In recent years, the term “Customer Relationship Management” or “CRM” has been pitched around most areas of business. But what does CRM actually mean? More importantly, what can it do for new, small or expanding businesses?

In a nutshell, CRM is a way of improving business efficiency. It’s about building and strengthening customer relationships to keep them coming back, while helping you gain new customers. CRM systems streamline internal business processes and by effectively integrating your marketing, sales and customer service functions, a good CRM system makes it easier for everyone inside your company to work together and share critical information. It doesn’t matter if your company has two, ten, or five-hundred customer facing staff, modern CRM systems bring significant benefits throughout a business, whatever its size.

One of the most significant advantages of CRM systems for smaller companies is easy access to comprehensive customer information and contact history. Most small companies know their businesses inside out. However, data is often stored all over the company. There's information in spreadsheets, different databases, on laptops, in email directories, on paper, in different people's heads.

Professionally implemented Customer Relationship Management systems bring all this information together. They have features and tools which save a massive amount of time and effort. They'll help you boost your sales opportunities, run more sophisticated marketing campaigns, improve your sales forecasting and lead management and greatly enhance your customer service. And that's just the start. In some areas, CRM systems have given businesses a deep understanding of what drives their customers, services and products. In other words, if a new CRM system is implemented properly, it can transform a company throughout.

Here’s a practical example

You answer the phone to a customer who usually deals with your colleague. But rather than asking if they can hold while you search for their information or ask them if they mind a call back, you instantly know all the details of every interaction they’ve had with your company. You know they’ve had three phone calls in the last month. You can look at a summary of each conversation, and if necessary look at the full details. Similarly you can see all of the contact they’ve had from your staff via email, and their response. You know which of your products they’ve bought in the past, and how much they’ve spent. You know they’ve needed your support service. You know what marketing material they’ve received. You know there’s a significant sales opportunity due in six weeks time with a 70% chance of success. You know that last month they did 10% more business with you than in the same month last year. You know the position of the person in the company, their role in decision making and how they first found out about you. You know this customer sometimes cares more about delivery times than price. Straight away, you start talking to them knowledgeably with the familiarity of a long-term acquaintance.

Does CRM bring benefits to every business? No, not always. CRM systems deliver, but only if they're deployed and used correctly. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much searching to find stories of high costs and broken promises.

To bring real benefits to a company, a new CRM system needs a carefully planned, realistic, integrated and well-managed approach. Because CRM systems impact many areas of a company, a successful CRM project needs a broad range of skills and experience. Areas such as business process analysis, effective change management and developing an appropriate training strategy can be just as important as choosing the right software and getting it running on your system. However, the returns for a professionally implemented system configured to suit your company and business needs can be outstanding.

In the past, many CRM systems were either developed in-house, or were based on expensive and complex software packages aimed at companies with literally hundreds of system users.

The market has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now, there are a variety of affordable, powerful CRM software packages available for small and medium enterprises. Each one has its own features and characteristics and can be configured to meet specific business needs. Popular, proven CRM software for smaller and medium sized companies includes Sage CRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Sage SalesLogix and the FrontRange GoldMine suite of CRM products. These are distributed through qualified or approved business partners.

Choosing an appropriate CRM business partner is as important as choosing the right software. Make sure they have appropriate experience and expertise in CRM projects (check their references!). They will need to be more than software resellers: ideally they will be CRM specialists offering a range of CRM related services. They should also be prepared to challenge you and ask the difficult questions about your business processes.

Qualified CRM business partners will have skilled technical, development and engineering staff. They may also have experienced project managers, business analysts, commercial specialists and trainers to help you get the maximum return on investment from your CRM project. The leading CRM business partners are likely to be independent and not tied to any one software manufacturer. Independent CRM specialists can help you choose a CRM system which matches the requirements and goals of your business, rather than trying to shoe-horn in software that isn’t necessarily the best choice for your company.

So what is CRM? It’s a combination of business strategy, software and business processes which, if implemented correctly, will bring significant, benefits to your company.

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