Todd had the pleasure of chatting with CRM (customer relationship management) guru Brent Leary, who was kind enough to offer his expertise and insight on CRM and what it means (and can mean) for small to medium-sized businesses.

Mr. Leary has over 15 years of IT and management consulting experience and has worked on projects for PricewaterhouseCoopers, BellSouth, Compaq, the IMF and the World Bank. Most recently Mr. Leary has written an eBook  “Strategically Social: 5 Keys to Becoming a Social Business” where he offers tips on how companies can leverage social tools and channels to listen to and engage with their customers in a variety of ways.

Todd: First of all, we just want to thank you again for taking the time to talk with us today. Let’s start with an easy question: we’ve just stepped into an elevator, what is your “pitch”?

Brent: I’ve been involved with CRM since before it was CRM. I started developing applications for electronic territory management systems, and then really got involved in the early 2000s with software as a service (Salesforce) and then eventually moved from implementation to best practice, leadership and showing companies how to leverage CRM.

Todd: A lot of CRM systems are designed with a “one-size” fits all approach in mind; in your opinion is that a disadvantage for small-medium sized businesses (SMB’s)?

Brent: I think the reason you haven’t seen them to date is that small businesses are really just starting to warm up to CRM because its more accessible, it’s easier to use, and it’s more cost efficient now. The social component has kind of invigorated the CRM market, which is why you haven’t seen a lot of verticalization at the SMB level yet. SMB’s are really (just) embracing CRM now as opposed to 3 or 4 years ago.

Todd: Many or our readers are small-medium sized business owners and managers. What would you say to smaller companies who may not feel they need a CRM?

Brent: I’d say that its’ time to wake up (laughter) .CRM at the SMB level has gone from nice to have, to need to have, to GOT to have if you want to stay in business and really build relationships with the social customer. What’s really been the drawing factor for small businesses is the whole social component because it’s used to engage people. It’s not just operationally efficient, it covers the two challenges that company’s face; finding new customers and extending relationships with current customers.

Todd: What is the biggest mistake people make when attempting to implement a CRM on their own?

Brent: The common theme is that (businesses) think that writing the cheque is the hardest part, and that by buying the technology everything else will magically fall in to place. If you don’t do the upfront work and understand your challenges and what processes need to be in place, no matter what system you get, it’s just going to fail faster.

Todd: Do you think that true SCRM is possible through channels like Twitter and Facebook? Why or why not?

Brent: The obvious answer is yes you can; but it’s not in a vacuum, it’s part of an overarching strategy. Just because (a company) is on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t mean you don’t use emails or pick up the phone anymore. All of these things are just channels you’ve got to find the right mix. The best place to start is with your best customers. Ask them which social networks they use, how they use them, which bloggers in the industry they listen to; what are the things that are important to them? This will give you a much better idea of who to engage and what channels to use.

Todd: Are you finding a new breed of customer service training for Twitter?

Brent: Absolutely. There are a number of companies that train their customer service people to respond on social networks because it’s different responding on Twitter than to a phone call. A customer service rep might be good on the phone but not good on Twitter, so training is important.

Todd: Who (person, company, developer) is doing it “right” in terms of SMB’s CRM? Why?

Brent: There’s no one company because (it’s) such a fragmented market. I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges when it comes to small business CRMs. There are so many different needs they have from one another it’s hard for any one company to rule the market. I think Zoho has a good CRM offering that gives a lot of the meat and potato needs of a small business at a very attractive price point. Sugar CRM is another one that’s providing a good CRM service at a price small business can easily consume. You have companies like Batchblue who have a really good CRM for the small guys. 37 signals and Highrise is another one. There are a number of solutions out there and the list keeps growing.

Todd: This has been great. You’ve brought up some really interesting points about CRM for our SMB readers.  We really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to talk with us, thanks again.

Brent:  Thanks a lot, take care.

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A Life Worth Celebrating

Ellie is a budding fashionista, an aspiring equestrian, and an avid dancer and gymnast. She also has a rare metabolic disorder, but she doesn’t let it define her.