If sales is the lifeblood of any business, then your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system would have to be the blood bank. Without a centralized place to keep track of your conversations with prospective customers, it is nearly impossible to stay on top of leads.

For some entrepreneurs, though, a CRM system can be overkill. Sometimes a basic way of managing contacts will do just fine. With this article, we take a moment to cover some of the options you have as an entrepreneur, for managing your contacts and sales leads.

Before you invest time and money in any contact management or CRM solution, you need to get straight on what you’re trying to achieve. Start by asking yourself some questions:
Where do you want your information to live?
Do you want a clear division between your business and personal contacts?  How will you access it, and how many people do you want to share it with? Furthermore, will you want some level of automation (i.e.. automatic follow-up emails to prospects, for example)?

If you only need to access you information locally (on your desktop, for example), any old spreadsheet could do. However, if you think you’ll need to access this information from your smartphone, or you want to share the information with a partner or eventually a sales team, it is worthwhile embracing a solution that can grow as you do. Here are some options around managing contacts and customer relationships, starting with the old-school methods, first.

Old-Timey Contact Management: The Rolodex

You could, of course, opt to go the traditional way and store you contact information in a Rolodex. Yes, we actually used that word. Some of you are old-school and you like to put our hands on things. We can respect that. Plus, you need to put that stack of business cards somewhere, right? However, what happens when you’re working at your local coffee shop, and you need to call a client? Or, God forbid your partner poaches your Rolodex for a day or two? This is when your challenges mount.

Slightly Less Old-School: Spreadsheets

At the next level you could manually enter all the contacts you’ve collected into a Microsoft Excel sheet, categorizing each entry for easy sorting. This is consuming, but it’s a cheap and easy solution when you’re flying solo on a tight budget. But, what if your partner wants to add contacts? Do you want to pass a file back and forth, and risk losing track of the latest version? This can quickly get out of hand.

Choose Your Own Adventure and Build Your Own Database: The Filemaker Solution

Next, there is the more traditional database software such as Filemaker. With Filemaker, you have the choice of ready-made database solutions (relevant to your industry), or you can build it from scratch and customize for the needs of your business. Filemaker can be as simple or as big and sophisticated as you like, which is nice. There is a learning curve if you’re just starting out with this product, but the best part is that it can grow as you do, and it’s not too hard to learn how to build your own database. Also, you will find it frequently used in nonprofits and educational institutions.

Contact Management for Mac Users

For those of you Mac users, you could manage all your contacts in your Mac Address Book. Mac Address Book has some nice features, such as the option to share contacts using a Vcard. Again, this works for basic contact management, but it’s essentially just a nuts-and-bolts address book. So, if you’re managing leads you’ll hit a wall pretty soon.

Outlook Contact Management

If you use Outlook as a client for your email, you could certainly house all your contact information inside of Contacts. If you’re a Gmail user, Outlook can be synced with Gmail and vice versa. If you need to access such information on your mobile device, you need to upgrade your email service to Exchange. Exchange enables you to synchronize your emails, calendar, and contacts across all your computers or devices. You can also share and collaborate with your colleagues. Note: the Exchange solution can also become complex for your basic small business, so we generally only recommend this for teams of more than three people.

Google Apps for Business: All Your Business Products, Plus Third Party Integration

If you’re not an Exchange user, another option is Google Apps for Business. Google Apps for Business includes a suite of tools that any entrepreneur will quickly recognize. At it’s most basic level, Google Apps for Business could be described as a web-based alternative to Microsoft Office. But, one of the biggest benefits is that you can send and receive emails via your own domain. In other words, instead of sending and receiving emails from mike@gmail.com, your emails are delivered as mike@mike.com (or whatever your preference–you have to own the domain, though). So, you get the benefit of your own custom domain, plus all the bells and whistles Gmail has to offer. But that’s not all! There are spreadsheets, calendaring, custom email addresses, file sharing, Hangouts, and more.

