April 29, 2014

What IS a CRM, really?

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Who defined "customer relationship management", anyways?


CRMs are amazing, terrifying, empowering, and frustrating. They're absolutely necessary, unless they aren't, in which case they are often a huge burden or an embarrassment that people try to avoid talking about. Some people connect Contactually to their CRM, some use it instead of one, and everyone seems to have an opinion on whether our beloved little application is, in fact, a CRM or not.

With that said, let's take a few minutes and get a few things straight about Contactually & CRMs.

So again... what's a CRM?


CRM stands for "Customer Relationship Management", which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like -- CRM systems (or CRMs, for short) are software applications that help businesses keep track of the countless tiny interactions that occur between you and your customers (or potential customers). Having a system like this makes it possible to answer very basic, very important questions like :

  • How many customers do you have?

  • How many do you expect to have next month?

  • Who's spent the most money or your company's products & services?

  • Where do they live?

  • How many times have you talked to them?


Customers are the most important part of a business, so information about customers is very likely the most important (and valuable) thing for you to keep track of. The whole idea of a CRM is that it gives you a way to get that information, in whatever form you need, quickly and reliably.

What's wrong with CRMs?


Like almost any system, the problem with CRMs in most businesses isn't the idea -- it's the execution. When you decide that you need a CRM, what you're probably really saying is "I need a better way to understand and interact with my customers". Unfortunately, that's true for you, your dentist, Microsoft, your mechanic, the giant bank you hate, and basically every business in the world, and what works for one of them may be a nightmare for the others.

Companies that build CRMs often deal with this huge variation in potential users by building tools that are designed to be heavily customized for each of their customers. It's kind of like when you go to Home Depot because you want to build a porch. Sure, lots of people want to build porches, but they aren't building the exact same porch over and over again -- everyone's house, budget, etc. differs wildly. That's why Home Depot will sell you wood, and nails, and paint, and even some books on different kinds of porches, but if you actually want a porch, you'll have to build it out of that material yourself, or hire some other third party to build it for you.

This is where most of the problems occur. Saying you hate your CRM is like saying you hate your porch. Saying that you hate Salesforce, or Microsoft Dynamics, or whatever, is like saying you hate the wood your porch is made out of. Maybe you really do -- maybe it's terrible wood, or the wrong kind, or it's all splintery and uncomfortable to lean on. Or maybe you just hate your contractor. Either way, you wish you had never built this damn porch.

He just started using his new, highly customized CRM.

Why do we do it this way?


The difference between porches and CRMs is that people don't automatically assume you need a porch just because you want to sit outside. Maybe you need a chair, or a gazebo, or to live closer to the park. But for some reason, the business world has decided that "I need a better way to understand and interact with my customers" means "I need a CRM", and that CRMs HAVE to do a bunch of specific -- and often complex -- technical things, or else they aren't CRMs. This is obviously silly, because the actual value of these kinds of systems we talked about earlier is very real. It's just not because of any one specific feature or workflow they use.

Is there less annoying way to get the benefits of a CRM system?


The idea behind Contactually is to bring the value of CRMs -- a better, more regulated, more effective way to interact with current and potential customers -- to businesses and individuals whose work process doesn't fit into the standard CRM box. Sometimes, those people already use a CRM, and just need help managing their daily interactions via email and social networks. That's great -- it's why Contactually integrates with so many existing CRMs -- but there are also a lot of people who DON'T use a traditional CRM, because they can get more value out of something like Contactually without any of the work and related headaches that come with configuring and using one.

Wait, why did we build this again?


In other words, whether people want to admit it or not, something like Contactually IS a CRM, because it's designed to help you manage customer relationships better. It's just a different take on that system, and something that appeals to a lot of people who have struggled to get the most out of a more traditional system.

So don't let people who live entirely inside the world of CRMs convince you that there's only one way to better manage your relationships. There are a lot, and the measure of a successful one doesn't come from anything you'll find in a list of features.