Customer relationship management (CRM) is a data-based approach that businesses use to improve customer retention, loyalty, and profitability. Most large enterprises adopted CRM years ago for a very simple reason: It works. Research shows that ROI on a properly integrated CRM solution can range from about $2.50 to $5.60 on every dollar invested. CRM can drive significant increases in lead conversion and revenue generation, and it can improve customer service by as much as 50 percent.

Yet, while surveys have found that most small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are aware of CRM's potential benefits, only about a quarter of them have adopted it. One reason may be a lack of understanding about what CRM really is, says Joseph See, chief information officer at Pepperdine University. "CRM is not a technology strategy. It is entirely and solely a business strategy."

SMBs may also be concerned about the time and effort required to implement a CRM solution and how quickly ROI can be achieved. "SMBs are businesses that behave like consumers," says Bastin Gerald, founder of Apptivo, a developer and provider of CRM and related solutions. "They don't have a lot of patience. Everyone wants instant gratification."

However, the latest generation of cloud-based and mobile friendly CRM solutions should help allay those concerns. And with their ability to integrate multiple performance-boosting applications, they have more to offer SMBs than ever before.

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Acquiring and retaining customers is the key to success for SMBs, and they need a system that enables them to create a repeatable process to manage all the interactions they have with their customers, from simple questions about product features to complaints and invoice inquiries. "If you have a holistic view about your customer at the micro level and are able to tailor your interactions based on their preferences, then you stay at the top of their mind," Gerald says.

That's what CRM solutions are designed to do, but choosing from the hundreds of different products in the marketplace can be a challenge. Among businesses that have never used a CRM solution before, a big misconception is that its primary function is to organize your contacts--"the whole 'glorified Rolodex' thing," says Joe Malcoun, CEO of Nutshell, a B2B CRM solution designed with small businesses in mind.

"In reality, the most important benefit that CRM provides is helping sales teams create and standardize their sales process." A CRM allows sales team managers to outline all the steps that need to occur on every deal, thus ensuring that sales reps are taking the right actions at the right time. "The structure that a CRM provides to your sales activities allows you to capture business that you would otherwise have lost," Malcoun says.Business needs vary across the board, of course, and it's important to match those needs to the CRM solution you choose. "No one should be embarrassed about using Excel as their CRM," says Nate Kontny, CEO of Highrise, a CRM application for managing leads and follow-ups. "Too many companies seem to want to scare SMBs into their tools. Don't feel rushed to change, but when you do, try to find the solution that fits your specific place in the world."

Highrise is designed for businesses that "need a system right this second to help track leads and manage followups," Kontny adds. "That's our advantage for a specific customer--someone who needs simple, streamlined, straightforward, and instant."

For SMBs looking for more sophisticated capabilities, CRM solutions moving in the direction of customer engagement management, or CEM, have a lot to offer. "CEM is a new theme that has emerged and is being talked about in the large-enterprise segment over the last four or five quarters," Gerald reports. It may be relevant for SMBs as well, since the main idea is to bring all interactions together under a single umbrella. With more than 50 apps, Apptivo is able to provide a CEM platform for SMBs, he says. "We have an invoice portal for customers to log-in and check their invoices and other such features, all of which will ensure that our customers stay future-proof."

The new cloud-based and mobile-optimized CRM solutions offer more benefits and are easier to implement and use than anything that has come before, but reaping all CRM's benefits requires effort on the SMB's part. "Implementing excellent CRM is a complex, complicated process that requires keeping track of a lot of moving parts," cautions Andrew Friedenthal, CRM market researcher at online technology consultancy Software Advice. While CRM can certainly help SMBs, they also need a plan to make sure the solution they choose will create a solid CRM framework that will support their business efforts, he stresses.

Fortunately, that is getting easier to do as the CRM software market continues to diversify, creating more opportunities for businesses to find the perfect fit. "With affordable pricing, industry-specialized systems and access to the basic salesforce automation systems that are required for businesses to operate today, CRM is more attractive and available to SMBs than ever before," Friedenthal says. "A company wide CRM is, in many instances, the most useful tool for enacting a cultural shift that will ultimately reap rewards in the marketplace."