Today, computers are involved in the running of almost every type of organisation, and any business owner that does not embrace appropriate Information Technology (IT) is likely to be at a disadvantage. The problem for businesses whose products or services are not technical, is to what extent is it necessary to computerise so as to maintain a competitive edge?
There are literally hundreds of tasks that are often better and more cheaply performed by a computer than a human – accounting, stock control, project management, marketing, diary management – the list is endless. So it’s easy to burn up lots of time deciding what software you need, what is available, and what is actually any good. And if you are not particularly geeky, once you have made your choice, it’s even easier to spend more time in front of the computer screen pulling your hair out than you do running your business start-up and talking to your staff and customers.
Generic or specific?
Software ranges from the very general, to the very specific. A general software package such as Microsoft Word can be used in almost any business, whereas a 3-D design package is much more specific – it would unlikely be of much use to an accountant.
But the more specific you become, the less choice you have, and the more expensive the products become. So generalised software is always the best place to start – at least until you are really sure of your requirements. Even general purpose software such as word processing and spreadsheets can be tailored to specific needs.
What is a CRM?
One type of generic requirement is for Customer Relationship Management or CRM, although the “C” bit is misleadingly specific. “Contact” would be a better use of the letter “C”, since most businesses need to manage their relationship with more than just customers – suppliers, local authorities and government, to name just three.
At heart, a CRM is just a digital address book. What is the point of digitising an address book you might ask? Well, if you only need a handful of contacts to run your business, then probably “not a lot”. But as soon as you get into even just tens of contacts, then things are different. And with more than one employee, they get significantly different.
A digital address book (as opposed to a physical version) provides the following benefits..
- You can share the address book with other staff
- You can access it from anywhere
- You can access it any time
- Despite the above, there is only ever one copy – if you change contact details it changes for everyone simultaneously
- You can add arbitrary items of metadata to each contact record. – for example, date of birth, last order, etc – and these items do not have to be decided at the outset.
- You can process many contacts at one time
As well as the obvious time-saving benefit of avoiding two staff using different contact addresses, the impression outside contacts get of the company is so much better when their details are correct and instantly available.
Benefits one to five are enough for most business founders to justify the use of some form of CRM. However, it is benefit six – the ability to process records – that can provide the greatest returns on investment. Processing can be anything from sending a customised email to all contacts in a particular category, to analysing trends or statistics across any cross-section of contacts. For example, how many contacts under 30 buy yellow products?
A CRM is implemented using a database, which is basically an electronic form of a card-index file, except that it allows the creation of as many indexes as necessary, and searching takes fractions of a second.
It is easy to turn a generic CRM system into something specific to a particular business – and therefore potentially more useful to a budding entrepreneur – but it is worth exploring the features of CRM systems that can be applied to all businesses.
We have likened the main aspect of a CRM system to an address book. We need address books because we need to communicate with contacts and tracking communications is a key role for any CRM.
Today, our communications define our businesses. They can be emails, letters, phone calls, text messages, social media messages, invoices, documents, and so on. All of these are conveyed by electronic media. It is true that some communications are face to face, but these represent a relatively small proportion, and particularly since Covid.
These communications have to be addressed (ie who is it to and where are they?) and not only can the CRM be the primary source of these addresses, it can record the communications too.
Some CRM systems are targeted at particular horizontal applications such as sales tracking which apply to any company that sells goods. These systems provide supplementary functions to help manage particular processes that are connected to individual contacts. They often perform the tasks which humans do not execute consistently or reliably. For example, a super salesperson is of limited use if he/she forgets to follow up a lead or spends too much time on the customers with the worst purchase track record. The CRM can do the scheduling for him/her and therefore use the salesperson’s time far more productively.
Nevertheless, when the salesperson comes to follow up a lead, the job is so much easier and likely to succeed if the salesperson has all the relevant communications to hand. Email folders are not much use if they only contain the salesperson’s messages because there may be several colleagues that have been involved with the contact – or even provided a quotation. Equally helpful is detail about phone calls exchanged with the contact, preferably with the ability to listen the call, but ideally with a searchable transcription. None of this is science fiction. All can be done in CRM systems with current technology.
Local or cloud-based
One last point is that many applications, not the least of which are CRM systems, are moving from the desktop to the Cloud. This means that instead of running dedicated applications on the computer in your home or office or smart phone at your fingertips, they are instead running on remote computers – you will know not where – connected to you via the internet. Your workstation then becomes a glorified terminal.
There are some disadvantages to this – such as if you lose Internet connectivity – but overall, the advantages strongly outweigh them. For one thing, you can run the same (CRM) application from anywhere, on any computer at any time. Secondly, your data is effectively safe from any physical disasters and thirdly, you don’t have to install a new version whenever one is released.
So, to summarise,
- CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. In practice, CRM systems are applicable to any outside contact, not just customers.
- CRM systems are basically intelligent address books (sometimes very intelligent). Although they are general purpose, they can often be tailored to fit a specific business.
- CRM systems benefits include sharing data without having multiple copies (which can potentially get out of sync) and being accessible by any authorised user, anywhere.
- CRM systems provide the ability to add arbitrary amounts of data specific to a particular business
- Most significantly, CRM systems provide the ability to process lots of data automatically
- For CRM systems to provide best value for money, they should be able to ingest communications (emails, phone calls, etc) because communications define a business.
- The advantages of Cloud-based applications generally far outweigh the advantages of on-premise solutions.
Any entrepreneurial business employing more than one person should consider using a CRM, and they will usually find the investment in the system will be well worth the efficiency and time savings it provides.
Dr John Yardley, Managing Director, JPY Limited and Threads Software Ltd
John began his career as a researcher in computer science and electronic engineering with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he undertook a PhD in speech recognition. In early 2019, John founded Threads Software Ltd as a spin off from his company JPY Ltd to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub, developed originally by JPY Ltd. Today, JPY represents manufacturers of over 30 software products, distributed through a channel of 100 specialist resellers. John brings a depth of understanding of a wide range of the technologies that underpin the software industry. John has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Essex and a BSc in Computer Science from City University, London.