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Closer Than Ever


Escrow Partners Inc. was drowning in its own paperwork. "We would work until nine o'clock each night, but we couldn't keep our heads above water," says Michael Stevens, president of the Bellevue (Wash.) financial-services firm. Its best customers, too, were flooded with phone calls, faxes, and letters from the company. "We'd waste 40 to 60 hours a month," recalls Escrow customer Megan Hooker, a transaction coordinator with Rebug Inc., a real estate services company based in Everett, Wash.

Now everyone is breathing easier. Escrow Partners' 30 workers leave at a reasonable hour, and its customers get the answers they need immediately. How? A life raft called customer-relationship management (CRM) software.

What exactly is CRM? The term covers a wide range of applications. Some, like those used by Escrow Partners--Commence Corp.'s Commence RM and Allure 2000--make communications easier both inside a company and with outsiders. For Escrow Partners, that means all paperwork involving owners, sellers, brokers, mortgage companies, and insurers is funneled to its Web site, which automatically e-mails all concerned whenever a change is made to an account. Other CRM programs, like UpShot Corp., serve more as an internal communications tool, enabling sales reps to keep closer tabs on their accounts--and managers to keep closer tabs on the reps. All told, several dozen vendors sell CRM products for small business.

Whatever the program, the aim is to improve relations with customers. How does it work? Take Commence RM. Say your customer bought a dozen Palm Pilots from your Web-based electronics store, only to find five have broken screens. At your Web site, she fills out an electronic service ticket that's part of the CRM program. The ticket is routed automatically to an account file that's available to the service, sales, and shipping departments--each of which is alerted when it arrives. Service arranges to replace the units and sends the customer an e-mail; the sales rep in charge of the account apologizes profusely; and the shipping department sees who has been using its cartons for soccer practice. Meanwhile, the customer can check the progress of the order any time on the site.

Mind you, you get what you pay for. Low-cost CRM software (typically running $5,000 to $15,000 in annual license fees for 10 users) lacks the power of pricey applications ($1,000 to $5,000 per user). The high-end stuff, sold by Siebel Systems Inc., PeopleSoft Inc., and others, allows major corporations to seamlessly handle huge volumes of inquiries from the Net and phone simultaneously, and caller ID is linked to customer records.

There are also some midrange alternatives. Multiactive Software Inc.'s Entice!, for example, allows businesses to fully integrate customer communications with back-office applications, such as billing and accounting. Even mid-range CRM software isn't cheap, however. "By the time we're done implementing Entice!, it will have cost us $100,000," says Ben Hume, president of Alco Ventures Inc., a $10 million screen-door manufacturer based in British Columbia. In the end, though, Alco will have integrated order-processing, manufacturing, and retail computer systems. That means retailers such as Home Depot Inc. will always know what products are available and get sales leads when the system forwards the names of consumers who register at the Alco Web site.

Getting your hands on CRM software has never been easier. Several publishers, including Salesforce.com, UpShot, e-Resolve, Commence, and Multiactive Software, offer software hosted on their servers for a monthly fee. It's only worth considering, of course, if you have a high-speed Internet connection--and if the application service provider your publisher has partnered with isn't heading for bankruptcy. If either your Internet connection or your confidence is shaky, remember that many publishers, including Multiactive Software, Commence, and e-Resolve, also sell some of their products on CD-ROM.

Don't relax just yet, though. The real fun--implementation--is about to begin. Most small-business CRM software users say it takes their information technology workers a few days to install the programs and iron out any wrinkles. Not bad. But if you plan to integrate common database applications, it may take a little doing. Consider, for example, Microsoft Corp.'s bCentral Customer Manager, the newest--and, at $29.95 per user per month, by far the least expensive--CRM product on the market. As with some rival programs, if you want to tap into Intuit Corp.'s QuickBooks, you must first transfer data to Microsoft Excel before importing it into bCentral Customer Manager. Others, such as Multiactive's Maximizer Enterprise 6.0, provide software that links the CRM program with the database so they update each other automatically.

If you plan to integrate more complicated programs, you may want to put off your vacation. Case in point: Alco Ventures, which has spent eight months integrating Entice! with order-processing, billing, and other back-office applications, won't be done until early next year, says Hume.

A lot of work? You bet. But when all is in place, you'll see your business from your client's perspective--which is what customer relations is supposed to be about. By Kevin Ferguson


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