In today’s tough economic environment, converting your most promising prospects into customers and your current customers into loyal patrons is more important than ever. Whether your business is big or small, you need your marketing, sales, and customer service efforts to work together in sync-and this can only truly be done with a Customer Relationship Management program and system in place. What is CRM? Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a broad term that covers the management of all aspects of a company’s interaction and relationship with customers. It involves strategies, programs, and tactics to put the customer at the center of your business, with the goals of differentiating the company’s competitive positioning, attracting leads, encouraging customer adoption, improving customer satisfaction, encouraging customer loyalty-and ultimately driving revenue growth and profitability. Why is Automation in Implementing CRM Important? Among many other outcomes, an effective CRM involves properly identifying exactly who your customers are by not only segmenting them into groups but actually identifying them one by one so you can tailor your interaction with them in a way that meets their individual needs, wants, and expectations. And not only that, you also need to capture, store, and analyze each interaction with them in order to maximize your efforts. As a business owner, you have a lot to focus on, and to implement CRM effectively, automation is definitely key. Attempting to achieve the goals mentioned above manually with a paper system takes a huge amount of time and effort, with incomplete results that often don’t justify that cost. You need to implement efficient technologies that support coordinated interactions through all customer channels across all customer touch-points, whether they happen through e-mail, phone, fax, instant messaging, via the web, or in face-to-face meetings with your sales people. You can only do all these things efficiently and effectively with an automated CRM system. What Do You Need to Consider when Evaluating CRM Systems? These days there are so many CRM options available that choosing the one best for your needs can be confusing. In evaluating your options, it’s important that you weigh a system’s features against your particular circumstances and business goals. As you begin researching different services, keep in mind what your goals are, any constraints you have to work within (such as budget), and who are the expected users of the system. One of the first things to consider is whether you need an “on-demand” or an “on-premise” solution. On-premise solutions involve purchasing CRM software that runs on your own hardware and server. On-demand solutions are externally hosted systems accessible via the Internet. These convenient internet-based systems have no hardware or software set up requirements – saving you time and money. With employment trends heading more and more toward virtual or mobile employees, on-demand solutions are the best way to go for a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses. In some cases, however, there is good reason to run CRM software on your own server, inside your own office. For instance, if security is of paramount concern, especially if you’re handling sensitive customer data, then you might be uneasy letting someone else manage your system for you. Also, if an always-on Internet connection is not possible, or if you need to integrate your CRM system with other systems (such as your telephony or accounting package), then an on-premise solution is the way to go. Another important consideration is deciding what type of CRM system you want. Some CRM systems are geared towards marketing, and provide excellent automated lead generation, lead tracking, and marketing communication packages. Others focus on managing the activities of sales people, providing prospect and account management as well as opportunity management. Still others automate all aspects of the customer service function, such as automated helpdesk systems and knowledgebase. Finally, some focus on customer analytics, converting raw customer data from various systems into information you can act on. Whichever type of CRM you choose, make sure that you research all the options available to you carefully. Be sure to check with your IT services professional for help in not only finding the right fit for your business, but also in adopting a system that will integrate well with your current or planned IT structure.