Amid the frenzy and excitement of starting your own small business, the need to evaluate and procure technology systems is probably the least interesting task on your to-do list.

But choosing the right technology arsenal for your growing small business is a critical process, even if it's hard to imagine how certain systems will fit into your operations both now and in the future.

For small businesses, customer relationship management (CRM) software is one of those potential head-scratchers. CRM is technically nonessential, but it's designed to help you build and maintain better relationships with your customers and drive higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.

At its simplest, CRM software is a database of customer interactions that businesses use to help their sales teams and service reps increase sales and improve customer service. Depending on a company's needs, CRM could merely help facilitate the transfer of customer data to the cloud, or include more sophisticated features to help teams collaborate with colleagues, communicate with customers, send personalized emails and gather insights from social media interactions.

Without a CRM system, most businesses handle customer connections and information using the old-fashioned staples: Excel spreadsheets, Google documents, email or even note cards and Rolodex. These things work fine for some small businesses, but they offer little in terms of scalability and customer insight.

"The roofing industry, in general, isn't known as early adopters of new business technology," said Mason Tuttle, business systems analyst for Malarkey Roofing Products in Portland, Oregon. "Before CRM, we relied on Excel sheets officially, but a lot of customer interaction was also in employees' email inboxes."

Tuttle said Malarkey Roofing was able to tie together all of the customer data that was living in Excel, Microsoft Access data and data from the company's accounting systems into one centralized location. "It has made us more organized and efficient," he said.

Before you begin comparing CRM software vendors, you must first determine whether a CRM system is right for your business.

Some companies start using CRM because they want to track sales right from the start; others do it for the insights into customer interactions or to automate certain processes as they grow. Try to factor in not just where you are today, but where you want to be in a year from now, once the pace of sales and customer acquisition has gained speed.

"As soon as you have something to sell, and as soon as you have customers who you want to build and maintain strong relationships with, CRM becomes necessary," said Clint Oram, "If utilized correctly, CRM is the tool that helps a small business offer a superior experience to their customers."

In the case of Malarkey Roofing, the decision was based on need. The company wanted to implement a centralized data model and a system that would improve and streamline business processes. Combined with a desire to evaluate things like sales growth strategies, CRM became the logical next step.

For some businesses, a simple contact manager is probably more than capable of handling customer relationships. If you're running a one or two-person operation and get little or no repeat business, for instance, a full-blown CRM system will be overkill. Same goes if you have only a few large customers -- it really depends on where you are as a business and what your goals are for the long term.


Choosing a vendor

First and foremost, you want to pick a CRM system that you can afford. When it comes to cost, however, the sticker price is only part of the equation.

"Some CRM providers have gotten away with publishing one price, and then locking customers into their cloud and charging them for API calls, usage upcharges and storage fees," said Oram. "I strongly believe simple and straightforward pricing should be the rule of the day so businesses can make their CRM initiative a strategic differentiator at a cost that works for them."

You also want to pick a CRM system that will make your business life easier. For the technically challenged, that means choosing a system that is low-code or no-code and easy to operate without a designated IT department.

Beyond usability, consider the level of automation the system offers, how mobile-friendly the system is, as well as options for third-party integrations, reporting and analytics, and security. Also look for a company that ranks high in customer support and offers straightforward contact information to help you resolve issues

On the other hand, be on the lookout for CRM systems that may overstuff their offerings. Oram's take is that SMBs are best served by core CRM functionality, and should avoid vendors that push feature after feature that's not really necessary or useful.

"I call this concept 'CRM bloatware,'" Oram said. "I'd advise SMBs to carefully evaluate vendors and find a company that is focused solely on CRM. If CRM is only a fraction of what they do, you're unlikely to find the company that is willing to be a true partner."