It may seem like a creepy invasion of privacy, but having a system to track everything from a customer’s purchase history to birthday or how they heard about a product or service is integral to building and sustaining a business. 

Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, systems help business owners organize information to maximize new leads, repeat sales, improve customer service, cut costs and integrate information from operations processes like e-commerce or web forms. But according to some experts, entrepreneurs often overlook the value in implementing such a system.  

“A lot of small business owners see CRM as a cost and expense. But, if approached correctly, a CRM system can help you take your business to the next level,” said Peter Wolf, president of CRM advisory firm Azamba Consulting Group

Maximizing the benefits of customer relationship management should start at inception.  “The minute you open and have your first customer interaction you need some sort of system that tracks customer information that is relevant to your business,” advised consultant Whitney Keyes

But for owners well into the lifecycle of their business, it’s not too late to implement CRM. Keyes recalled working with a salon owner who had not kept one client record and was beginning to see business dwindle after 20 years. Keyes recommended she survey her customers, which found that most customers had learned of the salon from a sandwich board on a sidewalk. Armed with this information, the owner placed more sandwich boards around town and saw revenue increase through basic surveying and record keeping.

While customer information can be tracked on a simple Excel sheet, as a business owner’s expectations grow so does the complexity and expense of the CRM system needed. Companies like SalesForce.com, Zoho, Sage ACT! and Constant Contact offer CRM solutions at various price points. 

In order to assess which CRM system works best for a particular business, consultant Whitney Keyes recommended entrepreneurs know how they will use the information. “If you are trying to figure out sales, you’ll want to track what items are popular, how much you closed with the client and what were the details of the conversion,” she added. 

Entrepreneurs who don’t want a cookie-cutter CRM system can create their own or customize an existing system, but they should be prepared to disclose how the business operates.  Sarah McLennan-Stapleton, chief operating officer at Beyond Your Typical CRM goes through an 11-point discovery process that examines everything from the workflow of a sale, to who does invoicing, what referral programs are in place and who runs the system reports.

Business owners should also align their customer relationship management goals with their short and long-term operational goals, not just their present needs. Kendra Von Achen, president of database and business consulting firm DB Pros advised, “CRM is not just for today. You want it to last three to five years and you want it to be ready for your next steps.”

A successful CRM system grows as a business grows. Wolf from Azamba Consulting Group, recommended that business owners “approach CRM in steps. There is no reason to dive headfirst into the deep end.”

Since a customized CRM implementation can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year, entrepreneurs need to keep consultants abreast of changes within the company’s operations as that will impact CRM development.

While additional expenses can be alarming, Von Achen of DB Pros, noted that “business owners often make the mistake of bypassing possible automatic integrations in order to save money, but then pay employees to enter the data manually.”