The Small Business CRM Evolution

Thursday Jul 25th 2013 by Jamie Bsales
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Next-gen cloud services, email marketing platforms, social media and mobile apps are changing customer relationship management software for small businesses. Is your application provider keeping up?

Remember the good old days when music came on a CD, people kept in touch by email, and you loaded software from a disc onto your PC? Now iTunes and Pandora have changed the way we get music; texts and tweets are as important as email, and cloud services and mobile apps have rearranged the entire software model.

This is especially true for CRM software, where anytime/anywhere access and integration with social media can have a positive impact on your relationship with customers. That is, if your CRM package has kept pace with the times.

A Look at Classic CRM Software

As always, the main function of CRM software is to help you keep track of all the information and interaction related to your customers and prospective customers. It serves as the database for your customers' contact information and as the running record of the emails and phone calls you (and in the case of a shared system, your employees) have with clients.

Goldmind CRM software

Figure 1: GoldMine delivers several dashboards that give an overview of critical customer data.

The system also provides links to critical documents such as RFPs and invoices, so you can bring them up at a moment’s notice without having to locate a paper file. Most CRM products are hosted cloud-based services or offer that option, which means no software to install and the capability to connect to your system anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

Over time, the CRM system’s core job description has grown to include handy features such as task reminders, automated follow-up emails and tracking customer-service issues. Notable among these expanded duties are sales force automation (SFA) features that alleviate the repetitive tasks of sales follow-up and remove the fallibility of the human memory from the chain of custody.

Once you enter a new contact and flag it as a potential customer, for example, you can set the tracking features to send reminders about important milestones (such as when an RFP is due) and follow-up dates. You can also set the system to initiate certain interactions automatically; for instance, to send out a thank-you email after a call.

The SFA features also provide a window into the activity and effectiveness of each sales person. You can see the history of their client contacts and the percentage of deals they’ve closed. The tracking features can also help you estimate future revenue by showing you the deals in the pipeline, their revenue potential, and the likelihood of them being converted into sales.

SugarCRM small business customer relationship software

Figure 2: SugarCRM’s user interface is inviting to use and shows pertinent trends at a glance.

At the high end, some CRM systems include integration with accounting and inventory systems. You can generate invoices, and employees can see if an item is in stock all from within the CRM interface. Some solutions also layer on customer-service or call-center features, such as automated phone logs, the capability to capture calls as text or recordings, or to issue and track support tickets.

What’s New: CRM Goes Social and Mobile

Today, CRM packages push the boundaries of simple contact management and sales follow-up by adding cloud-based document collaboration features, as well as integration with email marketing services and your company’s social-media presence. Adding social media insights and connections is the new must-have for CRM platforms, along with the leveraging social selling: participating in the social networks and conversations of prospective customers to be a useful resource. You also need the capability to monitor Twitter feeds for customer complaints. Unanswered—or poorly answered—tweets are a recipe for hashtag hell.

Mobility affects everything today, including CRM. Most platforms, on-premises or cloud-based, offer a companion mobile app that lets you access your contact data, send messages, see customer histories and accomplish other essential tasks from your smartphone or tablet. And there are also apps that are "lite" CRM solutions unto themselves, delivering the basic set of CRM features in an easy-to-use mobile format.

Finally, the buzzword this year in SFA circles is "gamification." The mangling of the language notwithstanding, the concept is intriguing; instead of merely tracking performance and reprimanding underperformers, the idea is to implement focused competitions that increase performance in sales, customer service or any aspect of the customer-interaction chain.

Top 10 CRM Solutions and Add-ons

Small businesses can choose from dozens of CRM solutions tailored to their needs, plus hundreds of mobile apps and add-ons that extend their capabilities. Here are 10 to consider.

1. Salesforce.com

Salesforce is synonymous with the software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud model, and its CRM platform has become the standard for businesses both large and small. The solution lets you and your workforce manage all your contacts, tasks and meetings in one place, as well as track your leads, sales deals, and customer interactions. Salesforce integrates with all the leading email packages and lets you access data via any mobile device. An impressive ecosystem of add-ons let you add functionality to turn your system into the perfect CRM platform for your particular needs.

