Customer Relationship Management (CRM): What businesses need to know

For the vast majority of organisations, customers should be the number one priority. Without their support, revenue streams dry up and businesses quickly fail.

For small businesses that have a face-to-face relationship with their clients keeping them happy is straightforward, but in larger organisations ensuring that the relationship between business and customer is as positive as it can be is not always easy. Imagine being in charge of a global, multi-national company with thousands of customers in disparate locations. Each of these customers has their own specific needs and businesses can’t afford to treat them all as a single homogeneous entity. At the other end of the scale, even growing businesses can struggle to manage their customer relationships because of limited resources.

Fortunately, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is on hand to help businesses of all sizes and across a wide range of industries. CRM software will vary depending on developer and can be customised to suit particular business needs, but generally speaking, it is used by businesses to organise, manage and process different aspects of their customer interactions. This could relate to a whole range of business processes, including marketing, sales or customer support. The aim of Customer Relationship Management tools is to bring greater efficiency to business-customer exchanges, which means that employees can be more productive and consumers can receive a better service.

The key features

One of the most important aspects of CRM software is the ability to easily identify individual customers amongst many. This could take the form of a dashboard containing all relevant information pertaining to a particular customer, such as relevant contact information. In addition, this interface often contains a detailed history of all previous interactions between the business and the customer. This enables staff to quickly identify not only prior sales, but also any other correspondences between the two parties. Today, customer interactions may take place via telephone, email, social media or smartphone apps, but this fragmentation can be difficult to manage. CRM collates all this information so employees can deliver a service that is personal and up-to-date. It can be integrated with connectivity systems so that, for example, when a customer phones in their details are automatically displayed on the screen of the sales person or service operative who answers.

Customer Relationship Management software can also deliver even more automated features, which enable your employees to spend time on other business processes. Virtual agents, for example, are often included in CRM software and can help resolve customer issues without human intervention. It is important to note that these artificial intelligence bots are subject to rigorous testing before interacting with customers to ensure the best possible results. They are also often given a human avatar in order to put the customer at ease. In addition, more advanced virtual agents now employ machine learning to improve performance based on previous behaviours. However, CRM is not about fobbing customers off by sending them to a virtual agent and if the issue cannot be solved, a human agent will step in. However, by reducing the amount of man hours required to solve minor problems, virtual agents have proven an effective tool in many CRM packages.

Other facets of the customer relationship can also be automated by Customer Relationship Management software. Marketing automation, for example, can help turn sales leads into fully-fledged customers without employees getting bogged down in repetitive tasks. When an individual expresses an interest in a product or service, they will be entered into the CRM database and then relevant marketing materials can be sent to them automatically, based on their observed behaviour. This could be via email, social media or any other communication method that the customer has agreed to be contacted through. What’s more, by tracking all communication between the business and consumers, CRM can prevent duplicate communications from being sent, cutting waste and ensuring the customer isn't overwhelmed.

On-premise or cloud

For organisations that are looking to embrace CRM, it is important to realise that there are two main ways of implementing the software: on-premise or via the cloud. With on-premise CRM, businesses are tasked with administering, updating and securing their software themselves. They will need to pay a one-off up-front cost for their CRM tools and they will need their own server and network infrastructure in order to store the vast quantities of data associated with Customer Relationship Management. Cloud-based CRM, however, means that a third-party vendor will store the software and associated data on an external server and supply it to the business over a network connection, also known as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). The entire back-end is managed by the cloud supplier in exchange for a monthly subscription fee, so companies do not need to worry about updates or maintenance.

The current business trend is heavily weighted in favour of cloud deployments, but there could still be instances where an on-premise solution is more suitable. Security and compatibility issues could arise with cloud-based CRM and some organisations may prefer to have the added control of owning their own software. This is particularly true where there may be compliance and regulatory issues, such as with financial or healthcare information. On the other hand, smaller businesses may find that outsourcing their CRM is a much more cost-effective approach. In 2008, just 12 per cent of businesses using CRM stored their software in the cloud, but this figure had risen to 87 per cent by 2015. Some of the most prominent CRM vendors include Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce and Oracle, but businesses should investigate all options before committing to a specific Customer Relationship Management package.

Predicting the future

CRM software can help businesses stay on top of past customer interactions, but where it really comes into its own is by helping them plan for the future. By combining Customer Relationship Management data with analytics, companies can use the huge amount of details at their disposal regarding past sales and enquiries to generate predictions on future sales trends. This predictive modelling can tell businesses the probability of each individual customer buying a particular product or service as well as the times and places they're most likely to buy. Ultimately, this can enable businesses to deploy more targeted marketing campaigns and generate increased sales revenue while minimising wasted effort.

Customer Relationship Management software is about recognising the changing ways in which customers and businesses interact. Keeping track of email, telephone, social media and application-based correspondences is becoming increasingly difficult and the amount of data associated with this is only going to increase in the future as Internet of Things devices contribute more information on consumer habits.

Customers, however, still expect the same high standards of service. Businesses that employ CRM tools can not only achieve this, but go one better – by delivering a truly personal, up-to-date service that takes into account all the information available and treats each customer as an individual human being. Furthermore by integration of CRM and enterprise resource planning the efficiency of the whole enterprise can be boosted.

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