Sales Execution Platform vs. CRM: Which Tool Does What, and Why?

Most teams have a CRM, so they’re adding an SEP to an existing process. Here’s what each tool should do, and how to make them work together for your team.


Customer relationship management systems (CRMs) have been around for a while, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon.

Salesforce, one of the leading CRMs, has been around since 1999. In the years since, CRMs have become an ingrained part of most companies’ internal processes, with 91% of businesses, with over 10 employees, relying on a CRM.

So when the majority of teams are considering or implementing a sales execution platform (SEP), they’re thinking about how that SEP will work with their existing CRMs.

That often leads to questions like these:

  • What is the difference between our CRM and an SEP?
  • How should our team use each tool while prospecting?
  • How do (or should) our two tools integrate or work together in the background?

Here are the answers to these questions and more, so you and your team can make informed choices about selecting, implementing, and integrating your CRM and SEP.

What’s the difference between a CRM and an SEP?

When our consultants are helping teams onboard a new SEP, they often say, “your CRM is your system of record or source of truth. Your SEP is your system of action.” 

This doesn’t only guide specific decisions about how you set up your tools; it also helps to set expectations and guide your philosophy. Here’s what we mean.

Your CRM is your system of record.

As we’ve already mentioned, Salesforce is the leader of the pack in the CRM space; they hold about 20% of the market. (For context, that’s slightly higher than the total combined market share of their four biggest competitors).

So we’ll use their definition, which is a “technology for managing all your company’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers.”

What does that mean, practically? Your CRM is your core data and relationship management system for every customer interaction. It houses information coming in from marketing, sales, customer success or service, recruiting, and any other externally-facing team.

That’s why we call it a system of record. It’s possible, but unlikely, that your marketing or sales teams are sending their campaigns from your CRM. The more common scenario is that each of these teams uses their more actionable tools for connecting with prospects or customers and then syncs with the central data warehouse: your CRM.

This function is also why many teams–ours included–refer to CRMs as “sources of truth.” If any of those more actionable platforms contain conflicting information, then the trusted source is the CRM. 

To protect that, we recommend that teams sync data from the CRM into their tools, to inform their engagements, but they’re careful sending information back into the CRM. For instance, data from the SEP should not be able to replace core information, like someone’s name or email address. Central data that impacts every other team should only be able to be changed from within the CRM.

Your SEP is your system of action.

Your SEP is a system of action, which allows your sales (and customer success orgs) to act on data that lives in the CRM. It dynamically manages your sales team’s workflow so your reps can simultaneously track and execute their tasks and sales engagements.  

From one central spot, your reps can send emails, place calls, and perform a wide range of other sales activities, through integrated apps. The SEP compiles and sends all of that data back to the CRM, where it’s stored so other teams know the latest and greatest on your company’s relationship with a particular lead or contact.

But SEPs aren’t just about helping reps to act. They also equip managers and leadership with a level of actionable information they couldn’t get from anywhere else.

SEPs measure and analyze your team’s sales activities, sharing helpful insights on what messaging, salesplays, times of day, regions, personas, and a host of other factors are contributing to the greatest success.

They also provide visibility into rep activity, providing dynamic coaching opportunities and context into exactly what high-performing reps are doing to win more business. 

This allows leaders to identify what works and scale it, equipping every rep with the winning strategies that will most effectively (and predictably) lead to revenue growth. 

Using each tool in your digital sales process.

When it comes to using a CRM and an SEP in your prospecting strategy, sometimes it’s tough for teams to know exactly what to do with each tool. 

Not to mention, your CRM and SEP are probably two of many tools in your digital sales process. There are countless possible workflows, and designing the right journey for your team can feel daunting.

Here are a few principles that will help you design your team’s ideal workflow. (If this isn’t your responsibility, then pass this list on to the appropriate colleague).

  1. Start by conducting workflow interviews with end-users. If you understand how they work today, then you can natively introduce a CRM or SEP with minimal disruption.
  2. Make sure, if you have both a CRM and an SEP, that your process begins with creating and enriching clean leads in your CRM. We recommend against creating new prospects in your SEP. (Bonus points if you turn off the permission for your default users to create new prospects in your SEP).
  3. Either bring lead lists into your SEP ahead of time and assign an owner to sequence or cadence those prospects. Or, teach your reps to make a report of leads that match their criteria and then, using a browser extension (more about that in a moment), add them into a sequence or cadence. This will automatically create a prospect record in the SEP, bringing in all of the data about them from the CRM.
  4. Teach your team to use browser extensions both within their email inboxes and the CRM. For instance, Outreach Everywhere and Salesloft Connect allow users to work from their native tools while using a sales execution platform to manage and automate tasks.
  5. Enable your team beyond their core workflow. For instance, some reps may do 99% of their prospecting from the SEP’s dashboard. But, there will be times (like attaching a follow-up sequence to a one-off email they send from their inboxes) when they will want to use the extension. Give them options so you (and they) see the highest possible ROI.

