When Northwest Tech set its sights on supercharging its business performance last year, the manufacturer and distributor of customized outerwear knew just what to look for: a customer relationship management system. Not long ago, serious CRM technology was out of reach for most small and medium-size businesses, like Northwest Tech, because it required a commitment of time, capital, and IT resources that only enterprise organizations could afford. Thanks to the emergence of cloud-based SaaS (software as a service) applications, however, that is decidedly no longer the case.

"We needed a user-friendly tool that integrated into our lead generation programs, allowed us to pass custom data fields, define lead statuses, analyze and report on sales performance and manage all our customer and vendor contact information in one central place." says Northwest Tech CEO Nick Marvik. That wish list led him to a cloud-based CRM application from Insightly that provides Northwest Tech with consolidation, agility, and sales reporting muscle.

While the drop in costs certainly has more small companies taking a second look at CRM, so do improvements in usability. "The ability to look up lead information, opportunity value, and current lead statuses quickly allows us to retrieve and respond to information faster than our competitors," Marvik says. "Most important, Insightly provides data and insights into our B2B sales funnel, which allows us to identify key areas that may need further resources."

Thanks to the cloud, it's never been easier for SMBs to get started with CRM, regardless of their size, says Mark A. Gilmore, president and CEO of Wired Integrations, a strategic technology consulting firm. Market researcher Gartner reports that SaaS accounted for more than 40 percent of CRM's $20.4 billion in revenue in 2013, and Gilmore says that many SaaS companies offer entry-level deals--often free--to companies with a small number of users, usually around 10.

One of the most important capabilities CRM makes available to SMBs is customer interaction tracking, which can help companies drive sales on the basis of previous buying history while simultaneously opening new doors on the basis of overall client trends, Gilmore says. "I think the most significant benefit for smaller enterprises is the ability to determine who their customers are and how they may be linked." Using buying history and trend information to drive more sales to specific target markets can boost efficiency and increase profitability, he adds.

In many ways, SMBs want the same CRM capabilities as larger enterprises, and SaaS solutions make that possible, says Loretta Jones, vice president of marketing at Insightly. "At the end of the day, companies of all sizes want to know how much money they're making," she says, "how their salespeople are doing, how they're bringing money in, and how they are going to grow their business."

There are three things to keep in mind when evaluating a CRM solution: the specific business needs you're looking to meet, the degree of integration you need versus what each option provides, and a product's ability to scale as your business grows and your CRM needs expand. Insightly, for example, is now adding new features to make sure its solution can meet the needs of slightly larger businesses (15 to 350 employees), while continuing to meet the needs of smaller businesses (those with up to 10 employees).

Marvik suggests that any SMB not currently using CRM take the time to research what's now available. "Having all of your information in one place and easily accessible when you need it lays the foundation for growing your business," he says. "CRM can really accelerate your personal marketing, automation, sales, and retention programs."