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The best CRM for a SaaS MVP

If you describe yourself as an indie hacker building the MVP of your SaaS, then the best CRM for your product is not a CRM.

This article also applies to folks who are independent technical consultants who are looking for a CRM. By changing the question from “I am looking for a CRM” to “I am looking for a marketing solution”, you might probably be able to get better results (in my personal opinion) with no increase in cost.

Rather it is an entire bundle of apps (some of which are even more important for a SaaS than a CRM), and it just happens to include a CRM. If you do need a CRM for your product, it also includes an excellent CRM.

The bundle of apps I am talking about is Zoho One. And I created a Venn diagram, as a sort of qualifier for who will benefit the most from this article.

 Why indie?   

Zoho One has something called all-employee pricing. If you buy a license for all the employees in your company, you will pay $37/mo/user instead of $90/mo/user.

Since you are an indie, of course you qualify for the all-employee pricing. A Zoho employee will usually call you after your purchase. In case you are wondering, that’s how they verify. 🙂

Why hacker (programmer)?  

While you can do a lot of things in the Zoho One bundle without writing code, if you are able to write just a little bit of Deluge script (Zoho’s proprietary language which is fairly simple for programmers to learn), you will  multiply the utility of your Zoho One subscription by at least 10x.

Why over $500 a year?  

Well, this is quite simple. You need to make enough from your product to cover your Zoho One expenses. 🙂

If you aren’t at that point yet, just skim this article and come back to it once you reach that stage.

Remember to revisit this article before you spend over $49/mo on any other software. Odds are, Zoho already has an alternative in its Zoho One bundle.

 A criticism of Zoho: You get what you pay for

I am going to get the usual criticism out of the way. You get what you pay for. And I find that criticism to be true, and I am not even going to debate it.

Just don’t insert Zoho into something critical for your SaaS app to work properly, have a backup plan if you do, and closely monitor everything in that case.

But don’t discount Zoho just for that reason.

Here are some counter points.

First of all, you are often time constrained as much as you are money-constrained. So having everything in one place is going to save you plenty of time in the long run.

Second, you already know the benefits of an MVP – Minimum Viable Product. Think of Zoho as a Minimum Viable Marketing Stack.

Unlike other services for which you pay a comparable amount of money, you can

  1. Allow your Zoho One subscription just to languish while your product gains traction (once you do the basic set up).
  2. Or you can keep tinkering and improving the marketing stack if you get snatches of time
  3. Or you can get really into it and use it to improve your product.

I have done all three at different stages for my own tiny little SaaS app.

This kind of hands-off approach is practically impossible if you are paying for a competing (even if better) software service because you know that as good as the other service might be, it is still an unwanted expense if you don’t make good use of it. With Zoho One, you might feel that way about one of the apps, but it is doubtful you will feel that way about the entire bundle. (After all, there are now over 35 apps in the bundle).

Third, with privacy rightly becoming such a big issue nowadays, Zoho is not going to become yet another vendor whose data collection policies you need to worry about. Famously, they are a billion dollar company (and maybe the only one) which does not add third party trackers from companies with ad-based business models, on any of their web properties.  

 How I use Zoho One for my SaaS 

Here is a list of ways I am using Zoho One to help my business.

Live chat  

I use Zoho SalesIQ for live chat.

Here is what Arvid Kahl, who built a successful SaaS and wrote an excellent book describing the experience says about live chat.

Real-time communication with customers is a beautiful thing. Being able to help them right when they need help allows the customer service agent to be empathetic to the pain the customer feels and give them a sense of importance: “A real person is here to help you.” For people who are not confident in their ability to solve their problems, this is an enormous relief. 

He recommends a different live chat tool, but it is fair to say that most live chat tools will achieve these objectives. More importantly, having these online conversations will really help you get a good insight into how people are using your software.

Session replay  

Zoho PageSense allows you to do session replays, which are immensely helpful for people building SaaS apps. You can often find very silly bugs as soon as you see users interact with your software in some unexpected way.

