The fortune is in the follow up

Last week I decided that the way I could focus my creative energy to best improve Tromley Computer Services was to find a way to improve my existing customer relationships. I've been lacking in follow-up, and as someone in a networking group said this morning "The fortune is in the follow up"

In an effort to find some sort of system to help me with this, I decided to evaluate a number of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions. I ended up testing 8 of them over the course of a couple of days, and here is what I learned in the process:

There are basically three types of CRM software. There are customer focused, process focused, and solution focused CRMs, all with different strengths and weaknesses.

Customer Focused CRM

Customer focused CRMs focus on managing and tracking your interactions with customers. They put the customer profile page front and center, and offer facilities to log your interactions with them, track your activities (scheduled tasks) and your tasks, on a per customer or per company basis. They provide a timeline that displays a big list of all of your interactions with your customers, and they are very much communication focused. Examples of a customer focused CRM are Nutshell, Base CRM, and Sugar CRM.

After testing these specific CRM solutions I quickly realized the value in being able to pull out my phone during a downtime and scroll through the timeline. Frequently I found myself picking up on things that I noted that at the time seemed unimportant, but in the new context I was viewing them they inspired me to create tasks and actually act on them. I found that having the ability to refresh myself on what was going on, and what I was learning in the process, was hugely valuable.

These CRMs are great for a business like Tromley Computer Services where every task is different, and there isn't really a standard set of required tasks I must complete for new customers. Nutshell in particular offers great features meant to ensure you're touching base with and following up with your customers on a regular basis, and in fact each customer can be assigned a level of follow up, either every three months, one month or weekly. It then reminds you in its dashboard who you should be following up with, and thanks to its two-way gmail integration allows you to click someone in the list and immediately send them an email.

Sending out these emails has shown huge returns already. They have in 60% of cases in the past two weeks resulted in new business for me, all from taking the time to send a friendly message and ask how things are going. Additionally, they have put me back in touch with customers whose friendship I truly value, and that has been really great.

Process Focused CRM

The other common type of CRM is focused around automating task lists, and as a result I've taken to referring to them as process focused CRMs. They allow you to create templated task lists, and then apply those templates to companies and individuals, often with very powerful features such as the ability to schedule tasks using relative dates and programmatically define task blocking.

Relative date scheduling provides you the ability to schedule a task to automatically appear on your task list a given number of days before or after a date, or relative to another task. Task blocking allows you to define tasks that require the completion of another task, or set of tasks, before they are automatically put onto your task list.

Examples of process focused CRMs are Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce and Solve360.

The process focused CRM is ideal for businesses like real estate agents, who have a huge list of documents and other tasks that must be completed leading up to a deadline such as a closing date. If you have a new house to sell, you assign your Sellers Template to the seller, and it will automatically generate tasks for you at appropriate times to remind the seller to submit documents, contact their bank, etc.

In addition to automating your actual value-creation processes, process focused CRMs allow you to automate your sales pipeline. You can create a lead in the system, and if you take the time to create an appropriate task template for new leads, it will remind you to send them a welcome package, follow up with them to qualify them, send them a proposal, win or lose the contract, and close the sale. As part of this sales funnel automation it can do things like track estimated revenue for a given lead, based on the estimated likelyhood that you will win the contract, and after the fact can generate reports about how effectively you are winning contracts and how quickly you are closing the deals.

Solution Focused CRMs

These are the future of CRMs for small businesses, and right now there is really only one name in this game. That is 17 Hats. This fantastic CRM is an end to end business in a box solution which provides not only task generation and customer management, but project management, invoicing, estimate generation, and everything else you could possibly need to freelance or consult as a small business. The interface is beautiful, and the workflow is very well designed and straightforward, given that it is all self-contained. The only reason I chose not to go with 17 Hats is because I am already really happy with Freshbooks as my bookkeeping and invoicing system, and I prefer to use Basecamp for project management.

Important Features

When investigating CRM solutions I set out to find something that would integrate well with the tools I already use. Tromley Computer Services is almost entirely run using Google Apps, in that they host my email, calendar, contacts, documents, and I use an Android phone. As a result strong Google integration was critical for me when considering CRM solutions.

A major sticking point with a number of CRMs I evaluated was that many of them dropped the ball on this integration. Capsule CRM, which seemed promising and was very affordable, offered really poor Google Contacts syncronization that was only one way (from Gmail to Capsule) and was implemented in a way that would result in absolutely corrupting your contacts database if you exported out of Gmail, and then enabled syncing back to capsule. Additionally, Capsule only offered one way syncing from Capsule to Google Calendar, and it wasn't even really syncing in that they provided an ical link that you could subscribe to in your calendar application that would show your capsule appointments on your calendar, but you would be unable to edit them within the google calendar interface.

Two way Google Contacts sync seems to be an extremely rare feature in CRMs, and actually is the only feature I ultimately gave up on having when I made my decision of which CRM to go for. Base CRM and Solve 360 offer excellent Google contacts syncronization, but Base forces you to buy their most expensive package (at $125/month per user) in order to get the ability to automatically generate tasks, and Solve360 costs $100/month, which is well outside of my budget. Everyone else either tries and fails, like Capsule, or doesn't try at all, like Nutshell, to offer two way contacts sync.

As a result of this, you're forced to stay in the CRM interface and use it as your contact app on your phone. Otherwise there is a good chance that you'll go to call someone, and they won't be in your address book.

The other major feature I insisted on in a CRM is a strong mobile app. Without a way to access my CRM on the go there is no way I could possibly keep on top of logging my customer interactions in it, and if you don't use it the value of a CRM disappears. Nutshell ended up having a really nice mobile app, that was capable of nearly everything the website was capable of. Additionally, and rather surprisingly to me, they actually took the time to make a native OS X app. Well, really, they just took a webkit frame, made it render their website, and added some keyboard shortcut handlers to it, but it is definitely nice to be able to leave it open in Exposé and easily swipe over to it.

A word about Zapier

There is a service called Zapier that is free to use and provides the capability to hack together solutions that overcome some of the limitations of CRM systems. You may be familiar with If This Then That, which allows you to create automatic triggers based on actions in web services, and have them automatically cause things to happen in other web services, and Zapier is basically the same.

For instance, in Nutshell there is no Google contacts sync, but you can use Zapier to create a "zap" that automatically creates a new Google contact any time you add a new contact to Nutshell. You have to map the fields yourself by hand, and if you create a new contact in Nutshell but don't have some of their contact info, and you intend on adding it later, Zapier doesn't seem to be able to append the new information to that contact when you have updated it in Nutshell.

However, Zapier is really powerful, and can provide some "good enough" solutions to compensate for the 5% of features you wish were in your CRM of choice.

I bet you can guess

So, what CRM did I ultimately decide was the best fit for Tromley Computer Services? I decided to go with Nutshell. It honestly felt like the only CRM that was reasonably priced that was written by people who actually understand what it takes to create a good user experience. It ticked all of the boxes for me, except for Google Contact syncing.

I've been using it now for two weeks, and I can honestly say it has already paid for itself several times over. If you haven't implemented a CRM system in your business please contact us and we'd be happy to help you figure out exactly which solution is best for you, and help you integrate it into your business.