Editor's Note: I am very pleased to introduce Brent Leary, who joins us as\u00a0a 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.\u00a0 In fact, everybody's doing it!\u00a0 As I write this, doing a Google search on the term "What is CRM" returns over 238,000 links.\u00a0 At the beginning of the year when I did this "only" 184,000 links were listed.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 Most people still believe that CRM is just software, which couldn't be further from the truth.\u00a0 CRM is truly integral to the way your business relates to people in order to turn prospects into loyal customers.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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?\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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 Salesforce.com 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.\u00a0 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."\u00a0 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.\u00a0 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?\u00a0\u00a0Are they financially secure?\u00a0 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 Salesforce.com, 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.\u00a0 Saying they service the SMB community but really meaning the "M"\u00a0and 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: \u00a0if 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?\u00a0 \u00a0Leave a comment below. * * * * * About the Author: Brent Leary is a Partner of CRM Essentials.\u00a0 Brent also hosts Technology For Business $ake, a radio show in the Altanta, Georgia, USA area about using technology in business.