2. Sage ACT 2013

Available in both Pro and Premium editions, Sage ACT 2013 has morphed from the world’s most popular contact manager to a full-fledged CRM offering. ACT lets you manage contacts, of course, but you can also keep tabs on opportunities and other critical data via handy dashboards and reports. The Premium version adds shared access to the central database from Windows PCs, a Web browser and mobile devices, and it includes group scheduling, team-level dashboards and reports and more.

SurgeHub CRM

Figure 3: SurgeHub’s interface is tablet- and smartphone-friendly, letting your mobile sales force access data on any device, anytime, anywhere.

3. Goldmine Premium

Goldmine is another CRM solution with a long history and a proven track record. The program offers robust contact management features plus opportunity management, marketing/lead management, forecasting and much more. You’ll also find informative dashboard views that give a snapshot of business activity, and of course a Web client and a mobile app so your employees can access data from anywhere with just about any device.

4. Zoho CRM

ZOHO Corp. offers a range of cloud-based business, collaboration and productivity apps aimed at small businesses, and counts Zoho CRM among them. On the SFA front, the platform gives you a 360-degree view of your complete sales cycle and pipeline to help you identify trends, spot opportunities, increase efficiency and reduce costs. It also helps you automate day-to-day tasks so you can concentrate on bigger-picture priorities, while the Outlook plug-in lets you synchronize contacts and create mail-merge documents.

5. SugarCRM

SugarCRM is a full-featured CRM platform that offers both on-premises and cloud-based deployment models. You can use the solution for CRM, marketing, sales and support. SugarCRM also offers a range of features such as a shared calendar, call-center support tools, email integration, mobile CRM, project management, social CRM and more. Choose from four editions—Professional, Corporate, Enterprise and Ultimate—to match just about any need and budget.

6. Crushpath

Crushpath, a radically simple all-in-one sales and marketing platform, lets you reach customers quickly via simple, targeted Web pages that you can create in minutes. You then promote these one-page mini-sites over social networks at the push of a button. The CRM angle comes into play on the back end, where Crushpath provides easy-to-use tools that let you manage the customer relationships that the mini-sites generate. You can collect and organize the responses and manage customer contacts from the handy mobile app.

7. SurgeHub

SurgeHub is a mobile CRM and order-entry application. Built specifically for use on smartphones and tablets, SurgeHub lets sales teams securely access their corporate content and leverage other sales and productivity tools. The app gives mobile sales pros easy access to critical sales and marketing collateral (such as presentations, product brochures, training docs, videos, spec sheets and so on) online or offline. You can also configure it to show sales reports, enter orders and manage contacts. For those in your organization who aren’t tied to a tablet all day, the company includes a Web version for desktop browser-based access.

8. InsideView

InsideView augments your CRM system with essential data, insights and connections that's constantly updated from 30,000 financial, media and social sources. InsideView can maximize marketing, sales and account management results by automatically revealing critical information about companies, contacts and connections through the entire customer lifecycle. A social CRM pioneer, InsideView scans and distills information from social media sources to help clients effectively engage in social sales.

LevelEleven CRM add-on

Figure 4: LevelEleven adds "gamification" features to traditional SFA, encouraging your sales people through good old competition.

9. LevelEleven

LevelEleven develops gamification and CRM solutions to help managers get their sales and service teams focused on the right areas by tapping into their competitive nature. The company’s flagship product, Compete, integrates with Salesforce.com’s platform and lets you organize phone calls, determine sales performance, pre-schedule notifications, and keep track of leaderboards through mobile devices.

10. Desk.com

Another Salesforce add-in, Desk.com acts primarily as a help-desk solution. But make no mistake: Managing customer relationships is this app’s main goal. Desk.com lets you see all your customers in one place and engage them across all your support channels—Twitter, Facebook, phone, email, chat and discussion boards—in one easy-to-use desktop interface. The solution makes sure nothing slips through the cracks, especially on social channels where criticism—and praise—can spread like wildfire.

Real-time, two-way integration with Salesforce means that sales and support teams have complete and robust views of shared customers. Salespeople can talk to customers in confidence with up-to-date details on any support issues. The product also delivers case-management features, business insight, mobile support, and multilingual support tools.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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