Sunday, September 7, 2003

Keep tabs on former customers


Entrepreneurs

By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

It's time to take my own advice. For years, I've preached the importance of staying in touch with past customers. After all, it's much easier - and cheaper - to make a sale to a past customer than to find and win a new one. One of Rhonda's Rules: "The best source of new business is old customers."

In fact, I've been dealing with customers the same way many small businesses do: take an order, ship it, send a bill, collect payment. Done!

But I believe in developing relationships with customers, not just making a sale. And I wasn't practicing what I was preaching.

You need a way to establish and maintain personal rapport with customers, keep track of your interactions with them, remember what they're interested in and their special needs, and stay on top of the things you're supposed to do.

But where do I keep my critical information on past customers?

Over the last few years, one of the hottest growth segments of the software industry has been "customer relationship management" (CRM).

But CRM programs are huge and cost a fortune. It was time to research software programs that would work for companies like mine.

I first called Salesforce.com, a company that pitches itself as providing CRM for small and medium businesses.

The program still looked way too expensive and complicated for a small business like mine. But here's a good deal: from its Web site, www.salesforce.com, you can download a free "personal edition" of the software and try it out. What do you have to lose?

Next, I called the people at Quickbooks.

My timing couldn't have been better. Parent company Intuit was announcing a new product - Customer Manager - designed to address some of the concerns I'm facing and available at the end of September.

Customer Manager will do many of the things I want. The idea is to create a customer "dashboard," where on one screen you can quickly see all of a customer's information - past purchases, current projects, appointments, related contacts, personal information, and more. That should make it easy for any person in the office to answer a question from a customer regardless of who answers the phone. It fully links to Quickbooks, so we can create invoices in either program and have it show up in the other.

An unexpected bonus is that Customer Manager can serve as a simple project manager program. We had looked into project management software a few years ago and found all of them cumbersome. So we'll give this a try.

Customer Manager still has some limitations, however. The biggest is that it's not going to take care of my current need: to easily create bulk e-mails to selected groups of customers. Intuit says that feature will be available in later versions. But it's a pretty inexpensive program (retail $79.95; less in warehouse clubs and office superstores) and you can preorder a free trial version from its Web site, www.customermanager.com. So, like salesforce.com, it's worth a look.

We're certainly going to give Customer Manager a try. After all, it's time I started taking my own advice and getting back in touch with my former customers.

Rhonda Abrams is the author of "The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies." To receive her free business tips newsletter, register at www.RhondaOnline.com.



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