The Customer is King

By Nimish Chandiramani Published Date
01 - Mar - 2008
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2008
The Customer is King

It’s already widely accepted that Customer Relationship Management (CRM) can boost your business significantly, not to mention make your customers happy—what if you could implement it for your company at little or no cost?

Consider this: you’ve called up, say, your mobile service provider to resolve an issue you’re having with your connection. Once it’s been addressed, the customer service executive informs you of a special offer on tariffs—you think, “Ah! This fits perfectly with my usage”, and accept the offer. You disconnect, satisfied and impressed. No coincidence, this—if you’ve ever been satisfied with customer service, it’s because your service provider is using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution that gives them all the information they need to know what will make you happy.

What And Why

CRM solutions let you do just that—manage your relationships with customers—making sure that service requests are responded to in a timely manner, for instance. For you as a businessperson, it means that all your customer information is consolidated in one database, making it easier for you to identify opportunities for further sales. Like the example above, a CRM solution will let you track all your customers’ history, so when you start a new sales campaign, you’ll know which customers are likely to buy your product. You’ll get your income, and your customer will walk away satisfied, which will eventually translate into even more income. Everybody wins.

Indirectly, you’ll even be able to better your products (or services, as the case may be). For example, if your customers are having trouble with a certain feature in your product, you can use this information to amend the product’s manual, or even change the product itself.

Before you decide to opt for a CRM solution, however, you should ask yourself whether you really need it. If you handle a lot of repeat business, then you’ll benefit tremendously from a CRM solution—especially if your sales force isn’t the size of a battalion. Even a small travel agency, for example, may have a few thousand loyal customers without having more than ten employees. With a CRM solution, the agency can track feedback on customers’ trips, their suggestions, their travel patterns, and based on all that information, keep them informed of special packages that they’re most likely to purchase. By targeting the right customers for a package, salespeople won’t waste their time listening to the dreaded “Not interested”. In fact, they’ll be able to handle even more customers with the same effort!

If, on the other hand, you’re always trying to snag new customers, and your existing customer database is for reference only, a contact management solution will work, and won’t be as much of a headache to manage as a full-blown CRM system.

CRM solutions are typically big investments, but the cost of “commercial” open source software is significantly lower than a proprietary solution. Commercial Open Source means that the software and source code is available free of cost, but you pay for additional features, customisation and support. If you’re comfortable with that, you can download the software, deploy it on a server and get cracking right away...

Give Me Some Sugar

Most commercial open source CRM solutions offer you a free online demo, so you can see which one works best for you. After foraging a little, we’re very impressed with SugarCRM—it’s undoubtedly popular (the site claims over 500 downloads a day), and is definitely one worth considering. It’s available as a free Community Edition, or you can choose to purchase one of their paid solutions. Sugar On-Demand is an option you could consider if you don’t want to host the software yourself—it’s hosted on SugarCRM’s own servers, and available to you from wherever you have access to the Internet. At $40 (Rs 1,600) per month per user (for Sugar Professional; $75 (Rs 3,000) for Sugar Enterprise), it might be worth it if you’d end up spending more on the IT infrastructure.

Sugar’s home page gives you a quick run-down of what’s expected of you today

Sugar’s interface can look a little scary—it aims at large enterprises as well—but once you start exploring it, you’ll see that it’s logically laid out, and you’re always only a couple of clicks away from the information you need. When you log in to the system, you see a list of things that demand your attention—calls you have to make, issues to resolve, meetings for the day and so on. There’s also a Jotpad to type notes to yourself. Your individual home page is fully customisable, and you can drag the “dashlets” around to suit your needs. You can also add more dashlets, including a Space Invaders clone for those slow days.

Flash-based tutorials on Sugar’s Web site ease your learning process

The tabs at the top are self-explanatory—click on them to manage contacts, customer accounts, marketing campaigns and so on. They also let you manage sales leads—people who are your first contacts before a deal is finalised—and potential sales opportunities, so if one salesperson is unavailable, another can follow up with the lead and close the sale. This ensures that your income isn’t affected if unforeseen circumstances put a salesperson out of commission.

The row of links under the tabs shows you areas that you’ve visited recently, so you can get back to, say, a customer account from the Opportunities screen in a flash, without having to search or navigate a list all over again.

Sugar also has an online library to help you get started with the software—just click on the Training link at the top right. You can also view a number of Flash-based demos on their Web site——which will walk you through using and administering Sugar.

And now, to ensure that you don’t end up with a dirty database...

Keeping It Sane

What good is a tool for creating a customer database if the data itself is garbled, duplicated many times over, or just plain inconsistent throughout? Bad quality data can be the bane of a good CRM system, but it’s fairly easy to avoid if you address the problem before it even begins. You’ll need to set down rules for using your CRM system, and ensure that everyone knows them.

First of all, access rights—you’ll need to decide who gets to create, edit or delete customer records. With a proper access hierarchy, you’ll ensure that data is manipulated only by people who know what they’re doing.

Second, enforce a policy to check for duplicates before creating any new customer accounts. This is crucial for new salespeople on your team, for whom customer names won’t be familiar at all. Duplicate records might have annoying consequences—a support request on one record may go ignored because everyone was referring to the duplicate, for example.

Third, decide on a convention for company names and acronyms—whether you’re going to use IBM or I.B.M., for example. The same applies for places—whether you’re going to use Delhi or New Delhi, for example. This will prove handy when you’re searching for customer records. Also, decide how you’re going to use uppercase letters—whether data will all be in capitals or title case (the first letter capital). You’ll notice the former in a lot of bulk e-mails that you get; it involves less effort—no worrying about the [Shift] key ever—but isn’t visually appealing at all.

To make it easier for you to track your sales team’s progress, decide on when the system is to be updated—would a salesperson create a new entry as soon as the customer is acquired, or wait till the end of the day to key in all the day’s customers?

Finally, spellcheck—typos in your e-mails look very unprofessional. When speaking to a customer, make sure the spelling of their name is verified—misspelling a name is a very effective way of having your e-mail deleted in a second.

If you’ve already got yourself a messy database, there’s no better way to fix it than to start getting in touch with customers again—you’ll be able to get updated data, and re-connect with your customers, so to speak.

Other Options

If you’re not a large company, it doesn’t make sense to even consider a proprietary CRM solution—licenses can go as high as $995 (Rs 39,800) per year for just five users—it’s the commercial open source solutions we’ll stick to. DaffodilCRM ( is another promising solution—not quite as polished as Sugar, but quite usable. Their online demo is down as of this writing; you might have to download and deploy it to check it out. A big plus is that the company’s based in India, so you’ll have better access to support. The support plans, however, are a tad unreasonably priced for our tastes.

CentricCRM (now ConcourseSuite— has also been well-received online, and unlike other open source solutions that are AMP (Apache-MySQL-PHP)-based, this is based on the J2EE platform. Setting it up on your own server can be tricky—you’ll have to compile the source code yourself—so the on-demand option is much better.

Bottom line: no matter which solution you choose, you’ll see significant benefits to your business before you know it.

Nimish ChandiramaniNimish Chandiramani