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.
The value of a CRM
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.
Your most important asset is your customers, and there's more to them than their contact details. Here's a brief list of other things you want to track about each client:
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)
CRM stands for customer relationship management, and CRM software does exactly that: it manages your relationship with each of your customers and gives you access to all this valuable information in one centralized place. This way, everyone on your team can understand each customer and the status of your relationship with them.
This should have been a no-brainer for me: ditch the planner/spreadsheet combo and convert to a CRM tool. But I was hesitant. Not because I didn't believe in the technology but for reasons probably shared by other small businesses in the same boat as I was.
Why some small businesses resist adopting a CRM
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.
Resistance to change
Some businesses manage just fine without a CRM. No need to fix what's not broken. But here's the thing: it will break eventually. And in the meantime, it's an opportunity cost.
I managed for two years on a basic spreadsheet, but as my business grew, the cracks emerged. A bigger team and more customers will highlight all the parts of the business that don't run smoothly—in this case, because the business owner has failed to change systems and processes to accommodate growth. That was the case for me.
Lack of 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.
Fear of new tools
I'd snooped on my competitor, a big franchise. 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.
What not having a CRM could cost
Using a basic spreadsheet as a database meant I was losing out on valuable information. Here are a few opportunities we were missing out on and problems we were running into.
We didn't know who our customers were. We had their basic demographics, but we didn't know how they found us, why they chose us, or what they thought about our service. We also struggled to identify who our best customers were, in terms of the value and frequency of transactions.
We wasted time on repetitive tasks and allowed for human error. Not only did we spend time doing something a computer could do for us, but we also let things slip through the cracks, forgetting to send reminders for bookings or follow up with clients.
Our marketing was generic. We sent mass, generic campaigns instead of sending customers personalized messaging based on their preferences and interactions with our business. We couldn't even add extra touches like sending them personalized birthday messages to make them feel valued because it was too much effort to do it manually.
Communication was clunky. Customers would receive several calls from different members of the team and would have to repeat themselves over and over again. And because we communicated in all different places—from WhatsApp and SMS messages to DMs, phone calls, and emails—we couldn't keep track of everything in a spreadsheet. Some members of the team would take mental notes, others Post-it notes in the daily planner next to client appointments. There was no uniform way of doing things. It was a hot mess.
Customers were slipping through the cracks. As the number of clients grew, it became difficult to keep up with everyone. We could go for months without reaching out to customers. Some customers simply stopped coming without us realizing—until it was too late. And we didn't know why.
Staff could take customer information with them. Sometimes customers would contact staff on their phones, and if that employee left, they would leave with customer contacts in their phones—just like Michael did with the Rolodex. We lost a lot of business this way.
Our strategies weren't backed by data. Our decision-making was based on assumptions from the very little information we had. With incomplete data and inaccurate reports, our strategies were usually flawed.
The benefits of a CRM
Sense prevailed: 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. The benefits are too many to name, but here are a few things we were able to do with a CRM in place.
Segment our customers. We were able to segment our customers and personalize campaigns with better targeting and messaging to appeal to our "ideal customers." This, in turn, attracted more of our ideal clients, which increased our revenue.
Personalize our communication. It was more than just "Hello [name]." It was that we could see their last communication with anyone on our team and take it from there. We could recommend appropriate products and upsells, or other content that was relevant to their interests at the right time. Our customers felt seen and heard, which led to an improved customer experience.
Generate reports. We were able to better understand our performance as a business and make better decisions based on accurate data. We were no longer just guessing and making assumptions.
Automate repetitive tasks. We automatically sent personalized welcome messages and booking reminders, backed up data to other services, and followed up with clients. CRMs are ripe for automation, which allows you to focus on growing your business, not running it.
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 they'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. Also 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.
Implementing 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 once you've picked one.
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. For example, you might automatically add new contacts when documents are completed or leads come in, or add new CRM contacts to your email marketing tool or project management app. Here are a few examples of pre-made workflows from Zapier, but you can connect your CRM to thousands of other apps.
Zapier lets you automatically send information from one app to another, helping you reduce manual tasks. Learn more about how Zapier works.
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. My guess? It will—and it might just be the difference between removing yourself from your business or being trapped in it.