Customer Relationship Management Software Overview

What Is Customer Relationship Management (CRM)?

Customer relationship management can refer to both a business strategy and a software system. The CRM philosophy assumes that the best way for an organization to increase sales and profitability is by focusing on relationships with customers. This customer-centric view can help businesses better understand and address customer needs and wants, thus optimizing the sales cycle and improving customer conversion, satisfaction, retention, and loyalty.

What Is Customer Relationship Management Software?

A critical part of a CRM strategy involves providing a seamless customer experience and presenting a unified face to the customer. Most businesses enlist the help of technology to track, automate, analyze, and optimize customer interactions throughout the sales lifecycle, from prospect to lead to purchase to renewal or upsell.

The technology can help unify and coordinate all customer-facing functions, including sales, marketing and customer service, and should provide a single source of truth for all customer data. Because it touches all customer-facing functions, CRM software is essentially a technology system that helps businesses identify, nurture, convert and retain customers

Common Capabilities of CRM Software

CRM software began as contact management software, allowing for efficient storage and access to customer contact data. It evolved into sales force automation software, which in addition to contact management, helped to automate certain business tasks, thus improving employee efficiency and providing a more consistent sales process. Sales force automation software then evolved and expanded into the CRM software of today, which includes several feature sets and involves multiple business functions.

Customer data management

CRM software is designed to compile and organize customer data, including interactions across multiple business units and multiple channels, such as email, telephone, live chat, social media, and direct mail. Having a unified repository for customer data is critical in providing a seamless customer experience. For example, if a customer has just interacted with customer support because of a critical product bug, a sales rep needs to factor that experience into a renewal outreach. On the positive side, a salesperson can use interaction histories to better tailor an upsell pitch.

CRM features related to customer data management include:

  • Ability to find and merge duplicate contacts
  • Ability to upload/import contacts from a previous system
  • Auto-population of fields
  • Interaction logging and tracking
  • Integration with email clients (e.g., Outlook and Gmail)
  • Integration with social profile data and interaction histories

Sales force automation

Sales force automation involves streamlining many of the tasks involved in the sales process. Tasks that might be automated include sending emails, creating price quotes, tracking opportunities, updating contact information, and sales forecasting and reporting. Other tasks involved in sales force automation might include processing orders, monitoring inventory, and evaluating employee performance, though those functionalities are more likely to exist by integrating the CRM with other software products such as accounting, ERP, and HR systems.

Sales force automation can help increase employee efficiency, as well as standardize (and optimize) the sales process.

CRM features related to sales force automation include:

  • Workflow automation
  • Territory management
  • Quota management
  • Opportunity management
  • Sales forecasting
  • Pipeline visualization
  • Sales reporting
  • Activity management and logging
  • Contract management
  • Product & price list management
  • Quote management
  • Order management (through integration with accounting software)
  • Calendar management
  • Interaction tracking
  • Channel / partner relationship management

Marketing automation

Marketing automation involves streamlining certain marketing processes, allowing marketers to provide prospects with a more targeted, personalized experience at scale. Many organizations use a standalone marketing automation software product such as HubSpot or Marketo, often integrating it with their CRM system; however, many CRM systems provide some basic marketing automation functionalities.

CRM features related to marketing automation include:

  • Email marketing & triggered emails
  • List management
  • Lead management, including lead generation, scoring, qualification, routing and nurturing
  • Creation and customization of landing pages & web forms
  • Event marketing
  • Marketing analytics

Customer service & support

This component of CRM software helps automate and streamline customer service activities, such as help desk, call center and field service management. As with marketing automation, some companies use standalone software solutions for these capabilities such as Zendesk or Desk.com, often integrating them into the CRM system; however, CRM software also provides some of this functionality.

CRM features related to customer service & support include:

  • Ticketing
  • Knowledge base
  • Customer support portal
  • Case management
  • Live chat
  • Surveys
  • Call center management
  • Help desk management
  • Field service management
  • Support analytics

Project management

This component of CRM software helps users initiate, plan, collaborate on, execute, track and close projects. As with marketing automation and customer service, some companies use standalone software products for project management, such as Basecamp or Clarizen. However, some CRM software products also natively offer project management features. Some, such as WORK[etc], are more focused on project management.

