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Gold mining-0000Costs may be off-putting but exporters with a large client database can access crucial information with an effective CRM tool.

BY:  LOUISE BLOCKLEY

Recent advances in customer relationship management (CRM) technology mean Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM software can now analyse customers’ real-time conversations on twitter’s social networking site.

If cyber-snooping leaves you cold you may still warm to one of the off-the-shelf CRM systems or web-hosted solutions now available.  But first you must wade through a swamp of options from shiny-shod salespeople (real or virtual) to decide how much to spend and which bells and whistles fulfil your needs.

Alex van Dijk, sales and marketing manager for exporter rml Engineering Ltd, rigorously researched his company’s CRM purchase. On advice from a consultant familiar with several systems, he bought a single-user Act licence for $200 and tried it out it for six months. He decided it would suit and went ahead with installation for about $6,000 a year ago.

He says the system works well, particularly for the price. Previously rml used a Microsoft Access database which wasn’t regularly updated and was only available on the company’s Hamilton server, so staff in Australia and the UK had separate databases.  Although he avoided ACT’s web-hosted version because of security fears and slow internet speeds, rml’s system can be used remotely.

MUST-HAVES IN CRMS

Van Dijk used six criteria to choose the best system – price, portability, local support, security, Outlook integration and self-configurability. “I personally use the ACT database as my address book for Outlook, which is really handy, so there is no double-entering.”

Alistair Innes, Tropex Exports Ltd marketing manager, agrees the ability to manage staff calendars with goldmine CRM software is invaluable. Scheduling conflicts can be ironed out before causing a problem. With 30 staff the system tracks all emails and contacts with customers and suppliers. Several people may be in contact with customers at various times – goldmine allows Innes and others to easily see who has done what and when.

“Client contact is the number one thing we use it for – just keeping in touch with what the clients are actually doing. Rather than having that information locked away in individual computers, it is all on the server,” says Innes. Wary of ending up with too much information eating into storage space, van Dijk switches off functionality for storing emails.

Gold mining takeaways-0000HOSTED, WEB-BASED OPTIONS

The basic CRM system requirement is contact-management – a database of company, contact person(s), communication details and notes.  Other desirable functionality includes the ability to do email campaigns, mail blasts, letter labels and mail merges.

The CRM may include lead management and opportunity management – showing sales managers what account executives are doing and what is in the sales pipeline. Internet sales and other features can be included. Once a company’s size and complexity becomes too much for the more basic systems, larger more expensive integrated systems become necessary.

Van Dijk prints off sales pipeline reports once or twice a week showing opportunities and what stage they are at. The same information is available once an opportunity becomes a project. 

Both Innes and van Dijk would like mobile devices such as PDAs or smartphones integrated with their CRM system. They forsee mobile devices overtaking laptops on the road although these are now prohibitive due to cost concerns.

Salesforce.com is the current bright star in the CRM sky for small businesses. It is a hosted or web-based system which stores everything online rather than on your server. Many IT solutions now provide a hosted system as well as software that runs on in-house hardware. The salesforce.com sales pitch refers to “old-fashioned” traditional client/ server CRM software as a “dying breed”.  Web-based software is heralded as the new approach, doing away with large capital investment for IT.

Like van Dijk, many are concerned about security of information stored on the web.  But others argue specialist  IT companies are more efficient at storing information securely than most businesses.

Whatever solution you choose it is important to find a local agent who will sell it, install it and provide efficient backup. Innes says Tropex Ltd eventually found an outside consultant who was proficient in the system and could do all the engineering and training. “The company that sold it to us is pretty much a retailer – it likes to think of itself as a solution provider but it very clearly showed it is trying to make big money out of a small amount of work. Of the system I would give it a seven or eight out of ten but, of the back up, I would be dropping that to a four or a five,” Innes says.

In a recent Exporter reader survey many small exporters reported they used a manual customer relationship management system – phone calls and visits. Others use Access or something similar, citing cost as prohibiting a dedicated CRM system. With basic systems installed with training for less than $10,000 coupled with the need for retaining customers in tough economic times, it seems a CRM is an essential item on any business wish-list.

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