For the past 10 years or so, the world has seen the emergence of a new kind of business. That which does not require an actual retail location, office, or much of anything. Entirely online businesses have been a solid trend for good reason. They are far less expensive to set up and maintain. Further, the potential customer/client demographic is worldwide. Regardless, a business is a business, and even an online one has lots of the same issues as a traditional “brick and mortar” business. There are numerous administrative, financial, logistic, and customer service issues that always need to be dealt with.
Most new online businesses are small operations, with little budget, often slim previous experience, and high hopes. Many fail not for lack of a good idea, but for lack of administration and financial outlook. A typical example is the business that gets lots of customers, makes lots of sales, and does not have the ability to fulfill each order, deal with customer service issues, and respond to anything in a timely manner. Why? Because they were not prepared. They did not have the staff to deal with all the issues that are easily foreseeable. In a sense, it is getting too many customers that kills a good deal of businesses.
There is no one solution to this problem, but an excellent one is having a good infrastructure in place to deal with customer relations before operations begin in full force. This will allow you to more or less automate many processes (such as sending e-mails), and in crease efficiency and organization; you don’t want too much falling through the cracks. Never try to reinvent the wheel, but go with a commercial CRM (customer relationship management) solution. There are at least two big players in this market, and many smaller ones. You will have to balance the sophistication of the product, with the price, and ease of implementation when making a decision.
A CRM essentially is an application (mostly web-delivered although GoldMine is still software based), that allows you to do so many thing, no simple description will suffice. They allow you to interact with customers in many ways. First by having customer profiles, and then indexing them, sending you alerts, automated e-mails, and so much more. They also track business profits, schedules, and deadlines. Think of a CRM as a glorified cyber-secretary. In stead of training a secretary, you need to customize or otherwise properly configure the CRM to your needs. The biggest hurdle is always going to be initial configuration in terms of complexity for you, and time spent.
Costs are usually reasonable for CRM solutions. Some are free, but free versions offer very limited functionality and want you to use their business solutions which are not free. Pricing is done per a user (user in your business, not customers) per a month. Some CRM providers offer consulting and implementation services as well. There is usually a high cost to use their in-house integration services, so it is recommended that you spend a little bit of time using an out-side provider to help implement the CRM you choose.
The most popular CRM solutions are web-based, meaning you access them on your internet browsers. The most popular enterprise solutions are Salesforce.com and the open-source and less expensive SugarCRM. A new and interesting player is Etelos CRM, which has an innovative manner of integrating with Google and other existing web applications and portals. Further, NetSuite CRM is a known player in the CRM for small business arena and is worth looking at. Before making a decision on using any CRM solution, it is wise to see how the others compare, and there are many!
The success of a CRM is linked to the time spent in implementing it. The best ones making setting up the CRM and integration simple and intuitive. Most people, given the time, can not only easily use a CRM, but also customize and configure it properly. The reward is a vastly more efficient business operation, increased productivity, and an amazing insight into all that is transacting within the business.