Giles Barton knows the frustration of tossing good money after bad. Barton, president of 50-employee Expeditor Systems in Alpharetta, Ga., has poured more than $200,000 into customer relationship management (CRM) software in the past decade. But early CRM products were too rudimentary for his $5 million company, which makes custom lighting panels -- almost like mini-stop lights posted outside examining room doors -- that tell doctors which patients need immediate attention. None of the software ever offered enough customization. "We never really had what we wanted," says Barton, no matter what he spent.
Plenty of small business owners know exactly what he means. CRM products began to appear about a decade ago with the seemingly simple aim of helping companies coordinate their sales processes and improve the bottom line. But the software had glitches and often couldn't be integrated with other systems. In 2001 more than 55% of CRM projects failed to meet corporate expectations, according to Gartner, a consulting firm in Stamford, Conn.
The good news is that CRM software keeps getting better, particularly for small businesses. These days, about one-third of CRM projects miss the mark, says Bob Thompson, founder of CRMguru.com, a Web portal for the industry in Burlingame, Calif. That's still pretty scary, but Thompson says many flameouts aren't the result of problems with the technology. Much of what CRM software does is automate processes, so it's only as good as the procedures you've already established. "What drives success and failure is your strategy, how you deal with customers as an organization," says Thompson. Also important: whether a company has clear goals for the implementation from the get-go.
There are about 10 CRM products geared to small business on the market, ranging from basic contact management for sales pros to multifunction packages that include marketing-campaign management, customer support, and accounting. Most allow you to handle customer contacts and communications in a central location, forecast sales, track leads, and evaluate employee performance. Pipeline management features, for example, show execs which opportunities each salesperson is pursuing. And frequent reports make it easy to determine which salespeople are performing well and to get sales forecasts without wading through reams of paper.
You can buy CRM software either as a desktop application, loaded onto a server, or as a hosted service. Nearly all CRM software makers are now integrating their products with Microsoft Outlook. Some vendors offer easy integration with QuickBooks and other back-office systems. Many provide access through wireless PDAs.
By carefully picking the right package for your company, you can raise the odds of success -- both for your future sales and for the software itself. Your choice depends on the size of your company, your needs, and your budget. Then it's a matter of finding products that sport the features you want.
COMPANIES WITH only a handful of employees can get started with standard packages from GoldMine or ACT! for about $200 a user. These let you centralize contact information, schedule appointments, and forecast and track sales opportunities. If you want to share information among more than five employees, you'll need to upgrade to ACT! Premium for Workgroups 2006 or GoldMine Corporate Edition, which require a server and cost about $400 to $600 per person. Keith Lewandoski, senior financial consultant for Barrell Investment Group, a $1 million, eight-employee financial planning firm in Quechee, Vt., began using the basic version of GoldMine last year after outgrowing Outlook. Lewandoski uses the software to store client contact information, make follow-up notes, schedule meetings, automate mailings -- even send out birthday cards. He spent about $180 but so far he's the only user. Because GoldMine can be used either on the desktop or networked using a server, Lewandoski is thinking about giving the entire office access to help his staff work together better as a team.
Companies whose needs go beyond salesforce automation might consider products that offer marketing, customer service, and support features, as well as some customization, running about $750 to $850 annually for each user. Customer service and support capabilities range from case management and automated routing of calls to service scheduling and service contracts. Marketing features may include e-mail marketing, tracking budgets on campaigns, and lead management. So if a computer company has extra inventory of laptop battery packs, it can dice its customer list and e-mail promotional coupons to target only laptop customers, and then track the response.
PRODUCTS WITH these broader capabilities include server-based software, such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0, and hosted services, such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite Small Business. Salesforce.com is a good bet for growing companies. That's because it has offerings for very small companies as well as those with more than 100 employees, saving you the trouble of converting to a new product as your company grows. NetSuite Small Business is the only product that offers accounting features and Web site management. Two others -- Sage CRM and Sugar Professional -- are available as either a hosted service or as server software.
While the previous version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 1.2 was plagued by problems, including limited functionality and difficulty installing the software on servers, the company and its resellers claim those kinks are gone from Microsoft CRM 3.0, released in December, 2005. "I can take a customer who is using Outlook and very easily transition their business to Microsoft CRM without a lot of pain," says Anne Stanton, president of the Norwich Group in Norwich, Vt., a technical consultant who is a registered Microsoft partner but also recommends other brands.
For many months, the five employees of TonerZone.com had to manually reenter customer information into their ordering, shipping, and customer service systems because those products couldn't integrate with ACT! In 2003, Ilan Douek, president of the Los Angeles company, began using NetSuite Small Business instead. "Now when an order comes in we don't have to manually enter information again, all the way to printing the UPS label," says Douek. His salespeople segment the customer database using transaction history to create targeted marketing campaigns for such products as Hewlett-Packard inkjet cartridges. They can also determine whether the customer owns products such as a Brother fax machine or a Canon copier and try to cross-sell or up-sell.
Douek says revenues have soared from $1 million in 2003 to more than $5 million in 2005. Without NetSuite, he estimates he'd need four more employees in customer service, five more in fulfillment, and one additional IT person. That, he says, would cost about $16,000 in salaries each month, easily justifying the service's monthly fee of $1,800.
Other fast-growth entrepreneurs may eventually need a more advanced CRM system that can be heavily customized. In August, 2003, Barton's Expeditor Systems began using such a package -- Sage CRM SalesLogix. As with other high-end packages, SalesLogix requires a full-time administrator on staff as well as someone to customize the software. But Barton says, "it runs so well that we have one administrative person responsible for it, and she's not a computer person." He's even more pleased that his employees can parse Expeditor's customer list to track down the status of an order. "We want to manage the customers by who is in line for installation, and now the installation and service department can work from that point of view," he says.
SalesLogix sells for a one-time fee of $995 a user. For a company with 50 employees, that's a significant chunk of change. But Barton says his company is running more efficiently. "We got a return on investment almost instantly," says Barton. It was a long time coming.
By Rachael King