Sales and customer relationship management

Customer relationship management (CRM) is an integral part of new business generation and customer service. Sales staff can rely on CRM tools for discovering trends, forecasting, and selecting business growth opportunities. Support staff can rely on CRM tools for quick access to client contacts, up-to-date information on active projects, and business continuance purposes (i.e. getting account successors up to speed). This article discusses types of CRM solutions, how the solutions can be customized, and what to look out for when implementing one.

A CRM solution is…
At its core, a CRM solution is a data centre for customer information. It has the goal of improving customer relationships. Ian Gordon of the Ivey Business Journal puts it well: “CRM is a series of strategies and processes [that help develop] the only asset of the enterprise that matters in the long term: progressively deeper relationships with valuable customers.”

As with many business solutions, the complete definition of a CRM solution will change depending on context. A B2C telemarketing operation, for example, would use a more predictive set of tools than that of a B2B strategic marketing partnership. The reason is based on the type of relationship; B2C relationships often have a short time-to-maturity and a limited number of product or service offerings, whereas B2B relationships are often developed over years, and the service offerings might evolve to meet the customer’s changing needs. As such, customers with more varied requirements will necessitate a more customized array of CRM tools.

This article focuses on the B2B side of things from the perspective of a marketing agency.

Definitions

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, here are some definitions that will be useful:

API – Application programming interface. In the context of the web, APIs are a means of structuring data in a way that can be interpreted and made useful by web apps. Examples for CRM solutions could be the dynamic linking of contact information from LinkedIn to your online CRM account.

KPIs – Key performance indicators. They are used to measure and evaluate success using metrics that relate to a process or business operation. Examples for

CRM solutions could include metrics like customer acquisition, profitability, customer satisfaction, and retention rate.

SaaS – Software as a service. Online apps that follow a subscription model instead of traditional out-of-the-box licensing. They don’t require local installations since they “live on the web” and, thus, aren’t reliant on specific IT infrastructure or support. Examples of SaaS CRM solutions include Salesforce, SugarCRM, and Zoho.

Licensed software or SaaS?
Likely the first step in determining the right solution will be choosing where your software will be hosted. Nowadays, there are two methods: out-of-the-box licensing and software as a service. The difference between the two is mostly in the payment plan (i.e. upfront or ongoing) and the agility of the solution (i.e. a contained package as of the July 2013 release date or an evolving suite that includes ongoing upgrades).

The case can be made that SaaS is a more viable decision in today’s business environment. Companies need to be more agile when it comes to managing their technical solutions. With SaaS, solutions are scalable to meet changing needs, they’re easily—if not automatically—updated with new functionality, and they’re supported by a dedicated and expert support team—often 24/7. This means you’ll be cutting-edge without the hassle of training support staff.

Furthermore, an increasing amount of business is happening outside of the office; more work is done on the road, at the coffee shop, and from home. Being able to access comprehensive and up-to-date customer information from mobile devices is a must. SaaS solutions are more likely to provide a faster and more enjoyable experience.

Customizing a solution
There is extensive third-party application support among CRM solutions. If you’re familiar with WordPress, adding an app to a SaaS solution would similar to how you install a plug-in in the admin panel. For example, you can integrate a survey tool for customer feedback and funnel the data right into your CRM.

Project management dashboards, scheduling boards, and time tracking apps are also available for most solutions.
In addition to the easy-to-install plug-ins, extensive customization at code level is often available for CRM tools. Companies can integrate APIs from their existing services, like project dashboards and accounting trackers, right into their new CRM solution.

KPIs and growth management
Growth is often two-faced. Yes, under most circumstances it’s awesome for businesses. But sometimes, growth, in its unpredictable nature, is challenging from a staffing and service offering perspective. If a client loves working with you and decides to move another x% of business to you in the next quarter, are you prepared? Are you going to be able to handle the extra work and still provide the same level of quality? With the right tools, CRM solutions can forecast trends, provide estimates on the staff levels needed, and, not to mention, provide a thorough training ground for new staff.

Implementation and adoption
Getting your team on-board will be a challenge, even under the best of circumstances. Below I’ve outlined the major steps of the process. Always think long-term, which is when you’ll see it pay off!

Initial planning and management sign-off are part of the initial challenge. Budget, scope, and timeframe will need to be decided. Following this comes a detailed design phase, execution, and user acceptance testing. Next comes adoption by staff—the end-users of the system. Training sessions, writing supporting documentation, follow-ups, and modification cycles based on feedback all become part of the next challenge. And finally, after everything is set up and running, due diligence must be done to ensure everyone is entering accurate data in a timely manner. With CRM solutions, it’s garbage in, garbage out; if the entered data isn’t complete or accurate, the system isn’t going to perform to its capability.

With all of this said, it’s evident that every installation should have a project champion. Whether it’s a reassigned project manager, or a hire from a third party service, someone will need to manage the intricacies and expectations of the installation and adoption phases.

Don’t neglect the personal touch!
It’s easy to get overrun by technology. Yes, there are many tools out there to help you with sales and customer service, but as I’m sure anyone in those roles could tell you, prospective clients will best remember and continually trust those with amiable personalities, great anecdotes and jokes, and the willingness to help find them solutions.

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