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In 2015, Jason Mejeur and two interns launched MaxOne, an app that helps sports coaches communicate with players and their families. While the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based entrepreneur - who had been a basketball coach for 15 years before he started his business - had $50,000 to spend on creating the app, when it came time to keep track of the schools and coaches he was trying to sell to, he used a free online spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet worked well at first. It had what he needed, such as tabs for people's names, the schools they worked at, the sports they taught, and notes about how each call went. His interns could use the cloud-based documents too. "This is what we used to prove out the concept," he says. "It was functional."

After Mejeur signed up 50 coaches, though, the spreadsheet started to become unruly. He had to enter everything manually, which was taking up too much time, and adding and removing notes for each customer became a monumental task. But it wasn't until he hired a director of sales who had experience with Salesforce that he decided to buy an actual customer relationship management (CRM) program. "He was a big advocate for repeatable systems," he says. "We needed to hire people and let them run with the information they needed." 

Most entrepreneurs follow a path from spreadsheets to software similar to Mejeur's, says Gene Marks, a small-business expert and founder of The Marks Group, a technology and consulting services company. People tend to start off using Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, but then get overwhelmed and switch to a more robust CRM.

It's better when people employ a CRM from the start, says Marks - and there are many options for one-person shops - but most will make the switch once they realize that their business can't grow without one. "People go through pain for a while before they realize it's a problem," says Marks. "It's like a slow leak of a pipe." 

How can you know when it's time to make the switch?

1. You're Losing Money

You'll know you need to make a change when you start feeling like you may be losing out on potential customers and revenue, says Marks. If it becomes too hard to follow up with clients, or if you're forgetting whom you spoke to, then you'll need to dump the spreadsheet. "If you're not nurturing or building strong enough relationships, then it's time to spend money on technology," he says. "You want to make revenue, not lose it."

2. Information Gets overwhelming

At some point, it becomes impossible to keep track of everything on a spreadsheet, says Jonathan Minder, founder of Maximus Ventures, a small-business consultancy. Staff will end up with multiple versions of a document, they'll lose track of conversations they've had, or they'll see duplicate entries on a spreadsheet, which leads to their doing unproductive work. "It'll get scary if you're growing and you can't keep track of all your customers and prospects," he says. "That's your moment to change." 

3. Someone Tells You to Switch

Many companies end up with more robust CRMs because a new hire tells them to get one--which is what happened with Mejeur. Marks often receives calls from entrepreneurs who say they need help implanting a CRM system because a new salesperson wants to use a program he or she has used in the past. That's a sign it's time to upgrade. "You always see sales managers come to a company and say, 'I had software I used to use and now I have nothing,'" says Marks. 

What to purchase will depend on your company's needs and what kind of software you're already using. For instance, some programs integrate well with Google tools, and other work better with Microsoft. But whatever you choose, you will generate more sales, says Mejeur.

In just a short period of time, he's cut in half the time it takes to acquire a customer, and he now has 50,000 users in six countries. "Spreadsheets work well at first, but once you're ready to scale, you need a CRM," he says. "Use it when you're ready to grow."

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