To Zach Nelson, the president and chief executive officer of NetSuite, CRM and business in general is all about the "C," customers. "What's more important to a company than your customers?" he asks. "That's what companies are all about: people buying things from you."
That's why finding the right CRM solution is critical, especially for small businesses, where finding, keeping and adding customers is crucial and cash flow can be tight.
So before you even start talking to CRM vendors, consider the following words of advice from Nelson and fellow CRM guru Tien Tzuo, senior vice-president of product management at Salesforce.com. Not only could their tips save you a lot of grief, they could save you a lot of money.
Tip 1: Understand who you are as a company, where you want to go and the role your customers play
A big mistake that companies typically make when considering a customer relationship management system is not taking the time to think about and outline what their broad and specific customer-related business issues are before they make the purchase.
"That's really the upfront challenge," explains Nelson. "If all you're trying to do is get a better forecast out of your sales reps, just go use Excel. But if you're really trying to manage how a customer is first touched when he comes in as a prospect, how he responds when you ship the product, how you react when the customer visits your Web site or calls you for support then you're looking at a business process. True CRM starts by understanding how you're going to interact with that customer throughout the life of the relationship, not just the forecast this month."
And it's not just about your sales team, stresses Nelson, who notes that top salespeople are going to be successful with or without a CRM system.
"You have to take a holistic look, not just at what the sales guys are doing with customer data but what the guys in accounting and shipping are doing with customer data. How are the Web guys exposing this customer data? It becomes a very complex process, and that's why you have to look at it across the company, not just as a sales issue," he says.
"Not all CRM products are capable of supporting the business processes of every company," says Nelson. So it's very important to understand how you want to approach and manage your customer relationships. And then you find a piece of software that can effectively [give you] that desired outcome or [handle] that business process."
Tip 2: Look for a CRM solution that fits your needs, not the other way around
Salesforce.com's Tzou recalls that it was not long ago that CRM software was pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. "Whatever was in the box, that was it," says Tzuo.
Moreover, small- and medium-sized businesses were conditioned to believe that they had to change their business to fit the application and that customization was beyond their reach.
But today, growing small businesses can find customizable solutions that fit their needs (as opposed to the other way around), can grow with them and won't eat up all their cash.
"It's not just where you want to go today but next month or next quarter," says Tzuo. "Businesses are going to change. Your issues are going to change. The top three things that you're trying to accomplish are going to change. So you really need a customizable system to get you the reports, the metrics and the dashboards you need to get you where you want to go."
Tzuo also believes it's important for companies to find the right CRM partner. "You want a company that's not just throwing you a product and saying, 'Hey, good luck with this,' but giving you the tools to make it successful."
For example, Salesforce.com offers 150 or so partner solutions products and services that plug right into its CRM application. And they hold regular user group meetings around the country where customers are encouraged to share best practices and ideas.
Tip 3: Choose a CRM solution that's easy to use
"That's probably the most important thing when you're rolling out an application to your sales, marketing and services professionals," says Tzuo. "If the salespeople can't figure it out in five seconds, they give up."
But even software that's relatively simple often won't be used without the proper carrots and/or sticks. One stick that seems to work particularly well, at least for some Salesforce.com users, is for management to withhold commissions until the salesperson has entered customer data into the system.
Looking at the same problem a different way, NetSuite's CRM+ encourages salespeople to use the system by automatically calculating and displaying commissions as soon as the salesperson has entered the necessary customer information.
"Before they even place an order they can see, 'if I sell this I'll make this much,' which is exactly what you want a commission plan to do modify behavior," says Nelson.
CRM+ also includes a competitive tracking feature that lets sales reps get a leg up on the competition, another big carrot for getting salespeople to use the CRM system.
Tip 4: Make sure your CRM solution will keep your data safe
Many small businesses often don't think about all the critical customer data that sits on the typical salesperson's PC just waiting for someone with a floppy disk or USB drive to download it and walk away. So when considering a CRM solution, make sure you think about security and discuss any issues you may have with vendors.
As Tien Tzuo notes, you don't store your money under your mattress if you want to protect it, you put it in a bank. Similarly, for some small businesses, keeping your critical customer data off site, à la Salesforce.com, can make good security sense.
Tip 5: Hire experts to help with implementation and training
"We recommend that you bring in somebody to do the initial implementation," says Salesforce.com's Tzuo. "We have a network of regional partners that can help you do the rollout. I suggest this because small businesses are time strapped. It's not like they have an extra two hours a day to do [the implementation and rollout]. Having somebody come in to help you get through the process lets you do it in a one-, two-, or three-week time frame."
Similarly, NetSuite customers can choose to have installation and training taken care of by someone from NetSuite's professional services team, a certified NetSuite partner, or they can do it themselves. Not surprisingly, "About 85 percent choose to have NetSuite or a NetSuite partner help them on the initial roll out and training," reports Nelson.
Tip 6: Set realistic goals and periodically measure your progress
Many small businesses, in their impatience to generate more sales, set unrealistic goals, starting with the amount of time it will take to install and roll out their new CRM software to the entire sales force, as well as other users.
"It all depends on how much of the software you're using," says NetSuite's Nelson. "For very simple CRM it could be a month. For more complex CRM, including order management, Web site management, Web site hosting, it could be three months. There are three steps to implementing the software: One, what's my business process? Number two: How do I take that business process and implement the software? And then number three: How do I train my people to use this new software? This all takes some time."
Once you have the system up and running and you've trained your people, "Start with a few quick wins," counsels Tzuo. "Know where you are going, but start with a few quick wins to help you get there."
Lastly, make sure you have a way to measure success. Periodically check to see if you are meeting your pre-defined goals. And above all, remember, your CRM system is only as good as the information that's in it.
For additional information about CRM best practices, visit Salesforce.com's CRM Success site. Siebel also has a public CRM Best Practices site. To compare the leading CRM packages for small and mid-sized businesses, go to 2020software and click on "CRM Solutions." There you'll find stats on the different software packages as well as pricing information and free demos. Also be sure to visit each vendor's Web site.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about business and technology.
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