The Top 4 CRM for Distributors

Distribution CRM software aids industry imperatives such as higher sales conversions, increased customer share, improved demand forecasting, more frequent inventory turns, better performing supply chains, all of which contribute to improved cost containment, margins and profits.

In the prior article I shared the top industry specific requirements used to select the best CRM software for distributors. This article will share comparison information among the top four CRM for wholesale distributors.

CRM for Distributors

The Best CRM for Distributors

Cross-industry CRM software focuses on generic CRM processes and leaves it to separate ERP or supply chain systems to deliver visibility to pricing, trade agreements and inventory availability, movement and fulfillment. But that creates complexity and delay when almost every customer interaction deals with pricing and inventory.

The best wholesale and distribution CRM software solutions support enterprise-wide business processes that link CRM, ERP and supply chain systems into a seamless all-in-one solution. They simplify CRM by removing disparate technology boundaries and giving distributors the information they need irrespective of where the data is located.

I have been comparing and implementing CRM for wholesale distributors for more than two decades. From that experience, a frequent question I get is, "What is the best CRM for distributors?"

The easy answer is to say, well, that depends. So, I'll pass on giving the easy answer. Instead, I suggest to answer the question you start by considering market share, customer reviews and the industry specific requirements that make CRM for wholesale distributors different than generic CRM software.

CRM Market Share in the Wholesale Distribution Industry

I'll start with market share positions. The top 4 CRM solutions across all industries are Salesforce, SAP CRM, Oracle CX and Microsoft Dynamics 365.

CRM Market Share

These top 4 CRM solutions are also the market share leaders in the distribution industry. Not because distributors have the same requirements as other industries; they do not. But because these publishers deliver CRM capabilities most needed by distribution companies. Capabilities such as simple and efficient quote and order processing, pricing rules and optimization to improve margins; orchestrated order fulfillment to keep customers satisfied; and supply chain visibility to improve inventory turns and utilization.

A Deeper Look at the Market Share Leaders

Selecting the best distribution CRM software is a long-term decision that should be based on criteria that directly support your employees, customers and company priorities. The below CRM assessment points may accelerate your journey.

Salesforce is the CRM market share leader – overall and in the wholesale distribution industry. The company introduced cloud CRM, social CRM and is a serial innovator.

That innovation has created advanced wholesale distribution capabilities, digital commerce, Einstein AI, Tableau CRM analytics and a third-party AppExchange ecosystem. Salesforce strengths include:

  • The company is an innovator and disrupter. Distributors that seek to innovate and disrupt their markets can learn from Salesforce and benefit from its software
  • The user interface was one of the first to be built on consumer technologies and deliver an easy to use and rewarding user experience. This has achieved an overwhelming effect in user adoption
  • A mix of tools that include the Lightning platform (, Apex, other low code Platform as a Service (PaaS) tools and a deep AppExchange ecosystem provide significant application extensibility
  • Omni-channel commerce and the Commerce Cloud provide customers online, on demand procurement and easy to use customer self-service. That's important because 41% of wholesalers now call digital commerce their top sales channel, an increase from 31% from the prior year (Source: Digital Commerce 360 report)

Salesforce is the only top CRM distribution software solution that does not offer Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems. However, the company does offer packaged integration to SAP, Oracle and a few other ERP apps.

I have implemented Salesforce for many distributors, and to be fair, depending upon the distributors depth of requirements, Salesforce may or may not accommodate some distribution industry capabilities such as sophisticated sales order processing, distribution pricing (i.e., trade agreements, SPAs, supplier rebates) and inventory visibility as standard features, or what we use to call out of the box before the cloud. However, its broad platform, easy to use tools, packaged integration with some ERP apps, and AppExchange ecosystem bring together the components needed to satisfy wholesale and distribution industry requirements.

Consider Salesforce if you intend to transform your distribution business. That may include increasing your value proposition with new value-added services, expanding channels or market boundaries, or improving the customer experience.

However, as the market share leader, Salesforce comes with a higher cost. If you use this application for business growth or digital transformation your investment will pay dividends. But if your goals are less ambitious or your growth path more incremental and you do not use this application as its meant to be used, you may increase your investment without increasing your payback.

SAP is the ERP market share leader for the enterprise market. However, SAP CRM does not possess the same credibility as the company's flagship S/4 HANA ERP solution. Nonetheless, SAP CRM does contribute to the top SAP strength, which is a single, centralized, enterprise-wide solution that includes CRM, SCM, ERP and Human Capital Management (HCM) apps to support cross functional business processes needed by distributors.

The company's strength in ERP, and integration with CRM, give distributors a complete solution that responds to their biggest challenges, such as demand and forecast planning, inventory turns, logistics efficiencies, warehouse management, transportation management and agile supply chains. At a more tactical level, SAP CRM strengths include:

  • Demand planning with demand-side forecast collaboration that includes sales pipelines an external partner forecasts in the planning process
  • Order processing, with flexible quoting, shipping integration, EDI and order to cash visibility. Salespeople and account managers can monitor sales order fulfillment and be alerted to predicted or actual late deliveries
  • A global application with multi-currency management, 28 languages and localizations for 44 countries
  • Visibility within the CRM app for inventory availability, inbound and outbound shipments and item location (down to the bin). Visibility can be enhanced with advanced technologies such as Internet mapping, GPS and IoT
  • Customer rebates, incentive programs and automated chargeback automation are extremely effective to help sellers squeeze more margins from orders
  • The Commerce Cloud delivers impressive digital commerce and omnichannel capabilities for both B2B and B2C industries. This is important as more than one-third of distributor customers complete at least half their purchases online; a trend that will only continue to grow
  • The distribution industry's best sales and operations planning (S&OP) system
  • The information reporting with Crystal Reports and analytics powered by SAP HANA are flexible and include the metrics most important to wholesale distributors

SAP CRM is best suited for large, global distributors with complex distribution requirements. Consider SAP CRM if you are a distributor evaluating SAP ERP, you are an existing SAP customer, or you want an enterprise-wide fully integrated business application suite.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 
The distribution industry is Microsoft Dynamics second largest install base, behind manufacturing.

