By Diane M. Calabrese / Published August 2022
No customers, no business.
Naturally, to retain or recruit customers business owners try to sort out what brings buyers to their door, website, or app. For the entire history of commerce, sellers have done the same.
From peddlers who traveled the Silk Road carrying wares to the first merchants to set up general stores in the U.S. West, the seller aimed to supply what the buyer wanted. Talking to prospective buyers—and listening carefully to all who were chatting about life and plans—gave sellers a good idea of products to carry (literally in the case of peddlers).
Managing relationships with customers is nothing new. Using technology to do some of the work of identifying buying patterns and keeping in touch with customers is.
Customer relationship management (CRM) systems have been around for decades. The earliest versions allowed businesses to create simple databases (before Excel) with the basic contact information for customers (e.g., name, address, phone). The databases could be used to automate things like printing mailing labels.
In 2022, CRM programs go well beyond storing information about customers. The information can be analyzed.
For example: Which customers buy chemicals for soft washing? How often? How often does each customer make a purchase? Which customers buy the most? The precision with which some CRM systems can sub-sort and regroup data is fascinating (if not sometimes more than necessary).
In scrutinizing data gathered by CRM systems, a business owner can determine which sales representatives generate the most revenue and which sales have the most overhead. For instance, time spent on getting a sale may reduce the profit from it. Some sales may take so long to close that money is lost (with salaried representatives) in making them.
CRM systems do not so much manage relationships with customers as they do manage data and facilitate extraction of information about customers. Should every business have a CRM system?
In one form or another, every business does have a CRM system. Even an account ledger on paper counts.
As for the contemporary CRM systems—the number of which keeps growing—the choice requires first answering important questions: What purpose will the system serve in this business? How much can be budgeted for the system? Will it be cloud based, open source, or some combination? How much will updates to the system cost? Who will have access? Who will maintain the system? What happens if the vendor that developed the system goes out of business? Will the system add to the bottom line?
Put benefits (and possible liabilities) aside for a moment. The reality is that a CRM system has become more of a necessity than a choice.
“There is nothing better than the person-to-person relationship; however, it is virtually impossible to see every customer every month, so a salesperson must evaluate the customer” in more than one sort of setting, explains Brenda Purswell, president of Alklean Industries Inc. in Pasadena, TX. There’s the “personal visit,” to be sure, but “otherwise staying in touch via email, text, or a phone call” is a must.
When CRM systems are deployed, business owners find what works best for their company. “We do video conferencing when we cannot make the personal visit,” says Purswell. “We also find that a customer will respond to a text better than an email.”
Before considering all that CRM systems can do, let’s have a working definition of a good relationship with a customer. For that, we adopt the one that Purswell gives us.
“A perfect relationship is when they have a problem relating to cleaning, they just automatically think of [our company],” says Purswell. “We always strive to have multiple contacts with any given customer.”
Should employees of one company Purswell’s business serves move to another employer, she wants them to “think of us there, too.” The relationship transcends a particular business-to-business tie.
“We want to be the problem solver,” says Purswell. “We have customers that have been with us over 30 years and attribute that to good customer relationships.”
The most sophisticated CRM system cannot substitute for positive personal interaction. The challenge is to balance that knowledge with technology that is here to stay and grow.
The speediest access to a service center appointment and through intake at the center will all be forgotten if a service technician does not engage in a pleasant, polite, and competent way. Providing excellent service to customers certainly benefits from the highly detailed analyses that can be made of purchasing habits and needs. But just one abrupt or lackadaisical employee can shatter the customer’s view of a vendor.
With every sector from medicine (fill out a questionnaire online to zero in on etiology before visiting a physician) to grocery stores (self-serve checkout) substituting technology for humans, it’s obvious that the opportunities for personal interaction are contracting. When an interaction does occur, some people are rusty, and others are too young to have had much experience.
Balance is what society must achieve. We do not have it yet. Con-sequently, when choosing a CRM
system, make certain it complements—and if possible, bolsters—human interaction. (Hint: When a customer calls a vendor for assistance and the person who answers the telephone says emphatically, “Just go to our website,” complementarity has failed.)
With some CRM systems, analysis of a customer base becomes so refined (“granular” in tech talk) that the traditional ways of gathering profiles—surveys, focus groups—become unnecessary. On the other hand, each customer is unique, and talking churns up lots of useful information and never really loses value.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) offers advice on choosing a CRM system. Basically, define needs and budget limit first. Then, evaluate what’s available
within those parameters.
And when defining needs, try to get a fix on what customers welcome. Many customers do not want their email inbox flooded with “we’re here when you need us” greetings, but they do welcome alerts to new and improved products.
Similarly, easy and reliable scheduling of service center appointments, yes. But endless reminders in a short period—via email, voice, phone, and text—about routine maintenance, no. (No, not because of avoidance, but because they are so busy, they can’t respond immediately or commit to a date.)
Thoughtful use keeps CRM in balance. Flooding customers via multiple channels will either cause them to become inured or annoyed or both.
Finally, consider the liabilities of complex CRM systems. Be sure security features, cost of maintenance and updates, and backup and restoration time are understood.
Side-by-side comparisons of CRM systems—what they can do and what they cost—churn up fast with any online search. The systems can dissect a customer in ways that may not have occurred to a seller and in ways a seller would not want to know.
Programs can determine everything from time of day when a customer buys recurring supplies to whether the customer consolidates purchases of small items or buys in what seems to be an as-needed way. Each customer can be defined by total purchases by week, month, and year. Types of customers can be sorted. Do window washing companies purchase more chemicals than exterior cleaners? Notes about customer requests—for ladders, gloves—can be logged by distributors who might be considering an expanded product line.
Marketing experts refer to the foregoing information as part of a 360-degree view of the customer. It may be more than the owner of a CRM system wants to know.
By requesting feedback from customers on purchases, a CRM system can enable an owner to figure out how to better serve. The feedback request is another thorny feature: Some customers love being asked for feedback; others do not. A top-of-the-line CRM system will let a business sort the two groups quite rapidly and avoid querying those who do not want to provide feedback.
There is very little that CRM systems cannot do. If a business is being discussed on social media, some systems can provide alerts and give the business the chance to redress any negatives and take advantage of the positives.
Is a service or product provided by a business trending on social platforms? It could indicate a selling opportunity.
CRM systems can be tied to web content. A customer reading a blog post about a new chemical could be offered an opportunity to talk via a pop-up screen. (Again, not all prospective customers welcome such offers, and some may see them as intrusions.)
For every possibility, there is a potential caution. Although CRM systems allow mass email messages to be personalized, that’s really personalization only to a degree, and every email user can distinguish between the two.
A restrained and easy-to-manage CRM system combined with superb first-contact personnel in sales, service, and administration is the optimal combination for smaller companies (and perhaps even larger ones that can afford much more).
Data collection and analysis about the habits of buyers can be as sophisticated as feedback from a NASA satellite. But it is useless without customers.