By Guy Clapperton.

There is a perception among small businesses that customer relationship management, or CRM as it’s often called, is something best left to the larger companies. To take this attitude is to risk losing a lot of business advantage, though. A recent survey by Sage, which offers the ACT! software system for CRM as well as the Saleslogix product, said that 43 per cent of customers found information from large companies useful as compared to 10 per cent finding the smaller companies were getting it right.

Clearly if the customer wants information it pays to get the right data to them. The difficulty many small organisations perceive is that CRM is expensive and complex to install.

One of the first criteria for selecting the right CRM system for your organisation, then, has to be the ease of implementation and the ease of use. The latter is as important as the former, since the system into which the employees refuse to enter data is automatically useless. One way around this, which Sage (unsurprisingly) advocates, is to have a single underlying database rather than lots of islands of information around the company — so that, for example, if someone enters a change of address into the accounting system it is automatically updated to the sales force as well.

The first stage in evaluating a system should ideally be to look at your company’s needs. Ask a consultant the right question and they stand a much better chance of coming up with the right technology to answer it; don’t just assume ‘it’s CRM so it’ll work’. It might work well at doing something other than what you want it to do. A good first step towards this is in electing a core team who understand your goals and who can analyse exactly why your current processes don’t match them.

Sage has published a book on selecting CRM systems, and this stresses that the right people need to be in the core team — the stakeholders who’ll be using the system and the people who’ll want information from it. They need to be involved in the choice of a consultant — who’ll need to evaluate your need, save your company as much time and money as possible during the installation and tailor the system to your exact requirements. When you’re looking at what consultants offer, consider where you’re likely to want to enter data — will it update in real time when your sales force is in the field?

Consider multi-currency support, and if you have overseas operations remember an English-only product isn’t right. Think about (and ask resellers about) implementation time, costs of tailoring the product to you, time for implementation and how much training is on offer for your staff.

In many ways your consultant is as important as your software. Don’t be afraid to ask about technical support including out of hours and whetherthey can expand the system to accommodate more staff as you grow. Set a blueprint and timetable for the implementation and a plan for ongoing evaluation and whatever you do, test it before going live. Good luck!

Guy Clapperton is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and book author/editor specialising in small business issues and technology.