Every once in a while a piece of technology so completely revolutionizes how we do something that we nearly forget how we ever got by without it, or even what we used to call it. For example, e-mailing used to be called "writing letters." And internet searches used to be called "going to the library."

Well, the same is true of customer relationship management. Though this sounds like something businesses have been doing for centuries, the term "customer relationship management" actually refers to a category of software that is specifically designed to organize and automate sales, marketing and customer service. It's more economically known as CRM, and it's fast becoming the technology solution that businesses big and small can't do without.

Big companies have been using CRM solutions for decades. They spend millions on them in the hopes of identifying and pursuing sales leads, improving customer retention, refining marketing efforts, and serving customers better. But many a story has been written about how these big CRM implementations have gone horribly wrong. How the software didn't integrate properly with existing databases. How it was too complex to implement and use. And how end users failed to adopt the new software. In fact, the technology research firm Gartner Group once estimated that a billion dollars a year is spent on CRM software that didn't get used.

Fortunately, the risks and costs associated with adopting CRM technology for small businesses are far smaller. In fact, many small-business solutions are Web-based and charge users a monthly subscription fee rather than requiring a huge outlay of capital up front, thanks to the pioneering service offered by Salesforce.com. But even though these online services allow you to dip a toe in the CRM waters, there are many other steps a small business must take to make good on its CRM investment.

Choose it. CRM comes in many shapes and sizes, and there are thousands of services tailored to specific types of companies. It's important to choose a solution that is best for your business. For example, a magazine publisher may be interested in a service like Magazine Manager, which not only organizes and automates ad sales, but integrates with the production and circulation sides of the publishing business as well.

Use it. The No. 1 failing of CRM implementations is not convincing staff to use them. These can be very powerful tools, but they take advantage of what's called the "network multiplier effect," which is a fancy way of saying that the more people use them, the more valuable they become. Actively encourage all employees to contribute to the data and use the analyses to their benefit.

Protect it. Nothing undermines the usefulness of a CRM implementation faster than a security breach. This is customer information you're collecting here. Treat it like gold. Take all security precautions recommended by the software, and double-check the security of your network. After all, if your customers don't think you can be trusted with their personal information, they won't be your customers for long.

Maintain it. These solutions require constant care and feeding. They must be updated. Their data must be scrubbed (meaning old, inaccurate data must be removed). And they should follow a regular upgrade path to ensure maximum performance.

If you follow these relatively straightforward rules, chances are you'll have a rewarding CRM experience. And if you don't, well, you'll be in good company.

This story originally appeared on Business on Main