Sometimes, having the option to choose is great. Other times, it can seem overwhelming. For sales and customer service managers, the latter may be true when it comes to selecting a client relationship management (CRM) system. The vendor landscape has continued to expand as cloud-based systems make it quicker and easier for new companies to emerge and compete. The industry expansion has resulted in a dizzying array of potential CRM providers with an equally dizzying array of features.

So which features do a sales or customer service team need? Will they actually increase sales and improve customer service? How can a manager work through the CRM selection process, ensure the chosen system has the right features and fits the allocated budget? Here are some key considerations.


What to Expect from a CRM

Setting expectations upfront is a tried-and-true sales technique to help build client relationships. The same applies to software selection: An understanding of how a CRM will—or will not—impact a business helps maintain realistic expectations within an organization. These are the four main benefits:

Better Organization. Customer data maintained outside a CRM tends to be disorganized. In the past, paper files were limited to one location. Similarly, computer-based CRMs that predated the cloud-based model kept client data in a single place. Modern CRMs, in contrast, maintain a central repository for information but make that data widely accessible.

Better organization of customer data can smooth transitions between team members as responsibilities change. It can also assist organizations with sales cycles that include multiple touchpoints.

Streamlined Data Entry. In addition to providing better access to information, CRM can also help improve the quality of input. This may include features such as automated call logging or importing emails. By creating a complete record of all contacts, a CRM can decrease the manual data entry required for developing customer relationships.

Organizations that struggle to get consistent data entry from sales or customer service representatives may also benefit from structured data entry. Structured data entry limits how data can be catalogued. This more consistent data entry is essential for extracting actionable analytics from a CRM.

Widespread Access. Simply put, a CRM provides access to customer data in real-time to everyone involved. That real-time access may prove useful for companies that rely on a sales team scattered throughout different locations across the country, as well as organizations that benefit from a close collaboration between sales and customer service teams.

For example, a long sales cycle may require multiple interactions with several team members before reaching the sale is closed. With a CRM in place, every representative has instant access to the account history of a prospect—which marketing materials they’ve seen, with whom they’ve spoken, and when those interactions occurred.

Automation. Over time, managing customer relationship data effectively can help automate marketing and lead nurturing processes, too. These advanced benefits are especially valuable for large organizations trying to guide thousands of leads through a sales cycle. Each data point in a CRM can be used to deliver a more relevant, persuasive message to a prospect.

The simplest example is the automation of personal greetings in marketing emails. More complex use cases may include custom content or special offers inserted into digital marketing materials.


How to Choose a CRM

Starting out with the right expectations for a CRM is the first step toward CRM selection. The second step is to evaluate a CRM based on the needs of a business. These questions can help identify the critical components of the right CRM:

What Led to This Search?

Throughout the purchasing process, reconnecting to the original purpose behind the search can help narrow the field of CRM candidates.

For example, did the CRM search begin because sales representatives failed to maintain client data? That might prioritize a CRM that had strong automated data entry features, as well as an intuitive user interface.

But what if the CRM search began with the need to reduce the time between lead generation and sale? In that case, a CRM that helped identify opportune moments for sales staff follow-up might be more valuable. Features such as marketing automation may also play a bigger role.

Who Will Use It?

Many organizations searching for their first CRM have recently outgrown early methods of customer data management, like Excel spreadsheets. If a CRM will be used by only a small number of sales representatives, a simpler platform may meet all company needs. However, organizations that pass leads from marketing to sales to customer service teams may require a more robust platform. One example is a subscription-based software service: marketing generates leads; sales generate paying customers; customer service supports client retention.

Even if the immediate need for a CRM has arisen from a single department, companies can benefit by identifying all team members who will rely on CRM data.

Which Features Are Most Important?

The answers to the first two questions—why the company needs a CRM and who needs it—can go a long way toward identifying the most important features of a CRM.

Another way to approach the question is to consider how executives will measure a successful CRM implementation. If the only determinant is the bottom-line impact, the most valuable features will be those that have the potential to generate near-term sales.

However, a broader appreciation for the benefits of a CRM may value alternative metrics, like employee retention. If a CRM can streamline data entry, generate happier employees, and decrease training costs, that lowered expense may be worth as much as an equivalent increase in revenue.

What Fits within the Budget?

A hierarchical list of features can also help fit CRM into an existing budget. Some CRMs have flexible features—even alternative ‘freemium’ and paid versions—that permit an organization to scale its CRM usage and costs over time.

If an initial CRM investment funds a platform with limited features, make sure the platform allows customer data to move easily from one system to another. That way, client data remains portable as the need or capacity expands.

How to Maximize the Value from a CRM

After the selection of a CRM, an initial challenge is getting employee buy-in. With the right platform, gaining that buy-in should be easy. While employees may need to manage an initial learning curve, the CRM features should make their jobs much easier and more profitable.

Beyond employee adoption, these added opportunities can extract even more value from a CRM:

Analytics. The analytics from a CRM can shed new light on marketing and sales strategies. Rather than relying on anecdotal evidence or incomplete data, managers have the chance to understand the pivotal moments in a sales cycle.

The ability to segment client data can yield even more valuable insights about how to manage subsets of clients efficiently. This information can inform the development of marketing materials or establish ideal intervals for contact with sales team members.

Computer-telephony integration (CTI). CTI can provide even greater integration for companies that coordinate efforts between sales and customer service teams. The integration of telephone and CRM systems can improve call routing to get prospective customers to the right representatives. It can also push CRM data to team members as soon as phone rings.

For companies that use multiple CRMs, CTI can help integrate data from those systems into a single user interface.

Ready, Set, Go

The modern CRM has helped companies understand more than just the importance of the customer relationship. It has helped businesses understand the importance of customer relationship data. By keeping customer relationship data accurate, portable, and accessible, companies can scale a personalized sales experience, even if they have millions of customers.

The selection process for CRM begins with an understanding of these key efficiencies. From there, companies benefit by understanding their specific needs and how a successful CRM implementation may be measured. Those learnings can help identify the right features that fit within the proposed budget.

With the right CRM in place, the potential long-term value is up to team managers. CRM analytics and additional integrations can help extend the value of a CRM beyond initial expectations—and infinitely past the paper records of an earlier era.


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