A closer look at how to choose your CRM software

Nothing beats a well-tuned CRM (customer relationship management) system for optimising a company's sales process. There was a time when CRM was the preserve of the enterprise, but these days even businesses with as few as 10 employees can benefit from a CRM system.

But what exactly is CRM? For those unfamiliar with the subject, Clint Oram, one of the three co-founders of SugarCRM, offered up a tidy explanation of how the systems work.

Everyone has CRM

"Every business already has a CRM system – though the owners may not realise it, or think of it as such," Oram said. "It could be pen-and-paper-based, or it could be data locked in a spreadsheet or some email folders. Either way, businesses are already tracking customers in some way."

Tracking customer information in a spreadsheet, for example, may sound reasonable, as you could simply put the spreadsheet on a server and then let everyone modify it. In practice, however, it doesn't work. As sales personnel make deals in email messages, trade phone calls, or otherwise hurry to close accounts or track support issues, the spreadsheet falls out of date very quickly. Once that happens, fewer people will update it. Soon, it becomes useless.

CRM: Managed, defined, optimised

Oram explained that CRM software helps businesses move from that "manual" stage, to what SugarCRM calls a "managed" stage. That means repeatable sales processes, a source of shared data, and some basic measurement and data visibility that lets salespeople figure out who existing customers are, and how to close sales with new ones.

After that, two more stages occur. "Defined," in which growing businesses (say, from 3-5 employees to 15-50 employees) invest more, automate more processes, scale and share knowledge, and measure data more closely, in order to interact with customers more consistently. There's also an "optimised" stage, which means that the business is laser-focused on responding to customers as quickly as humanly possible, using both integrated and scalable CRM systems.

Which CRM system?

So, what CRM systems would we recommend? Well, we’ve already mentioned SugarCRM, and that’s a good port of call. SugarCRM offers a well-designed, highly extensible, on-demand CRM system for anyone not afraid of getting under the bonnet and tinkering.

Of course, the biggest name in CRM is Salesforce.com. This firm continues to lead in the CRM space, with a robust series of offerings geared towards SMBs as well as larger companies – just be prepared to pay up.

Finally, Zoho Professional CRM offers a comprehensive cloud-based system for everything – not just CRM, but document creation, presentations, email, invoices, and more. There's nothing terribly wrong with Zoho's approach, other than the fact that to get the most out of it, you need to spend plenty of time setting it up. It gets the job done well on the cheap, though, if you’re prepared to put in the effort.