But we were talking about contact management, right? If Google doesn’t provide the solution you’re looking for (and Google doesn’t specialize in contact management or customer relationship management, per se) there are many third parties who have created applications that enable their software to integrate with Google Apps. All of those products are available in the Google Apps Marketplace.

So the long and short of it is, if you’re already using Gmail (and you love the Gmail experience), and you’re looking for an all-in-one solution for your business applications, then you’d do well to consider signing up for Google Apps for Business. Once you’ve signed up, you can look for software providers that integrate with the Google Apps ecosystem. Many of the cloud-based CRM systems we describe below have apps available in the Google Apps Marketplace.

Pricing for Google Apps for Business is $5/user/month or $50 per user per year. Prices for apps in the Google Apps Marketplace vary, though some are free.

The Way of the CRM

Finally there are Customer Relationship Management systems (CRM). For the purposes of most small businesses, this kind of software provides a place to manage relationships with current and future customers. At it’s more complex level, a CRM system can integrate a range of business interactions, including customer service, technical support, and marketing.

All of the solutions below are cloud-based, which basically means they can be accessed via the web and their information is stored in remote servers, sometimes all around the world. The beauty of this is your information is available anytime and anywhere you can log into the web. We cover just a few commonly used products, though there are scores of them out there.

Salesforce. The “elephant in the room.” Many companies use Salesforce, but it can be overkill for a small business entrepreneur. Able to run all kinds of reports, includes automation…could probably give you a shave and a haircut, too. People like their crazy blow-out conference called Dreamforce, which basically means that most of us can’t get within a mile of Moscone Center. And by the way, this is currently taking place, and runs through November 21!
Nimble is an intriguing newcomer to the CRM scene. Nimble claims to seamlessly integrate your social media presence within its CRM platform, enabling you to “listen in” on conversations relevant to your prospects, while documenting leads and deals as you go. There are potentially huge time-saving benefits behind this. At $15/user/month, the price is not prohibitively expensive.
Zoho CRM system: Sometimes called the “poor-man’s Salesforce,” Zoho is on-demand, web-based, and includes management of leads, accounts, and contacts. Price is free for up to 2 users, so easy to get started.
Insightly CRM bills themselves as the number 1 free CRM for small businesses. Reviews highlight the strength of their social media and email integration. They are free for up to 3 users.
Sugar CRM: Another CRM used in the small biz community. Includes real-time collaboration. Big community behind it. Cost is $35/user/month for their hosted version. If you’ve got techie skills, there is an open source version that you can download and customize at your pleasure.
Pipedrive. For those of you looking for a CRM oriented around direct sales and deal-making, Pipedrive might be a great fit. The layout is highly intuitive, which makes it a pretty quick rollout. It is also easy to share information between clients/users. Ultimately it’s all about deals, deals, deals. Coffee is for closers, after all. Cost is $9/user/month, with the option to try it for free for 30 days.
Highrise. Highrise is becoming quickly popular. The interface is attractive and easy to navigate. Totally cloud-based (i.e., situated on the web). They were built by a team called 37Signals, who also made BaseCamp—a great project management platform we use regularly. Highrise is free for up to 2 users and 250 contacts, and then there are various subscription levels from there. Feb. 2014 update: Change is afoot! 37Signals has announced that they are moving their focus entirely to BaseCamp and Highrise is either going to be sold or no longer available to new customers.

Finally, here’s a another idea. LinkedIn has an interesting app called Cardmunch. When someone gives you a business card, you can take a picture of it with your smartphone. The picture is converted to a contact in your phone, and then LinkedIn pulls up their profile, with lots of juicy details on who they are connected to, etc.

Got a contact management or CRM product you love? Drop us a note with a brief description, and we’ll add it to the list.

LimeTech Solutions provides IT consulting services and technical support to startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. You can get in touch anytime for a free consultation with a LimeTech IT expert.

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