At some point, as businesses grow, they’ll most likely discuss a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application.  Whether it’s to keep track of customers and contacts, or to ignite sales, marketing or customer support; CRM can be extremely powerful. Regardless of the reason, selecting the right tool for your business can be a challenge. New technologies are released every day, and most of them seem to be pretty similar. So how do you pick the right one for your business?

Although there are a number of very specific reasons you’ll have for deploying CRM, we’ve found a few high level items that should be addressed well before specific features sets are evaluated. Specifically, how the CRM system will help you to:

  1. Collect and interact with data
  2. Adhere to and automate processes
  3. Gain visibility into key functions of the business
  4. Integrate with other software and tools

Collecting and Interacting with Data

One of the challenges with any new application is getting user adoption.  One of the best approaches to this challenge is to deploy the new system in a way that simplifies your users existing daily activities. If there are ways to save everyone time and effort when performing certain tasks, they are more likely to use the new system.

  • Look for a CRM application that allows you to customize the forms people use to enter data. You’ll want to add / remove fields to make the forms as simple to use as possible. You can always collect more data later, so don’t require users to fill in everything you think you might use at some point, only collect the data you are using today.
  • Look for a CRM application that also allows multiple variations of these forms. Different departments use different information for different reasons. Look for an application that allows multiple forms tailored specifically for the team that will be using them.
  • Look for a CRM application that makes finding data easy. Searching for and finding data within a CRM system is just as important as collecting data. If your teams will be referring to stored information regularly, make sure the tool has great search and filtration features. Applications that allow customization of search and filters are especially valuable to end users.
  • Look for a CRM tool that allows for all of these customizations without a developer or advanced consultant. This most likely will mean someone internally will need a little training, but it is well worth it.  Adjusting the way users interact with the system is a slow, iterative process.  Changes will pop up often and having an internal resource that can implement the changes rapidly is well worth the time and effort.  Additionally, if a developer is needed to make the changes, be very careful.  In some situations, having a developer customize a particular version of the software means you might not be able to upgrade later.  We strongly recommend against this.

Helping to adhere to and automate process

Unquestionably, the real power of CRM comes from its ability to help companies adhere to and automate processes. When making the move to CRM, we strongly suggest picking a CRM application that gives you these capabilities.

  • Look for an application that can be adjusted to align with your core business processes. Meaning, it has the flexibility to bend enough to fit your process so you do not need to change the way you operate. Your core processes make you unique, adjusting them for CRM should not really be a consideration. Keep in mind this does not apply to supporting processes.  A good rule of thumb is to consider the process and ask yourself this question: If I change this process will it affect what makes us special? If yes, don’t change your process change the tool.  If no, change the process not the tool.
  • Additionally, make sure the CRM application you are considering supports automation. The more you can automate, the better. Automation can increase efficiency and quality, can provide scalability, and can increase profit margin. A good CRM application will give you the power to automate everything from notifications and emails, to data replication with external systems.
  • As with the system customization, opt for internal training for adherence and automation when possible. Adding a programmer or consultant for every task can be expensive.  Having this intelligence inside is well worth the cost as the end result is measurable and can provide a return on investment.

Providing visibility into the key functions of the business

Or to say it more simply, reporting. Every good CRM application provides useful reports to help the executive team make decisions. The more customizable the reports, the more usable they can be.

  • Look for a CRM application that allows you to customize reports (without needing a programmer of consultant). The goal here is to align the reporting with your businesses Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). The application needs to give you reports that help run the business.  If there is no decision that can be made from the report, keep tweaking it. But also remember the “Garbage in / Garbage out” rule applies.  If data is missing or entered incorrectly, your reports will be almost useless.  Make sure to hold your team accountable for data quality.
  • Additionally, CRM applications that have a dashboard style interface allow immediate access to information. Customizing dashboards to visually report against individual, departmental and business wide KPI’s gives you a real-time snapshot into the pulse of your company. This can be extremely valuable when quick decisions are necessary.

Integration with other software and tools

Last, but definitely not least, is the ability to connect the CRM application to other 3rd party tools. Although there are behemoth applications that say they do “everything” for a business, I have not found this to be true.  Most need heavy customizations, and do a couple things well but the rest pretty poorly.  Our recommendation is to find best in breed applications and get them to talk to each other through integrations. For that to work, it means the CRM application need to share information readily between other applications.

  • When evaluating CRM, make sure it has the ability to connect with other application. This comes in the form of API’s and SDK’s. If it is a web based CRM look for specifically for a “REST API”, for an on premise CRM look for a traditional API or a SDK.

Keep in mind, Applications that have an API or SDK have the ability to connect with and share information between systems. There is no guarantee that there are any pre-developed integrations available.   

  • Additionally, when evaluating CRM applications, take a look for any 3rd party integrations that already exists. Most of the new application and the larger, better known ones, have a number of existing integrations. It may save a lot of time and money to pick a CRM that already integrates to other software you may already be using.
  • If the CRM application you chose does not have the integrations you need, it is okay. This is the time when talking to a developer may make sense. Connecting systems through API’s and SDK’s takes much less effort that developing a complete replacement. Better yet, working through API’s and SDK’s usually takes much less maintenance when the CRM or 3rd party tool release updates. We’ve found it to be one of the most cost effective ways to keep tools and data in sync.

Once you take these items into consideration your long list of CRM options will most likely shrink to a much more reasonable list. Then it’s time to dig into to the specific features and pick an option that makes the most sense for your business.