Since people who enable Do Not Track in their browsers are automatically excluded from session recordings, I find PageSense to be a very reasonable trade off between user privacy and usage tracking.

Knowledge Base  

Zoho Desk allows you to create knowledge base articles, and I find that their knowledge base editor for creating these articles is fairly good.

Zoho Desk also has a widget you can embed into your SaaS app. This way, people can search the knowledge base without leaving your app.

Ticketing system  

Zoho Desk includes a ticketing system. At the moment, I am dealing with support requests via email, but I am mentioning this because some folks might prefer to create tickets for all customer interactions.

Webinars  

You can use Zoho Showtime to conduct webinars to do product demos. I don’t think people will sign up just to watch a product demo webinar in 2021. But you can give a short demo of the product as part of a webinar which actually teaches them something useful. My preferred ratio: ~5 minutes of product demo for a 30 minute webinar. You don’t get the quality of Zoom, but you also only pay a fraction of the price.

Email Broadcasts  

You can send broadcast emails to the people who have signed up for your app using Zoho Campaigns. As the story goes, sometime around 2018, some spammers used Zoho Campaigns and really ruined Zoho’s sender reputation. So you will find that they have implemented some stricter measures than their competitors (for example Zoho will manually approve your first few broadcasts before sending them out), but they are minor nuisances and not deal breakers.

CRM  

I don’t use the Zoho CRM as a sales tool since my app is mostly self-service.

But it is quite useful as a place to dump all the lead and customer information. I can add custom fields and tags in the future if I need to dive deep into this information.

Contact Forms  

Contact form software is sometimes taken for granted, but Zoho Forms is truly a world-class, under-appreciated product. Since it is directly integrated with Zoho CRM (which in turn can auto-sync with Zoho Campaigns), you will only realize how good it is if you need to (say) buy a Zapier subscription just so that your WPForms can talk to your newsletter email list.

Zapier alternative  

Speaking of Zapier, Zoho Flow is a very good alternative, especially if you are a programmer. Even if Zoho Flow does not integrate with every software you use, you already know how to use APIs and webhooks to move data around. Armed with this knowledge, you will usually be able to create a lot of interesting integrations and make Zoho One even more useful.

 Transactional Email 

You want to send a signup welcome email to your user. You can certainly use a transactional email service like SendGrid (and Zoho also has their Zeptomail service, but it is not a part of Zoho One yet).

Or, you can just write some glue code using Zoho Flow which automatically creates a Lead in your CRM, and then sends an email to your user based on an email template you created inside Zoho CRM.

This has many benefits. For one, it is quite instantaneous, as you expect from a transactional email. Second, the information is now in your CRM as a lead. Third, you can visually edit the email templates inside Zoho CRM, so you do not have to send HTML to an API (like you would for some transactional email services).

 Collecting files from users 

Not all SaaS needs to get files from their users. Mine does. And Zoho WorkDrive is another world-class software which has gone somewhat unnoticed.

For me, four things stand out with WorkDrive.

It provides 5 TB of storage – plenty for most use cases.

It allows you to collect files from clients very easily using its Collect Files feature.

The best feature is the GMail extension – you can click on a button, select (or create) a folder specific to the user, and save the attachment.

Finally, you can later attach this entire folder to the user details view inside your CRM, so you can easily navigate from the CRM view to user/client specific files. When you have a product which is integrated with a CRM, you get these types of cool bonus features.

Summary

I will summarize with three observations.

Zoho has been continuously improving their software. The best example of that is Zoho SalesIQ which improved so drastically recently that I now think it is the best choice for adding an AI powered chatbot to your website. That was definitely not my view even in April of 2021 (before v2 was released). Clearly, Zoho One provides a much better value today than say even a couple of years back.

They recently raised prices across the board by 15%. Normally, that would be a bad thing. But it was also becoming clear that they were spreading the company too thin. I see the price increase as a positive move, and which sends a signal that they don’t want to compete solely on price but also on quality.

Lastly, if you start with Zoho One, and “graduate” to better software, you are probably doing better in your business when compared to the day you first became a Zoho One subscriber. 🙂


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