Web based contact management for small businesses

A friend of mine works for a big company but his department is well insulated from the rest of the company. It’s a small self sufficient (in many ways) department, they have their own small budget – which if they don’t spend they lose next year, they work with little supervision. They have to obey the corporate policies around the use of the brand, logo, etc. but in many ways, they’re free to engage potential customers. He works in licensing.

The scenario above is very similar in many ways to working for a small business. But I didn’t immediately realize that. So I’ve asked him … what CRM do you use internally? I expected him to say Oracle or Salesforce, which is what I associate with “working for a big business”. Instead he stared at me point blank and the conversation went:

He: CRM?
Me: Yes, how do you track your customers, licensees, licensors, etc.
He: Oh, we have one big spreadsheet.
Me: How do you share it?
He: It’s on a network drive.
Me: Doesn’t that make the editing difficult.
He: Oh, yes, if someone edits it, the spreadsheet is locked and no one else can edit it until the first person releases it. If the first person opens it and then goes home, no one can edit it anymore.
Me: That kinda sucks.
He: Yes, but we solved it by asking our intern to keep it up to date. So we send her all the updates and requests for data and she does it.
Me: Isn’t that slow.
He: Only when she’s on holidays or when we need the data over the weekend or when she’s out for lunch and we need the data in a meeting and so on.
Me: Why don’t you get a simple web based contact management that everyone can access at any time, from any device?
He: We don’t have the time to look into it. Plus, a lot of the sales guys are not IT savvy and our internal IT department won’t support something that’s not approved.
Me: Some of the web based contact management solutions require almost zero admin work.
He: You’re preaching to the converted.

Does this conversation sound familiar? The whole thing reminds me of a cartoon I once saw.

Clevertim_CRM_contact magament for small businesses



Rejection therapy

When you start out in sales, one of the most challenging aspects of your work when dealing with prospects (especially if you do cold calling – in other words dealing with cold prospects/leads) is the rejection. Being told No repeatedly can have a demoralizing effect on you in the short run and some people quit at that point. In time you learn to deal with it as you get used to it and it becomes a regular part of your job, but at that initial point, you’re vulnerable.

Nothing in our society prepares us for rejection. In fact, society prepares us all for success but the truth is, success is not always easy or straightforward and many times it takes many failures and rejections before achieving (some) success. So perhaps society should prepare us more for rejection. Perhaps failure in general should be embraced as a learning experience. Some work methodologies do that already and encourage their followers to fail often and learn from it, as long as you can 1. fail fast and 2. failure is not life threatening.

Failing fast is key, because if you spend all your life in one long drawn failure, then it’s a bit difficult to learn from it and apply it to the next venture that hopefully can be more successful. I recently watched a show on TV where a couple spent 20 years on the same business idea. They spent their entire life savings, lost their home in the process and in the end didn’t get anywhere with the business. They didn’t even get the funding needed as part of the TV show. I felt sad and the investors felt sad for them but still they didn’t invest in the couple. They recognized a slow failure. It’s nearly impossible to recover from a slow failure because you’re so entrenched in it that you have serious difficulties seeing different angles and being agile about problem solving. You’re also running out of time. We are on this planet for a very limited amount of time, after all.

Failing fast is important because it allows us to detach ourselves from the burden of a failed venture while still gaining experience that can be used in the next venture. The idea here is: don’t make the same mistake twice. Fail enough and soon there will be no more types of failure left for you to go through. Surely success is next. If only it was that easy…
Reusing the experience gained comes with one big assumption too: that none of the failed ventures kill you, so you can continue on.

One thing you can speed up the whole process is to put yourself through a controlled rejection/failure therapy. Try out things that you know you’re going to be failed at. Ask for things that you know are going to lead to rejections. Ask for free upgrades. Try to negotiate the price down. Try to chat up the opposite sex when you feel hopeless about the end result. There are millions of ways you can set yourself up for rejection. It’s a controlled process that will get you used to rejection and failure, while at the same time learn a lot about people, situations, business models, the flexibility of businesses and people. You can even have fun in the process. But don’t think of it as guaranteed failure, instead try hard to “close” the deal. It’s a painful experiment, but you can end up not just a better sales person, but a better person for it.

Follow up, follow up and follow up some more

Sales is not always easy. As a salesman, you’re faced daily with rejection, difficult users, undecided leads, long sales cycles, unresponsive prospects and short attention span from people trying out your products or services. In time, sales people develop patterns of interaction with their leads and these are formed inevitably over time, as sales agents need to interact with various types of personalities and put up with different behaviors.