Once you have these principles down, and you invite your team to participate, you can experiment endlessly until you find the right journeys, both for your prospects and your reps. If you need assistance designing your team’s ideal workflow, our consultants can help with any aspect of SEP onboarding

How your CRM and SEP should integrate.

For any of this to work well, you have to pay close attention to how you integrate your SEP and CRM. Even if this isn’t something you are directly responsible for, the chances are pretty good that at least some of your KPIs depend upon your team getting this right.

The leading CRMs and SEPs have native integrations, but you still have to tell that integration how to set up the connection. If you don’t, then your prospect-facing reps and marketing team members won’t have much-needed visibility to create a unified experience.

For instance, if a closer doesn’t know about an earlier sales call or interaction, they may miss addressing a critical need. Or, a sales rep may see a duplicate account and accidentally reach out to a current customer, asking for a sales meeting. Problems like this happen every day, and they cost companies a lot of money.

That’s why you should work from these principles when setting up your integration:

  1. Pay attention to which data is syncing down from your CRM into your SEP and which data is syncing up from the SEP into the CRM. As we’ve mentioned throughout, you want to protect the integrity of the data in your CRM.
  2. Make sure you match up all of your objects (like Lead to Prospect) and fields (like phone number to phone number) so data can flow between your tools.
  3. Create custom fields, as needed, to be sure there is a field in both your SEP and your CRM for all critical data points.
  4. Be sure your default user profile (or set of access settings) is pretty conservative. You can always create a “content creator” or “manager” profile with additional accesses, but the baseline should allow for critical functions only. You can always add, but it’s hard to take permissions away once they have been granted.

Because this is such a critical step in making sure both platforms function well, and that your sales execution program is built on a solid foundation, we recommend getting professional assistance with your integration.

If you don’t have access to support here, with the onboarding package you purchased with your SEP, then please reach out. We can help with an implementation to be sure you get off on the right foot.

Important Note: In some cases, your CRM and SEP may be the same tool.

At the risk of complicating matters, we’re going to talk through a few situations when your SEP and your CRM capabilities may be combined in one tool. There are solutions out there which offer both functions, but there are also use cases when your SEP can be used as a CRM.

This is more frequent in smaller organizations or in those with a long legacy of working with a CRM tool that also offers SEP functionality. 

For some teams, your SEP can also be your CRM.

Though this use case isn’t recommended for everyone, it’s relatively common for startups to use their SEPs as CRMs. For example, Greaser Consulting uses Outreach as both our system of record and our system of action.

A day is coming when we will outgrow this arrangement, and we’ll need to add a separate CRM, but this has worked well for us in the startup phase. We’re not alone.

If your team goes this route, we recommend adding custom fields on your prospect records to gather and store a bit more information. You will also want to rely heavily on your SEP’s ability to track opportunities and where you are in the deal cycle.

Under other circumstances, when teams rely heavily on an external CRM, opportunities are more often tracked within the CRM. However, SEPs have that same functionality, and they can manage opportunities very effectively. 

Here’s a word of caution: If you do use your SEP as a CRM, make sure that you lock down your profiles and user settings so that the average rep can’t alter or delete critical information. Because your SEP is, in this case, your source of truth, you have to protect your data and keep it clean.

There are platforms that offer both a CRM and an SEP.

There are also solutions out there that offer functionality as both a CRM and an SEP. If you’re already using one of these platforms, and you’re not interested in integrating an external app, then you may want to talk with your customer success rep about expanding your use case to include other business functions.

For instance, Hubspot offers its own CRM and an SEP, called Hubspot Sales Hub. These tools have a reputation for ease of use, and many reviewers report that they’re well suited for startups and small businesses.

Here’s a G2 comparison between Sales Hub and Outreach. Spoiler alert: they’re pretty neck and neck. But, for smaller teams that are already actively using Hubspot’s other tools, and who are comfortable with the interface, Hubspot Sales Hub may be the right entrance into sales execution.

And for those teams who are avid Salesforce fans, and aren’t interested in using third-party apps, Salesforce has its own sales execution functionality within Sales Cloud. However, keep in mind that Salesforce is not a leader in sales execution; this is a secondary feature, not their bread and butter.

G2 compiled and compared reviews for Salesforce’s Sales Execution tool and Outreach, and Outreach pulled ahead. Nonetheless, for teams who don’t want to leave Salesforce, this option is worth investigating.

No matter which solution(s) you choose, your SEP and CRM can go together like bacon and eggs.

The point is this: if you get the setup right, your SEP and CRM can work together to fuel an unstoppable sales team. With your CRM as a brain full of accurate and clean data, including context coming in from other teams, and your SEP offering numerous ways to reach out and build relationships, you can’t lose.

If that doesn’t sound like where your team is today, it’s not too late. Whether you’re dealing with a data swamp, or your sales team isn’t optimizing the way they use each tool, we can help.

Our technical consultants can help from the first implementation call to the final workflow training, and in every step between. Your tools don’t have to work alone, and neither do you.

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