Small business CRM lessons to be learned from real customers

A while ago, I came across a message on one of the CRM forums I read; a message from a small business owner who needed a CRM system. Here’s a rough description of the problem, as described by the small business owner:

Hi, I have a beauty parlor and I have a lot of customers (around 1000). I use an Excel spreadsheet at the moment, but my biggest problem is that I know nothing about marketing and it was suggested to get a computer to do it for me.
I want to ring or email people to get them booked for another appointment. Is there a system that tells me what to do for my business?
All the CRM ones I have seen want me to tell them what to do and I’m not sure what to actually do. It’s all too complicated.
Any help would be appreciated!

Some of you might be smirking now and some of you might even feel a bit patronizing after reading the above, but the reality is … these are the problems small business users face and the reasons they cannot easily connect with CRM are hidden within this message above.
There are so many lessons to be learn from this one single message. Now, let’s see.

Lesson 1: Why small businesses need CRM

This is such a basic thing, yet, many technical people, who see themselves mostly as problem solvers (which implies the problem is felt, understood, defined) and even some sales people, forget the simple reasons small businesses get to the conclusion they need CRM. This message spells out some of those reasons:

Small businesses reach out a critical mass of customers where maintaining customers in Excel is no longer manageable
Small businesses need a more controlled way of interacting with customers for sales (booking appointments) and for marketing, customer retention etc. (ring or email customers)

This is a very important lesson because small businesses do not just go out and buy CRM systems because they can or because you and I think it’s a good idea for them to do so. They buy it because they have a problem managing their customers and because they realize they have a problem.

Lesson 2: Small businesses is a market that needs to be educated

It is clear from this message that this one business owner is not very IT savvy.
The first clue is that she is looking for answers on a free forum and the second clue is in the way she defines her problem and asks the question (“it was suggested to get a computer to do it for me”). It is clear the business need is there, the problem is understood, but the solution is not clear.
She wants to learn how to solve her problem.
It is also clear that she wants to solve her problem cheaply or low cost, otherwise she would go to a specialized IT company for answers.
This is true for a lot of the small businesses out there.
CRM solutions focusing on small businesses need to educate the customers, not just sell to them.
At Clevertim, we’re fulfilling this duty by writing a meaningful blog, full of free and useful advice for small businesses.

Lesson 3: Word of mouth and social media is how small business owners educate themselves

This is the same idea as in Lesson 2, but it needs to be spelled out explicitly.
Small businesses will get word of mouth advice first, from friends, colleagues, other business owners. It is obvious this has happened in this case: “it was suggested to get a computer to do it for me”.
Word of mouth will be the first bit of advice they will get and the advice they will trust the most, because it comes from people they know and trust already.
But if word of mouth cannot provide a full solution, the next stop is social media, and this small business owner is already making use of it by posting questions, asking for help on a social media forum. It is clear she wants to learn, she wants to reach out to people who can help her learn and help her solve her problem.
The fact that she mentions the use of some CRM systems in her message suggests this might not be her first message on social media. She has already tried a few CRM systems and she’s hitting a few limitations …

Lesson 4: CRMs are generic solutions

One of the limitation she hit is the fact that most CRM solution out there are not targetted at her particular business or at beauty parlors in general. They require the user to “tell them what to do”. In other words, they require quite a bit of customization before they can be used to solve real world problems.
This customization is too expensive for small businesses.
Another point is that the user’s expectations were out of sync with what CRM systems can do. She expected the CRM software to be able to tell her how to run her business, maybe provide some business models, or templates of marketing models.

Lesson 5: CRMs require business processes

Yes, this user realized that a CRM on its own will not solve her problems. A CRM system is just a tool to support and automate some of your business processes – in other words, the way you work. You have to “tell it what to do” through your business processes (the way you do things) and then CRM can act like an intelligence bank on your customers, your interactions with your customers, and so on.
Although the term “business process” might sound a bit scary or too abstract, it is really “the way you do things” and that’s best illustrated with an example. Let’s describe a few rules that this small business owner could implement (or most likely she already implements them but doesn’t call them business processes):

Rule 1: After every appointment, enter a note in the CRM system, for that customer. Enter a small description of how the session went, comments, suggestions, complaints from the customer, your impressions on the customer and on the session, any bit of extra information you can extract on the customer e.g.: does she have siblings, children, a spouse, when is her birthday, etc. You can later on use this information to target the customer better, maybe get extra customers (e.g. her spouse) or send them a Happy Birthday note.

Rule 2: After every appointment, add a task to follow up with the customer in 1 week/1 month/a few months, depending on the length of your sales cycle. The CRM system will them automatically notify you when it’s time to pick up the phone or fire an email to follow up and ask your customers if they want another appointment.

Rule 3: When you get reminders from the CRM system, pick up the phone and talk to your customers

Rule 4: After the phone call, enter a note on how the call went, any extra information you extracted

Rule 5: After the phone call, enter another appointment in the CRM system or another task to follow up in 1 week/1 month time if the customer hasn’t booked yet. Do not give up, always follow up.

