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Thinking Big: CRM for Small Businesses

By Tim Wilson
Special from

Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, has been around for a while now, but it is still a largely misunderstood application, especially by smaller businesses. To understand it, the first question is simple enough: what are the features of a CRM application, and how can they help my small business? The obvious answer it to look at from where CRM came – sales-force automation – and to recognize how it has evolved.

As a tool to help a sales-force, CRM applications appeared as project management software for salespeople, designed to help them track leads and work more efficiently. However, at the end of the day the ultimate value of a CRM application should be to help the sales force and the organization itself deliver a better overall experience to the customer. CRM applications provide a range of ”back office” information – things like billing information and historical profiles. The more information entered and the faster it gets to the customer-facing employees, conceivably the more productive are employees, and allows a small company to look – and act – like a big one.

The next step is to determine the application that's right for your business. Here things get tricky. There is a lot from which to choose out there, and not all CRM applications are equal. It has been a mantra of sorts for years that large CRM vendors want to "crack" the SME market. Why has it been so difficult? The answer is simple: the model of business for smaller companies sees less money distributed across more customers. Small businesses need scaled down applications that still deliver high-level function. Most enterprise and CRM software is overbuilt for the SME market – both in function and price.

So, if you have fewer than 50 employees, it's not likely you’ll buy Seibel (Oracle), Peoplesoft (soon to be Oracle), or SAP – products built for large customers both in price and function. You may not even buy Microsoft, although Microsoft's CRM Small Business Edition, for companies with 50 employees or less, features click-through installation. Interestingly, Seibel offers an "On Demand" hosted solution, and the buzz is that Microsoft may be compelled to soon launch software as a service-hosted CRM offerings. Software as a service can be a compelling way to deliver CRM software to small businesses in a more affordable way. The recent release of Microsoft Dynamics CRM in early December 2021 suggests the company is leveraging off of integration with Outlook, which some small businesses will love, and others may be much less enthusiastic about. Microsoft is still pricier than on-demand competitor

There is a reason why, a web-native, built from the ground up, hosted CRM application, is growing at such a phenomenal rate. The offering is built for a small business. There is one line of code, and it keeps expanding. The datacenters are multi-tenanted and provides an underlying IT infrastructure that most small companies can only dream about. The pricing is subscription-based, and there are no server licenses. It's pay-as-you-go, like leasing a car, meaning less up front financial risk.

If you have no IT experience, and want to implement a CRM solution – whether on your servers and desktops or as a service – it's likely you'll need help. This is particularly true if you want customer information shared among many applications. So getting QuickBooks, ACT!, and Goldmine to work together, or subscribing to and then trying to link that with pre-existing systems, may be more trouble than it's worth, meaning that certain kinds of information will remain in "silos." If you only have 25 employees, this may be manageable, but not so easy when your company grows. And what if your business model depends on the Internet?

NetSuite, a CRM services company out of San Mateo California and are both working to establish a greater presence in Canada. These companies offer a suite of applications delivered as an IT service, offering the ability to drive information from the CRM module directly to a general ledger. For ecommerce the software provides customer self-service and personalized account areas. And, as with any good CRM application, it allows the company to "see" and "touch" the customer at all times: from package tracking through integration with FedEx and UPS, to service enquiries, payment options, “business-to-business” negotiated rates and account histories. It takes CRM beyond salesforce automation and marketing, and drives information and analysis to and from the backoffice.

Mini Peiris, NetSuite's senior director of product management, says CRM can be a valuable marketing tool – but you have to have the right information.

"There's no sense in upselling something someone already has. Up-selling and cross-selling opportunities are driven out of purchasing history," she says.

Still, it's obvious that CRM is best suited to the SME with a sales focus and with more than a storefront presence, although single-location retailers can benefit from seasonal, product, and customer-specific marketing campaigns. For those SMEs with large, spread-out markets, it's helpful to have CRM applications that have at least some mobile functionality. NetSuite, for example, will load a calendar and Microsoft Outlook onto a personal digital assistant, as well as all key business metrics (bank balance, daily web-hits, monthly forecasts, top order items), with information delivered by email either three times a day or as per request.

Jeff Binder, CEO/CTO of Saffron Rouge, a small organic skin care company in Guelph, Ontario, has decided to use an on-demand service for CRM. The benefits are obvious, he says.

"I don't have to pay to maintain a depreciating asset," he says.

Binder knows his stuff. In a previous incarnation he spearheaded a CRM, accounting, and ecommerce initiative. "We were trying to integrate ACCPAC and Goldmine into a custom-built ecommerce package,” he recalls. “It didn't work."

Binder, who decided to go with NetSuite because, unlike, he says its CRM service is built around a larger suite of applications, sings the praises of the benefits of an effective CRM package for his small business. "We have visibility into interactions with customers,” he says. “We can see emails, call logs, and use it for task and campaign management."

However, Binder small business should proceed with caution before installing a CRM solution on its own computers. "These things need to implemented properly," he says. "They have to be backed up. The database needs to be secure, and usually you're paying someone else to do this."


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