How to Buy Small Business CRM Software - Page 2

By SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff
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CRM Features to Improve Your Small Business

There are myriad features that can wind up in a CRM package, so the trick is finding the one that matches what you need. After all, you don’t want to pay for features you’ll never use. So here are some of the more prominent features to consider as you weigh your purchase:

Ease of Use: The goal of any CRM package is to make everyday chores easier and ultimately to make your employees more productive. That won’t happen if the software is too complex to use, so an intuitive user interface is paramount.

Any good small business CRM platform will have a wealth of features; the key is to package those features in such a way that your employees can find the ones they need for their job. So look for a UI that offers tabs or another organizational construct that makes particular tasks easy to find.

For example, customizable views, where employees can create their own UI tailored to their roles -- surfacing the information they need and hiding the info they don’t -- is a welcome feature. Better packages will also offer “wizards” to walk employees through executing common tasks. And of course, robust search capability is essential, so you can find a bit of data no matter where it may reside in the system.

Tasks and Reminders: A CRM package should include features such reminders that trigger at a set time interval after a task, so employees are sure to stay engaged with a prospect or keep a project moving. Even better, many CRM programs support automatic follow ups, where an employee can have the system generate and send automatic -- but personalized -- “thank you” and other correspondence a set number of days after contacting a client or prospect.

And your CRM package should support personalized “To Do” lists that aggregate appointments and tasks, and keeps employees (and their managers) alerted to past-due items.

Business process automation:  The difference between a simple contact manager and a full-blown CRM is the ability to automate multi-step processes that involve multiple employees. For example, an administrative assistant may take an initial call or email from a prospective client and hand that off to a salesperson, who then makes contact and informs a sales manager about the lead.

Prophet 5; small business CRM software
Prophet 5 works within Microsoft Outlook.
(Click for larger image)

The salesperson handles the requisite back-and-forth with the prospect, including a proposal that may need approval or input from others. And assuming the prospect becomes a client, the account information may need to be handed off to a customer service rep, keeping the salesperson in the loop so she can monitor that client’s needs for future sales.

Now, all that can be handled with endless email threads and appointments entered into Outlook. Or you can let a CRM system coordinate all of the activities and manage the workflow. Even better, most CRM software will have some common workflows, such as a sales-process pipeline, already pre-built and ready for your customization.

Also look for email message templates -- follow-up, “thank you” and other common correspondence that are pre-written and ready to auto-populate with a particular contact’s name and information. Some CRM packages even include an “instant quote” feature, allowing your salespeople to generate customized quotes -- complete with your logo, products and service description, part numbers, customer info and more -- in just a few clicks

Reporting and Business Insight: Beyond getting things done, a CRM package should let you see how your small business is doing. So look for a program that offers top-level “dashboards” that roll up information such as closed deals, pending deals and so on so you can see status at a glance.

You’ll also want a range of easy-to-run reports and other business analytics so you can see where the business is headed as a whole and where each employee stands in relation to his or her assigned quota. Some CRM packages also include opportunity progress reports, so the manager can see the status of all deals/projects in process across all employees.

Integration: While a CRM system can handle a lot of everyday chores, it clearly can’t be the only software in your small business. Look for a platform that can work hand-in-hand with your other software. For example, employees will still want to use Outlook as their main email program, so look for Outlook integration that allows contacts, appointments and tasks to appear automatically in the CMS.

Once a prospect becomes a client, look for integration with your small business accounting software (such as Intuit QuickBooks), which will simplify migrating CRM-resident contact and billing/payment information to the accounting side.

You can also leverage your CRM data to energize your marketing efforts. After all, your existing customers and contacts are your best bet for increased sales. Look for a small business CRM package that lets you launch and track marketing programs from within the tool, or that offers synergy between your CRM data and a third-party email marketing service such as Constant Contact.

And to uncover new leads, some CRM vendors have partnered with business-information database providers (like Hoover’s) to help you find new prospects and add them directly to your CRM system.

Extensibility: No CRM package can be all things to all businesses. Investigate whether the platform offers add-ins from the CRM provider as well as third-party developers to extend its functionality. Business workflow templates and other features unique to your industry may be available, which will save you a lot of time on the customization front.

Tech support: As with any technology purchase, make sure the vendor offers the service and support to match your needs. Phone/chat/email tech support is a must, and if you tend to work odd hours (what small business owner doesn’t?) or have a workforce spread across multiple time zones, you may want to insist on 24/7 phone support.

Beyond that, find out if the CRM maker offers assistance in setting up and customizing the platform, either directly or through authorized resellers -- and find out the costs. Some packages include some degree of setup in the purchase price; but if not, such services can quickly eclipse the price of the software itself.

Security: Last but certainly not least, consider the security the platform offers. At the very least, you should be able control which users can see which data. For example, an assistant does not have access to a client’s sensitive personal data.

Also check to see if the platform offers encryption for stored data, to keep it safe from hackers. But since the bigger threat is not from hackers but from employees within your own company misappropriating the data for their next job, look for a platform that limits user access to just their clients, and prohibits (or at least warns about) unauthorized copying/exporting of the database.

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This article was originally published on May 17, 2011
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