By creating a 360 degree view of the customer and offering users an easy-to-use interface, CRM systems facilitate the deployment of meaningful communications, that result in long-lasting, genuine relationships and increased sales, according to Mike Richardson, managing director for Maximizer Software, who here explains what to look for when choosing your CRM platform. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

It's no secret that businesses that know as much as possible about their customers are best-placed to meet customer needs and inspire loyalty. It is these companies that are likely to effectively retain valuable business, identify new prospects and sit back to enjoy their rising profits. In order to achieve this, these companies are probably using cutting-edge CRM platforms, which allow their marketing and sales departments to leverage customer data more efficiently than ever before.

But in today's world powered by 24/7 mobile access, the effectiveness of CRM systems is significantly diminished if the data they hold can only be accessed from a single location. With so many professionals working on the move, businesses need to ensure that their staff can access all the necessary information wherever they are, particularly if they are meeting with a client or prospective customer, where the ability to view all correspondence will help maximise sales opportunities.

On the flip side, today's customers also use their mobile devices to stay connected at all times, resulting in greater amounts of data being generated at an extremely high speed. This information has to be constantly aggregated from various outputs, including social media, and fed into a system in order to inform direct marketing campaigns. This is where CRM software comes into its own, by allowing for an advanced automation of that process, as well as real-time tracking of a campaign's efficiency.

These are only a few of modern CRM's functionalities and as a result of the plentiful features and functions available, choosing a platform that closely reflects a company's needs is increasingly difficult. Businesses are faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to CRM vendors and the below guide is designed to simplify the decision-making process, by identifying key areas to scrutinise before plumping for a platform.

There are five key steps involved in choosing the right CRM platform:

  1. Determining your requirements
    A cliche as it may be, the priority is determining what your company's requirements are. Which departments need to use the CRM software and how many users are there likely to be? For companies that are intending to use their CRM primarily as a sales tool, a simple out-of-the-box deployment, which will only be accessed by sales, marketing and customer service, is likely to be more than adequate. However, if it is likely that you require extensibility to other business units, check with potential CRM vendors if such options are available. Another area to investigate is the possibility to integrate with appliances already in place (e.g. email client or accounts software). If you're an investment bank, you are likely to need a complex, tailor-made solution with customised forms and connectivity between various external systems. Yet, a small family-run business definitely doesn't require such complexity and associated costs.

    Another key issue to look at in the initial stages of making the CRM decision is determining if your organisation is ready for it. In other words, all its members need to be supporting the choice.

  2. Deployment options: cloudy or in-house?
    A consideration of how the system is going to be deployed and used will have a direct impact on the next question: whether to plump for a cloud or an on-premise solution. The latter might be a good option for companies concerned with data security (e.g. law firms) or ones willing to pay more upfront in order to avoid greater total cost of ownership later. However, a start-up without a big budget might opt for a cloud-based solution, as the initial cost is much lower. If a company is likely to evolve and require changing functionalities, making adjustments is easier in the cloud than on-premise, but at the same time, cloud or hosted solutions offer less capacity for integration with other systems. A careful and contextualised analysis of pros and cons of both options is necessary to making the right choice.
  3. Sizing up your needs
    After assessing how the needs of a business should reflect on the shape of its CRM system, it is worthwhile to estimate the expected number users. In a mid-sized or large company it will be high, but fairly stable: in case of a start-up, however, it is likely to be ever-changing. In case of the latter, scalability should be one of the most sought after features. The cloud allows for such flexibly, with the number of users easily brought up or down through individual licences. However, it might be beneficial to opt for a vendor that enables a swift change to an on-premise solution, should the size of the company abruptly grow.
  4. Examine the need for mobility
    Mobility is the buzzword of today and not without a reason, but it doesn't mean that every business requires the same level of mobile access. Are the organisation's operatives often on the road? Do you encourage home-working? Does the system need to be updated in real-time and would the company benefit if managers could control it anytime, anywhere? Usually, a certain degree of mobile accessibility has a positive impact on customer service and productivity, as employees can make the most of their time, being effectively released from their desks. If a customer cancels an appointment, for example, a salesperson is able to view other customers and prospects in the vicinity and visit them instead, ensuring no time is wasted.
  5. Data integration
    5. Last, but not least, in order to leverage the data in your CRM system as fully as possible, you may also need to integrate it with other sources of information. The nature of your business will determine the connectivity you require and some of these options may be available out-of-the-box. That is often the case with widely-used software such as marketing or accounting programmes. In other cases, a tailored customisation might be inevitable. A chartered surveyor, for example, will need to integrate their CRM platform with a GIS (geographic information system) to visualise location data. With every business having its specific needs, looking into which vendors provide extensive customisation support is key.

    Additional fields and connectivity through links are required for what is called a social CRM or, in other words, a CRM that facilitates leveraging information gathered from social media. If tools such as LinkedIn figure high in your business' operations, integrating with them might gain you a competitive edge.

In times where SMEs are facing continued economic uncertainty, any investment requires due diligence. Studies show, however, that CRM platforms are the only type of software that has seen stocks rise, highlighting the fact that the right platform remains a valuable investment for companies looking to better market to their customers and increase customer acquisition and retention. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer as to what type of CRM solution will be best-suited for any given organisation, but paying heed to these guidelines will ensure that you are well-placed to choose a CRM that really delivers.