The Microsoft CRM value proposition is similar to SAP, in that the CRM software, called Dynamics CE (Customer Engagement) is part of an enterprise-wide business software suite. The Microsoft distribution solution includes CRM, ERP, SCM, HCM, Commerce and analytics.

However, there are two big differences when compared to SAP. First, Microsoft's CRM software is a very strong application even without the rest of the business software suite. Microsoft CRM software is sold far more often as a standalone solution and without the company's ERP software. Second, where SAP ERP dominates the largest companies, Microsoft ERP is the software market share leader among midmarket businesses.

Focusing on just the CRM software for distributors, benefits of this solution include the following:

  • Seamless integration with Outlook. And it's really more than just embedded contacts and email. Microsoft syncs the CRM application capabilities within Outlook so that distribution sellers and executives can perform their CRM tasks and activities without leaving Outlook. I've implemented Dynamics CRM for a long time, and I find this is often the most cited benefit by users
  • The Microsoft CRM software is a cloud native, browser-based application that permits very flexible configuration. Other systems also permit configurations, but for many of them, you are unlikely or unable to make changes. Microsoft's tools and configuration options are more flexible and show that becoming standardized does not mean becoming inflexible
  • This application can manage the full distribution life cycle and achieve the ultimate goal of getting the right products to the right places at the right times and at the right cost
  • Dynamics CE has powerful guided selling automation to facilitate repeatable sales processes. It uses a visual process flow that suggests actions or best practices at each sales stage or step in the sales cycle, and it is effective at increasing sales conversions
  • Microsoft is ahead of most competitors in business process automation capabilities. The app offers multiple workflow types (i.e., synchronous or asynchronous workflows, Dialogues, Actions and Business Process Flows) and an easy to use but extremely powerful Power Automate platform to make workflow automation even more extensible
  • For distributors with value added services that include field service, Microsoft's Cortana and HoloLens technologies can satisfy some unique use cases. I've used the HoloLens virtual reality technology to accelerate finding inventory in a warehouse, and also used drone technology to count every item every night in the warehouse
  • The Microsoft Power Platform is a suite of low code-no code graphical tools that permit CRM software customization by business analysts and without over-customizing the application. That means a higher fit application with less maintenance and much easier upgrades. The Power Platform includes Power BI, which has become the top user generated, agile data analytics tool
  • Microsoft CRM software is a global application that offers localized functionality in about 40 regions with 42 languages. The application accommodates global capabilities such as multiple company, multiple currency, multiple languages, multiple time zones and multiple-inventory locations
  • Microsoft CRM software is the lowest cost cloud application among the Big 4

CRM market share growth shows Microsoft moving to the number 2 position. Although Salesforce continues to grow its lead, Microsoft has challenged Oracle and SAP for the runner up spot.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement is well suited for midsize companies or divisions within large companies. Consider Dynamics CRM if you are a Microsoft tech shop, a small or midsize distributor looking for least cost CRM or looking for a single cross-functional and enterprise-wide information system.

Oracle and Oracle NetSuite
Like SAP, Oracle makes an enterprise distribution and CPG system designed for large, complex and global deployments. It is an impressive cloud system that has risen from the acquisitions of Siebel, JD Edwards and PeopleSoft and evolved from the Oracle E-Business Suite. However, where we see the biggest CRM growth in the distribution industry is from Oracle NetSuite.

NetSuite is the scaled down solution acquired by Oracle in 2016. Strengths for this system include the following:

  • Sales order processing — A mobile solution can create quotes and orders online, via EDI or in the field, and automatically push them through to the back-office ERP and SCM systems. This automation streamlines the sales order and fulfillment processes. Order processing from CRM can also be customized to include trade agreements, SPAs and customer specific pricing. That is important because if your CRM does not deliver real-time visibility to inventory pricing, trade agreements and fulfillment it is not going to work well for wholesale distributors
  • Inventory visibility — Knowing inventory quantities in any location, and what's available to sell is critical for distribution sellers. This system offers visibility to inventory quantities and related distribution transactions, such as sales orders, invoices, deliveries and RMAs
  • Enterprise-wide application suite — This application can support enterprise-wide distribution execution with a single vendor, fully integrated business software suite. That suite includes SCM, ERP, HCM and business intelligence (BI). Vendor-managed system integration that automates enterprise-wide transaction processes is a big deal to distributors who want to avoid complex and costly integration

Like SAP, the NetSuite CRM software does not carry the same credibility as the ERP application. And while the NetSuite ecosystem cannot compete with Salesforce AppExchange or Microsoft Dynamics AppSource, the company has a network of partners that offer tailored solutions for some verticals.

Oracle NetSuite is well suited for small and midsize distributors or decentralized business units that roll up to a centralized Oracle ERP system at HQ. Consider Oracle NetSuite if you are looking for a business software suite to deliver cross functional distribution processes, and CRM is a small component in the decision-making process.