In the meantime, new kinds of functionality are also attracting small firms. Integration with social media is perhaps the most dramatic.
Companies have learned that if they build a social networking presence for their brands, customers will add them to their friends list in return for free downloads or other perks. That can give the company access to users profiles, sometimes to friends lists and to communication with friends about the brand.
Some CRM vendors such as SalesForce.com have already integrated its solutions with social networks to capture sales prospects. Others are working on it. I can tell you that every major CRM vendor has a social media plan in progress, Hickernell said.
Some companies also use customer service CRM modules to track complaints about their products at community-run bulletin boards. They can capture contact information into the CRM system and then ensure that not only are service issues dealt with, but that those communities see the company responding.
Mobile CRM has also been around for a long time, but it was often difficult to access and synchronize data. Much has changed, Hickernell said.
Smart phones are cheaper and more powerful. Mobile networks move data faster and are less expensive, with most U.S. operators now offering all-you-can-eat data plans. Mobile functionality in many solutions now lets people securely access and update central CRM databases over the wireless network as if they were sitting at their desks.
All major CRM solutions, including SalesForce.com, Microsoft Dynamics and particularly Sages SalesLogix, offer strong support for mobile CRM, Hickernell said. And ACT, the pioneering contact manager application from Sage, now lets customers automatically synchronize data from a corporate server to cloud storage and then synchronize handhelds from the cloud over the wireless network.
Hickernell offers one caution. Small businesses should ask vendors if mobile CRM is supported out of the box. Some charge extra for it.
Even if they do charge extra, the business case is there, Hickernell said as long as the mobile culture is already in place. If sales people can stay in the field longer by using their handhelds to communicate, they spend more time selling to customers. And if they capture time keeping and other reporting data on the spot, its more likely to be accurate.
Some CRM solutions can also exploit mobile positioning technologies such as the built-in GPS radios in many handhelds, allowing companies to locate the employee closest to a customer requiring attention.
Analytics is an aspect of CRM that is often under-appreciated by small businesses. It allows companies to understand costs inherent in their processes, where inefficiencies lie, which customers deliver most profit, and more.
Enterprise CRM systems have offered analytics for years. What has changed, Vaskelis said, is that even small business solutions offer surprisingly sophisticated analytics now and make it easier to customize and use them.
Even the free SugarCRM package includes good basic analytics, he noted. You still need to spend a little time tweaking it, but you cant beat the price. All or most also now include dashboards that present analytical results in easy-to-digest graphical form.
In the enterprise world, CRM has already become a mission-critical application. Yet small businesses still lag even though most if not all the traditional impediments have disappeared, and the value proposition has improved.
So what are they waiting for?
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte
|Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!|