When I ran my nail bar, I used to write down my client bookings in a daily planner, which also served as my to-do list. I'd then confirm each booking with a manual text, hoping they wouldn't forget. This was followed by a call closer to the booking date, to avoid last-minute no-shows (which still occurred periodically despite my best efforts). For clients that did show up, I transferred their details from the appointment book into an Excel spreadsheet that collected dust the rest of the time.
This admittedly archaic way of doing things worked well—until it didn't. After running my business this way for two years, I realized a few things:
I was leaving a ton of money on the table by not understanding the value of the information in that dusty spreadsheet (which was my database).
I was wasting time performing manual, repetitive tasks in the booking process, instead of focusing on growing the business.
I was missing opportunities to build relationships with my clients and create memorable experiences for them.
This was enough to give me sleepless nights, so I went to a competitor—as a customer—to see if everyone else was having the same problem. (They weren't.) Not only was their booking process seamless, but they also remembered everything about me from the last time I booked with them—including my choice of tea while I waited.
The explanation behind this sorcery? They had successfully implemented customer relationship management (CRM) software.
What does a CRM do?
When Michael Scott starts his own paper company on The Office, the most important thing he takes with him is a Rolodex with all of his clients' information. But he doesn't just keep contact info in there: he has all sorts of details (sometimes a little too many) that help him create a strong relationship with each of them.
A customer relationship management platform, or CRM, is designed to manage your relationship with each of your customers by storing, organizing, and updating all of this valuable information in one centralized database.
Some other things you may want to keep track of about your clients:
Their purchase history
The value of their purchases
The frequency of their purchases
A history of their communication with you
Their suggestions and feedback about your business
Their personal preferences (including, uh, notes on which tea they like)
And unlike a Rolodex, a CRM is secure, can be accessed by many people in different places, and (if you set it up correctly) can import and update customer data automatically.
Benefits of using a CRM
Comparing a CRM to a manually-built spreadsheet or physical Rolodex is like asking what a computer can do that a notebook can't. When I bit the bullet and decided to get a CRM, it turned out to be the best decision I had ever made for my business.
Get to know your customers
You may have your customers' basic demographics, but a CRM can track every interaction: how each customer found you, what they thought of their service, and what made them choose your business to begin with. With this rich set of data, you can clearly identify who your best customers are and measure the value and frequency of their transactions.
Save time on repetitive tasks and correcting human errors
Doing things by hand means you'll find yourself doing a lot of things that a computer could do for you, like updating files and sending notifications. A CRM can take care of all of that for you, which saves time and makes sure that reminders and follow-ups aren't forgotten.
Avoid generic marketing campaigns
The main feature of a CRM is its ability to collect and organize massive amounts of information about your customers instead of just the basic demographic and contact information. With all of this data at your fingertips, you can segment and personalize your marketing in ways that would have taken far too much time to do manually.
Before we adopted a CRM, we couldn't even add extra touches like sending clients personalized birthday messages to make them feel valued because we didn't have the time to do it manually.
Fix clunky communication
You probably don't communicate with customers using just one channel. When you're in touch with clients via WhatsApp, SMS, DMs, phone calls, and emails, it's hard to keep track of who called, when, about what, and whether they need a call back.
The result is unhappy customers who either receive multiple messages from different members of the team about the same thing or who never hear from you with the follow-up they asked for. A CRM keeps one neat record of communications with each customer, all in one place where everyone on the team can access it.
Prevent customers from slipping through the cracks
As your clientele grows, manual recordkeeping will become impossible to keep up with. Prior to using a CRM, we could go for months without reaching out to customers. Some customers simply stopped coming without us realizing—until it was too late.
Grant access to entire teams
If a customer corresponds via email with an employee who then leaves the company, you're going to lose that customer's contact information entirely. Consolidating contact information in a central database ensures that no one person is holding any valuable information.
Stop relying on guesswork
Without a system to collect customer data, any improvements or fixes you implement are little more than guesses. A CRM's generated reports allow you to track metrics, identify trends, and see the direct impacts of changes you may make.
