With the popularity of customer relationship management software (CRM) going through the roof this year, Bree Freeman takes a look at this little-understood, complicated business system.

In an ever-interconnected world, engaging with your customers is critical for the success of your business so it is little wonder that the popularity of products such as customer relationship management software (CRM) is on the rise.

According to Gartner, the CRM industry, which they say is currently valued at $20.6 billion (bn), will grow to $36.5bn worldwide by 2017. That expeditious growth also means that in 2017, CRM spending will outpace spending on enterprise resource planning for the first time. As it is, spending on CRM is already far ahead of that on business intelligence, supply chain management, and collaboration spending.

While CRM itself isn’t new, with the aid of the Cloud it is becoming increasingly critical in any business, in any marketplace. CRM apps today are designed to meet the demands of a new breed of customer; one that is digitally connected, social and very much informed.

But what exactly is CRM and how can it help you, as a business, grow? Well we all know that when running a business, it is important to keep track of your clients and all of your interactions with them – and equally important is to give attention to investors, pay creditors, track employee workflow and so on and so on.

Here’s where CRM software comes into its own, as it is the best way to keep track of everything in your business without drowning in multiple software programs and apps. While CRM was originally created to help keep track of client information, it has grown and evolved into multifaceted programs that can track sales and create custom marketing opportunities.

The emphasis of CRM is on openness, so that everyone at the coalface or behind the front line has access to up to date information about the customer. Modern systems can be configured to reflect the business model exactly; for example it makes sense that the CRM system should reflect the journey of the customer – from initial awareness to becoming a customer and beyond.

If you’re not already using cloud CRM software for your business, then in my opinion you should be as there are many key benefits that come with using a Cloud solution that you should be aware of. To name but a few, these include:

  • Streamlined sales and marketing processes
  • Access to real-time data
  • No hardware costs
  • Higher sales productivity
  • Added cross-selling and up-selling opportunities
  • Improved service, loyalty, and retention
  • Increased call centre efficiency
  • Higher close rates
  • Better profiling and targeting
  • Reduced expenses
  • Increased market share
  • Higher overall profitability
  • Marginal costing

Before you venture into the realm of CRM, it is important to understand that CRM systems come in many flavours and capabilities, and there is a plethora of online systems available to choose from. So, it is vital that you determine which CRM system is best for your particular business but choosing the right solution for your business can be a daunting prospect.

You really do need to consider your customers’ needs, your company’s needs, and how well a provider can meet those needs. What makes the selection process even more difficult – particularly this year – is that many of the leading CRM providers have made great technological strides in social media, mobile technology, big data, virtual assistants, analytics, and many other areas.

Today these CRM providers can cater to quite literally your ever need, offering mobile platforms that are tied to your products, and these are often high quality offerings: for instance the Salesforce1 mobile platform, which celebrates its first birthday this month, is excellent. Industry leader Oracle, who’s RightNow product is an extremely strong competitor in the CRM marketplace, particularly for those firms wishing to streamline service and support to enable agents to handle multiple support channels.

There is also the popular SugarCRM, which offers a solution that automates your core sales, customer service and marketing processes. Personally I was impressed with its mobile dashboard. For a cloud solution closer to home – made in the UK – both Workbooks and icomplete have something to offer. And you really should check out the offerings from well-known players like Salesforce.com, Microsoft and IBM.

For the smaller business I would suggest you cast your eye over developer Swiftpage’s widely used app Act!, which is a fabulous app for SMBs as among other things, it will work with contacts consolidated from many different places including Outlook, Gmail, LinkedIn and Facebook. The service includes integrated email marketing features and allows you to track interaction histories for customers. And its interface is easy and the pricing is very reasonable.

Overall though CRM is far more than just a one-time project activity; it is a change in company culture and a continuous journey that matures over time as customer needs evolve, organisational capabilities change and the customer relationship grows. So make sure you choose wisely!

Bree is a technical writer with 15 year's experience. She specialises in cloud computing, finance and energy and has been published across a wide range of B2B, consumer magazines and newspapers. Bree was the editorial and production driving force for the UK's first cloud computing magazine as well as a number of other B2B magazines. Today, she splits her time between being Creative Director for Be Free Creative Ltd and as a technical writer.

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