For example, after many rejections, you learn to deal with it by accepting it as part and cost of doing business. It doesn’t affect you in the same way it affected you when you started. This is true for almost everything. Experience means you can know intuitively how to deal with certain types of situations.

One of the many realizations that come with experience is the fact that you have to follow up as many times as required until you get either a Yes or a No. Some sales people are not put up by a No and they will keep going even after they hear a No. Only after a few No-s they will realize that the lead has gone cold and they will not be able to close the deal. The important thing though is that you just cannot stop until you get that Yes or No.

That means following up with calls, emails, social media. Sometimes following up is hard, especially if the prospect seems annoyed or appears to be ignoring the calls, emails, social media interactions, etc. In time you realize it’s generally not personal – these people have their own priorities, they’re busy trying to run their own businesses or their lives and your call, email or social media interaction is probably not at the top of their list. Some other times people lose your email in their inbox, or your email catches them at the wrong time and then they forget about your email. If they’re anything like me, if I don’t reply to an email when I first see it, the likelihood I will never reply to it is very high. A lot of people are like that. It’s how the human attention span works – it moves on very quickly and many times doesn’t go back to revisit items in the past.

So you have to follow up. To make it easier, just assume they have not received the email you had sent them previously. Assume they’re really interested but missed your initial email because they got another call at the same time. Send them a follow up asking them what they think about it. Then send them another after a few days. Many people will see this as a positive sales attitude, not as something annoying. If they really want you to stop, all they have to do is say “No, not interested”. Until you get that, keep going.

I can’t tell you how many times I have got something unexpected by simply following up even when normally I would give up. Many times you get rejections, but there is useful information even in rejections. Rejections can give you interesting insights into how customers think, how they solve problems, how their business work and they can also tell you what your products and services are failing at. Sometimes all you have to do is ask – many people are prepared to give you that information if you ask.

So don’t stop, keep asking, keep following up.

Data entry from within your inbox

A contact management system is only as good as the data that goes into it. To realize the benefits of a CRM / shared contact management system, everyone in your team must adhere to the clear rules of entering sales, marketing and customer support data into the shared CRM system (CRM stands for customer relationship management and it builds on the concept of contact/client management). That means entering notes and emails into the system whenever important data is exchanged, communicated and agreed with your prospects and existing customers.

That sounds great in principle, but sometimes people forget to enter the data, sometimes they don’t understand the importance of the imposed discipline. As a small business owner you should try to get people to buy into the vision by explaining the benefits of sharing the data and the efficiencies that brings. It makes everyone’s lives easier and the users can focus on selling, marketing or customer support, without having to worry about where the data is, about scrambling to put it all together just before a deadline hits.

On our side, we’re always looking at making the data entry simpler, more intuitive, effortless, in order to encourage users to do it and to make the whole process as efficient as possible.

The personal dropbox is part of that effort. The personal dropbox is just a set of dedicated email addresses that users can forward customer emails to or they can CC or BCC on emails sent to their contacts. This automatically attaches that email as a note under the respective contact. If the contact is not in the CRM, the contact will be added.
How does the system know which contact to attach the note to? It auto-detects the contact by their email address. So, it’s important to add all the known email addresses for your contacts into the CRM.

The other dropbox emails are for adding cases, opportunities or tasks. They work in a similar fashion. You forward, CC or BCC emails to these email addresses and the system will add cases, opportunities or tasks respectively, with the details in the email.

Small businesses need a simple CRM

Last week I had another look at Salesforce, something I do from time to time, to see for myself what’s new in terms of features, usability, plugins, etc. Salesforce is a great platform, but every time I log in, my head hurts. It’s just so complex – it can do so many things, which is great for big enterprises, especially when they have lots of money for customizations (and they inevitably need to customize it big time).

But when you’re a small business, complexity kills productivity. If it takes you 10 minutes instead of 1 minute to perform an action, then that’s 9 minutes you won’t get back. 9 minutes you won’t sell, you won’t market, you won’t support your customers and you won’t spend time with your love ones.
It’s not just time though. It’s the frustration. If you’re like me, I tend to lose my patience, start pulling my hair out when things are not immediately obvious and when, something that I think of as “this should be easy” proves out to be more complicated or take longer that what I’ve prepared myself for.

Now this post is obviously a rant. It’s not about Salesforce. Again, Salesforce is a great business and a great CRM swiss army knife. It’s about complexity, it’s about optimizing the use of your time and time is so much more precious when you work with the limited resources of a small company.