How to choose a CRM for your business
Picking a CRM can be intimidating—there are so many options out there. Zapier has written about how to pick a CRM, and we've also narrowed down your options with some "best CRM" lists:
The most important thing is that, to maximize your investment, you need to understand what business challenges you have and how the CRM will solve them. This means auditing your current processes and evaluating how improving them will help you reach your goals. Consider existing systems you may be using and how you want the CRM to work with them. And think about how many people will be using the system and who will be responsible for implementing and training everyone.
Use all this information to create a checklist with the requirements that your CRM should be able to meet—at minimum. Then you'll be able to compare features and prices, read reviews, and ask for references to confirm that your choices are solid.
Once you've made your choice, take advantage of the free trial. This is an excellent opportunity to see its capabilities and how user-friendly and intuitive the interface is. You'll also see first-hand how well it matches or improves your processes. During the trial period, engage with the support team. If they have quick turnaround times and help you figure things out quickly and easily, then you have an idea of what working with them will be like down the road.
Why it's worth investing in your CRM strategy
It saves money (and you can try it first to make sure)
The first thing I thought of when considering adopting a new CRM was what it would cost me. I was already on a shoestring budget, and the thought of adding more expenses was cause for anxiety. And yes, as you scale, a CRM will need to be factored into your budget, but there are actually free CRMs that you can start with to see how much value it's adding to your business.
For most businesses who work directly with customers, the value that a CRM adds will more than cover the cost of implementing the platform. Automating little tasks saves you time, so you can dedicate more attention to fixing, improving, and enhancing other parts of your business. And with better and more organized customer data, you can focus 100% of your attention on the customers who are most likely to make a purchase.
It saves time
New systems require time to learn. I knew I would need time (which I didn't have) to implement the CRM, learn how to use it, and then train my staff. Plus, I'd have to migrate all my data from the spreadsheet to the CRM.
But the CRM is what would free up my time in the long run. Having a clear understanding of the onboarding process helped me know what to expect—and what support was available to me as I ramped up. Some vendors have external consultants that will help set up the CRM for you and train your team, depending on your budget.
There are lots of options to fit your needs
The competitor I chose to snoop on was a big franchise, so naturally, the system they were using was complicated. But most CRM tools have different tiers depending on the size of your business and the features you'll need. The packages are designed to help you start small and can scale with your business as it grows.
Making decisions that required drastic changes, like systematizing workflows, wasn't easy for me. Not only was it intimidating, but I also knew there would be resistance from my staff—they were used to doing things a certain way. But the alternative of sticking to the status quo was no longer an option. The opportunity cost of not switching was too high.
How to implement your CRM
It's one thing to adopt a CRM—it's another to implement it. Here are a few tips for how to get the most out of your CRM:
Get buy-in and train your team
One of the reasons CRM tools fail to give a return on investment is because they don't get used—that's why you need to get buy-in from everyone by involving them from the start. Allow them to voice any concerns, and explain how the CRM will benefit them, the clients, and the business. Take the time to eliminate any misconceptions about the intentions behind the new CRM.
And remember: training should be ongoing—don't try to do it all in one go. When I implemented our CRM, I phased the training over two months to help everyone build confidence with the software.
Create standard operating procedures and automate
Everyone needs to use the system the same way for the same task every time. If the data entered is inconsistent, the reports won't be accurate and it will impair your ability to make informed decisions.
Make sure to document your processes so that everyone knows where to go for information. This will also help you figure out what parts of your CRM process you can automate to eliminate repetitive tasks and remove the potential for human error.
Offer incentives for adopting the new platform
Once everyone was on board and knew how to use the CRM, I gave each team member milestones to reach for the number of tasks successfully completed on the system. When the entire team hit their milestones, they could look forward to a team lunch at their favorite restaurant. This encouraged everyone to work together to reach those goals and made the transition less painful.
The value of systematizing your business
If you're bootstrapping like I was, and thinking that it's easier to put off using proper systems until your business grows, you may be losing out on the very growth you seek. Using a CRM helped me refine my key business processes and add more structure to my business. As a result, I saved time and made more money. In the long term, I ended up building a scalable business that was ready for growth—and I was able to delight my customers in the process.
Implementing a CRM is part of developing a customer-led growth strategy, which involves building and strengthening customer relationships. As with any strategy, you'll want to set measurable goals to be sure the CRM is doing what you expected it to do. It probably will—and it might just be the difference between removing yourself from your business or being trapped in it.
This article was originally published in February 2021 and has since been updated with more tips.