Using CRM to Get More Work and Stay Sane

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats remembering that you should have called Mike to follow up about the pitch you did a couple of weeks ago?

Do you get up the next morning, start your day, feel the heat, and then forget to call Mike, only to wake up in the middle of the night again.

If your days are beginning to resemble Bill Murray's in Groundhog Day, then don't worry. I'm going to share a solution that has worked for me.

You see, I used to have great intentions about following up with clients, coworkers, etc. But sometimes the execution was a little bit lacking. You know what they say about the path being paved with good intentions...

Anyway, after flirting with various productivity techniques (and having mixed results) , I decided to break off something manageable that would have an immediate impact on how I run my business. For the last year, I've been using a CRM tool to record interactions with customers, and create simple tasks and reminders about what to do next. Getting all the little tasks that I need to do recorded so that they don't consume mental energy has stuck with me.

Rather than telling you what CRM tool to use, I'm going to focus on how I use it (Highrise if you must know), some of the lessons that I've learned, and what the benefits have been.

The problem is that we just aren't wired to keep up with hundreds of people...

Try as we might, it's hard to maintain relationships with large numbers of people.

In the early 1990's British Evolutionary Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, released a study that showed that we can't maintain stable and meaningful relationships with more than an average of 150 people (the actual range was 100-230).

This social and cognitive limit is so deeply entrenched that it has been adopted as an organizational principle by some businesses. For example, the company that makes GORE-TEX decided to cap the size of its factories at 150 people after finding out that communication and community broke down in larger facilities.

I know of some creative agencies, like Taxi, that have followed a similar approach, starting up new units rather than letting a single office get too big. As offices get too big, people lose touch with who they work with and how they are related.

Some would argue that social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook can help you circumvent Dunbar's number, as they allow you to connect with much larger numbers of people. But it's doubtful whether they actually increase the number of meaningful relationships that people can sustain. When Rick Lax, a writer with Wired magazine, tried to prove that he could have a personal interaction with each one of his 2000 friends, he failed miserably.

This isn't to say that these networks are useless. They help foster loose relationships, and research has shown that you are more likely to discover things like jobs through loose networks (where you are connected with a large and diverse group of people that don't know each other) than you are through your closely related network of friends and family. These networks are likely to provide a source of unique information at a relatively low cost.

So if social networks aren't enough to deepen relationships with customers, what is the right tool to build and maintain relationships with the large number of people necessary to grow a business like ScreenLight?

Diligently using a contact management and CRM system was my answer to the problem of how to build closer relationships with a growing list of prospects, customers, industry influencer's, etc., while balancing my relationships with my existing network of friends and family. Even with the tool, this is no small task, but I've found things have gotten much easier.

How I'm using a CRM tool to build better relationships

When I talk of CRM, I'm not talking about the complex tools that bog down big corporations with multi-year implementations and all sorts of cultural change required to get people using them.

What I'm talking about is more of a glorified contact management system that integrates with my email program and allows me to set tasks. Here is how I use it.

I think like Santa and record everything

My grade school fears of having a permanent record have disappeared. It's actually really helpful.

I try to complete as much of the contact information on a person as I can. Name, company, descriptive tags, LinkedIn profile, Twitter, how they found our company, where they are in our sales funnel, etc. Likewise, I try to forward all the relevant email interactions into my CRM system, and I log phone conversations, meeting notes, etc.

All of this makes it easier to find a person or pull up a conversation when I can't remember exactly who or what I'm looking for. As the number of people I interact with increases, I find that it's harder keep all the threads of conversation straight. The more information I have, the easier it is for me to search and find it later.

Having their social network profiles plugged into the CRM system makes it easier for me to listen to what they are talking about. Duct Tape Marketing makes a good point that customers scatter sales clues if you listen actively. To be honest, I haven't done nearly as much as I can in terms of pulling this information into my tool, but it's an area I would like to improve on.

The key benefit of capturing everything is that when I have a phone conversation or get ready for a meeting it's really easy to prepare, and I feel like my thoughts are already organized. If someone calls with a support question, I can quickly pull up all my notes from previous conversations.

Customers appreciate that I'm organized and that I remember details of our previous conversations. This saves them time repeating themselves or trying to remember where we left off. It also makes it clear that I've listened to what they've said and that I'm trying to go deeper than my competitors in terms of understanding their pain points.

Is the experience somehow less authentic because I'm using a tool to help me out? I don't think so. The way I see it, the tool takes care of the basics (managing contacts and remembering what was said), so I can focus my attention on doing things of value for my customers.

After each interaction I figure out what my next step is

When I jump off the phone with someone my natural tendency is to jump on to the next task.

Since I've started using my CRM tool, I've realized the importance of slowing down after a conversation to reflect on it. I'll distill the conversation down and think about what the next step is in terms of building the relationship. Pausing also has other benefits. If the conversation is a support call or somebody is asking for a feature, I'll make sure that I capture that information and categorize it so that we can use it for prioritizing our development.

Once I've figured out the next step, or when I should follow up with someone again, I'll turn it into a task and set a reminder to do it. Once that is done, I don't have to keep all of the calls that I need to make cycling through my head.

I try to provide value with each interaction

When people think of CRM, they often think about pushy salespeople who have setup a reminder to call you every week and pressure you into spending money. I'm not sure how that builds relationships and it's the wrong way to use these tools.

Instead, I try think about my next step in terms of how I can help a customer or provide value to the person I'm contacting. This can be everything from sending articles they might be interested in, ideas on how to improve their workflow, and solutions to some of the problems we may have talked about. If you have a white paper, ebook, or something of value to provide, it's much easier to keep the conversation going.

The key here is framing the interaction in a way that makes it clear what's in it for your client or potential client.

I've made a commitment to using it

When I've tried to adopt productivity techniques like GTD in the past, I've tried to boil the ocean. The thing I've found about changing your entire workflow is that it works for a little while, and then all of a sudden it doesn't. In this case, I decided to bite off one part of my job where I wanted to improve, and I committed to it.

By biting off a relatively small part of a productivity or task management system, I've found it easier to commit. And the one thing that I've learned is that consistency is one of the keys to any productivity system. If some of my stuff is in my CRM or task management tool and some of it's in my head, I find it hard to relax and the midnight sweats start to reappear.

I can't say that I have the perfect workflow, or even that I make the best use out of my CRM tool. What I can say is that I've seen results. I feel like I'm on top of connecting with people and following up. For our business, this means that I'm providing better support, getting better feedback from customers, and on the road to building lasting relationships with new prospects.

Now that I've got this aspect of my workday down, I can attack other areas where I'm working sub-optimally like multitasking and making sure that the time I spend on each task closely aligns with my priorities like building connections through blogging.

I'm really interested in hearing about how you manage client relationships. What tools do you use? What tips to you have on doing it effectively? Are you using any other productivity tools that you can share with me?