CRM features related to project management include:

  • Time sheets
  • Task management
  • Billing and invoicing management
  • Social collaboration
  • Workflow and approval processes

Social CRM

This component of CRM software helps companies leverage social media channels in engaging with customers. It can involve both pulling data from social profiles for inclusion in the contact record, as well as facilitating engagement with customers via social channels. Again, the CRM system might offer some of these features natively, or integrate with standalone social media management software products. Some products specialize in Social CRM, such as Nimble.

CRM features related to social CRM include:

  • Social profile data integration
  • Social media interaction tracking
  • Social media monitoring
  • Sentiment tracking and analysis
  • Social media engagement

Collaboration

Because maintaining a unified face to the customer is a key component of the CRM strategy, many CRM software tools also facilitate internal collaboration among different users and business departments.

CRM features related to collaboration include:

  • Chat
  • Forums
  • Polls
  • Group discussions
  • Task assignments

Factors to Consider when Evaluating CRM Software

In addition to the above sets of capabilities, there are other factors to consider when selecting a CRM system.

On-premise vs. cloud

On-premise (technically, “on-premises”) software is installed and run on a company's own computers or servers. It typically involves an upfront purchase of the software and infrastructure, plus ongoing maintenance. Some potential advantages of an on-premise CRM software solution include enhanced security, more control over the data, more customization options, and offline access to data.

Traditionally, on-premise licensed software was the most common deployment model for CRM software products, but the cloud deployment model has become pervasive. This is also known as Software-as-a-Service, hosted, or on-demand software. In this case, the software vendor hosts all the data on its own servers, and the company rents the software, usually on a per-month/per-user basis. Users access and manipulate the data via web application. Typically, hosted CRM software involves lower upfront costs, less time to implement, and greater usability.

Hosted CRM software can be either single- or multi-tenant. Single-tenant means that each of the vendor's servers contains one organization's data. Multi-tenant means that computing resources (servers, databases, etc.) are shared among many different organizations. Multi-tenant software saves on hardware and energy costs and allows for greater backups and redundancy. However, the cost per API call tends to be higher for multi-tenant software, as a high volume of API calls from one organization affects the performance of the software for other “tenants.” Also, the data from a multi-tenant CRM solution might not be as easily transferable (when switching solutions) as with a single-tenant solution.

Reporting and analytics

The ability to turn data into insights is critical for a CRM system. Reporting and analytics should cover the various use cases of the CRM system, including sales, marketing and customer support. In general, the system should allow users to evaluate existing sales, marketing and support processes for the purposes of optimization. Reports and dashboards should be customizable.

There are also specialized reporting and analytics software products focused on sales, such as C9 or InsightSquared, which integrate with CRM systems.

Customization

This addresses an organization's ability to configure the CRM software to best fit its specific use cases and workflow. Factors that make a CRM system more customizable include the ability to create custom fields and custom objects, the existence of a scripting environment, and the availability of an API for custom integration.

Ease of integration with 3rd-party systems

Because CRM technology acts as a database for all customer information, it can be a central component of achieving and acting on a “360-degree view of the customer,” which is a key tenet to a customer-centric business strategy. Therefore, many organizations connect the CRM solution to other business technologies. For example, by sending CRM data into your marketing automation software, you can implement marketing campaigns that are more highly targeted and personalized. Importing data into the CRM tool can also be beneficial. For example, pulling in data from your web analytics tool can provide additional insights on each customer. Other integrations, such as CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP), might increase operational efficiency by connecting customers in the CRM to orders, invoices and payments in the ERP.

Systems that organizations might want to integrate with the CRM software include marketing automation, ERP, business intelligence, social media management, content management, web conferencing, billing, accounting, document signing, email marketing, help desk, e-commerce, and sales intelligence.

Usability

Lack of user adoption is often the biggest obstacle to achieving the benefits of CRM. If no one is inputting data, then the software is useless. Therefore, the usability of the CRM solution is a factor that cannot be ignored. It should be relatively easy and intuitive for sales representatives, customer service professionals, and business managers to input data, access data, and run reports. The more resistant team members are to the concept of CRM, the easier to use the software needs to be.

