There was a time when the customer relationship management solution (CRM) was primarily used for capturing prospects and throwing them into a computer Rolodex for future reference. Large organizations rushed to adopt these systems to help their salespeople keep tabs on what they were doing, and fuel the occasional database marketing message.

The modern CRM is changing with today's "engaged economy." The consumer has evolved into a savvy buyer that will always do their research online well before the sales process begins. The occasional, one-off marketing message no longer holds water with consumers. It has been replaced by the informed, engaging, and ongoing conversation. In fact, engagement has become the quintessential key performance indicator for organizations that want to win the loyalty of the modern, informed, decisive consumer.

This had led smaller business to leverage more and more web-based apps to make sure they are connected and engaged when and where their buyers are making purchasing decisions. The challenge becomes getting these tools to talk to one another in a smart way that works for SMBs.

Fortunately, technology has evolved to allow small and medium businesses to take the CRM out of its silo and connect it to all of the apps they use and love to manage a variety of organizational workflows. The best part is, they're doing it without needing to hire a development team. They're doing it with middleware. Want to have your CRM "talk" to other applications? Middleware lets you easily connect your favorite web apps to each other, making it easy to automate tedious tasks.

"Small and medium-sized businesses are more inclined to use information technology than ever before," writes Lynn Haber of TechTarget. At the same time, they don't have the budgets or interest in hiring an IT geek at $200/hour to troubleshoot for them. The economic buying power and preferences of SMBs has fuelled the demand for affordable, best-of-breed solutions that virtually "plug and play."

Hosting a webinar? Automatically start your GoToMeeting.com webinar registrants on a follow-up email campaign. "Middleware like Zapier can add webinar contacts to your CRM and update any existing contacts already in your database," explains Don Breckenridge, CEO of small business CRM, Hatchbuck. "Then, the Zapier plugin can trigger your event-based campaign to send Go-To-Webinar registrants information before and after the event, and even send a different message based on whether they attended the webinar or not."

Marketing automation and middleware tools like Zapier are the missing link for small businesses to pull leads into their CRM from multiple places and automate tedious workflows.

Instead of manually connecting the dots between auxiliary apps and their CRMs, middleware pulls contacts into one place so that small businesses can concentrate on closing sales rather than prospecting for leads. Then, marketing automation can takes up the baton, putting leads onto engaging campaigns and converting them into customers over time. Leads pulled in from a webinar, chat tool, survey, or pop-up can be automatically served relevant, valuable content, nurturing them through the sales funnel.

Middleware is changing what's possible for small and medium businesses who'd rather spend budget on sales and marketing, over application development. The opportunity to combine affordable, best-of-breed solutions is exciting for SMBs with fewer than 500 workers that make up 99.7 percent of the 5.68 million employer firms in the U.S.

The benefits of middleware to small business are still in their infancy. The application infrastructure and middleware (AIM) software market revenue totaled $23.8 billion in 2014, an 8.8 percent increase from 2013, according to Gartner, Inc. It includes several segments that comprise general-purpose portal products, technologies that enable business-process management, integration and platform middleware, business-to-business middleware products, managed file transfer, application services governance, and mobile application development platforms and AIM appliances.

For small businesses, the middleware advantage is huge. As the middleware market advances, tying together new and affordable technology to create custom business workflows - without development - will mean that small businesses can worry less about process and technology. Instead, they can focus on closing new business and serving their customer base to grow.

Published on: Mar 24, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.