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Choosing CRM system features: What users think

Users weigh in on how they choose CRM system features and what they consider must-have CRM functionality.

Choosing a customer relationship management system requires companies to take a hard look within. They need to dig into their business requirements and operational structure to determine what they really need in CRM system features. Ultimately, companies need to determine how they can best nurture and maintain relationships with their customers in a variety of channels, in automated ways -- and do so throughout the customer's lifecycle, from mere prospect to sale to service and maintenance.

Factors include budget, number of users, the hardware you use, and a company's existing application set. But according to CRM expert Marshall Lager, principal at Third Idea Consulting, there are certain CRM features that companies "just can't come to the table without."

"Taken as a whole, these features are the core of what CRM is about," he said. "Without them working together, an organization will wind up with siloed customer information, which is precisely what CRM is meant to prevent. They're what you need to have a complete view of your customers."

Here we outline the features to consider when you're selecting a CRM application. First is a rundown of Lager's requirements, followed by descriptions of the decision-making process of two companies -- telecom business North State Communications and heating and cooling technology provider Reliance Home Comfort -- when they selected a CRM platform.

Marshall Lager, CRM expert, principal at Third Idea ConsultingMarshall Lager, CRM
expert, principal at
Third Idea Consulting

Contact management. While it almost goes without saying, companies need to ensure that their CRM application provides an easy, intuitive way to centralize and manage prospects, leads, clients and other important contacts, and provides relevant information for every function within a company.

Sales force automation. CRM apps need a sales enablement and management system that tracks lead to cash, with quotas, projections and (if the company has more than a handful of salespeople) some rules for assigning accounts.

Marketing automation. CRM systems must gather prospects, sift through the chaff and pass relevant information to sales. Marketing via email and social media are also important, with automated messages built around interaction with the brand.

Service and support. Built-in CRM system features are needed to route inquiries and complaints to the right people. They need to cover email and phone at the bare minimum; social listening and engagement are also wise investments.

Reporting. All customer-related activity has to be visible to managers and executives so they can provide proper steering. Reporting should feature dashboards and alerts for daily events and deeper analytics for monthly, quarterly, annual, and/or regional performance.

Joseph Smith, manager of fiber broadband business development at North State CommunicationsJoseph Smith, manager
of fiber broadband
business development at
North State Communications

North State Communications, a telecom provider in High Point, North Carolina, chose Salesforce1 for several reasons, though its dominance in the marketplace was no small thing, according to Joseph Smith, North State's manager for fiber broadband business development. Other important characteristics in Salesforce1 that Smith outlined:

Managing the sales lifecycle. Smith said the first factor was that the app does a great job of managing the entire sales lifecycle. "You can track everything from simple to complex sales, marketing campaigns, contract life cycles, and post-sales customer service," he said.

Mobile capabilities. Mobile capabilities alone were enough to sell North State on Salesforce1. Because you can customize the interface and create applications, in addition to some of the functionality possible from the field, Salesforce1 made sense. Smith said that tasks like updating customer records with information after a meeting involve minimal clicks to streamline tasks and enable the rep to move along quickly.

There are certain CRM features that companies 'just can't come to the table without.'
Marshall Lager, principal, Third Idea Consulting

He also noted that these kinds of mobile capabilities translate to better customer data more generally. "You are going to remember more information and better-quality information, as opposed to scribbling notes on the back of a business card and trying to transfer those notes into a CRM at your desk at the end of the day," he said.

Ease of use and configurability. "I do not have a technical background at all, but I can customize just about any aspect of our Salesforce experience using button clicks, not coding," Smith said. He added that the interface is intuitive, so users learn quickly and resist the change less.

Engaged community of users. Smith noted the importance of the user community to his choice of CRM system. "It's the most engaged community I've ever seen" he said, which makes it easy for users to get questions answered and to brainstorm with peers rather than going directly to support.

Strong third-party ecosystem. Building add-ons and integrating new CRM system features is relatively easy because the third-party ecosystem is strong, Smith said. North State has done that with Adobe EchoSign for digital signatures. "We can send, store and track contracts without ever leaving the Salesforce system," he said.

Celso Mello, chief information officer at Reliance Home ComfortCelso Mello, chief
information officer at
Reliance Home Comfort

Toronto-based Reliance Home Comfort, which provides home heating, cooling and water heater technologies to 1.6 million customers throughout Canada, chose Microsoft Dynamics CRM and had a series of reasons for choosing Microsoft as well:

Vendor presence throughout the stack. Celso Mello, CIO at Reliance Home Comfort, chose Microsoft in part because of its strong presence throughout the IT stack. "There are very few companies out there that provide such a wide and broad variety of apps that communicate with each other. That's very important to me," he said.

Prevalence in market. Mello is also cost-conscious about service and support. Microsoft's widespread network of partners means that the market has a breadth of expertise in development and maintenance, and a variety of consultancy options drives down the price while maintaining the quality of work. "With competitors, you can be held hostage to a small set of consultants that charge an arm and a leg to do work; with Microsoft, there's a lot of competition," he said.

Hybrid cloud offerings. "Microsoft offers both on-the-cloud and on-premises options. So I can start a new initiative on the cloud with little investment and risk. And as it scales up; I can bring it in-house," Mello said.

"So, unless there is a compelling reason not to use Microsoft, everything I have here is a Microsoft solution," he said."

Next Steps

The business case for CRM

Data integration challenges and mobile CRM

Is omnichannel customer service even possible?

Does mobile CRM always make sense?

This was first published in July 2014

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