Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms used to be limited to the large-business world. But a number of vendors have changed all that, making these useful systems great business tools for small and midsized business (SMB) operators that want to maximize every customer and prospect. As the breadth of small business demands has grown, so have the available functions.
Decide What CRM Features Your SMB Needs
Today's CRM platforms go beyond simply tracking contacts and sales opportunities, or housing notes, tasks and other standard information. Beyond those basic functionalities, look for a solution that lets you take a more detailed look at your customer database. "You might want to go to a deeper level to understand the different interests that your prospects and customers have, or their needs or personas," says Don Breckenridge, CEO and co-founder of CRM solution provider Hatchbuck.
It may be useful for your team to connect with one set of customers in a certain way (business customers, for example) and another group (the consumer crowd) in a different way. "It's important to understand, 'How does CRM help me to segment my audience or all of my contacts, and help me communicate with them on a more personal level?'" Breckenridge explains. Parsing a database is a prime function of a CRM system.
Anthony Smith, CEO and founder of Insightly, a CRM platform vendor, says that as your team evaluates the various functions available, it's important to remember not every small business works with concepts such as sales quotas or even product offerings.
"They might be plumbers or landscapers or artists," he says. For some businesses, the platform will be far more useful for tracking conversations with clients than for spitting out monthly sales reports. If interactions are important to your team, consider a CRM solution that can integrate with your chosen email system.
Smith says this feature can also be useful in other ways. When new employees come on board, they're able to read through the history and "understand what was said to whom, and when or what was promised."
Be Prepared: Do Your CRM Research
Implementing a CRM platform that delivers useful information requires advanced preparation to maximize the return on your investment. Smith says most small businesses can use their existing data, such as customer lists, to get the system's database going. "They probably have some contact information they want to initially populate, and then they may want to set up some additional custom fields, tags, and categorization of their data."
Many popular platforms let you import a number of different source types. If your business has data in Excel spreadsheets, a Gmail contact list, or even data that's in another CRM-type system like Act, be sure to look for a CRM platform that can accept those formats.
Breckenridge suggests outlining the way your team would like everything to work once the CRM platform is installed, and then ask some baseline questions. "What do I need a CRM for? What am I trying to accomplish? What would those processes look like ideally?"
Having a vision in mind of what the system will look like in the long term can help you fit it into the workflow. "Once a company starts to enter data into a CRM, it becomes a little harder to change processes or list fields and so forth," Breckenridge explains. Having a structure around those methodologies prior to installation makes setting up the system's internal fields it easier and cleaner.
Avoid Common CRM Challenges
Existing databases are often messy, and they can make setting up a new CRM system quickly and efficiently a challenge. One way to avoid that is by culling outdated and otherwise less-than-useful records before loading everything into the new system.
"Before customers import their data, we like to make sure that they don’t have duplicates entries, and that the information they import is up to date," Smith says. "If you enter incorrect data into the customer management tool, you don't really trust the data that's in there, and the system can't provide as much value." Double checking addresses, phone numbers and other fields ahead of time will save a lot of effort later.
Another issue is people's resistance to change. Depending on the size of your small business, there's a good chance you'll have someone—perhaps several people—who simply don't want to use a new system. That can cause real problems down the road.
"If you don't have everybody using it, then the reports coming out of the CRM become meaningless," says Breckenridge. Offering solid training is one solution, so that employees can become comfortable with the platform. You might also consider making some or all of employees' pay dependent on using of the platform.
"You want to make sure everybody actually uses it so you can generate the reports you need," Breckenridge says. "If you tie those reports to compensation, you'll get everybody using the system properly."
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.