To do their jobs, marketing, sales, and product teams need information about their customers. And to collect and manage this information, two types of technologies have developed that are easily mistaken for each other: customer relationship management systems (CRMs) and customer data platforms (CDPs).
Despite their similar names, each serves a distinct purpose that has a tangible effect on the bottom line. In fact, they’re both so important that, according to Salesforce, CRMs rank as the most common technology used by high-performing companies to manage their marketing data, while CDPs rank a close second.
They’re both ranked so highly because they’re not mutually exclusive. They serve different purposes and are often used in tandem to provide a consistent, personalized customer experience.
The difference between a CRM and a CDP comes down to this: CRMs help manage customer relationships, while CDPs help manage customer data.
Of course, there’s a lot more nuance to it than that. Let’s get into it.
CRM vs. CDP: what’s the difference?
While both CRMs and CDPs collect customer data, the main difference between them is that CRMs organize and manage customer-facing interactions with your team, while CDPs collect data on customer behavior with your product or service.
CRM data will give you a client’s name, their history of interactions with the sales team, and support tickets they’ve filed (among many other things). CDP data, on the other hand, can tell you each specific step that a customer has taken since engaging with your company, from the channel they found you on to how they behave within your product.
Who CRMs and CDPs are for
Most of the differences between CRMs and CDPs stem from who they’re designed to help and how they help them. The two overall camps are customer-facing roles, which are people who interact with customers and prospects, and non-customer facing roles, which are people who impact the customer’s experience with direct interaction.
CRMs are for customer-facing roles
CRMs are mainly designed for customer-facing roles, like salespeople and customer success representatives. According to Capterra’s industry survey in 2015, businesses that use a CRM report that their sales teams use it the most.
Sales teams love it because CRMs log interacting data with customers, allowing them to speed up, study, and improve their outreach efforts. They also log things like website form fills, support tickets, and more.
The ultimate goal of a CRM is to help customer-facing employees secure new business and retain existing business by making it easier to manage individual customer relationships. With a running log of interactions, CRMs excel at achieving this goal. Here’s a view of a customer communication log in HubSpot, which is a CRM:
A salesperson can reference this record as they work to develop a relationship with a prospect. Here, we see that Marc from the company IMPACT recently had a baby boy, which the salesperson can then log. Next time they interact with Marc, the salesperson sees this and can reference it without having to remember it on their own.
The customer success team can also use the CRM to quickly gauge how many support tickets a client has submitted and how well those tickets got resolved. This can be used for tailored follow-up communications to keep that customer happy and engaged with the product, which is vital for good retention.
CDPs are for non-customer facing roles
CDPs help non-customer facing roles like marketing, product, and leadership, not just sales.
The goal of a CDP is to manage and understand all customer data to make high-level business decisions. CDPs do this by gathering data from every customer touchpoint – everything from ads to website traffic, to points of transaction, to in-product user behavior – in one place.
This data is then used to produce a single view of the customer through a process called identity resolution. Here’s an illustration of what that can look like in Segment’s Personas product:
Marketing can use this single view of the customer to understand which tactics are effective or to personalize things like drip email campaign messaging. Engineering can get an idea of how users are engaging with the product and prioritize new features over others. Leadership can use this single view to understand the overall cost of acquisition and lifetime value of each customer.
Other teams like sales, using highly personalized account-based selling, can utilize CDPs as well; however, the main focus of the technology is to unify fragmented customer data and make it usable.
How CRMs and CDPs gather and manage data
CRMs and CDPs serve different roles because each solves a different problem businesses face when collecting and using their first-party customer data (i.e., data they own).
CRM data is gathered manually
CRMs are a response to the need for a centralized record of interactions between the customer and the people who represent the business. This central record is something anyone can reference, but it’s mainly used when a customer-facing employee needs to be briefed on the customer they’re going to communicate with.
The data CRMs collect is usually manually gathered, highly specific in its purpose, and hard to automate—for instance, sales notes from your latest demo.
Each salesperson has their own way of taking notes, which is difficult to standardize. Also, the data collected on this demo is solely focused on sealing the deal. These two facts together make CRM data hard to export or use elsewhere.
This data is meant to be used within the CRM only, which means the data you put into a CRM is controlled by the CRM. To get that data out, you’ll have to jump through some hoops.
CDP data is gathered automatically
On the other hand, CDPs are the answer to the fragmented marketing landscape and the need to understand how, where, and why customers engage with the business.
The data CDPs collect is usually automatically gathered using integrations and code snippets. This means you can gather customer data from mobile devices, laptops, the web, and your own software or app into one place, clean it, and send it to where it needs to go.
To produce these profiles, CDPs collect customer data from many sources, including CRMs. They filter, clean, and match all that data in order to make it usable in many different tools for many different teams. In other words, the data you collect with a CDP is fully controlled by you.
What CRMs and CDPs are for
Between who they’re built for and how they collect data, CRMs and CDPs end up serving very different but important purposes.
CRMs are for improving the personal interactions you have with your customers. They provide historical data on the relationship between your business and the individual customer in order to inform future interactions with that customer.
This a useful but limited view of the customer because it only takes into account your interactions. Because of this limitation, CRMs are laser-focused on their one job of managing customer relationships.
CDPs are for understanding your customers and their behavior. They consolidate and manage all customer data across all touchpoints to gain a single, unified view of the customer. In aggregate, these “unified views” of many customers will reveal the entire customer journey.
You’ll know, for each customer, if they:
Clicked a Facebook ad to reach this landing page.
Scheduled a free trial on that landing page.
Upgraded the free trial to a paid plan one month later.
With this insight, all teams can make better, more data-informed decisions. Marketing knows which ads work, product knows what actions led to an upgrade, engineering knows if a feature breaks and leadership understands customer acquisition costs and lifetime value.
CRM vs. CDP: Which one is right for you?
For most companies, it’s not an either/or decision between CDPs and CRMs.
Use a CRM if you need to manage customer relationships in a more efficient and personalized way. They’re great for teams of all sizes and can prove invaluable in a pinch. Often businesses will start with a CRM and realize that, while it’s an effective tool, it’s simply not enough.
Unlike CDPs, CRMs can’t provide a single, unified view of everything you know about each customer. The data is designed to serve the specific purpose of aiding future interactions with customers.
Use a CDP if you need to better understand who your customers are and how they engage with your business. This provides a broader view of your customers, which you can apply in many different ways—from marketing to product to larger business decisions.
The other technology CDPs are commonly compared to are DMPs. Read our breakdown on how DMPs and CDPs differ here.