Business Insights

Business Insights

The Marketing Director's View On CRM's

Is there a more contentious marketing issue for small to mid-size B2B businesses than CRM?

Of course, every business needs a customer relationship management system, but the damn things often seem like more of a hindrance than a help.

The trouble is, many B2B business leaders approach CRM systems as a necessity without being truly clear on what they want these tools to do for them. Choose well, and a CRM will function as the beating heart of your sales and marketing system – storing the latest data about your clients and prospects, having been entered by the sales team or captured automatically from your campaign tools and website. Get it wrong and it’s another ineffectual money pit to eff and blind at.

With that in mind, we gathered two of The Marketing Centre’s proven part-time Marketing Directors around the boardroom table to discuss the ins, the outs and the need to knows of CRM.

Bernard Page and Carolyn Graham.jpg

L: Bernard Page, part-time Marketing Director with The Marketing Centre

R: Carolyn Graham, part-time Marketing Director with The Marketing Centre


The Marketing Centre: Why is CRM so important to a small to mid-sized B2B businesses?

Bernard Page: CRM systems offer huge benefits to a business, if they’re used properly. My experience, however, is businesses often just use the sales order processing system, rather than utilising them fully.

Often prospects are not organised into warm or hot leads, users have no idea as to the next best action to take with leads and records tend to simply be date-stamped rather than capturing detailed information. The real opportunity is in using a CRM to join marketing and sales; to determine which leads are worth following up and which need further nurturing.

For smaller businesses that have limited resource, the potential of marketing automation is important. It’s for us as marketing directors to map out how best to use such tools.

Carolyn Graham: There are some really great CRM tools out there now that are specifically aimed at the small and mid-size B2B business, making them much more accessible. In days of old, your choice was Salesforce or Microsoft and iMax, which felt far too big and expensive for a smaller business.

At that time, CRMs were very much about managing big sales forces and helping to manage the whole sales process. Now, they’re as much about marketing automation as sales management, allowing everything in a small business to be joined up.

Several CRMs include features to help automate your marketing activity – by sending emails or monitoring customers’ web interactions, for example – or can be integrated with a business’ existing marketing technology stack. Having your customer data and your communications tools in a seamless system like this increases businesses’ marketing agility significantly..

I recommend to the businesses I work for that we have the website talking to the CRM system, the CRM system driving marketing automation, and have everything in one virtual circle, with the CRM at the hub. To make this work, any information we capture about a customer and their interaction with the brand needs to be fed back into the CRM, building up the most knowledgeable picture possible of our users and what they’re doing, allowing us to tailor our communications. Access to data of this type is a significant competitive advantage for any business.

TMC: If a business currently has no CRM, or has one that isn’t being used properly, what are they missing?

CG: Running everything through one system is more cost-efficient – something many businesses fail to appreciate, running more than one system in a bid to save money. Generally, every business I work for will have a website, and will normally use a tool like MailChimp or Dotmailer to manage email comms. The two systems aren’t connected at all, and the sales team are generally doing something altogether different – there’s no synergy between the different functions of the business. By bringing them all together through one CRM, you’re making the entire sales process smoother and more relevant.

It also allows you to identify low-hanging fruit. For example, if you know that lead A has visited your website three times in the last week because those visits have been tracked through your CRM, you can start to build up a profile of that visitor. It’s more efficient than the previous sales approach of shooting in the dark. If your CRM also tracks what they’ve been looking at, you also know where to start the conversation and tailor it for immediate relevance, improving your hit-rate.

BP: Exactly, and part of the challenge of implementing a CRM system is not the tech itself, but the soft sell; getting the sales and marketing teams to think differently about what could be done with the technology. CRM can help here – the notion of winning fast but also losing fast and moving on, by improving automation to put more into the sales pipeline.

CG: This is exactly what happened at an event agency I’m working for. They were using Sage, which only the outbound sales person had access to. Essentially, it was being used simply as a database of new business prospects. They had a website with some base-level Google Analytics, but no links to anything else.

We introduced Agile CRM as a cost-effective option that offers sales and marketing automation in equal measure. We rebuilt the website so it totally integrates with Agile and now, whenever a website visitor engages – signs up to the newsletter, fills out our web form or similar – their IP address is linked to Agile.

