CRM for the Little Guy: What's In It for Me?
New CRM offerings, many of them web-based, make CRM affordable for smaller sales organizations and those with limited IT resources.
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When the Industrial Distributors Association asked me to do a workshop at their national conference in Dallas, they presented me with a challenge. A number of their member companies were smaller firms: $1 million to $10 million in revenues. While they are interested in leveraging technology to improve the way they sell to and service their customers, they tend to shy way from CRM systems that have big price tags or require an extensive information technology (IT) staff to implement and maintain. The association wanted me to focus on CRM systems or services that smaller companies can successfully utilize.

While many of the case studies you hear about are focused toward Fortune 500 companies, there are a number of great options for small to mid-tier firms. If you have shied away from looking at systems in the past, believing they were too complex or costly, consider the following examples.

CRM for Smaller Sales Forces
If your company has limited IT resources to support a CRM initiative, there are still several good choices for you to consider. A review of our database of CRM initiatives found many examples of smaller companies successfully implementing systems from companies such as GoldMine, SalesLogix, TeleMagic, Pivotal and Firstwave Technologies. These systems have been designed to be easy to install and customize without a lot of IT resources. In addition, most of the players targeting the small to mid-tier market have VAR channels that can take up some of the IT load for you.

No IT group at all? Then check out application service provider (ASP) offerings. Many of the vendors offer a hosting service (directly or through a partner) where they run the application on their server. For a monthly user fee, they take over the system administration responsibilities for you.

CRM Portals
Another service smaller firms can take advantage of is signing up for a portal. Upshot.com, Interact.com, Sales.com, Salesforce.com and SalesRepsOnline.com are just a few of the firms that offer these sites on a subscription basis. Reps signing on to these sites have access to a number of useful tools. Most portal sites offer such features as news feeds allowing you to track information on your customers and prospects, contact managers, lead sources and access to travel reservations and maps.

Portal sites are also a good source for sales skills information. Many sites are tied in with a sales training firm and offer a variety of white papers on how to improve your skills for working with customers. In addition, some sites even offer training courses. Since these sites are Internet-based, all your people need is a Web-enabled PC and a browser to start using the service.

Virtual Meeting Support
More and more smaller firms have reported adopting a virtual office strategy, where their sales and support people work out of home offices or executive suites. While this option can decrease some fixed costs, it can cause problems by making it difficult for people to collaborate on projects. A new breed of Internet tools from companies like Centra, Placeware and Docent helps minimize this problem.

Using these systems, you can schedule a virtual meeting with coworkers anywhere in the world. Here's how it works: At the preset time everyone logs onto an Internet server (the user's or one hosted by the vendor). The software supports sending voice and data over the Internet at the same time. As you start to discuss a deal, you can bring up any file on your computer (such as a proposal, presentation or the prospect's RFP), and everyone else in the meeting hears what you are saying and sees the same document on their PC.

The investment is easy to cost-justify. Since the calls are all placed over the Internet, long distance and conference call charges are eliminated. You can take this concept even further by taking your PC on sales calls. This way, while at the customer site, you can tap into other parts of the company, such as finance, R&D, manufacturing or legal, and have the key people the client wants to talk to join you remotely.

Internet-based Administration Support
Another inexpensive way to leverage technology is to use the Internet to automate a number of your paper-based processes. Companies such as Paper2Net and Freeworks can inexpensively take your existing paper forms and replace them with Web documents.

This approach offers several advantages. First, you can attach logic to the cells of the forms so that people cannot fill them out incorrectly. Second, you can assign a routing logic to the form so that it automatically gets sent to the right people for review or approval. The sender can therefore easily track the document, reducing the chances that it gets lost on someone's desk. Third, since the forms are all electronic, you can export information from the forms into your other back-office systems.

A small manufacturing firm we reviewed used this approach to automate a price exceptions/commissions adjustment form. Automation cost $500, and the firm estimates it is saving about $2,500 per month in not having to process the paper anymore. In addition, sales reps are much happier with this approach as they can easily track the progress of the form and call the right people to get it expedited. Again, as some of the players in this space offer the service as an ASP option, you don't need an IT group to take advantage of the capability.

Service Sites
There are also a number of niche sales resource sites available that offer a lot of value. You can get sales leads or mine information about prospects and customers from sites such as dnb.com, harris.com or infoUSA.com. If you want to supplement your sales teams with telemarketing support, you can outsource that service to such sites as 800direct.com, itcgroup.com or hancockinfo.com. Looking to run a sales contest? GiftCertificates.com or bravogifts.com offer you an Internet-based incentive support management service. Travel help sites like biztravel.com, travelocity.com and expedia.com can serve as a good trip planning resource for reps in companies of all sizes.

These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the types of tools and services smaller firms can use to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their sales and marketing groups without having to hire hordes of IT staff or spend millions of dollars. More importantly, today's sales professionals are increasingly considering the types of support services an employer provides when making job choice decisions. If you don't start to leverage some of these technologies, you may find yourself at a severe disadvantage in terms of attracting and retaining good talent. So if you have been thinking that CRM isn't for you, think again. Tools that you can use are out there if you take the time to look.

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