customer service, aid in retention and drive sales growth.

An operational CRM system captures customer details and uses them to provide service across the customer lifecycle, including marketing, sales and service automation.

  • Marketing automation. While marketing activities help businesses communicate information about their products and services to their existing and potential customer base, automation aims to find the best way to offer products and approach potential customers using campaign management modules. Marketing automation also helps businesses decide on effective channels -- email, phone calls, ads on social media and more -- to target potential customers.
  • Sales automation. Sales automation organizes information to help businesses meet customers' needs and increase sales more efficiently and effectively. It includes various CRM sales modules such as lead management, contact management and sales forecasting.
  • Service automation. This component is the connection point between service reps or teams and customers. Its functionality covers many things, including setting up inboxes that aggregate customer emails, coordinating live chats and setting up chatbots. Further, service automation provides ways to delegate service tasks to reps via ticketing systems and can include knowledge base or FAQ pages as additional features.

Pros and cons of operational CRM systems

An operational CRM can improve organizational efficiency leading to improved processes, internal cohesion and overall customer satisfaction. However, as with each type of CRM, it is dependent on proper data entry to achieve its full effect, which can be a time-consuming process -- especially for small or mid-sized organizations.

When to use an operational CRM system

Operational CRM systems are ideal for helping teams work better to understand customers through the capture and nurture of customer relationships and improve the perception of customers and sales for the company.

Examples of operational CRM systems

  • Mailchimp positions its platform as marketing CRM software for small businesses. The system aims to help organizations get to know their audience through their platform and find new ways to market them.
  • HubSpot combines its marketing, sales, service and CMS hubs into HubSpot CRM, a platform to align internal teams, pull meaningful insights and report on growth opportunities. Furthermore, HubSpot has integrations to facilitate marketing, sales and service processes. 
A chart comparing the three types of CRM systems.
The three types of CRM systems are operational, analytical and collaborative.

Analytical CRM

The primary goal of analytical CRM is to leverage customer data into trends and actionable insights the organization can use to improve the customer experience. Data from an analytical CRM can include customer preferences, channels, touchpoints, trends, forecasting and more.

Pros and cons of an analytical CRM system

Analytical CRM systems excel at helping organizations parse large amounts of data and develop strategies to develop new leads, increase customer retention and create efficiencies for the sales and marketing departments.

However, while analytical CRM systems can help understand a large amount of data, they can also be more technical and difficult to understand without dedicated staff. Additionally, the insights gleaned from the data are only as good as the data entered, and inconsistent entries can skew the results.

When to use an analytical CRM system

Analytical CRM systems are best for mid-size and large organizations that gather large amounts of data and want to distill that data into trends and insights.

Examples of analytical CRM systems

Many analytical CRM systems exist, but two standout options include the following:

  • Salesforce CRM Analytics, a part of Salesforce CRM, is an application that helps visualize what's happening in an organization's Salesforce environment with dashboards, graphs and other data visualization.
  • Zendesk Explore is a reporting and analytics software in the broader Zendesk toolkit. It pulls in data from support and services options to help organizations measure and improve the customer experience.

Collaborative CRM systems

A collaborative CRM, also known as strategic CRM, enables different teams or functional areas in an organization to share customer data. The result is that everyone uses the same knowledge base about the customers to make decisions, creating a holistic approach to managing customer relationships. While operational CRM tools often focus on marketing and sales, collaborative CRM systems focus primarily on customer service.

A collaborative CRM system has two components: interaction and channel management. 

  • Interaction management tracks the touchpoints between a business and its customers through various communication channels. Interaction management helps the organization manage and keep track of each exchange to ensure customers are not over-communicated.
  • Channel management uses the information gathered from interaction management to help identify the best communication channel to use for a particular customer.

Pros and cons of a collaborative CRM system

This type of CRM system strives to improve the information shared between the sales, marketing and customer support departments. Because these teams work separately, a collaborative CRM tool can help break down those silos to address customer needs and manage customer relationships effectively.

However, given this system's interdependent, collaborative nature, it's essential to use it correctly. Otherwise, the connection between touchpoints could break down, and the customer experience will suffer.

When to use a collaborative CRM system

Organizations that operate across multiple locations or work in siloed teams can use a collaborative CRM system to streamline how they gather customer information and communicate with them.

Examples of collaborative CRM systems

  • Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a suite of tools for business processes that are ideally suited for B2B organizations.
  • Copper is a collaborative CRM system for small businesses that integrates with Google Workspace. Customer data is stored in a single location, allowing everyone in the organization to use a central hub to access customer data.

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