The Small Business CRM Evolution

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.

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