This gives us insight into how often customers visit the website and what they look at when they do. Our web objective is now to link everything to building our database, because the more we do so, the more we know about customer and prospect behaviour.

Agile is now at the heart of our marketing strategy, with all marketing automation driven from the system. Entire campaigns are automated: after action one, something happens; after action two, something else happens. It’s been accepted across sales and marketing, and the teams now know where the low-hanging fruit lies rather than just firing bullets and hoping something sticks.

In simple terms, it’s created more sales opportunities, better communication, and to capture leads 24 hours a day and start processing them.

TMC: Where do you see the pain points for the small businesses you work with? Can you see straight away whether their issues are down to their CRM?

BP: The biggest pain point I see is defining intention. Everybody wants to drive more sales, but where is the area of focus? In one company I’m working for, there’s a CRM system in place but it’s a bit of a white elephant: its value is unclear, but it’s where things are kept. The pain comes from a failure to understand how to extract value from it, but also how to create the right processes in the sales funnel that the CRM can help.

I asked them, “What does your sales funnel look like, how do prospects pass through and what are the key metrics?” They had no response – no view in terms of what was in the pipeline, which stage these prospects were at, and the likely outcome.

With no visibility into the sales pipeline, deals fall by the wayside, there’s no insight into how to attract more customers and that has a massive impact on potential future growth. Without the clarity a CRM affords, you naturally start to question the value of it.

At this particular business, sales calls would often be made with no structure or intention, other than telling them, “I’m here, don’t forget me”. A CRM system will help by creating a priority order and feeding through activities as and when needed.

CG: It’s also an incredible tool for tracking why you’re losing business – which is equally as important as knowing why you’re winning business. We now track every single pitch, sales opportunity and deal through the CRM, including reasons for losing business. Were we too expensive? Was it a design thing? Did they stay with their incumbent? This can then be visually represented in terms of graphs, reports and funnels: a visual representation that’s incredibly useful for the future.

TMC: So what are the steps involved in getting the process started and what are the common issues with getting going?

CG: Firstly, I think there’s a fear of switching systems, or of starting something new – particularly when it’s a little bit technical. In my experience, though, it’s been very easy to switch over. My main piece of advice would be to be crystal clear about what you want your CRM to capture, before doing anything.

As with anything, it’s important to get it right first time, which will cause far less pain down the line. By establishing exactly what data you want to capture, these rules can be applied across the board going forward so that every record in your CRM matches.

It’s also important that the entire business is invested in the CRM, that it’s not seen just as something that the marketing team are doing. I’m finding it’s the marketing team who are driving businesses to adopt a CRM, but it works best when it’s there to support the sales team. It’s important to show, visually, the opportunities a CRM creates, and explain that the outcomes are 100% down to what you put into it. Everyone needs to be invested, everyone needs to be using it: it should be a company policy with appropriate training.

As Bernard mentioned, it’s not just about new leads, but also about customer management. So, if we don’t win a pitch, we record when they’re next likely to pitch. We set a task or a reminder at that point, so in twelve or eighteen months’ time, when you need to contact that prospect, the system can do this automatically.

BP: I agree, it’s about looking forward. What does success look like for the business – or, if they don’t know, what can we recommend? From a rich description of what the business is trying to achieve and their desired outcome, we can plan how the CRM will work.

If they say, “Oh, we want to do marketing automation”, we drill down further, asking questions like “Well, what does marketing automation look like to you?” They respond with, “We want to increase our conversion speed”, we ask, “OK, what would that look like to you, in terms of speed, cycle times and steps?” From there, we can build out a full CRM brief that ensures we build a solution that fully meets their needs and expectations.

We can then start building out campaigns or follow ups via email or telephone, testing campaigns through the system to create an action chain. It’s that testing and that ability to learn and optimise that offers the real benefit, and that ensures that we create something the rest of the business can keep up with.

TMC: You’ve mentioned the likes of the big players like Salesforce, and other options like Agile. What are your recommendations in terms of CRMs for smaller businesses?

CG: I’m using Agile with four or five businesses. The reason I like it is that it’s as much about sales as it is about marketing, and it’s specifically designed for smaller businesses. It’s also accessible from a price perspective: there is a free option, and at a base level, you can access it from about £10 per user per month.

