Customer Experience, Marketing, Nonprofits

Optimizing customer interactions with a Customer Relationship Management tool (CRM)

I’ve spoken for years at conferences and meetings about the value of a good Customer Relationship Management tool, or (CRM). CRMs have been around for decades, but I first encountered one when I took a job as Director of Marketing at a small private school. Though the school was small, they had invested in a very robust new website with an integrated content management system (CMS) and customer relationship management system (CRM).

I was immediately “wowed” by the possibilities of this new tool. For one, it meant that we could customize content for parents, teachers and students based on them logging into the website. For another, we could send targeted “push” messages to specific groups and sub-groups based on age, grade, teacher, etc. Very quickly it took us from a world of paper flyers sent home in backpacks to a world of customized, targeted communications that we could measure.

From there, I moved to a tourism authority in Cabarrus County, NC. Our primary mission was “heads in beds,” i.e. people coming to our community and spending the night in hotels. Tourism is a big economic engine in Cabarrus County, which is host to a NASCAR track (Charlotte Motor Speedway) and all the related race shops; the most popular mall in NC (Concord Mills); a Great Wolf Lodge; and many other attractions.  At that job we also had an integrated CMS/CRM that again allowed for customized, targeted communications. We could communicate with meeting planners about venues; leisure travelers about fun activities; and tour operators about deals and opportunities.  Much like at the private school, I became the subject matter expert and primary user of these tools.

Then I was hired back to Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in 2008. I had worked there previously, from 2000-2006, so I knew they had a system for tracking customers and books. So, armed with this new knowledge, I came back to the library with the grand idea to implement what I had learned. Cue the sound of a record needle scraping across vinyl. It was not good.

I learned that most libraries have something called an Integrated Library System (ILS), which was designed to manage book inventories, not customer interactions. ILS systems have been retrofitted over the years to capture some customer data, but that is not their primary purpose. Also, libraries have many other systems that track customer interactions, including computer login systems, online database logins, e-book vendor logins and fundraising systems. There was no single system for tracking and managing customers.

Flash forward to today, and there are more options for libraries than there were in 2008.  Vendors who service libraries have developed some robust tools that have very CRM-like features. The one I used for my last five years at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library was Savannah, developed by Orange Boy Inc. Savannah was the closest tool to the CRM systems I had used at previous jobs. But it was primarily used by the Marketing department, and not used as the central backbone of customer data. The ILS, with all its limitations, is still “king” in the world of libraries. And a combination of fear and antiquated policies have made many libraries reluctant to use that data for anything other than the tracking of books and materials.

Similarly, in nonprofits, the primary backbone is usually their donor management software. Which is great, as long as it is used to its full potential, and not just used for sending event invitations and direct mailers. A CRM is so much more than a database of names and addresses, but in many cases, that is all it’s used for.

Without a fully functioning and optimized CRM, an organization can’t maximize its interactions with customers. This is important to your public relations efforts, your fundraising, as well as your marketing. If you don’t know who you’re trying to influence, how can you know if it’s working? The answer is: you can’t.

That brings me to my current role as a small business owner. Within the first few months, I realized that I needed to take my own advice and get a CRM. I’m small now, with only a handful of clients, but I want to grow. But I can’t afford one of the big, or even medium, CRM systems. Lucky for me, there are free CRMs out there fro very reputable companies. I am currently testing the CRM from HubSpot, which has a free version and a premium version. I have known of HubSpot for a decade, having attended their inbound marketing summit back in 2008.  And so far it is working great for what I need.

So if you are involved in communications for your organization – whether you’re a library, nonprofit, school, tourism bureau or something totally different – don’t forget about your CRM. If you don’t have one, advocate for one. And if you need help making a case, shoot me an email. It’s a topic I’m passionate about!


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