Security

Because CRM software is a repository for customer data, security is a concern for many organizations. Companies can help protect data integrity and privacy by using role-based authorization to give users access only to the data they need, and the ability to perform only the actions they need to perform. Multi-level authentication and single sign-on capability (a centralized authentication mechanism allowing the user to access multiple systems with a single, centrally managed password) also help reduce security risks.

Implementation cost / Ease of switching

Whether you're switching from another vendor, migrating from a homegrown solution, or you've been simply using spreadsheets, implementing CRM software can be resource intensive. It generally requires being very clear about your business processes, configuring the software to match those processes, and cleaning, organizing, and importing all of your data. As part of the TrustRadius review process, we ask end-users about their likelihood to continue using the software. One of the most common answers from CRM users is that, though they are unhappy with the product in some way, they will continue to renew because of the level of investment involved in setting up a CRM, and the difficulty of switching.

Scalability

Ideally, a CRM software product should be able to grow with your organization. If you're planning on growing, you'll probably need more storage space, more API calls, and more users. Your sales process might also change as you expand, so your CRM software should be both flexible and scalable.

Community

Many companies use a consultant or service provider to help implement a new CRM system and align it with business processes. One factor to consider is the availability of consultants or technical resources with expertise in the software, as well as the prevalence of online documentation and forums to provide further support.

A related factor is the availability of third-party apps, plug-ins and integrations, all of which help companies tailor their instance without a heavy reliance on technical resources.

Common Benefits of Using CRM Software

In general, CRM software (when implemented correctly and widely adopted) promises to increase profitability by increasing sales, improving customer satisfaction, and increasing operational and employee efficiency.

Revenue

Using a CRM can provide greater visibility into sales and marketing processes. This can help businesses optimize and shorten the sales cycle, increase customer retention, better take advantage of upselling and cross-selling opportunities, and increase sales force accountability.

Customer satisfaction

By maintaining one repository of customer data, organizations can better understand their customers, better address their needs, and provide a more seamless customer experience across different touch points. This can also help keep customers or sales tasks from slipping through the cracks.

Operational efficiency

By automating certain business processes and providing a single source of truth, CRM software can help increase operational and employee efficiency. Users can access the data they need without sending emails or spreadsheets back and forth. CRM software can also help create a more consistent sales cycle, and make the sales process person-independent. For example, when account managers leave the company, the company has access to customer interaction data and a substitute can easily pick up where the original account manager left off.

Pitfalls to Avoid when Implementing CRM Software

In order to provide the benefits listed above, CRM software much be implemented and used properly. Every organization is different; however, the following are some common mistakes that organizations make when initiating a CRM program.

Putting technology before business processes

CRM is no different than other software categories. Thinking that the technology is a silver bullet will get you nowhere. Most experts advise that organizations establish and implement business processes before even thinking about a technology solution. Once the business processes are in place, finding and implementing the right solution is much easier. Otherwise, you might overpay for a solution that provides unnecessary functionality, or spend valuable resources implementing the solution sub-optimally.

Neglecting to think about the end-users first

This dovetails with the usability issue mentioned above. You can't reap any benefits from a CRM system that no one uses. It's important to consider the needs and the workflow of the sales representatives, marketing and customer service professionals that will be inputting data into the system above all others. Those users should be the first to experience the benefits of using the system, in order to encourage adoption. Features that make data insertion easy – such as the ability to sync data through your email inbox, and mobile access to the CRM – can also help facilitate adoption.

Being too ambitious

Implementing CRM can be a timely and costly initiative. One of the easiest ways to have a program fail is to try to do everything from the get-go – i.e., integrate the CRM with all other existing systems at once or utilize the most advanced features. It's best to prioritize a couple of initiatives, implement them and start to see the value before tackling other areas. Such ‘quick wins’ can help with user adoption.

The flipside to this pitfall is that a siloed CRM program won't be as successful as an organization-wide one. There is a delicate balance between trying to take on too much and being too limited.

Disorganized data

Having clearly established business processes can help you avoid this pitfall. It's important to understand up front what kind of data needs to be collected, how it should be labeled and organized, and what the processes for updating or changing data are. This helps avoid problems like having multiple entries for the same entity. It's also important for your organization (and your software) to be flexible to change, because as your CRM program matures, you might discover data necessities that you didn't foresee. It's best to address these changes structurally rather than using manual work-arounds, which can lead to disorganized data down the road.