Which Style of CRM System is Best for Your Service-based Small Business?

Where did the first contacts in your early days of business come from? Was it through your previous job? Or maybe they were people you met in a Facebook group? You probably didn’t feel like you needed a CRM (customer relationship management) system at all then.

A CRM system is simply a way of keeping track of your interactions with your clients – past, present and future. But there are thousands of options available, so how do you know which is the right one?

Spoiler! There is no such thing as the right CRM system, only the one that works best for you. They are as personal to you as your business is, and what works for you is not going to work for the next business owner.

So, use this handy guide to narrow down your options, then get testing.

If in doubt, give me a shout and I’ll point you in the right direction.

I’ve broken the options down into four types and then suggested how to choose one that is right for you. 

1. In your emails + in your head

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the starting point for all small business owners. It might even be where you’ve stayed if you only have a few clients and you’ve got a handle on your inbox.

It can be hard to break away from the inbox mindset, but if you want to grow beyond a few clients then you need to look to the future. It’s important to keep everything manageable and not limit your prospects by forgetting to follow up any leads or clients.

If you absolutely insist on staying in your inbox forever, then systems such as Streak for Gmail can help you do that.

2. A standalone spreadsheet

When the number of potential clients and leads increases, and you realise that your inbox is bursting at the seams, branching out to a spreadsheet can be the next logical step. And if you’re happy tracking manually, then a spreadsheet is a perfectly valid option. However, while a spreadsheet might feel familiar, updating it can become cumbersome as you gain more contacts. And the minute you stop updating it, you’ve effectively slipped back into using emails and your brain. On top of this, it’s clunky to store emails and note every phone call in a spreadsheet so you’re still effectively relying on your inbox to some extent.

So, what are your next options?

3. Ready-made CRM systems

These purpose-built systems can be further broken down into three categories:


The best simple CRM systems here are built with small businesses in mind. They have all the essential features but without any overwhelming bells and whistles. Which one you pick comes down to personal choice, so it’s worth playing around with several free trials. I particularly like Capsule CRM because it has what I consider to be the essential features, and not too much else.

For me, the essentials are:

  • Easy to set up and easy to learn
  • A visual pipeline
  • Easy customisation – of the pipeline, contacts, tags, lists, etc.
  • The ability to store emails
  • Simple tasks and reminders
  • Excellent help documents and customer support


I see small business owners excitedly sign up to complex CRM systems, only to quickly become overwhelmed. It’s easy to miss the fact that Hubspot, for example, is intended for use by small businesses with 50+ employees. That’s not to say it can’t be great to use on your own, but it might feel like too much if you don’t need all the features or in-depth reporting.

However, these complex systems often combine email marketing and lead management, which is especially useful if you sell services and products.

If you see your future with multiple team members, and you’re happy to put in the time now with a complex CRM system, then it could save you a lot of time in the future.


These are fantastic systems to track your contacts if you want to bring in other business areas as well, e.g., scheduling, proposals, invoices, client portals. They can be great for automation too. However, if you only want to track your leads, then an all-in-one could be overkill.

4. Build your own

This is where you create your own system with a program designed for a variety of uses. Examples include Airtable, Trello, ClickUp and Notion. This is not a small undertaking, but it can be well worth it in the long run: you get the ideal CRM system that works perfectly for your business. And as you will know it inside and out, you can adapt it as your business changes.

You don’t have to do DIY alone though. Every system has a wealth of inspirational templates to avoid an uncomfortable blank screen staring back at you. And there is a plethora of experts in each system waiting to advise you or even build it for/with you.

Of course, you also have the option to build your own all-in-one to take care of all your business needs, not just your customer relationship management.


So, which one is best for your small business? The one you will actually use!

Don’t switch systems just for the sake of it, but don’t stay stuck due to a lack of knowledge.

Before you decide, it can help to think through what you actually need in your client management journey, and I have a free Client Management checklist that can help you with exactly that.

Plus use these pointers to help decide what might work for you:

  • If you’re starting out in business: emails and your brain are ok for a short time but try to move on quickly.
  • If you’re staying small with a few long term clients: a standalone spreadsheet is fine if you don’t need to make updates regularly (as long as you do remember to make them!)
  • If you have a relatively unusual and complex service process: building your own is likely to suit you best. This does take some time and energy but is worth it to have something completely bespoke.
  • If you have a straightforward service process: either a ready-made or a simple build-your-own will do the trick. The choice might come down to how much time and energy you have.
  • If you want a single system for your whole business: try an all-in-one.
  • If you’re aiming to grow big quickly with lots of employees: go for one of the bigger ready-made ones as early as you can.
  • If you plan to expand into selling products as well as services: look at one of the complex ready-made ones that includes email marketing.
  • Lastly, if you have ongoing services, (e.g., monthly social media management), rather than one-off services: having task management as part of your CRM system can be very valuable. There’s no one specific recommendation for this, but it’s something to look at closely when you’re assessing the options. And if you can’t find something ready-made to suit you, then a build-your-own could be best for you.

A final note on free trials

Some systems have free forever plans that don’t include any automation. If you intend to use automations and workflows in the future, I suggest moving up to a paid plan for one month to evaluate how the automation works. Don’t go all in on set-up until you’ve had a play around with automations, because some of them are lovely and easy to use but some are somewhat clunky. Don’t believe the hype on the sales page – test the features that you need yourself.

Still feeling bamboozled? Take a look at how I can help you to choose the right CRM system for you in Level Up Your Client Management, and don’t forget to download your free Client Management Journey Checklist below.

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