Find out where CRM expert Jon Cline thinks customer relationship management is headed, the benefits it offers, and what business leaders should expect from a CRM solution.

Jon Cline is a customer relationship management (CRM) veteran with more than a decade of consulting experience, including his work as a registered partner with since 2003. He recently sold Enthusiast Solutions (, which he co-founded in 1999, to launch Hip3 Marketing ( and focus on CRM, along with Internet marketing and lead generation. His clients have included The American Film Institute, Telecare, and MAP Management Development. He has assisted hundreds of companies through his speaking, writing, and coaching on relationship management and Internet marketing. Here’s his take on where CRM is headed.

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 #1: How is CRM changing and what does the business owner need to be aware of?

At the heart of CRM is the benefit of having the customer record at the center of the data universe rather than multiple galaxies of transactions held in separate, transaction-specific apps. So the innovation lies in new and improved visibility for putting information to use in intelligent decision making. Companies that used to serve 100 are serving 10,000, and with this kind of scaling, better top-level tools and custom dashboards are where I see CRM continuing to morph and advance.

#2: Who are the newcomers to the CRM landscape?

It is such a hot area right now, there are literally hundreds. But two I have been following are Zoho and HighRise. Both are niche vendors that have garnered great contact lists with their other products and created relatively simple implementations for their clients and others. They both illustrate the fact that CRM is no longer esoteric — it is going mainstream, which is a great thing for business, particularly customer service and data security.

#3: How much should I plan to spend on a good solution?

That’s always a tough question, given that applications vary widely in price based on whether it’s a hosted or installed delivery model, user-based or organization-wide subscription model, or a per-gigabyte or other data model. I would use the cost-per-sale and cost-per-lead values to help determine what a system is worth to a business. For most customers, services are going to be anywhere from $20 to $350 per month per user.

#4: What exactly should I be expecting CRM to do for me?

This is an important question, as there are many misconceptions about software and CRM in particular. Besides some fundamentals, like data security and access and ease of use, CRM will primarily help you do what you do anyway, but move it to the next level. If your main focus is customer service, CRM will help you monitor, deliver, and measure your effectiveness. If your goal is a flat organization where the right hand knows immediately what the left hand is doing, CRM will help you be informed about the customer’s world and not just what relates to your department or team.

#5: What are your expectations for CRM in the next five years?

First, I expect CRM to become much more commonplace. Players like Zoho and 37signals (Highrise) are knocking down barriers to entry. I also expect to see some consolidation. I think the bigger players, like Salesforce, Microsoft, and SAP, will buy up some of their smaller rivals to build into their suites and migrate their user bases. As long as the acquiring provider keeps the connections intact during the migration and meets a similar price point, it will be a win-win. I also think we’ll be seeing more mobile-friendly applications, like Salesforce’s Visualforce and NetSuite’s iPhone, to maximize data access and timeliness.

#6: What are the most common mistakes you see companies make with CRM?

Many organizations use Outlook BCM or Excel for managing their contacts, which offer no planning or setup process — just create a column or type in a field and get started. This causes problems when information is related and the flexible aspects of the previous solution are overlooked. There are real benefits that won’t happen without understanding the new vernacular; the specific way the new solution describes the data. For example, an “account” in Salesforce may not be the same as an “account” in Highrise. In fact, it might have another name altogether, such as “company.” Understanding how the particular vendor uses “leads” or “opportunities” will help to avoid a great deal of frustration.

#7: Do you have a few key best practices someone considering CRM can use?

Yes, I have three that anyone can use. First, consider your future needs. Look down the road and ask “How many contacts will I have in five years?” “How many salespeople will I have?” “How many of my people will need real-time access to this information at home or on their phones and PDAs?” “How much would it cost me to replace these contacts?”

Second, take the opportunity to clean up your data now. Moving to a CRM solution is an opportunity to start with a clean version of accurate data. De-duplicate and otherwise scrub the data to minimize the possibility of needing to import twice. For example, the flexibility of Excel and Outlook BCM allow placing incorrectly formatted information in their fields. This data will not import well without some good planning.

Third, be sure to communicate throughout the process and get early buy-in. The biggest focus of with its customers is adoption. Members of your team are influencers in their departments. Leverage their expertise and influence by building a team to help you make decisions about the solution. Even if you disagree, listening, acknowledging, and respecting will build loyalty and acceptance within the process.

#8: What advantages might CRM have for specific verticals?

The answer to this question is not if but how much. Since CRM helps you do what you do better, if you are in a professional services company with long sales cycles, project terms, and frequent interactions and touch points, CRM will be exponentially more valuable to you. So service businesses, like lawyers, consultants, and accountants, are ripe for CRM but often have a technological aversion and a strong status quo to maintain.

#9: Does CRM fall more to sales or marketing in most organizations?

In my experience, marketing is somewhat of a new concept in CRM. Sales is definitely involved, but most often it is operations leading the charge.

#10: What are my best resources for finding out more about CRM?

One resource I would recommend any company create for itself is a one- to two-page document that answers the best practice questions above and includes input from the team. Send it to five vendors your team has selected and go over the proposals to see which companies address you as a unique business — not just with a customizable offering but as a discrete business. Here are a few good sites I would recommend to anyone considering a solution: