By: Jonathan King On: May 5, 2016 In: Marketing Comments: 0

Opportunities are the lifeblood of a small business entrepreneur.  And once you start acquiring clients, it’s critical to keep those relationships strong.  That’s because your best prospects for future work come from current customers and their networks.  So it’s very important to identify and maintain a customer relationship management (CRM) system that works for you.

Note: This is the sixth in a series on creative entrepreneurship.  I recently started my own consulting business and I’m writing about my own discoveries and experiences.  Read my last post on how to stay motivated and inspired.

In one of my previous posts, I talked about the importance of having a professional network.  This is essential because the best opportunities come through healthy professional relationships.

Building the network is one thing—and that’s accomplished in a number of different ways—but maintaining it is another.  There are so many great systems that can manage customer databases for you.  But the important thing is not the technology, but that you find a process that makes sense for your work style.

The best solution will:

  • Help you stay organized and connected
  • Do the busywork for you
  • Differentiate relationships
  • Identify likelihood of business
  • Integrate with different communication channels

Get Organized

Building the network is as simple as starting with the people you know and asking for their time.  Interview people and ask them for referrals and introductions.  Over time, these connections will lead to other connections that you save in your CRM system.

There are myriad options for CRM software.  There are big solutions from SalesforceMicrosoft, and Marketo, but for entrepreneurs, smaller systems like InfusionsoftInsightly, and SugarCRM are good possibilities.  Another option is Streak CRM, a browser plugin that works inside Gmail.

But like I said earlier, the tech is less important than the practice.  The form is less important than the discipline.  All you really need is to get organized, and if you’re really small like me, you start with a spreadsheet. Yep, Excel is the Swiss Army tool of the entrepreneur.

I started out by getting my contacts organized, including basic information like phone numbers, names, titles, email addresses, and the like.  But that’s just the beginning.  I also started saving interaction dates, details, follow-up dates, and actions for each contact.  That way, I created an automatic list of reminders to prompt me to stay in contact.

Learn the Mechanics of CRM

Like the solutions I mentioned above, CRM systems vary widely in their feature sets.  Some (like Salesforce) are designed for massive organizations with millions of customer records.  Some (like BoomTown!) are designed for specific industries like Real Estate.  And others (like Microsoft Dynamics) are known for the way they integrate with business intelligence, big data, analytics, and other intensive applications.  But the core of CRM is all about customer relationships.

CRM systems should, at the very least, help you build a composite picture of each lead and put actions around interactions.  Your system should go beyond contact information to include preferences, an interaction history, items for follow up, and next steps for each person.  And it’s also useful to score leads in a qualitative sense—to attribute a “temperature” to the rapport or quality of opportunity.  That way you can plan your approach with each person in a more personalized fashion.

Categorize Your Relationships

Every contact is a different person.  Consequently, every relationship is different.  Some are more professional, while others are more casual.  Some have more history and familiarity with you, while others may not know a thing about you.  Each person has unique challenges and needs and triggers, but it is useful to put them into broad categories.  That will allow you to focus your time on the most fruitful opportunities.

The basic categories include suspects, prospects, and customers.  Suspects are people you have little or no relationship with, but could become leads.  Prospects are individuals with whom you have some relationship, and could benefit from your products or services.  And customers are individuals who are actively working with you as clients.

Nurture Your Leads

The ideal process is to nurture suspects to become prospects, and prospects to become customers.  However, experience shows that most of your business will come from existing customers.  This illustrates the importance of taking care of your clients and asking for referrals.  Suspects can become clients, but if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to sales development, the best bet is to ask your existing customers for new leads.  Referrals can often short-circuit a long sales cycle.

So ask your clients for business.  If not from them, then from their contacts. Of course, ask trusted clients with whom you have a great rapport.  This takes some discretion; no one wants to be oversold.

And when it comes to prospecting, start with a light touch.  Phone calls are best for introductions, but emails can suffice.  Always leave something behind—a call to action or a link to a whitepaper—to make the introduction memorable and worthwhile for the individual.  Make a note of the introduction date so you can follow up at an appropriate time.

But what’s an appropriate follow-up time?  If suspects don’t respond, I reach out with progressively longer cycles—maybe starting at two weeks, then three weeks, and so on.  Eventually you may need to categorize them as unresponsive.  This illustrates why it’s important to have a system that can track interactions and map out future interaction dates.  Let the system do the thinking for you.

Use the Right Communication Channel

We have a plethora of communications tools at our disposal, which is great.  But it’s important to use the right channel for the situation and customer.  Much of our everyday communication has become very casual due to text and social messaging.  Text and social channels are great, but I only use them for individuals with whom I have a strong relationship.  You don’t want to come off as too glib with a prospect.

Email is a great low-risk communication tool for non-urgent interactions.  Like a voice mail message, it’s good for introductions to prospects.  And it doesn’t require a lot of planning or effort.  However, like text messages, meaning can be lost due to lack of visual and verbal cues.  So you have to be careful to convey the right meaning to your subject.

That’s why I always prefer face-to-face conversations for crucial conversations.  Most of communication is nonverbal, and when you address critical issues in written form, you run the risk of being misunderstood.  On the positive side, I believe you can be much more persuasive in person for this reason.

And yes, I write snail-mail letters.  They’re great for “thank you” notes, as I believe they convey thought and effort to the recipient.

Keep Your Focus on What Matters Most

Whatever you do, be careful to keep the right amount of focus on CRM.  Be prepared to scale it up or down depending on your opportunity pipeline.  But whether you have a large or small focus, it’s important to keep moving forward with some consistency.  Set up a system that works for you so you can focus on delivering value to your customers.

Jonathan King is Principal and Creative Director of J5MEDIA, a digital marketing consulting firm.