Excel v.s. CRM – why spreadsheets hold back growing businesses

In this article, we’re going to answer the question: “Is Excel a CRM?“. The quick answer is no.

If you’re using a spreadsheet (either Google Sheets, Open Office, or Excel) to manage your prospects and sales, you’re doing far better than those business owners who don’t use anything! (and many business owners have nothing!)

However, a spreadsheet holds you back because it’s not designed to be shared in real time with your team, nor is it capable of helping you with admin-saving automations. Let’s dive into more details.

Every business needs to track prospects and clients

In business, it might take anywhere from 3 to 20 ‘touch points‘ with a prospect before they become a customer or a client. A touch point is a single piece of communication that a prospect has digested. This might be a phone call, an in-person conversation, an email, a text message conversation, a social media conversation, receiving something in the post, seeing you speak at an event, or a piece of marketing. It’s a wide range of things, and it’s very much a slow and gradual process to build enough familiarity with a prospect before they are able to trust you and have a sales conversation with you.

Therefore if you want to maximise sales and opportunities, you’ll need to keep in touch with your customers and prospects on a regular basis. i.e. you need to know when you last communicated with them, what you did, and when you need to communicate with them again.

This is where you need a way of tracking these activities. The best way to track this information is with a CRM tool to manage customer data. A CRM is essentially a form of database of customer information. (Check out our guide on what a CRM system is, if you want more detail on why you’d want to keep a database of prospects and customers in your business.)

Some businesses choose to use a spreadsheet to manage their customer data, and you’ll start to discover why that’s going to hold you back.

Good reasons to use an excel spreadsheet rather than CRM software

As mentioned in the introduction, using excel as a CRM is a good start compared to not using any kind of customer communication tracking. This is because you need a way to track what’s happening with your prospects and what you’re communicating with them.

So a spreadsheet is better than nothing.

1) An excel spreadsheet is very simple – having a tool to track prospects and customers easily without the complexity means you’re far more likely to use it properly and therefore get results from using it.

2) You can use a spreadsheet for near zero cost – you might already have a licence for Google Sheets, Microsoft Office 365 or have a copy of OpenOffice. Rather than invest in new software, you can use a tool that you’ve already got in your toolbox.

3) Your sales and marketing team is exactly one person – if you have just one person doing sales AND marketing for your business, then there is almost a case for using a spreadsheet to manage prospects and leads.

However, from our experience of other businesses, we’ve learned that the believe that using an excel sheet to manage your sales is simply because business owners (and their teams) don’t fully understand how to use a CRM tool effectively. When you do, you quickly realise that CRMs are powerful tools and you’ll want to stop using Excel.

The 6 benefits of using a CRM over Excel

1) Excel is primarily designed for number calculations and charting

I’m sure you’ve used spreadsheets for all kinds of calculations, numbers and reporting. That’s what it’s designed for. Whilst you can use Excel as a contact database, its not what it’s designed for. CRM tools are designed to help manage contacts and get sales tools. And this is an example of one of those situations where using the right software tool has a big impact.

Yes, it’s possible to use tools such as Make or Zapier to help with automations and expand the capability of Excel. But you’ll find that you’re essentially forcing Excel to do things it’s not designed for. When you add up the cost of using these tools v.s. having a dedicated CRM software tool, you’ll find that the CRM tool is close to being the same cost and probably easier to learn.. You’ll also find the complexity of adding Zapier or Make to your spreadsheet is more complex than most CRM features.

2) Sharing an Excel spreadsheet with several editors often goes wrong

Excel spreadsheets on shared drives, or even using an online spreadsheet collaboratively, is going to create problems when you have several team members updating those spreadsheets. Data will be sorted in different ways by different people. Values in table cells will get overwritten when you have several people actively making changes.  Typically it’s tricky to see who has made what changes, which might cause problems when trying to track what’s going on with a specific prospect. This means that if you’re growing your team to split marketing and sales, and expand your sales team, you’ll quickly find these headaches will waste your time.

By contrast, CRM software tools are multi-user business applications and are specifically designed for several users. That means data is shared instantly as CRM tools are designed to be cloud-based software tools. Some CRM tools track changes too by having an update history (e.g. with Hubspot). This can be really helpful if you need to ask a colleague on why they made a change with a particular individual.

3) You can’t easily store detail in an Excel spreadsheet compared to a CRM

An excel CRM would be 2 dimensions (2D of data). You’d have a name, email, phone columns with more columns for other pertinent data. However, if you want to store lots of notes, or track past email conversations, or track which email lists they’re subscribed to, the spreadsheet becomes impractically big and complex.

With a CRM, if you want to store lots of notes for a contact, you can. As many as you want, and they’re in date order and you’ll record who in your team made the note. You can quickly search those notes and past emails. For many CRMs, you’ll have it built in what email lists they’re signed up to, and when they’ve unsubscribed too.

Any time and hassle saved can be spent on talking to customers. You’ll be surprised at how much admin can be saved by using a half-decent CRM.

4) It’s easier to group and sort contacts in a CRM compared to an Excel spreadsheet

A decent CRM makes it easy for you to add tags to group contacts into segments. These tags will mean you can get a specific list of your contacts within 2-4 clicks. e.g. if you wanted to get a list of all contacts on your email list who are VIP customers, who have purchased a service A, but NOT purchased service B, that’s pretty easy in a CRM tool.

With Excel, assuming you had this information synchronised with your email delivery tool (which is unlikely), and you didn’t have too many categories, you could in theory sort your spreadsheet to find this information. But it is a big harder if you have 5 or more tags.

5) You can send emails directly from a CRM to a contact, but you can’t in Excel

This is probably the most useful feature from a sales and a marketing perspective, being able to send emails. You can send an email to a contact, store that information with that individual so that you can see their history, and track when that email was opened. You don’t have to load up Outlook or Gmail, then copy-n-paste the name and email address, and then summarise the email in your spreadsheet. You don’t need to wait for a reply to then update your spreadsheet too. The CRM system will usually have a copy of the email when it comes in, and you can keep track of all past conversations really easily. (Some CRM systems don’t track replies to emails, that’s something to be aware of).

6) You can use click-based and date-based automations to save you admin, but you can’t in Excel

Automation features in CRMs are fun and useful, and save you admin. A great example of a feature that helps you to make sales is where you can have the CRM software remind you when it’s been 2-3 months since you got in touch with a contact. You could potentially achieve this with Excel, but it would need to be a sort, or potentially a macro to achieve this. In the CRM, your action list becomes your to-do list, making it easy to work out who you need to focus on to move sales along.

This one isn’t possible in Excel. You can set up an automation in a CRM to perform a task when someone clicks on a link in an email, such as to add new tags or trigger other actions such as sending some post. CRMs like ActiveCampaign are very effective for triggering automations from email clicks. A practical example of this is having an existing contact opt-in to another email list where you’re prelauching a new product or service. That prelaunch list then has some hyper-targeted marketing to help you win sales for that new offering.

In Closing – Excel v.s. CRM software

Yes, you can just about get away by using manual data entry with an excel spreadsheet, but you’ll quickly reach the limitations of excel that will just add frustration and friction to your daily sales and marketing activities. It’ll cost you time when you just don’t need to.

If you’re wanting a CRM tool that’s inexpensive but very close to using an Excel spreadsheet, we recommend that you take a look at OnePageCRM.