The 3 Most Asked Questions About CRM by Small Business Owners

Brent Leary explains CRMEditor’s Note: I am very pleased to introduce Brent Leary, who joins us as a featured expert. CRM is a term you hear more regularly today. But many business owners have only the fuzziest idea what it is. Brent helps us cut through the clutter.

By Brent Leary

The three questions I get asked most by small business owners about customer relationship management (CRM) are:

  • What is it?
  • Is it right for my business?
  • Which solution should I get?

What is CRM?

Although creating a plan for implementing CRM takes some time and effort to put together, defining CRM at a high level is pretty straightforward.  In fact, everybody’s doing it!  As I write this, doing a Google search on the term “What is CRM” returns over 238,000 links.  At the beginning of the year when I did this “only” 184,000 links were listed.  So more and more people are making their definitions public.

And there are almost as many unique definitions for CRM as there are links returned. However, most formal definitions of CRM typically include the integration of people, process, and technology to maximize relationships and provide seamless coordination between all customer-facing functions.

But let’s drop the formalities and just say that CRM is nothing more than how your company plans to find, catch and keep good customers.

Now chances are you will need some form of technology to help you execute that plan, and the plan will take the right folks (employees, customers, partners and management) being involved to formulate it. But that’s really what CRM is in a nutshell.

Is CRM right for my business?

I believe there are a few basic things a company needs to consider before grabbing the corporate card and heading to Best Buy or CompUSA.

First, if you are happy with how your business is running today then you’re probably not motivated enough to implement CRM.  Most companies turn to CRM to fix something that’s bugging them, like losing customers, not finding enough good leads or wasting too much time with suspects instead of real prospects.  So if you’re happy with the status quo, you probably aren’t properly motivated to make changes that CRM no doubt will require you to put in place.

Second, if you consider CRM just to be another app to pick up at Office Depot like QuickBooks, you are definitely not ready.  Most people still believe that CRM is just software, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  CRM is truly integral to the way your business relates to people in order to turn prospects into loyal customers.  So it’s all about humans working together while using technology to make it easier for them to understand each other’s needs in order to find win-win solutions. And yes that’s why I bolded the word plan up above – to emphasize that it’s more about planning and strategy than technology. So step away from the check book if you think software alone will do this.  You’ll be sadly disappointed if you buy before getting the right people together to really analyze the situation.

Finally, consider what kind of relationship you wish to have with your customers.  Is it enough for you to be considered a vendor to those you call customers, or do you wish to be viewed as a partner, or advocate?  If you really want your customers for the long term than you must make it apparent to them that you truly understand, and value, their business.  This means you must find ways to maximize time spent understanding what is important to them, which is almost impossible if you’re spending the majority of your time trying to find new customers, determine suspects from prospects, putting out fires, etc.  So if you’re looking to morph into a partner from a vendor, than you’re ready to build and implement a CRM strategy to help you automate those time consuming routine processes mentioned above, freeing you up to build better relationships with your top customers.

Which CRM should I get?

With so many CRM solutions available on the market with different features sets and deliveries it’s impossible to say that one is better than the other for each and every business.  That’s why it’s important for a company to determine ahead of time what their specific needs are and then start the selection process.  At a high level, though, there are a few things every small business needs to think about when putting the bucks down on a CRM solution.

