Woman on the phone who might use a CRM system

If you're a decision-maker in a business, you've probably heard the term CRM bandied about a lot, but maybe — and you're not alone here — you're not quite sure what the big deal is.

CRMs are big business — spend on CRM is expected to exceed $40 billion this year — and if those who peddle them are to be believed, are an indispensable tool for any and all businesses in the sales and service industries.

And there might be something in that; according to data from Nucleus Research, every dollar spent on CRM brings in a return of $8.71, and that average ROI is continuing to trend upwards as CRMs become more advanced and more affordable.

But what does a CRM do exactly, and do you really need one?

Online shopper completing a transaction that will appear in a CRM

What is a CRM?

A CRM — customer relationship management for the uninitiated — is simply a program or piece of software that does pretty much what it says on the tin; helps manage your relationships with your customers.

Apparently, an elephant never forgets, and neither does a CRM. That's because a CRM stores all of your customers' details in an organized, user-friendly database that everyone has access to. But a CRM is a lot more than just a glorified Rolodex.

What does a CRM do?

CRMs can perform a wide array of tasks; if it appears anywhere in a customer's lifecycle, a CRM will have a function for it. From building brand awareness and marketing, to finding and warming up leads, to managing customer purchases, offering service and support, through to nurturing a long-term relationship with your business, a CRM is a one-stop shop for everything you need to generate and manage your customers.

Each customer record in your CRM tells a story of how you acquired them, what, where, when and how they purchase from you, or interact with your company; and from that story, you can learn more about how to keep them coming back.

From basic contact details and transactions, to previous interactions and even social media activity, a CRM gives you a record of every interaction your company has with a customer, letting nothing slip through the cracks.

Not only does a CRM give you a centralized, organized place in which to store all of your customer data, it also gives you a full picture of your customers' journey with your company, meaning you can see exactly where in the customer lifecycle they are at all times.

For businesses with a worldwide customer base, like Phoenix NAP Global IT Services, that centralization can be a life-saver.

"We are currently managing sales teams in nine separate locations," said CEO Ian McClarty. "By far, the most valuable technology that I use is our CRM. I easily stay up to date on all sales interactions through the CRM's shared calendars, document templates, and email integration, uniting all team members and keeping everyone up-to-date.

"Sharing selling patterns and processes allows our salespeople to see what works best, and increases communication between the sales team and sales management."

A CRM can even include automation features, which take care of certain tasks and free your team up to focus on bigger things. Actions such as sending emails and creating leads when certain actions are taken by customers can help ensure those customers keep moving through the sales funnel. Many CRMs also use artificial intelligence to analyze data, and offer actionable steps to maximize opportunities.

Not content with storing all of your sales and customer data, a CRM can also help you get more out of it, by offering in-depth reporting and dashboard functions.

And most importantly, all this information is available to your entire team, so everyone is always on the same page.

Retail store that might use a CRM

Who uses a CRM?

The biggest users of CRM software are naturally those organizations with a customer base. A CRM is a sales team's greatest asset, giving them access to all the data they need to generate leads and close deals, while ensuring that the customer experience is as positive as possible.

Though primarily sales-centric, CRMs are also incredibly useful for marketing and customer services purposes.

That said, a CRM can be used by many different departments and business types; if there is a relationship to manage, no matter who with, a CRM can help. (Relationship management systems that are not especially customer-focused are often referred to as XRMs, with the X standing in for any number of groups of people, such as employees, suppliers, or partners.)

Just like businesses, CRMs come in many shapes and sizes, with many designed specifically for companies of particular sizes or in certain industries. Industries that tend to have the highest use of CRM systems tend to be retail, business services, technology, banking and finance, and manufacturing.

Graham Onak, owner of GainTap Digital Marketing, believes that the appeal of a CRM is universal. "I've seen CRMs implemented at multi-million dollar a year companies and small one-person businesses," Onak said. "No matter the business size, the goal of setting up a CRM is to be more organized around customer activities and data, in order to increase productivity and revenue.

"At the larger company I was with, they were using Google Docs to manage all of their customers and processes. This meant sharing Google Sheets with clients and different departments. This got unmanageable over time and a CRM was set up to house this data and processes. Now their sales team enters information and the right departments are notified automatically that there is new work for them to do.

