While a small business can be run effectively with informal record keeping, a manual approach does not scale well: success leads to a need for automation. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software automates the relationship between a business and its customers, and can also streamline other administrative activities, from tracking new business leads through to invoicing. We’ll use the term CRM broadly in this blog. At what point should a small business – like a boutique creative agency – make the transition to a CRM?

At CurrentDesign, we recently made the switch, mainly because our increasing work with creative agencies multiplied the number of invoices required. When we discovered one our agency partners is currently going through the process of converting to a CRM, and learned that our operations are similar, I was prompted to write about our own experience. The intention is to give you a taste of CurrentDesign’s approach to making a small-scope technology decision, and if it helps one of you decide to take the plunge and invest in improving their business processes, we will be chuffed.

As always, it is important to ensure the proposed technology will actually solve the problem, and a business case can provide proof. For us, the major pain was time taken for administrative tasks: the solution should result in a net reduction in effort in running the business. There are other factors, such as ensuring accuracy and security considerations, but excessive effort on analysis can collapse the whole case. We started by limiting consideration to administrative effort, knowing that we can expand and refine the case if required.

We assumed a one-time effort to transition to the CRM, with these tasks:

  • Business case. It does take effort to decide whether to proceed, and we must formulate the case, as described below.
  • Software selection. Research is required to decide which CRM product to use.
  • Process design and training. The business will be run differently with a CRM. Some analysis and decision-making is required to establish effective workflows. Effort is required to learn to administer tasks using the CRM
  • Data import and setup. We allowed for some effort to transfer data from our existing records to prepare the new system for use.

Against these efforts, we balanced the administrative savings. The tasks will be ongoing, and at some point the savings from each task will “pay back” the effort to set up the new system – that is the return on investment (ROI). A full-featured CRM supports a wide range of administrative tasks, but to keep our case simple, we focused on a few of the most painful. A CRM is traditionally oriented to contact and lead management. However, we have long relied on word of mouth for new business, so our pain points were:

  • Creating project estimates
  • Tracking and reporting project effort
  • Invoicing

Our analysis gave us an ROI of less than five months, so it was an easy decision to proceed. We would have gone ahead even if the ROI had been considerably longer, since designing and implementing new things is fun, and sending out invoices is a pain. For simplicity’s sake, we applied the same costs to implementation effort as ongoing administration, but we’d make different calculations for a creative agency incurring hard costs for outside help with implementation.

Having gone through the process, we selected a CRM that has a small monthly charge. Some simple CRMs are free, but the cost is almost negligible compared to the projected savings. We found the data import tool was not as useful as promised, so we decided to leave contact management with our Google Apps, and manually enter only basic data for each of our existing customers. We found our CRM conveniently converted estimates to projects, saving us more time than we projected, and we are very pleased with how we now generate invoices from our projects and timesheets.

While CurrentDesign sometimes suffers from cobbler’s children syndrome, this time we did create a simple business case to justify investment in a CRM. The case gave us the confidence to proceed, and we are now enjoying the benefits. Would you like more information on how to justify and implement a technology investment? Don’t hesitate to get in touch.