  • Affordability — Price is the obvious thing here as you can only use what you can afford. But make sure you include customer support costs, implementation costs and training costs and not just the cost of using (or buying) the software. And if you’re going the software-as-a-service (SaaS) route made popular by and NetSuite among others, make sure you understand the contract terms. Most of these kind of services are trying to lock you in for a year or two. There are vendors like Entellium who do not require a long term contract which does make it easier for you to take the plunge without long-term regrets. And there are offers like Zoho CRM which lets the first three company users access their service free of charge. So in addition to the price make sure you check into the things like how long you’ll be on the hook for the service.
  • Functionality — When you’ve taken the time up front to identify what your issues are, when it comes to finding, catching and keeping good customers, you should have a pretty good handle on what functionality you’ll need.  For example if you’re trying to use the web to generate and qualify more leads you’ll probably want to look for a solution that easily integrates with your website. Or if you’re looking to improve service to customers by offering self-service portals with more access to important information you may want to check out more service-oriented offerings like Right Now and Parature. And if integrating ERP, accounting and Web e-commerce with your customer acquisition efforts is important then maybe NetSuite will suit your needs best. It really depends on what challenges your company is trying to solve. Figure out your “need to haves” and your “nice to haves.”  Then look at which offerings meet your needs the best.
  • Usability — The best software in the world is worthless if people don’t use it. And CRM software is no different. So it’s ridiculously important to make sure whatever system you decide on is going to be as easy to use as possible. It should make it easier to get things done. If possible it should allow people to use it right along with the other important software they use to get their work done. If your company is a big user of Microsoft Outlook, then your CRM solution should work with (or within) Outlook. It should be easy to enter data, access it, analyze it and then quickly perform tasks like shooting out email campaigns or tracking the status of deals being worked. Also if you’re a company on the go (literally) and spend a good amount of time out of the office it may be critical to have access from mobile devices, or use while offline. Look for whatever will make it quick and easy for people to jump on board and begin using.
  • Compatibility — Now compatibility can mean a lot of things, but I’m referring to vendor compatibility. There are a ton of CRM providers out there and it seems every day a new one springs up. But it’s really important to make sure you understand that when you buy a CRM package (or service) you are really buying the vendor. Especially when you’re going the SaaS route as they are managing everything about the application, including your data.  So it’s imperative for you to feel great about the company and how they will work with you. How long have they been around?  Are they financially secure?  Do they have the infrastructure in place to make sure your data is secure and will survive a catastrophe?And more and more, are these guys really serious about serving small businesses? This is important as I’m hearing more horror stories from small businesses that feel they are not being treated the way they thought they would be by the more established players in the market. That’s probably because many larger enterprises are now using on demand CRM services from the likes of, with users numbering in the thousands. So when you’re looking at 5 users, you want a company that’s going to treat you like you’re every bit as important to them as if you were a 5,000 user company. Not being able to get someone on the phone because you’re a small guy will not work.  Saying they service the SMB community but really meaning the “M” and not the “S” will not work. So really factor in the company’s track record with respect to serving small business. It’s just as important as the software they provide.

You can read more in my article for Certification magazine: Is CRM Right for Your Small Business?

Now a question for you:  if you know what CRM means to your company and feel that it can help you, how would you rank the four things mentioned above (affordability, functionality, usability and compatibility) in order of importance to you when shopping for a CRM solution?   Leave a comment below.

* * * * *

About the Author: Brent Leary is a Partner of CRM Essentials.  Brent also hosts Technology For Business $ake, a radio show in the Altanta, Georgia, USA area about using technology in business.


Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

14 Reactions
  1. Brent this is a very thorough and comprehensive post that will help many to really realize what CRM is, the purpose it serves and how it can assist you in your business.

    But to answer your question. . .I would have to rank them as such:

    I’d like to place affordability at the top of the list, however, when that becomes your sole deciding factor, many times you may end up with less than expected – so it’s being placed at the bottom with the more important factors ranking higher.

  2. We launched our business, Crestview Doors, in January, started taking orders in March, and by May we were overwhelmed with prospects and customers. We spent all summer researching the most appropriate CRM solution for our business.

    I put functionality at the top of the list. Ultimately, we chose, one of the more expensive solutions. In our case, we are an online business with no brick-and-mortar retail storefront, so our solution had to be able to capture leads online and it needed to have a campaign program that could integrate with Google AdWords. It also had to be scalable–because our business has grown at an average of about 225% each month this year.

    Of course, not all small business are e-retail like us, so this might not be the best product for everyone. But I have to say that it helped a great deal that we were able to test drive for 30 days before we purchased it.

    We also test drove two Entellium products, both Rave and e-Salesforce. Rave is a terrific entry-level product, but it didn’t feel scalable and we needed something that could capture web leads. e-SalesForce was more our speed, but it didn’t integrate with Google (the sales rep told me this feature is right around the corner for them). We also tried NetSuite, but it was geared towards larger enterprises, and we’re just not there yet. Again, we needed something that would seamlessly integrate with our website–and this was a feature we couldn’t test drive on the NetSuite or e-SalesForce sides.

    If functionality is important to you, make sure you can try before you buy. But take caution! Once you enter your leads and contacts into the CRM product you are testing, it is hard to walk away. The main issue we found with any solution was that it takes time to get all of your data configured just like you like it. And once you’ve invested a lot of time into the test solution, it is hard to walk away. After 30 days with, it is a good thing we like it, because we would be hard pressed to start all over again with an alternate product.

    I’m surprised with myself for not putting usability at the top of my list because my background is interface and interaction design for CRM products (full disclosure: I used to consult on CRM software for The Cobalt Group). Luckily, I think you will know right away if a product is usable or not. Again, try before you buy.