Time and time again, I keep telling small business owners that they should choose a simple CRM, a system that works for them. But most of them like to think big … in 6 months we’ll outgrow it. We need something that can grow with us. And inevitably they fall into the “complexity trap”. They go for something more complex, something they don’t need now, just because they’ll need it in 6 months. Many of them turn out not to grow as they expected to, but they’re still saddled with the complexity of a behemoth. It just kills their productivity.

Start with something simple that you can use today. Cross the complexity bridge  when you absolutely have to, because complexity is not a nice problem to have. Complexity kills productivity.

Small businesses don’t need full CRMs

Small businesses get to solutions by hitting a problem repeatedly. This is true for many types of businesses, but the big businesses are supposed to have well paid visionaries and leaders, strategists who are supposed to design solutions well ahead of time, pre-empting a lot of the problems.

Small businesses simply don’t have this luxury and it’s because when you’re a small business you tend to wear many hats and generally do too much – as many small business owners delay hiring more employees to conserve cash. It’s being prudent, both with your own money, your own business, but also with your potential employees future – you don’t want to hire people just to have to let them go in a few months time.

All of the above simply mean that many times small business owners get so deep into the operations aspect of the business, that they don’t have time to think about the future, about the roadmap ahead. Many cannot see the forest because of the trees. In that state of play, it’s difficult to think of imaginary problems and their solutions as owners generally grapple with very real problems.

But after banging your head against the same problem over and over, small business owners inevitably get to a point where they have to do something about the problem, as it’s causing too many issues and blocking growth. Naturally they get to a point where a problem becomes the number 1 priority on their to-do list. At that point they’re looking for solutions.

One of the common problems for sales, marketing and customer support teams in small businesses is managing customer data and potential customer data (their leads). In the beginning, spreadsheets, google docs, emails are sufficient, but over time, as the team grows and the customer data grows (both number of customers and data associated with each customer), a better solution is needed. Enter a contact management system.

At this point the business owners will ask around, google it, read reviews to find what other people are using, what others recommend and what’s good for them. Their time is limited, so ideally they’d would like to start implementing a contact management system yesterday. Which is why so many times you see questions like “What’s the best contact management or CRM system?”.

It turns out there isn’t just one, it really depends on what your requirements are and many times the more features a system have, the more complex and difficult to use the system is. Once implemented, many of these systems don’t get used, because they’re too complex. So while starting with a swiss army knife CRM might sounds like a good idea, the truth is, many times, “less is more”. Simple and intuitive systems that people understand and like to use are many times preferable and increase productivity of sales/marketing/customer support teams, simply because they come with less hurdles, require less training and users can hit the ground running.

So, if you think your small business needs a full fledged CRM that comes with all the possible features in the world, think again. Think how Google managed to establish themselves as market leaders with a simple search engine, without fancy bells and whistles but which does what it says on the tin. Sometimes, less is indeed more.

Free CRM

If you keep an eye on Twitter, Quora or other online forums, you regularly see requests for free CRM, generally coming from small businesses that are looking to make an entry into the CRM market. The free availability of information on the Internet nowadays and the plethora of free apps in the wild makes requests like these reasonable.
When I say reasonable, I really compare that with other types of requests for “free cars”, “free houses”, “free tangible assets”. You don’t see those very often and those would be unreasonable in my book.

Producing software can be done effectively and the cost can be kept low or, if done by enthusiasts, then the cost is not even an issue (see open source). You can get really good open source CRM like SugarCRM and not pay a penny if that’s your goal.
Of course, that brings other challenges with it, as you’d essentially be on your own or have to pay for support, custom development for customizing the CRM to meet your business objectives.

But it is an option and we should all be grateful that we have it. Imagine a world controlled by a few powerful software houses (that shouldn’t be too difficult!).

The problem with free CRM or free anything really is that nothing is free. Someone else has to pay for it, in one way or another. The open source enthusiasts absorb the cost by putting in their time because they enjoy it. Companies offer CRM for free or other services for free either as a “freemium model”, to get their foot in the door and hopefully entice customers to upgrade to paid plans, at some point. Other companies give it away for free in order to get consultancy or professional services business from their “free customers”.
And others do it to get exposure, get the word out, compete differently in a very competitive market.
The point is, someone else is subsidizing your free services.

Why should you care?
Generally, as a consumer, you should not care. Every once in a while you get to read in the press about a scandalous invasion of privacy from big companies like Facebook, Twitter, etc. trying to monetize their services at the expense of their users’ privacy. Yes, they are trying to monetize their “free services”. Are you more eager to pay with your money or with your privacy?

