It's time to take my own advice. For years, I've preached the importance of staying in touch with past customers. After all, it's much easier -- and cheaper -- to make a sale to a past customer than to find and win a new one. One of Rhonda's Rules: "The best source of new business is old customers."

In fact, I've been dealing with customers the same way many small businesses do: take an order, ship it, send a bill, collect payment. Done!

But, I believe in developing relationships with customers, not just making a sale. And I wasn't practicing what I was preaching.

Like all relationships, customer relationships have a "life cycle," progressing from one stage to another:

  • Prospect
  • Point of sale
  • Order fulfillment
  • Billing and payment
  • Customer service/support
  • Additional sales/re-sell

In each stage, you need a way to establish and maintain personal rapport, keep track of your interactions, remember what they're interested in and their special needs, and stay on top of the things you're supposed to do.

But where do I keep my critical information on past customers?

  • Our bookkeeping program (Quickbooks) contains direct sales data
  • Our SQL server stores information about online sales
  • My address book (Microsoft Outlook) contains contact information of my personal clients
  • My word processing program files (Microsoft Word) also has information about some clients
  • And then, of course, there's that stack of business cards I'm going to file "some day."

It's pretty much the same for most small businesses, and large corporations are often in worse shape. Indeed, over the last few years, one of the hottest growth segments of the software industry has been "customer relationship management" (CRM).

But CRM programs are huge and cost a fortune. It was time to research software programs that would work for companies like mine.

I first called, a company that pitches itself as providing CRM for small and medium businesses. Unfortunately, Salesforce didn't return my calls, so I was limited to looking around their website.

The program still looked way too expensive and complicated for a small business like mine. But here's a good deal: from their website, you can download a free "personal edition" of the software and try it out. What do you have to lose?

Next, I called the people at Quickbooks. I've been a paid consultant and speaker for Intuit, the parent company of Quickbooks, so I figured I could find someone with tricks on how to "data mine" my Quickbooks accounts.

My timing couldn't have been better. Intuit was announcing a new product -- Customer Manager -- designed to address some of the concerns I'm facing. I got to see a preview version of Customer Manager, available the end of September.

Customer Manager will do many of the things I want. The idea is to create a customer "dashboard," where on one screen you can quickly see all of a customer's information -- past purchases, current projects, appointments, related contacts, personal information, and more. That should make it easy for any person in the office to answer a question from a customer regardless of who answers the phone. It fully links to Quickbooks so we can create invoices in either program and have it show up in the other (and we can easily export our existing Quickbook records to Customer Manager).

An unexpected bonus is that Customer Manager can serve as a simple project manager program. We had looked into project management software a few years ago and found all of them cumbersome. So we'll give this a try.

Customer Manager still has some limitations, however. The biggest is that it's not going to take care of my current need: to easily create bulk e-mails to selected groups of customers. Intuit says that feature will be available in later versions. But it's a pretty inexpensive program (retail $79.95; less in warehouse clubs and office superstores) and you can pre-order a free trial version from their website, So, like, it's worth a look.

We're certainly going to give Customer Manager a try. After all, it's time I started taking my own advice and getting back in touch with my former customers.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies and president of The Planning Shop. To receive her free business tips newsletter, register at