"The CRM also takes care of scoring leads and even marketing automation to reduce manual time spent emailing leads. For example, once a client hasn't ordered within 3 months, the CRM fires off an email asking to set up a call to discuss future business."

CRM user working on a mobile phone

How can a CRM benefit my business?

Using a CRM brings a great number of benefits to your business. Having a complete picture of your customer, their buying habits, and their communications with your company is essential to building — and maintaining — a positive, lucrative relationship with the people at the core of your success.

Storing all that data in one place also helps your sales team. With a centralized history of every interaction your company has with a customer, they won't need to waste time trying to find out when a customer was last contacted, what they last ordered, or whether their query has been resolved. They can simply get on with what they do best; selling.

A CRM can also help foster cohesion, and productivity, in your workforce. With everyone working from the same solution, your team can get access to everything they need to do a great job and stay up to speed, all without stepping on each other's toes.

Picture the scene

Imagine you have a large sales team. Several of the team work the same patch, and Jim and Stanley have both been prospecting for new clients in a small town nearby. They both keep notes on their computer of who they've contacted, but they don't have a centralized database of their interactions with potential customers.

Although they have weekly meetings to go through potential new leads, it's not uncommon that they occasionally forget to note down a phone call they've made. One day, Jim calls a business to tell them about the services his company offers, but unbeknownst to him, Stanley has already contacted them earlier that week. The potential customer is irritated at the repeated sales calls, and makes a mental note not to deal with the company in the future.

With a CRM, each customer and potential lead has a dedicated record, and a detailed history of every interaction; Jim can see that Stanley has already been in touch with this business, and that the customer has requested a callback in a few months when they've worked out their budget. The CRM has also added a reminder to Stanley's calendar about the call, and pulls through information about all his previous conversations with the company so he's up to date the next time he speaks to them.

Better organization, better service

Customer expectation is high, and turning a customer into an advocate is the best and most cost-effective way to generate new leads. CRMs enable you to provide better service to your customers; even with the best will in the world, a sales or customer service operative is only as good as the tools they have at their disposal, and the more information they have access to, the better and more personalized their service can be.

Having a centralized platform also makes tracking and reporting a lot simpler; no more amalgamating all of those spreadsheets that everyone likes to put together in their own special way.

CRMs are also scalable, meaning you won't need to shell out for a new solution as your business grows. Think of your business as your child, and your CRM system as a magical pair of shoes that always fit, no matter how big Junior gets.

For Tyler Riddell, Vice President of Marketing at eSUB Construction, fostering a more profitable way of working was paramount in the decision to roll out a CRM. "As with most companies, growth has a lot to do with why we chose to implement CRM software," Riddell said.

"The right CRM can help in the area of customer data and retention by simplifying the way you capture data from your sales team, or anyone else who comes into contact with customers on an ongoing basis.

"Without a CRM in place, you may have search co-worker's files, sift through emails, spreadsheets, and handwritten notes just to get an idea of a customer's history."

Fronts of shops who would use CRM

Do I need a CRM?

No matter how large or small your business is, having all of your customer and business data in one place will undoubtedly make your life easier, and your business more efficient. Have you ever found yourself needing a piece of information, but not being entirely sure where to find it? You know you spoke to that customer about their order, but was it by email? On social media? Did you talk to them on the phone?

A CRM eliminates those desperate trawls through your inbox, giving your customer a better experience, and making your life immeasurably easier; just ask Arlington Machinery.

"Two years ago we decided that we needed a CRM for our used plastics machinery business.," said David Pietig, the company's General Manager. "We had an industry-specific customer/inventory management system, but it wasn't upgraded regularly and it required a lot of double entry of information.

"We now have an integrated system that saves us countless hours in busywork; we upgraded our accounting software to an ERP and our customer list to a CRM."

So the short answer is, if you sell a product, provide a service, or deal with customers or clients in any way, you probably do need a CRM — especially if you want your business to grow.

They say you have to spend money to make money, and that's certainly true of CRM. By streamlining processes, improving productivity, and developing more leads, a CRM can pay for itself in double time.

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