In the eight years that Seth Hishmeh has been chief operating officer of USAS Technologies, he’s led the company through five Customer Relationship Management systems. From his first disorganized days duplicating customer data in an Excel file to today’s customized system, he’s learned firsthand how important good CRM is to a company’s success.
“We used Excel to keep track of customers, what customers should be charged, what services we were providing them, at what rates, and what their contact info was,” says Hishmeh, who lives in Louisville and commutes to the firm’s New York City office.
After that first frenzied year, Hishmeh knew the company needed a clear strategy and an easy-to-use approach to CRM or they’d never make it.
“We have employees using the CRM from the U.S., India and China,” he says. “We need a way for our salespeople to collaborate with customer accounts and leads. We also need a way to load lead lists and manage them territorially between salespeople.”
So the company created its own system from an open-source CRM application. It may keep changing, Hishmeh says, as the company grows.
To Love Them is to Know Them
More businesses are realizing how important good customer relations management is: CRM software revenue jumped 13.7 percent last year to $5.7 billion.
But CRM isn’t just a software issue. It’s a strategic concept that requires lots of thought and attention to detail as well as the right technical tools, says Bob Thompson, CEO of CustomerThink Corp., in Burlingame, Calif. Formerly a CRM consultant, Thompson now runs CRMGuru.
“You can manage customer relationships with pen and pencil and your brain,” he says. “It’s a business strategy to acquire, grow and retain the most valuable customer relationships.”
There are as many ways to do that as there are potential customers.
Achieving competitive differentiation, improved profitability and higher degrees of customer loyalty should factor into the CRM equation, Thompson says. A company has to consider not only how to get more customers, but also think about the customer’s perspective. That’s the only way to give customers more value so they won’t stray to the competition.
CEM: A Warmer, Fuzzier Approach
While CRM tends to focus on internal processes, CEM (Customer Experience Management), is a more touchy-feely concept, but just as important in a company’s CRM strategy, Thompson says.
“The number-one driver of CRM success is developing a customer-centric plan,” he says. An April survey conducted by CRMGuru.com found that only 22 percent of customers have “excellent” experiences with companies today. That leaves plenty of room to stand out from the competition – by listening to customers.
“The key technology that entrepreneurs should use is information about markets, marketing tools, the characteristics of certain customers,” Thompson says. He points out that, to find its own best customers, Capital One did this before it entered the credit card market by gathering public info about mortgagees and cardholders. “[When] I started my small company nine years ago, I thought about the types of clients I wanted, the type of work I was prepared to do, and I set out trying to cultivate and find clients like that. I didn’t have a CRM system.”
Now Think About CRM Software
Of course, there will come a time, probably early on, when your CRM could use a little cold-blooded help. It’s time to check out software options.
From ACT (a software-based contact management system) to salesforce.com to programs by Oracle and Microsoft, there’s no shortage of CRM software tools.
You can also build your own system.
That’s what Jim Benson’s company, K/P Corporation, did. At first the company, a commercial printer based in Salem, Ore., took a regional approach to CRM – each office had its own way of managing customer relationships, says Benson, chief technology officer.
But as the company grew, it got too big for that haphazard approach. Now, K/P manages complex, nationwide campaigns that involve multiple facilities and points of contact.
“It was very clear how critical real CRM was,” Benson says. “K/P spent a good deal of time developing a strategy that focused on maximizing customer value by providing data on the entire 360 degrees of customer activity, from lead through manufacturing and delivery.
“We needed a platform, not a database – something that would provide us with information we could leverage right away, but that would also evolve with us and continue to show all aspects of our customers.”
One part of K/P’s CRM strategy is a portal where customers log in and file technical questions. The system sends the question to the employee best able to both answer it and gauge customer satisfaction.
“There is an old adage: ‘If you have five minutes to work a problem, take the first three minutes to make sure you understand it,’” Benson says. “That has never been truer than when selecting a CRM platform.”
Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a freelance writer at StartupNation.