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Tech Solutions That Help Keep Customers Satisfied

Business success isn't just about getting new customers--it's about holding onto the ones you've got. Technology can help.

Many entrepreneurs spend a lot of time and money trying to land new customers, an extremely important goal if you're trying to grow your business. But what are you doing to keep the customers you already have?

Customer retention is vital to a company of any size, for several reasons. First, it's generally more expensive to land a new customer than to keep an existing one. That's because wooing new customers often entails a higher level of costly marketing and advertising efforts and sales promotions to create awareness of--and desire for--a product or service. In contrast, existing customers already know who you are and what you offer (unless you're introducing a new product or service, of course).

Second, existing customers who are satisfied with your product or service are likely to become repeat customers. And they're apt to recommend your business to friends and colleagues. In our global, extremely competitive business environment, holding onto your customers has never been more critical.

So how do you inspire customer loyalty? One way is through customer relationship management technology, or CRM. Technology may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider ways to ingratiate your business to your customers, but in fact, CRM technology provides small businesses with a wealth of innovative, effective tools that can help you build better relationships with your customers.

Do Your Customers Prefer Feather or Foam Pillows?
At a high level, CRM technology is designed to improve customer satisfaction by enabling a business to better understand its customers, their habits and their needs. CRM technology for smaller businesses is usually available as a web-based tool, PC software applications or software plug-ins that link a CRM program to other applications.

CRM technology is most often used by employees who interface directly with customers, such as sales and customer service reps. Data gathered from CRM tools is also analyzed by business owners to identify levels of customer satisfaction, buying patterns, the success (or lack thereof) of a particular marketing or sales promotion with customers, and more.

A general-purpose CRM software program for small businesses may cost about $200 for one or multiple users. The software may combine a contact management database with tools for tracking all forms of customer contact, such as phone calls, letters and e-mails; forecasting and tracking sales opportunities; scheduling calls and meetings with customers; and generating reports on customer activities.

In addition, there are CRM software programs available that are aimed at particular industries. For instance, tech companies have developed CRM packages specifically for the hospitality industry, to enable small and large hotels alike to track guests' room preferences, among other things. Front desk clerks, the concierge, housekeeping staff and others can input details into a hotel's CRM database, such as a particular guest's preference for foam (vs. feather) pillows. That information is used to build customer profiles that the hotel staff can tap into in order to give returning guests special attention--and that helps improve loyalty.

Accessing a Customer's Entire History--Before the Second Ring
Many CRM programs include modules that can be linked to standard applications businesses use daily. Take Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0, for instance. This program, which is available in versions aimed at small businesses as well as large organizations, interconnects with Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook. From within Outlook's contacts, an employee can access Microsoft CRM sales, marketing and customer service modules in order to make sales decisions and market products.

Today's CRM software has become highly sophisticated, yet it's still easy to use. For instance, Microsoft Dynamics CRM can now be connected, through software plug-ins, to a small business's IP telephony system. When a call comes in, the IP telephony software plug-in automatically links to the Microsoft Dynamics CRM system. A pop-up window of the customer contact record appears on your employee's IP phone screen, their computer screen or both. Before the second ring, the employee taking the call has access to information about the customer who's calling, such as orders pending, recent returns, and so on.

By being able to access this information instantly, an employee is able to better answer the customer's questions, and the customer is less likely to feel frustrated by the encounter and more likely to feel appreciated by your company. And that goes a long way toward keeping customers happy.

In addition to accessing existing information, the employee answering the call can easily add new notes to the customer's record. That information is then uploaded back into the CRM system, and the next time the customer calls, the employee who answers can pick up where the previous employee left off.

Off-site workers, such as sales personnel in the field, can also have access to the same customer data over your company's data network. As a result, interconnected CRM software can help you not only improve customer satisfaction but increase employee productivity and reduce costs as well.

What's Right for You?
So how do you decide which CRM solution is best for your small business? To begin, take into account the hardware and software you already have in place, with an eye toward finding a CRM solution that will leverage that technology. But don't let yourself be limited by what you have, either. For instance, if you've been considering ditching your plain-old phone system and switching to IP communications, perhaps the benefits of integrating IP telephony and CRM will be the deciding factor and you'll make the move now.

You should discuss your specific business goals and technology needs with your trusted IT advisor--whether that's a colleague, an employee, a consultant or your value-added reseller. Determine what your business must spend on a given CRM solution. Also, make sure you plan accordingly to meet any technical requirements of your chosen CRM solution. And take into account any training you'll need to provide employees, too.

Before you implement any CRM solution, put metrics into place that will help you measure its effectiveness. Try to identify current levels of customer retention and loyalty before adding CRM technology. Then measure retention and loyalty again six or 12 months later to help you get an idea of the CRM solution's effectiveness and your return on investment.

Finally, keep in mind that the implementation of a CRM solution can provide a good opportunity for a customer service tune-up. Are your employees and your products and services doing their part to keep your customers satisfied? Are you? These are important questions to ask, because technology in and of itself can only help you build a solid relationship with your customers. The rest is up to you.

Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.

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