Sales are the key ingredient in the mix that creates a successful business. You need customers to buy your products and services or you don't have a viable operation.
How can you convert more prospects to buyers, or first-time buyers into regular customers? Those are the aims of customer relationship management, widely known as CRM.
CRM Organizes Sales
CRM applications handle three main tasks: Track your prospects and customers; keep tabs on what they want; and let them know how your business can deliver the goods that satisfy their needs. In a nutshell, CRM organizes the sales process.
Many small businesses still use a spreadsheet, a generic database, or a general-purpose application such as Microsoft Outlook to keep track of contacts and prospective customers. But using a specialized CRM app can make it easier to achieve your sales objectives.
CRM applications evolved from early contact managers, the digital equivalent of the paper address book or Rolodex. But they can do much more, such as keeping track of what tasks you must perform to keep a customer happy, or performing simple project management that coordinates pre-sales work among different employees.
Highrise: A New Web-based CRM Service
If your business is new to CRM, Highrise could be just what you need to dip a toe into the waters. Highrise is a recently released Web-based service from 37signals, which is probably best known for its Basecamp collaborative project management service.
Highrise is relatively inexpensive (business plans start at $24 per month), and simple to set up and use. It's especially well-suited for a far-flung virtual organization of few dozen or so people, since it lets you easily share information with other authorized users.
Simple but Effective CRM
Highrise's virtue lies in its simplicity. You can enter contact information directly using your Web browser or import existing contact records in the popular vCard (.vcf) format, which many e-mail applications and contact managers use.
You can create new tasks, set deadlines, and assign tasks to categories. Establishing a case lets you bring together related contacts and tasks as a form of basic project management.
When you log in to the service, the Highrise dashboard displays recent activity and upcoming tasks. You can choose to have a daily task summary e-mail sent at 6 a.m. reminding you what you need to accomplish that day. (You can also opt for individual task reminders, but the summary list of all tasks due either goes out at 6 a.m. or not at all.)
Good Use of E-Mail Integration
I especially like the way Highrise uses nothing fancier than plain old e-mail to jump through a few hoops and perform some neat information integration tricks. You can forward e-mail messages to special user-related Highrise e-mail accounts, which then automatically assign those messages as new tasks or attach them to a contact.
If you already have CRM software and don't find it to be overkill, Highrise probably isn't for you. It's best suited for neophytes, and it lacks the capabilities and integrated hooks into other business processes that larger, enterprise-scale organizations get from higher-end CRM services such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite. However, Highrise officials say that an API (application programming interface) offering more integration possibilities is in the works.
You can check out Highrise by signing up for its free plan, which is limited to two users and 250 contacts, and provides no online storage. Paid plans range from Basic to Max. Basic costs $24 per month, permits six users and 5000 contacts, and includes 500MB of online storage. Max allows an unlimited number of users and 50,000 contacts, provides 50GB storage, and costs $149 per month. All paid plans offer a 30-day free trial.