The high value of customer data as driver of business success is indisputable in the digital age. Even so, when it comes to actually introducing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, the case seems less clear-cut in many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Why? While the value of bringing together customer data for marketing, sales and service is quickly understood, it is the perceived challenges of actual implementation that hold many businesses back. Indeed, defining and setting up a powerful and truly (cost-) effective CRM system that truly meets the needs of a company can prove too complex of an undertaking for many SMEs. However, these obstacles shouldn’t be overstated: with the right approach, suitable solutions and the expertise of skilled partners, CRM has never been so accessible to businesses of all sizes.
The clear case is case for CRM in SMEs
All good businesses know that the ability to understand and meet the evolving needs of customers is the key to their success. And this is ultimately what CRM delivers to businesses – big or small. Today, what has always been true has been supercharged by digital technology: being able to aggregate, access and analyse customer data and act on this insight in a data-driven, timely and targeted fashion is critical to success in the digital age. This is particularly the case as businesses in virtually every sector and of all sizes – SMEs included – must now take on global competition in an increasingly volatile and dynamic business environment.
“Even in a globalised, data driven world, people matter. It is therefore vital to cherish and strengthen the bond between suppliers and customers”, explains Michal Sommer, IT Services Business Development Manager at Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe. “Whether you are selling to consumers or businesses, customer retention, upselling and follow-up projects are the true drivers for success. This is particularly true for specialised companies with complex products that have a more limited market, which is very frequently the case with smaller and medium-sized companies.”
Detailed knowledge about the customer is now business-critical, with businesses needing to be able to draw upon insights into the existing relationship, the customer’s preferences and requirements, previous interactions and communications, as well as possible past issues. Whether in marketing, sales or customer services, these insights should lay the foundation of every customer interaction to allow for a more informed and individualised approach.
To achieve this, data on customers has to be stored in way that makes it accessible to the employees likely to interact with them. However, this is easier said than done given the vast accumulation of information that is now available. Hence, as well as making data accessible, any system should also be able to automatically trigger actions based on that data – for example, providing notifications when contracts are up for renewal. Linked with an Enterprise Resource Management (ERP) solution, an action can even be triggered when new products meet needs previously expressed by the customer. These examples show how CRM systems can be a driver for valuable new business opportunities.
This is the ideal application scenario for managing outbound, customer-facing data. Yet in reality, many SMEs today still store the information about customers and customer interactions in a heterogeneous patchwork of email accounts or spreadsheets, making such applications impossible. A 2019 survey amongst employees of small and medium-sized businesses on the use of CRM in Germany, for example, found that merely one third of these companies actually have a CRM system in place (32.4%), while the majority (66.4%) still rely on manual processes such as pen and paper, Excel or email programs to store customer data.
Additionally, needless to say, companies still using legacy approaches face considerable challenges with regard to data accessibility and are far more exposed to the potential of data loss. The reason can be as simple as an employee leaving the company and all their contacts and customer interactions having been stored in their Outlook account. With regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), these manual storage solutions can become liabilities: the relatively recently introduced regulations make it necessary to have full visibility and control over the customer-related data that exists within a company alongside the ability to ensure compliance with regard to security of information and its deletion.
Laying aside the risk-related part of the equation, a more positive reason to reassess customer data processes is the huge opportunity cost that arises from missing out on proactive, data-driven customer relationship activities.
The ability to use data is increasingly becoming the key to be able to participate in a future in which personalisation is becoming ever more important. Today’s technologies have enabled the development of “hyper-personalisation”, with communications and offers becoming targeted and tailored with unprecedented levels of specificity. “It is vital to note that this isn’t only a dynamic that exists in B2C”, says Sommer. “Data-driven customer relations is now increasingly expected in B2B environments, as customer expectations of sales and service have become influenced by experiences learned from the consumer world.”
The ability to leverage customer data offers benefits that extend beyond driving more sales performance. As well as tracking target achievement levels in sales, better customer data can also help to improve transparency in business, while insights on customer purchase behaviour can help to optimise areas such as warehousing.
The challenges of introducing a CRM system
With the benefits of CRM so clear, why do so many SMEs appear reluctant to implement such solutions? Konica Minolta’s Michal Sommer describes the barriers they commonly face: “While there’s little doubt of the benefits in general, the picture becomes far more complex when it comes to the specific case for a particular company. This is when the conversation becomes less general and more specific and technical: what goals does the organisation seek to reach by introducing a CRM solution? What adaptions and investments will be needed? What return on investment can be expected from a specific solution within the next three years? What new processes will become possible? What return can we expect these new processes to yield? Such considerations quickly reveal that deciding on a CRM solution is not simply a decision about an IT solution but also a fundamental business decision. It has implications for processes across the entire organisation.”
This complexity creates an uncertainty that can slow or stall the decision-making process. In many cases, this leads to the CRM project being placed on hold in favour of other projects, such as refreshing the ERP system.
Elsewhere, it is less a matter of prioritisation than the perception that the risks may simply be too great, as Michal Sommer explains: “Many companies fear that the complexity of their business model makes it prohibitive to transform their internal processes or their customer relations. We very often hear SMEs in this position saying, ““we are not a standard consumer product manufacturer or service provider or contractor; our business model is more complicated and unique”. And in many cases, this may be true with regard to the specifics of their offering, but when looking at the overall communication patterns and processes, they are rather common to many other organisations and can be very effectively organised with CRM. In fact, it is precisely because of this complexity and the unique contexts that automated processes as well as data-supported decision making and action are ultimately indispensable for these organisations.”
