How to Choose and Manage the Right CRM for Your Business

Picking the right system can seem daunting, but the real challenge is implementing it.

Gene Marks on CRMs
Gene Marks: For most small businesses, Salesforce is overkill.

By Donna Sellinger

Customer relations management software can do wonders to help organize and understand data. Today’s CRMs provide detailed analytics reports and integrate with social media, bringing multiple sources of data into one place. Perhaps most importantly for the modern entrepreneur, today’s CRMs are (largely) designed to be mobile; team members can enter data on the go and access it quickly from anywhere. While every CRM has strengths and weaknesses, they are SaaS products—and as a result, if one company launches a hot new feature, it’s likely that others will follow suit before long.

But with as much as CRMs have to offer, integrating one isn’t likely to accelerate business overnight. “People think you sign up, start using it and your sales will increase 50 percent,” says Gene Marks, a Philadelphia-area CRM expert whose company, the Marks Group, helps business owners manage their technology. “But no, it doesn’t work that way.”

In most cases, the benefits of integrating a CRM are slow and steady, with workflows becoming more efficient as everyone starts using the system. As data accumulates, the system can provide more information about when clients were last contacted, who they’ve been in touch with and what types of products they might be interested in. And as personnel become more fluent with the system, they can begin to forecast sales and track the performance of each team or department.

However, getting to that point can be challenging. “Nobody likes change,” says Marks. But he counsels the companies he works with to move past that resistance and keep an eye on the ultimate goal: sharing data across the company, so that nothing—like information about a contact’s preferences, or insight into why a deal soured—falls through the cracks.

Businesses can simplify the transition by adopting only the CRM features that they actually need right now. Marks says nearly every business can benefit from contact management, which helps users track communications with clients. Contact management can be as simple as tools provided by Gmail or Outlook, but a CRM system helps users track communications across platforms and provides more sophisticated features, like reminders to reach out to specific clients.

Greg Wood, chief strategy officer of AchieveNEXT, which develops and runs peer-advisory groups including the CFO Alliance, adopted a CRM system in 2016 as a way of turning his organization’s email lists into tools for understanding his members’ concerns. “The more data we can collect on our members, the better we are at making connections that count,” he says. For example, if a member of the CFO Alliance is trying to implement a new technology, Wood can look to his database to find out which other members already have experience using it. Thanks to that data, he can easily connect the inexperienced user with peers who can offer insight—making the CFO Alliance a valuable resource to its members.

Matching the CRM to the business

CRMs vary widely in terms of price. Entrepreneurs can take advantage of free CRM software or spend thousands of dollars a year on a system. Functionality varies just as much, but the cost of a system doesn’t necessarily correlate to the features it offers—or the ones a particular company needs. “You’ll never get fired for buying Salesforce. It’s the BMW of CRMs,” says Marks. “However, for most small businesses, it’s overkill.”

Jay Goltz—a Salesforce customer—agrees. Goltz owns several businesses in Chicago, including a picture-framing operation and a home store, that employ more than 100. “For a business of my size, I believe it’s more expensive than I need to spend,” he says of the CRM industry’s 800-pound gorilla, which he estimates costs him $4,300 per year. “I’m probably only using 20 percent of what it’s capable of. I only have two outside salespeople, and I have a legacy computer system that it does not interface with.”

Many CRMs offer free options with limited features, which can be sufficient for some small businesses. “They provide an excellent way for someone to get their feet wet without fully committing,” says Marks. If a business owner needs expanded functionality down the road, they can usually upgrade to a paid version, bringing their data along with them. Marks says it typically costs $10 to $25 per user per month for a CRM on the low end and $50 to $125 per user per month on the upper end.

In a world where software companies come and go, it may seem wise to trust your data to a more established CRM, like Salesforce, since it’s unlikely to disappear any time soon. However, Marks doesn’t think obsolescence represents much of a risk. It’s much more likely, he believes, that a small CRM will be bought by a larger company than that it will simply go belly up. If that happens, Marks says, “The good news for users is that they probably won’t lose their data. The bad news is that they may find themselves using a system that they don’t necessarily like.”

It’s worth noting that most of today’s CRMs come with backup tools. Marks advises all CRM users—regardless of which system they’re using—to take full advantage of them.

Wood of the CFO Alliance skipped Salesforce in favor of Zoho, which he says offers comparable functionality to Salesforce at about a quarter of the cost. With only 13 employees using the system and a focus on member data (rather than driving sales), Wood simply didn’t need all that Salesforce had to offer.

Goltz is still searching for the perfect CRM for his business. He wants something that’s simple to use and more appropriate for his company’s size. In the future, he plans to spend more time with a CRM system before making the investment. “I don’t know that you can look at it in a sales presentation and fully grasp how it all works,” he says.

The CRM learning curve

Successful CRM integration starts at the top, Marks emphasizes. And that requires both persistence and a willingness to push past employees’ preferences for the way things have always been done. One of his clients, for instance, flew 50 sales people in from around the world for training on a new system. “But then everybody went home and just kept sending in reports manually, with excuses like, ‘This is harder than I thought’ or ‘I don’t have the time to learn this,’” Marks says. “And the VP of marketing caved. He’d spent all this money on a CRM and all this training, and he caved. The whole system blew up.”

A better solution, Marks suggests, would have been to remain firm, despite the complaints, and provide the resources people needed to get on board. For instance, both Wood and Goltz have followed one of Marks’ key tenets: designating a specific person to be the CRM’s administrator. Marks says the administrator should be fully trained in the system and empowered to check up on other staffers as they get up to speed, but it’s not necessarily a tech role. In some ways, the job depends heavily on the administrator’s soft skills—being able to translate technical jargon to the rest of the team and figure out which data to prioritize given the company’s priorities.

Not taking full advantage of CRM’s reports is where many small businesses fall down. The analytical tools that are part of every modern CRM, Marks says, are their most valuable feature. For instance, the new data the CFO Alliance has been collecting on its members makes growing membership even easier. If a prospective member is on the fence about joining, Woods’ staff can run an industry report and find out which existing members that person may already know. “We can say, ‘We’ve got 100 or 1,000 of your peers who are already part of this organization,’” he says. “It makes that conversation easier.”

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