It does have its frustrations and its limitations, as they all do to be honest, but every time we stop and explore the market and look at whether we could switch, we keep coming back to Agile from a familiarisation point of view.

BP: We’re using Prospect 365 – totally different from the big Oracle solutions like Adobe that I’ve used in the past, which were almost bespoke, one-off developments. I’ve not really got under the bonnet of Prospect 365 yet, and I’m more focused on the applications and opportunities, rather than the technology. I’ll be looking at Agile now, though, to make sure we have the best solution for what we currently need.

CG: Certainly for an off-the-shelf, entry-level package that offers a reasonable amount of customisation, Agile works for me. When you’re trying to sell something into a business that’s never had a CRM before, it can be quite scary: I remember getting quotes for one business that included a consultancy fee for set-up, and the total was £20,000 before we even started.

Smaller businesses just don’t have that kind of budget available. That’s why I liked Agile: it’s accessible, cloud-based, and you can sign up for free and start using it within ten minutes. I think once you get to a certain size, have a certain number of contacts or a certain number of people in your organisation who need logins, it may get to the point where it’s less cost-effective and you’re better off looking at one of the bigger systems, but for small businesses, it’s ideal.

But whether it’s Hubspot, Salesforce, Infusionsoft or whatever, each had its own foibles, positives and negatives. The key is to know what you need it to do first.

TMC: How long has it taken you and the businesses you work for to get up to speed with a new CRM?

CG: It all depends on how we plan on using it. To use it to its full potential, you need to allow time for your web guys to connect your website to the CRM, then agree who will be responsible – assuming you have an existing CRM or customer database somewhere – for transferring or uploading data to the new system.

Typically, I find that data can be uploaded very quickly. The key thing is to be absolutely clear on what you want to upload, which will partly be driven by what you already have, and partly what you’d like to know about new contacts going forward.

Connecting your website to the CRM should take no more than a week or two. You could be up and running comfortably a month after creating your spec sheet and analysing current data and objectives.

TMC: Bernard, you’ve come from working with big businesses with big systems – do you have any insight on what may come down the line in the next couple of years for the small business market?

BP: The big one is artificial intelligence – machine learning and personalisation.

That’s interesting for B2B organisations, as you might argue that what they’re offering should be individual and bespoke to the customer. You can imagine, though, a CRM thinking about next best actions and case management: using machine learning to determine that the best next step with a particular prospect is to send somebody out to visit the site, to create an email action chain, or to send them a sample.

AI and machine learning are certainly key for the big retailers: things like decision engines, which have the same philosophy as the CRM.

TMC: Do you have any final thoughts for the beleaguered business owner who’s struggling with an inefficient sales team, doesn’t know what data they have and is thinking about CRM options?

CG: Just do it. It’s a lot more accessible, cheaper and easier to use than they probably perceive it to be. Today, CRM is available for all businesses, and is not just something that’s exclusive to big organisations with big budgets.

BP: A CRM can certainly do the heavy lifting for them, and it will also be able to generate a speed of learning that they won’t achieve by doing the same things manually. It will probably also give some unexpected outcomes too, taking them down different paths to before.

CG: I asked one business last week, “I presume you regularly click the visitors button in Agile?” They had no idea what it was, so I demonstrated how it showed everyone from Agile who had recently visited their website. I told them, “That’s your sales list. That’s your low-hanging fruit. That’s who you target”. They couldn’t believe how many hours it would save of wasted time, chasing people that were unlikely to buy.

It just goes to show that there are some very simple, very quick wins that come from using a CRM, that businesses can start to benefit from immediately. The critical thing is to get all your systems talking to each other, which doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to do. All you need is someone with the right tech knowledge to get your website talking to your CRM system and your analytics system, and off you go.

Key takeaways:

  • A CRM doesn’t need to be expensive or complex - there are options designed specifically for small businesses.

  • A CRM is not simply a database - it can streamline and automate the entire sales funnel.

  • Much can be done with existing systems that are currently underused.

  • It is important to establish overall objectives before deciding on a CRM, to ensure maximum benefit.

The relationship between your sales and marketing team is only one key element in your marketing activity. Find out how the rest perform in your business, with our free Marketing 360 Healthcheck.


Image credit:

By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Written by Cal Graham

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