    Compatability and affordability I put side by side. My guess is that affordability isn’t really an option for most small businesses, it is a requirement and therefore a driving factor. Compatability goes along with affordability because, let’s face it, you get what you pay for. If you can pay for excellent customer service, then you probably don’t have to worry about affordability.

    And if you can’t afford the most appropriate solution for your small business, with the features that are most likely to improve your customer relationships, then don’t waste a dime (or a minute) on CRM software until you can. I have worked with a lot of small businesses who “hacked” Microsoft Outlook and utilized it as a CRM solution until they found the perfect fit in another product.

    “But let’s drop the formalities and just say that CRM is nothing more than how your company plans to find, catch and keep good customers.”

    Here, here!

  3. Simple CRM and email

    Welcome, Brent!

    Excellent point about “S” and “M” in SMB. In its pre-IPO filing, NetSuite says they target businesses with fewer than 100 employess, yet their average subscriber has like 12 or so users.

    A friend of mine who owns a multi-million dollar business with 12 employees hates it when people refer to it as “small business.” For him it’s just business, and it’s certainly not small compared to 1-2 persons outfits.

    Anyhow, back to the SMB CRM market. There are 6 million businesses in the US with fewer than 100 employees. In the UK, 99.2% of 4 million businesses have fewer than 50 employees.

    Existing CRMs (Salesforces and Netsuites of the world), by my estimates, can’t have more than 100,000 clients combined. That’s less than 1% of the total SMB market. That leaves 99% of the market UNTAPPED.

    The only company that gets it seems to be Relenta ( and Zoho ( The problem with Zoho is that it looks and feels like, albeit it’s priced substantially lower.

    Relenta, on the other hand, is IMHO a true killer app, because they combined email and CRM. From their website:

    “The majority of sales and customer service work is conducted via email. In case of traditional CRM systems, most of the business knowledge assets are trapped inside email messages within individual user accounts. Relenta CRM solves this problem by associating email history with customer records and making it accessible to all team members.”

    My advise to small businesses and CRM behemoths alike: Relenta is a company to watch.


    Fernando Garcia Rodriguez
    CRM Aficionado #1

  4. Thanks Chris, Christiane and Fernando (love the nickname!) for the great information. Your experience really do prove out that CRM is way more than buying the first thing that comes to mind. Just look at the kinds of activities you all covered and the different services you checked out before settling into something. Implementing a CRM strategy with any package you choose is an organization-altering experience, even if that organization consists of only a few people. So you better know what you’re getting into right up front.

  5. Brent, Alot of great infor here. I have to agree with Chris and rank affordability at the bottom…functionality works better for me. Great post!

  6. Brent:
    Right on. Good thoughtful breakdown of what a small biz needs to consider before taking the plunge. You made good points throughout, and two that I wholeheartedly couldn’t agree with more:

    1) S in SMB—all of the CRM players go upstream at some point to the more lucrative mid-size business to enterprise. Small business is 2-100, with most being in the 2-50 sweetspot. Their needs, resources are so incredibly different than the “MB”. These big players like Salesforce and NetSuite totally forget the small biz in their move upstream.

    2) the CRM space is heating up–and it’s no longer a dirty four letter word, as evidenced by the increased interest by small biz in this handy tool.

    Pat Sullivan, founder of ACT!, was recently quoted as saying the “small business market is the last great opportunity in CRM”. It’s why companies like Infusion CRM (disclosure: I do work with them) with its thousands of small biz users is thriving and growing. Infusion just landed $9 million in VC from a top-tier, Silicon Valley venture firm–even further validation of the “CRM for small business” market.

    Appreciate your simple approach to breaking all the benefits down. Thanks for your coverage that enlightens the small biz owner.

  7. One user referenced ACT! Another referenced the price of For a CRM application that was grown from ACT! and costs less than check out It’s less than but offers more features and they don’t lock up your data. Microsoft is also getting into the hosted space with rates that are very attractive for CRM as well as all of their Office products.

    Disclosure: I am a CRM consultant and Microsoft partner but I never lead with a solution — you need to find the best fit to YOUR requirements.

    John Fitzgerald

  8. Functionality and Usability decides the fate of CRM.There are umpteen number of CRMs in market.Companies in quest of making new features just tend to forget that users need better usablity.

  9. Great article, however one of the most important topics of CRM is missing, web-based, cloud, SaaS. Furthermore the article briefly explains what CRM is, and why it is right for your business. Good job.