Online Extra: The ABCs of CRM

Five simple steps to help you choose the right customer-relationship management software--if, in fact, you need it at all

Customer-relationship management (CRM) software can improve sales and customer loyalty by allowing certain information to be shared. Customers may want to look at their accounts. Suppliers may want to collaborate online. And customer-service reps may need to see every bit of communication between buyers and seller. How do you decide which, if any, CRM software is right for your small business? Here are five steps you should take:

STEP 1 -- Decide what information is to be shared. Is it simply calendars, or do you want to share historical data, such as a purchasing history? What information is sensitive? Once you've determined that, you need to see which CRM software will give you easy access to that information. If all your financials are in a desktop application, such as QuickBooks, you may have to transfer the data to another program, like Excel, before importing the data into your CRM application. If your small business is growing and you're hoping to tap into sophisticated databases, such as Oracle 8i, you'll probably require additional software, known as Enterprise Application Integration software.

STEP 2 -- Decide who gets to share the information. Remember, each organization may have different levels that may need to interact with the CRM software. Chief executive officers and shipping clerks require different information. Choose CRM software that lets you, your partners, and your customers set different password levels for different people.

STEP 3 -- Decide how the information will be used. Does it need to be Web-based so that traveling reps can access the system at any time? Will it be viewed on a wireless handheld device? If so, the CRM application should include Wireless Markup Language software or other wireless-development tools that will allow IT workers to make the text portion of the information available on wireless devices. Will workers need to work offline, say, while flying cross-country? Some CRM application let users download data, but not the application, making it impossible for them to make changes offline, and then offload those changes when they arrive at their destination.

STEP 4 -- Decide how much you're willing to spend. Be honest: How are you really going to use it? Is the CRM application better than less expensive contact managers and sales-force automation packages? If you're not looking at bringing your customers or partners into the loop, don't waste the money. Use it to get a good deal on a programmer who's just been laid off.

STEP 5 -- Decide how much time you have to implement and integrate the CRM application. Publishers of small-business CRM applications typically say it takes only a few days to implement their software. If all you're measuring is the loading of software and basic testing, this is certainly true. But you are looking at months, not days, if you take into account the time necessary for planning (see steps 1 through 3), how long it will take your programmers to hunt down or write special application programming interface (API) computer code that will allow your shiny new CRM application to communicate with the obscure, industry-specific software you've been using. Finally, there is the time it will take for everyone to adjust to the new system.

By Kevin Ferguson

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