By Dave Pelland

Once reserved for the largest of companies, a growing number of cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) tools are available to help small businesses streamline important functions.

In the past few years, a variety of CRM platforms designed with the needs of small businesses have been released. And although it's important to have choices for important software tools, the growing number of features and options can be daunting for business owners hoping CRM can take away some of the daily complexity of running their business.

As with most technology purchases, some research, planning and testing can help you understand your options more effectively and make it easier to choose the best CRM platform for your small business' needs.

CRM Basics

At a minimum, effective CRM tools provide centralized databases for storing information about customers, prospects and leads. In addition to basic contact information, CRM tools allow team members who handle sales, marketing, and customer service to enter detailed information about specific customers.

The types of information you capture will vary according to your company or industry. Typical entries will likely include how they first contacted your company, products or services they asked about, past purchases, customer service issues, contract expiration dates, and other details that can be useful in closing a sale, making additional sales to existing customers, or improving your service or relationship with a given customer.

A CRM platform can also provide automated reminders about the best times to follow up with a prospect, if a customer is likely to need service, or other touch points that can provide sales and revenue opportunities.

Because this information is centralized, everyone who deals with customers can have an up-to-date snapshot of that customer's interactions with your company.

Popular CRM choices for small business owners include Salesforce, Zoho, Insightly, Nimble, and others.

Research Your Choices

Spending some time thinking about the types of information you are likely to track, or would like to know more about, is an important first step in picking a CRM platform. Some platforms may offer advanced sales automation functions, such as the ability to segment customers into narrow demographic or geographic categories, that may be very helpful to your company — or irrelevant.

Another important consideration is how easy your CRM software will be to use. A traditional stumbling block with CRM systems is a complex user interface that makes it difficult for people to enter or update information. CRM is only effective if people are comfortable using it. If a platform is too complex, team members will resist entering data or ignore the system completely.

If your company and customers interact frequently on social media, you'll also want to evaluate the social media integration capabilities of a CRM platform. Some systems monitor your online account and can notify your team if someone mentions or reaches out to your company.

Cost is another consideration. Most cloud-based CRM platforms for small businesses have free or inexpensive subscription plans that do increase as you add users or advanced features.

You should also explore how easy it would be to import or export data into the CRM system you're considering. Most allow you to upload spreadsheets or address book files with existing customer data. Being able to download data you've entered into the platform can be helpful if you want to store a backup copy of your data, or want to change CRM providers.

Dave Pelland has extensive experience covering the business use of technology, networking and communications tools by companies of all sizes. Dave's editorial and corporate experience includes more than 10 years editing an electronic technology and communications industry newsletter for a global professional services firm.


The information provided is presented for general informational purposes only and does not constitute tax, legal or business advice. Any views expressed in this article may not necessarily be those of Nevada State Bank or its affiliates.