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CRM for small businesses

Could a Customer Relationship Management system help your firm?

In most businesses, customers are contacted and dealt with through a variety of different means including email, faxes, phone calls and letters. This is where Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software can help by amalgamating all customer contact in a single place.

Emails, faxes, phone calls and letters, and these days, several software packages too - word processor, spreadsheet and databases - all play a role in the modern firm. These varied means of communication may make it easier to keep in touch with customers but it also can make managing customer relationships complicated if there is no way of keeping track of who said what to whom and when.

For example, how many times have you spoken to a customer on the phone, then been distracted by something else and forgotten entirely what you had promised to do, or how much you had charged? You can't call back for fear of looking daft - and you're left guessing in a very uncomfortable position. Don't worry- you're not alone, and this is where CRM software can come to the rescue. Let's look at an example.

Example: You probably already have your contacts in a database of some sort, even if it's just your diary or email program. As you have probably guessed, CRM software allows you to put progress notes against all of your client contacts (these are sometimes called flags). Let's take the example of a satellite dish installation company. They might have a list of flags something like this:

Customer was cold called

Customer rang up after seeing advertisement

Customer has been sent brochure

Customer has been given a quote

Customer has had quote for a week already

Customer has signed contract

Installation date agreed

Installation overdue

Installation complete

Customer has received their satellite box

By always keeping track of progress you really can exceed the customer's expectations all the time. In the above example, if you know that the customer has already received their satellite receiver box they'll be desperate for installation to proceed quickly. Put the customer higher up on your priority list and they'll be happier.

Report functions

Where CRM really starts earning its keep is in reporting. Every day, our satellite installer could run a list of customers with installations due that day, making it a breeze to marshal staff and deliveries. Similarly, you can run off a list of overdue clients, to ensure they are placated. We all make mistakes, but a phone call from you can neutralise the problem.

Beyond day-to-day management, advanced CRM functions can bring in lots of new business too, as information can be sorted in a variety of ways. For example, you can view all of the interaction you've had with a given company or contact over six months, highlighting details such as creditworthiness or increased purchasing power.

Our satellite installer might write to everyone one week after the installation as a courtesy. Or he might write to everyone with an installation over one year old, offering an upgrade or maintenance option.

Because of the flexibility of CRM software, you can divide your client base up in all sorts of ways and produce marketing messages which are directly targeted at them. This of course leads to increased sales and - the double whammy - happier customers too.

Buying CRM software

There's plenty of CRM software on the market (and prices range from around �250 to products used by huge companies that cost millions. There's plenty of free information at the InsightExec website (which has a flourishing community of experts too). For larger companies considering a serious technology investment, spend some time reading CRM strategy advice from the FT.

The only issue you need to be aware of is that very few are priced like-for-like. Some products can be purchased with a licence to cover your whole company, whereas others are on a per-seat basis. Some are modular, allowing you to buy parts as they become useful for your company.

You will need to spend a little time working out what is most economical for you now and in the future. However, it's fair to say that compared to all the other expenses of running a business, there's not much software more likely to generate a good return on your initial investment than a well implemented CRM package.

What next?

Order a free trial of Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003, a suite including Outlook 2003 with BCM.

Sign into Microsoft Small Business+ for free web-based training and software support.

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