A further stumbling block is the initialisation phase of the project: “Frequently, the requirement specifications are collected and aggregated in a long ‘wish list’”, says Sommer. “This is understandable, as CRM affects many departments and provides a great number of possibilities. Yet, without proper prioritisation and pre-selection, this mission creep quickly blows up the project – both in implementation complexity and costs – and in some cases kills it before it even starts.”
The ideal path to powerful, effective CRM
“The processes you tackle with CRM solutions are not only complex but also address many sensitive business topics. They require a deep understanding of the organisation and its operations”, comments Michal Sommer. “This is why at Konica Minolta, our team members not only have to be IT experts but also true business consultants.” In any implementation, the crucial first step has to be identifying the ‘hard targets’ of the initial CRM solution as a basis for drawing up a (modular) rollout plan. As Sommer explains, this entails a deep analysis of both the business and existing customer information infrastructure: “Frequently, the true goals of the CRM introduction are hidden in the rows and columns of the requirement lists. What lever for value creation is the company truly aiming for with the CRM solution? Are there specific developments – for example, a new business segment addressing new target groups that is changing the existing customer base or structure as a result? It’s also essential to consider what CRM features are needed most urgently, which can be implemented in a later phase, and what features are simply ‘nice to have’.”
Any optimal implementation must further be conducted on the basis of a thorough analysis of the existing information infrastructure and data workflows in order for the CRM solution to be efficiently set up and seamlessly integrated into the pre-existing systems. “In our experience, a CRM is usually the last addition to existing information systems”, comments Michal Sommer. “Mail servers, calendars, contact management tools and ECM tools are generally already in place, so efficient integration is necessary to avoid the creation of duplicate structures as well as potential conflicts. This also minimises the resource needed for ongoing management and to handle updates.”
While it is vital to implement a CRM system in a manner that is sensitive to existing infrastructure and business demands, it is also essential to keep an eye to the future: an ideal solution should be built with an open and flexible set-up that is future-proof – both from a technical perspective and in terms of being able to scale and evolve as the needs of the business change.
A key question in this context is weighing the relative benefits of on-premises versus cloud-based CRM solutions. This is ultimately dependent on the individual needs of the customer, but for many organisations, modern cloud-based solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 offer significant advantages. Michal Sommer describes why customers have readily embraced the cloud model: “The Microsoft Dynamics 365 solutions that Konica Minolta usually implements for our customers have proved an ideal fit for their businesses, as they can depend on systems that are always up to date and secure while knowing they have the flexibility to adapt to changes in business needs”, Sommer explains.
An essential development has been the growing importance of mobile CRM access. This is most vital for employees working in the field in areas such as sales or service. Here, mobile access provides a compelling case for how CRM capabilities can positively affect the bottom-line: strikingly, research by Innoppi Technologies revealed that sales reps with access to mobile CRM reach their target quota almost three times as frequently as those without such capabilities.
In many businesses, mobile CRM access can significantly help to improve core workflows. In sectors such as real estate or construction, where mobile working is virtually the default for the majority of the day, there are huge advantages to a CRM solution that enables employees to easily access and edit all relevant customer information “from the palm of their hand”. Where it might once have been common to manually fill in printed forms for later transfer into a database, mobile CRM makes customer processes not only more effective but also more efficient.
Customer Voice: Invelt
Holistic CRM integration for a seamless customer experience
In the Czech Republic Konica Minolta IT Solutions Czech is supporting the market-leading car dealership Invelt with its Automotive CRM soltion to strengthen customer relationships while increasing process efficiency. Improving the interaction process and finding new digital ways in which technology can support this development were the highest priorities within this project. With Konica Minolta’s Automotive CRM solution it is possible to bring the company closer to the customers in the digital era, as it allows a 360° view of customers and brings all important information together in one screen. This allows easy alignment of marketing and sales data into one process flow. The solution can be run on different devices with always-on data protection. This out-of-the-box CRM solution promotes proactivity by notifications and activity reporting.
A continuous source for growth and improvement
“By paving the way to new business opportunities and improving customer management efficiency, a CRM project can actually be one of the biggest value drivers for a company and thus will repay the initial effort and investment many times over”, argues Michal Sommer. CRM systems are not only transformational but are also at the forefront of an evolution that leverages new techniques: cloud-based CRM with reliable, automatic and secure update strategies enable even smaller companies to take advantage of new technologies at an earlier stage only available to larger organisations – with minimal evaluation costs. We have seen this in technologies such as mobile clients, sentiment analysis and social network integration, while emerging practices and capabilities such as hyper-personalisation, IoT, predictive analysis and machine learning are not far off. Cloud-based CRM is enabling SMEs to rapidly seize upon new technologies at the same pace as larger enterprises – and this is a true game changer.”
Sommer concludes that – in part thanks to the accessibility of cloud-based solutions – the technology barriers to CRM adoption for SMEs have largely fallen away. However, skills and experience will always be vital to address the business dimension: “For SMEs in particular, it is crucial to have a partner that has the capacity and expertise to truly grasp their business needs today and in the future – and is able to envision and implement the right CRM set-up and roll-out for them.”
 Nutzerstudie: CRM Software Trends 2019 in deutschen KMU (source in German); Capterra; 2019 https://www.capterra.com.de/blog/498/nutzerstudie-crm-software-trends-2019-in-deutschen-kmu
 18 CRM statistics you need to know, Superoffice, 2018, www.superoffice.com/blog/crm-software-statistics