As a business, you probably care more, as some of the services you use are vital to you. It’s not just a matter of stop using Instagram and going on with your life. Many times, the free services make the difference between being in the business or not. A life and death situation, to put it slightly melodramatically (after all, I don’t want you fall asleep reading this).

So the problems with free services tend to affect you more. As a business owner, free services concern me because I know they’re not sustainable so:

  1. The companies can go under as they do not have the means to continue. I’m left committed to the services but on my own. If you’re dealing with a SaaS company (hosted CRM, software as a service CRM, that kinda thing), then the whole application goes away when the company goes away as they cannot host it anymore. Ensuring your suppliers stay afloat is a BIG BIG issue for businesses.
  2. The companies can always stop giving away the services for free or change their business model dramatically which puts me, as a small business owner, at risk as I cannot plan. Going for a sustainable business model and paying for it gives me peace of mind.
  3. The companies supporting free services do not have an incentive to provide free support or enhance the product further. Not for free. In a few years time, you can end up with an outdated product on your hands. Then what?
    If you have problems with the product, what do you do then? Do you pay someone for support? Paid support can be more expensive than the original software

Don’t get me wrong.
I still think free is good, I think open source is fantastic and we use open source software here at Clevertim.
As a startup, especially if you’re bootstrapping, free can be an essential lifeline for your business. But, as your business grows, you should try to revisit the issue of free, just to reassess whether you’re exposed to too much risk, needlessly.

At Clevertim, we do have a free CRM plan for the customers looking for free CRM. We do subsidize it and this free plan will never go away. But it is limited in terms of functionality and what’s available to it. You get a limited number of contacts and opportunities and no files. If that’s not enough, have a look at our other CRM plans.

Hold on to your customers

Customer retention is a hot topic at the moment and it tends to be so in every recession as the flow of new customers dries up as soon as the recession bites. At that point, companies turn their focus on keeping their existing customers in an effort to limit the financial damage.
And it’s not easy.
Not only new customers are hard to find during periods of economic stagnation, but the existing customers tend to go under more frequently, or review their costs and decide to cut down expenditure and inevitably more customers will leave during these times.
All this means you have to think more seriously about how to retain your customers before they actually leave you. Once they’ve made their minds up, it will be nearly impossible to change that. Be proactive and actively work on customer retention.
Here’s a starting point, a list of 5 points to keep your customers happy:

1. Establish a dialog

Tell your customers what you do, tell them about changes, improvements you’re making. Tell them about what’s new in the market.
But that’s only part of it. Encourage the customers to get into a dialog, so they tell you what they think, give you feedback, which leads into the next point … engagement.

2. Engage your customers

This is all about making your customers be more active, give you your feedback. Some ways to do that: feedback forms, surveys, forums, newsletter.
But go the extra step: call them and ask them for feedback, what they think. Some might not have the time to talk, but others will appreciate the extra mile you’re going.

3. Be there when they need you

Support should be fantastic. Reply to emails quickly and with good quality, helpful content. Do not reply for the sake of being responsive – aim to solve problems.
If you take phone calls, be helpful, polite and if you don’t know the answer be honest, tell them you will get back to them with an answer. Make sure you do.
When things go wrong, admit it, solve their problem, say sorry and maybe compensate them somehow – a small gift, discount and so on.

4. Improve the product / service

In a study done in the US, the main reason for customers leaving was poor customer support. The second main reason was poor product / service experience and quality.
Use all the feedback you get from your customers to improve your products and services.
Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing too and make sure you don’t fall behind.

5. Surprise your customers with little things

Surprise your customers with some unexpected little things: add something to their order, a thank you note, an extra small product, add a hand written note, call them to ask them how they’re doing, send a happy birthday note, give them a partial refund when you make a mistake, send them a small gift and so on.
The list is endless.
They will be pleasantly surprised because almost no other business does that and you will stand out.

Actionable information

Once in a while I experience something very discomforting and embarrassing at the same time. As much as I would like to think I’m special, I’m convinced others do go occasionally through the same thing. Here’s what’s happening and it will sound very trivial perhaps:

I, sometimes, pick up a book and I know instantly: I’ve read this book, but I cannot remember anything that was in it.

