May 12th, 2008 No Comments

Enterprise-scale software for one

Small businesses, especially entrepreneurs flying solo, are at a significant disadvantage compared to their larger competitors. Big company sales people are supported by IT and marketing departments that provide sales leads and tools to effectively manage the sales process. Fortunately, for us there are some new options available to help level the playing field a bit.

CRM (customer relationship management) software is one of those applications that cost millions of dollars not so very long ago, but now you can have it completely free. And these new systems are relatively easy to set up and begin using with little training, learning to use the more complex features only as the need arises. Traditionally, CRM systems have been used for a variety of sales and marketing functions, such as:

  • managing marketing campaigns
  • tracking the source of sales leads
  • scheduling sales calls and follow up activities
  • organizing quotes and other sales documents
  • sending e-mails to groups of customers and prospects
  • documenting contacts with your customers and prospects
  • documenting and tracking problems reported by customers

Some of the new systems extend the basic sales and marketing support and also provide project management, point of sale functions, inventory management, and more operational tools. Integrating all these features into a single application will give you the so-called 360-degree view of your customer – the ability to see all important information about your customer from one vantage point.

Why is all this important to a small company?

Let’s assume you have have customers. Now you need a way to keep track of information about those customers. The typical small business has a system that looks somewhat like this:

  • Leads coming in from the Web site are in a Google e-mail account
  • Customer names, addresses, phone numbers are in Microsoft Outlook
  • Letters, quotes, other documents are in Word and Excel
  • Sales orders and invoices are in Quickbooks
  • Telephone calls are documented on Post-it notes
  • Appointments are in a planner

Sound familiar? With information scattered all around like that you’re bound to forget things – it’s hard to provide exceptional customer service in that environment. No matter how you try to organize that mess, it’s just too easy to lose an important Post-it note, or delete an e-mail by mistake. The problems multiply quickly if there’s more than one person in the company because there’s no easy way to know whether someone else already followed up on a particular issue. And what happens if you go on a business trip or vacation? How can you possibly bring all the spreadsheets, Post-it notes, and other documents?

One solution to these problems comes from a company called Zoho. They offer a full-blown CRM system for up to three users at no cost. The Zoho software is provided as an online service – there’s nothing to download or install. (The technical term for this method of providing software is SaaS, or Software as a Service.) A computer with an Internet connection is all it takes, so your customer information follows you wherever you go, even if you only carry your iPhone around.

Here’s a real-life user example. One of my clients is a very low tech printing company that seemed like they managed their whole office on index cards when I first met them. One box of cards was leads for the two sales people. Another box held current customer records for the office manager – each customer’s cards were rubber-banded together. After two months we had everything online and they couldn’t believe the change. The owner can see at a glance exactly what everyone is doing today, and when someone is free for a new sales call next week. He knows exactly when they last had contact with each of their customers, and why that contact happened. He also has a “dashboard” view of the number of leads coming in from their Web site; which ad generated the most leads on any given day; and which ad is converting the most leads to customers. As a bonus all their data is backed up, off site, automatically.

For the startups and sole proprietors out there, my advice is that it’s never too early to start using a CRM system, especially at today’s price. Keeping most of your sales and customer information in one place will definitely make your life easier. And the procedures you establish early on will serve you well as you grow and have more people and information to organize.

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