Above we have 5 simple rules for running a small beauty parlor with the help of a CRM system. It doesn’t need a lot of work, it’ll get the small business owner much more organized and selling more (because she always follows up now) and it’ll not cost a fortune – web based CRM systems are very affordable these days.

Conclusion: Just listen to your customers and potential customers and you will be amazed how much you can learn. Learning about your customers means you can help your customers better, which in turns means they are more likely to buy and stay with you.

Listen to your customers on Twitter

If you lived on Mars for the last 6 years then I probably need to tell you what Twitter is: a social network where you can publish short messages of up 140 characters (this was designed to be compatible with the short messaging system: SMS messages you send from your mobile phone, which are also restricted in length). It empowers users to share content, mostly about how they feel, but also share content, links, feedback on companies, films, blogs, other content, ratings, etc.

Now if you started a small business on Earth, then you’re probably thinking how can you take advantage of Twitter to grow your business, connect with customers, find out what customers need etc. The first temptation is to try to pitch on Twitter, or send updates relating to new products. Let’s face it: twitter users don’t want to be talked at, they hate the usual corporate messaging, they want to connect with people and they want content they’re interested in, they want to connect with companies and individuals working for those companies in their own terms. Forget the traditional way of doing business.

So here’s a list of 3 dos and 3 donts that will help you take the most advantage out of Twitter, as a small business owner:

1. Personalize your content – don’t sound like a corporate advertising campaign. The user 2.0 has very good filtering abilities and your message will fall onto deaf ears if it sounds like the usual corporate message. Instead be personal. Use your real name, sound and behave like a person, rather than a corporate identify. Users like to connect with people, not companies. If you do that, you’ll find your message is listened to more often than not.

2. Listen – don’t just blast your message, instead use Twitter to listen to what your customers are talking about, what their problems are, what they’re looking for, what they need. You can do that by searching Twitter for various keywords related to your business and see what the users are saying, complaining, thinking about. There are also various tools that will allow you to monitor the user generated content. Try to respond to users if you have solutions to their problems. Again, sound like a person (see number 1), rather than a corporate automaton.

3. Share interesting content – a lot of companies think that talking about features, releases, things you normally write in boring PR releases will make users follow you and get excited about your products. Think again! Users want to read content relevant to them. Instead, talk about common problems, offer tips & tricks related to your business area, free advice and industry insight. When 140 characters are not enough, add links to more extensive content on your blog, wiki, website. To know what content users are interested in, revisit number 2: Listen.

And here are the 3 donts (DO NOT), some of them extracted from the list of dos above:

1. Do NOT sound like a broken corporate record (see number 1 and 2 above)

2. Do NOT share boring content – it’ll be a waste of your time and money as no one will read it. As much as you’d like to think your business is special, no one necessarily sees it that way. If you produce boring content, no one will follow you on Twitter.

3. Do NOT get dragged into heated exchanges, insults, etc. There’s nothing that put a user off better than seeing a small business owner getting down and dirty, exchanging online punches and insults with potential customers or competitors. You will be judged by your words and actions. It’s always better to admit there are problems or that errors have been made, rather than try to fight it. You cannot silence the social media, so don’t even try.

Customers, maps and postcards from Google

If you have a local small business, you must consider Google Places. This will show your business on google maps when your customers type a related search in google maps. A lot of customers search local businesses this way and you don’t want to miss out on that.
It will also help with your SEO (search engine optimization).
It is a free service and Google will even send you a postcard … to verify your address. No wonder, they want to keep it spam free.

Online CRM for small businesses

One of the main benefits of using online software is that you don’t have to pay for IT upfront, you don’t have a huge infrastructure cost as it is all outsourced and you don’t have to pay for IT employees to maintain it all – and IT salaries do not come cheap. Small businesses simply cannot afford these costs. Implementing an in-house IT strategy can take a long time too, which again, small businesses do not have. For small businesses it’s all about cashflow and growth – you cannot afford to have IT projects that run for years. You need to have systems that work now.

The other benefit for small businesses is that online CRM solutions generally charge monthly. So again, you do not have commit into long term expensive contracts and you don’t have to pay for a year upfront. At most, you pay for the current month. You can leave any time, without any penalties.

You might think this might come at a cost: the online IT providers will probably try to cut corners and have less than satisfactory customer support. But think for a moment about the incentives. A big company that signs its customers into long term contracts knows very well that its customers are “locked in”. They have signed contracts and that’s a guarantee they’ll get their money, no matter what. On the other hand, online IT providers know their customers pay monthly and they can leave at any time. They know they will have increased attrition if they drop the ball on customer support. So their incentive is to give you a really good customer support, because they want to keep your business from month to month.

So let’s recap: you get an affordable price, flexibility to pay monthly and no penalties from quitting at any time and you get best customer support as your CRM online provider knows you might leave otherwise. Sounds like a really great deal to me. So what are you waiting for, why not give online CRM a try and start growing your business today!