It’s like I read it but my mind was somewhere else. Now this simple realization raises a series of questions, some existential questions, some more pragmatic in nature:

  • Why am I reading these books? Am I looking for some type of information that I didn’t have before? Am I looking for someone to bring order & balance to my thoughts and the information I already have? Or is it because I am looking for reinforcement, encouragement in the knowledge that others are thinking through the same problems?
  • What is my selection criteria? This ultimately reflects my immediate attention and that can go off-topic, off-course pretty easily. The question is … am I focusing my attention on something that will ultimately help me advance towards the strategic goals I’ve set for myself (you have strategic goals, right?)
  • How is reading helping with that advance? How am I benefiting from the books? How do I use the new information? The sad truth as I discovered is that I forget most of it.

This last point brings with it the realization:

I only benefit from the new information when the information is actionable and I DO take action.

Actionable really means that you can do something with the information, something practical, something that you can put into words, something that you can describe into a TO DO task. For example, if a book suggests that the best idea to improve customer service is to talk to your customers and ask them what can you improve, then the action is “select 5, 10, however many I can handle, customers and ask them how I can improve the service”. Or “come up with a survey and send it to them by email”.

Something you can actually DO, something you can ACTION upon. Not just abstract theory, but something practical.

But that’s only half the story, the other half being: “and I DO take action”. This bit is very important because most of the time, this is the part that’s failing me. I read books while I’m away and I either fail to take notes, fail to revisit the book when I’m at my computer, or simply decide it’s probably not going to work, or it’s too hard to implement. All of these are failures to act and are as bad as not identifying actionable information, or reading books which do not have any actionable information in them.

Getting back to the part about forgetting, well, that’s only natural. We are not machines, and our brain can only store so much information and keep it in the active memory – or short term memory if you want. We forget easily because there is always something else, new information, new books, new websites, new blogs. So don’t keep it all in your brain,

Write notes!

Keep a to do list with all the tasks/actions that you want to take and keep them in the list. Spend time building the list and spend some time going through the list and getting things done. You can prioritize the actions on the list to make sure you get what’s important and urgent done first.

This is nothing new!

There are thousands of books suggesting you should do this, millions of blogs and even more applications that will help you keep to do lists. This is a topic as old as written language, but…

It’s difficult to actually apply it!

which is why there are new books and new apps doing to do lists. It’s difficult to do because it’s not about the books, it’s not about telling you how to do it or telling you that you should do it. It’s about actually doing it, every day. These apps won’t do it for you. You have to do it.

It’s hard because it requires the discipline to do it every day. It’s not a one-off trick, it’s a modus operandi, a way of working and a way of life, day after day. It’s hard because there are no shortcuts.

Which is why we’ve implemented yet another app to do “to do” lists in a CRM app. It’s because it’s not about the app, it’s about you. But really, looking after your customers is the best example of dealing with “actionable information” as looking after your customers is a long term activity, one that you undertake every day, but also one where you potentially don’t have to deal with a customer for several weeks or months before you have to pick it up again where you left it off.

If you don’t take notes to know where you left it off, you will lose in the long term.

So take full advantage of our “Tasks” feature and keep track of your todos, meetings, events, follow ups, set reminders for calls, emails that need to be sent out. Your customers will love you for it!



Get the most out of your CRM system

Using a CRM app is a great way to improve your sales, customer retention, customer satisfaction and the happiness level, but it does require a lot of discipline to follow business processes consistently. In other words, in your interaction with your customers you want to be:

  • Thorough – ensure you follow up always, until the customer either buys or clearly tells you he is not buying. Follow interest until it moves into a clear Yes or No
  • Be consistent in your thorough-ness – ensure you apply the same methods and level of follow up to all your customers. Every day of every year and applies to every one of your employees/co-workers

Start by defining your business processes, in other words, the way you work to ensure you’re thorough and consistent. Here’s a list of 5 easy tips to get you started. Refine these tips as needed by your busines:

  1. Update the CRM system with every interaction with your customer – phone call notes, meeting notes, emails, proposals, documents, etc.
  2. Add tasks (for you or assign to other co-workers) to break down what needs to be done for each customer or lead to either convert to paying customer or sell more. In particular add follow up reminders, to ensure you don’t forget to follow up in 1 week/month/or more depending on your sales cycle
  3. Ensure you do call, email, or message on social media when you get the follow up reminders.
  4. Record again all those communications in the CRM system. This will help you build a valuable business & customer intelligence database
  5. Ensure EVERYONE in your team/company follows the same steps diligently. Sell the benefits of using the CRM system to your team.

Remember, a CRM app is only as good as the data you put in it and the business processes that it supports. That is, the way you work.