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As is the recurring theme of these series, business is about relationships. Some time ago major corporations and the software companies that serve them realized it was time to bundle that concept into application form.

So, just as Outlook bundled email, contact management, scheduling and task management (even though few of us use it to its full potential), the many aspects of managing the efforts of acquiring leads, tracking communication with them, converting them into paying customers and figuring out how much money they’ve made (or cost) your business was bundled into a class of software.

This type of application is called “CRM” — which stands for, simply enough, “Customer Relationship Management“. There are many different CRM applications, both free and commercial of various levels of complexity, but the basic elements of CRM are:

Now many of you, especially you solopreneurs out there, may consider CRM to be overkill — “I have a list of my customers, I call or email them often, and I have a spreadsheet (or maybe Quickbooks) to track what I earn and what I owe. Why“, you might ask, “do I need to introduce yet another program into the mix?”

Well… ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have you ever met a prospect at an event, or had one referred… and then somehow, failed to follow up and convert them to a paying customer?
  • Have you ever taken things to the next level – an actual phone call or meeting – but never closed the deal, despite a positive feeling at the end of the initial encounter?
  • Have you ever hesitated to follow up with a lead you had contacted in the past because you couldn’t remember where you had left things during you last encounter — or couldn’t remember exactly when that last encounter was?
  • Do you find yourself staring at a stack of business cards, without a clue as to who most of those people are, where you met them, or whether they are prospects, vendors, or potential referral partners…?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can see a bit of the value of the CRM approach. More that just a particular program, CRM is the approach of tracking the entire flow of the relationship, from initial encounter throughout the lifetime of the business relationship:

  • When and how did we meet?
  • Does this individual prefer phone calls, emails or face-to-face meetings
  • How interested are they in doing business? How hard can I “push“?
  • When was our last encounter?
  • What was the mode (call/email/meeting) and result of our last meeting?
  • When should I follow up… and how?
  • How much business am I doing with my existing customers?
  • Which customers are costing me more than I make doing business with them? (this question is almost never asked, regardless of business size or type)

You could attempt to manage all of this, and more, with a manual process consisting of various unassociated emails, word processor documents, spreadsheets, untracked phone calls and quickly forgotten physical encounters, but that’s what you’re doing now. How’s that working for you?

We’re in the 21st Centuryalready in progress, as I like to say – and isn’t it time to get past the excuse that technology is too complicated or time consuming to learn.

In thisGreat Recessioneconomy, every business, small and large, needs every competitive advantage at their disposal. If you fail to convert a potential customer, or exploit business opportunities with your existing clients, you’re leaving money on the table.

Is your business doing that well? Can you afford to do that? You don’t have to jump head first into the CRM mix, and it need not cost you anything but the time to learn how to integrate CRM into your current work flow. There are many choices of CRM software, both free and commercial.

Most CRM software is designed for larger businesses, and might overwhelm the solopreneur or SOHO organization just getting started with this type of application. But this doesn’t leave you without options.

Here’s the short list Your Open Source CIO recommends:



The free programs install on a PC within Your Small Business, with varying degrees of difficulty; the commercial applications all offer options which are hosted on the respective companies’ server farms, making it much easier to set up and get going, but putting ownership of your customer data in the hands of strangers.

The top choice in each list integrates well with Microsoft Outlook, which I assume most of you readers are using as your email/contact/calendar application right now. I recommend these as the fastest way to get on board with CRM, whether you have a marginal software budget or no budget at all. Going down each list, the applications have more features, but also a steeper learning curve.

Whatever you do, pick one, and start using it. There’s gold to be mined in the business cards and email addresses you already possess: don’t leave money on the table that belongs in Your Small Business bank account.
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