-- S.M. Tempe, Ariz.
A: A database is a database -- what's important is what you want to do with it. Before you explore the specifics of a database program, have you taken the time to outline your specifications? What do you want your system to do: Track calls, letters, and sales quotes? Are you more transaction-focused, so it's less important to track
every call but imperative to work on closing sales? Are you interested in developing long-term relationships with your customers? Would a simple list of prospects work for you just fine? What kinds of reports do you want to generate? How many users do you anticipate?
Answers to all these questions and any others that you and your staff can think of should go into a spec sheet for your database acquisition.
In order to find the right database system, experts say, you should not only be specific about your needs, but you should make the search one of your company's highest priorities. Keep looking in a focused manner until you find the product that suits your firm, because without a good system in place it's unlikely your business goals will be met or your company will be operating at top efficiency, says Sharon Berman, president of Berbay Marketing, which is based in Los Angeles.
LOOK AND LEARN. As part of your search, go to trade shows and check out what kinds of industry-specific options are being marketed to companies like yours, Berman suggests. Peruse industry publications for ads or articles about this topic, and talk with the editors of your industry's trade publications, who usually have their fingers on the industry pulse or can point you to sources who do. Don't forget, too, that popular packaged software can be customized to fit your needs. Authorized consultants who know how to customize programs like ACT and Goldmine can be located through those companies' Web sites.
Mark Kenny, principal of Orange (Calif.)-based MRK Systems, an applications specialist that works with sales and marketing organizations, says he recommends ACT and Goldmine to his small business clients. Microsoft Outlook, which many small companies start with because it comes with the Microsoft Office suite that includes Word and Excel, is designed more for communications, project management, and work groups rather than sales and marketing, Kenny says.
Another option, for companies that have the funds, are open-ended databases such as Oracle, but Kenny says they typically take a long time and a lot of resources to customize -- he estimates $20,000.
"The newest developments out there for small business are Web-enabled databases, like Salesforce.com," Kenny says. "They essentially do what Goldmine and ACT do, but they're Web-based -- so you don't have to make a large investment in computer hardware and networking. They're excellent for companies that have sales teams distributed all over the world, because they can access the central server from anywhere."
SECURITY AND SERVERS. Along with Salesforce.com, Kenny says he has used simple Web programs like Yahoo! Groups as basic sales tools for sending newsletters and setting up client groups. "The downside is that your data is not on your computer, it's on a server," he says. "A lot of firms get hung up about that, but with the security built into these products, I don't see it as a problem and there's a plus in that you don't have to backup your system."
Another good point of a Web-based program is that many of them synchronize with personal digital assistants, Kenny says, so that sales staff can carry a version of their database and their calendars on their person and then back the data up to the Web site. And the services are affordable -- as low as $9 or $10 per user per month, he adds.
Once you find the right solution to your database needs, make sure you maintain and use it properly. "A clean database is the core of a marketing program," Berman says. "You should designate one person to handle all the contact updates and changes, except for information that salespeople might enter. Keeping the information clean is a high priority." Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.