• October 4, 2019
  • By Brent Leary, cofounder and partner, CRM Essentials

How Can AI Help Small Businesses with CRM?

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Around this time for the past three years, I’ve posed a question to executives at a number of CRM vendors related to how small and midsize businesses are using CRM. In 2016 I asked why CRM adoption wasn’t higher. In 2017 I asked what SMBs really wanted from them. And last year I wondered which CRM features SMBs weren’t using fully.

This year I partnered with Small Business Trends, a popular site dedicated to providing advice and information to SMBs, on a poll asking people to select their biggest CRM challenges. More than 500 people responded, with the top two challenges being “too time-consuming to enter/maintain data” (46.5 percent) and “don’t know how it helps my business” (36.2 percent). With that in mind, and with the current technology focus on artificial intelligence (AI), I asked a number of CRM vendor executives how AI is addressing these challenges. Below, they share their views on how AI may help SMBs finally get what they want from CRM.


The vendors agree that the combination of AI and automation has already begun addressing the biggest challenge cited: manual, time-consuming data entry and maintenance. Andy Pitre, vice president of product and customer data at HubSpot, says sales and support people may interact with 50 prospects or customers a day. “Even if entering data into a CRM only takes five minutes, multiply that by 50 and it’s hours of extra work. So CRM needs to add value for those on the front lines. That means integrating with messaging tools like email, chat, and calling, and the hundreds of tools and systems used by sales, services, and marketers.”

Fortune Alexander, senior director of CX product strategy at Oracle, says that SMBs can use AI to keep their data clean so it can deliver on its promise. “No clean data equals no AI benefits after all. SMBs can also use prebuilt AI applications to create, cleanse, enrich, and structure data that can then provide intelligent recommendations.” Shawna Wolverton, senior vice president of product management at Zendesk, adds that “no customer enjoys the tedious task of entering data into forums. With AI-powered conversational bots, the submission process is more intuitive and seamless for both the customer and business.”

Dina Apostolou, director of product marketing for Microsoft Dynamics 365, says traditional CRM was geared towards capturing, tracking, and maintaining data. But AI adds another dimension that provides more direct incentives for people to use. She notes that Dynamics CRM is “designed to help sellers with AI to streamline work and free up sellers from time-consuming, routine tasks like data entry and tracking email communications.”


The combination of AI and automation has the dual impact of decreasing the amount of manual data entry while helping to provide timely insights that can improve close rates. David Thompson, chief marketing officer at Freshworks, gets right to the point: Salespeople don’t like doing data entry, and their managers want them working on the deals most likely to close. He says the company uses its own AI, called Freddy, in its sales process. “It helps our salespeople close deals faster and with more predictability. AI is integrated across the product, saving salespeople time by automating data entry and bringing the hottest leads and deals to the top of their attention so they can drive more revenue.”

Raju Vegesna, chief evangelist at Zoho, illustrates how the convergence of AI and automation can assist agents in providing better experiences for customers in real time. “Let’s say you receive a phone call from a random number; the system can auto-detect that it is a customer/prospect calling and provide additional contextual information before the call is picked up. For something like this to work, the system has to know all the activity across the board and analyze it dynamically and offer suggestions to the user. Making sense of vast amounts of data is something AI is good at.”

Katherine Kostereva, CEO and managing partner at bpm’online, says AI built into CRM can be used for a broad range of functions. “For example, AI scores prospects and offers the best possible sequence of steps for sales and marketing to turn cold leads into opportunities. It also spots key words in emails to the service team and then automatically prioritizes them. In other words, AI does exactly what it is supposed to—automates tasks and makes predictions, thus lowering mistakes and bias.”

And Vegesna notes another way in which AI can help change the perception of CRM being difficult or time-consuming to use: enabling voice control. “Conversational AI, like our own Zia Voice, can help business users interact with their system without manual work. Asking the system something like ‘How many deals do I have to close to achieve my quarterly target?’ can get you the answer in seconds without any need for typing.”

It’s safe to say that SMBs are looking for ways to improve their ability to efficiently and cost-effectively find, catch, and keep good customers—and they always will. It’s equally safe to say that, according to the folks who answered our poll question, CRM still has big perception issues, with many continuing to question what direct benefits it offers, and if those benefits outweigh the effort needed to realize them. But it does feel as though there are good answers to these challenges as AI and automation have made their way into CRM applications. And while it’s most likely due to the nonstop hype surrounding it, SMBs are open to seeing how AI can help them be more successful.

In fact, Marie Rosecrans, senior vice president of SMB marketing at Salesforce.com, cites Salesforce research that indicates AI has become a competitive advantage for growing companies, and that nearly half (46 percent) of the SMB owners they’ve surveyed believe their businesses are ready to use it.

Lars Helgeson, CEO of GreenRope, sums up why this era of CRM may finally deliver to the people the systems they’ve always wanted. “The poll question highlights the importance of integration and automation, as it directly addresses CRM users’ greatest pain point—time. Busy sales professionals need to focus their energy on what humans do best, which is interpersonal communication. Businesses that leverage a strategic, AI-assisted, integrated approach to CRM with automation help their greatest asset: their people.” 

Brent Leary is cofounder of CRM Essentials, an Atlanta-based advisory firm focused on small and midsize businesses. He is also the author of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Businesses.

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