Build Your Innovation Practice through Your Customers

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If you want your business to innovate with its customers, start by building a customer community that others can vote on and contribute to so that the company can pull the idea through the process, said Mike Fauscette, Group VP, Software Business Solutions at IDC, in his presentation “Leveraging Innovation Management for Competitive Advantage” at the CRM Evolution 2012 conference in New York City.

Once you have a tool that can collect customer interaction, take it one step further and let customers be involved in defining the process. It will open the doors to opportunity that you wouldn’t have had before, said Fauscette. Customer engagement improves dramatically once the customer feels they’re empowered to drive the business.

It’s also important to be visible and transparent. Meaning you want to set up a system that allows customers to contribute and know that they contributed, Fauscette continued.

Conducting social media and networking activities

The most popular reasons companies conduct social media/networking activities for their business are (in order of popularity):

  1. Gather feedback on company product or service
  2. Respond to customer/partner inquiries
  3. Competitors are doing it
  4. Communicate with partners/suppliers
  5. Communicate with customers
  6. Create awareness about company product or service
  7. Make decisions

Creating a collaborative enterprise for the purpose of innovation

Crowdsourcing and collaboration unlocks distributed expertise that simply couldn’t be found by any other means. Contributing across groups and disciplines is very empowering to employees who realize they can have an impact beyond the four walls of their cubicle.

While so many companies say they want their employees to collaborate, it’s not reflected in how employees are being paid, which is often to work individually. If you want employees to collaborate, you have to build it into the culture and they have to be incentivized to do it, said Fauscette.

Just Keeping Up with People is Key to Growing Revenue

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“If you don’t utilize CRM you lose everything. It’s so difficult to keep up with people. Not only in your own company but everyone you’re dealing with on a day to day basis. It’s imperative,” said William “Brimstone” Kucmierowski, President and Co-Founder of Hound Comics, a media company that not only publishes comics, but also cookbooks, TV programming, and lots more.

In my interview with Kucmierowski and his partner, Eddie “Luscious” Castillo, at the Small Business Expo in New York, Kucmierowski schooled Castillo as to what CRM actually is. He explained that CRM puts all the people you deal with on a regular basis in one place so you can actually manage them.

Kucmierowski has been a longtime avid CRM user. He was first a devotee of the desktop application ACT, but now he’s moved his CRM operations into the cloud.

You have to keep on those contacts and constantly follow up, as that’s critical to the ultimate prize, increased revenue, said Kucmierowski. Luckily Hound Comics is growing strong so their biggest challenge is to simply maintain a great staff, and continue to build in a strategic manner.

End the Software Upgrade Cycle with a Cloud Office Suite

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For years, Nancy Williams had been stuck in an aggravating and costly cycle of upgrading her desktop applications. Williams, who just launched InfoZario, an online/offline training business for information management finally decided to dump her desktop applications for cloud-based Zoho applications. She choose not only Zoho CRM , but many of the other applications in the suite as well, such as documents, spreadsheets, projects, and soon the mail client, she said.

For others still stuck in the desktop software upgrade cycle looking to move over to cloud-based productivity applications, Williams recommends starting with Zoho’s mail suite to get comfortable with using applications in the cloud. As soon as you feel comfortable with those applications, start using CRM immediately.

Should a CRM Give Everyone Complete Visibility?

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ECS Business Services has a competitive sales environment where reps are very protective about their leads and clients. If they deployed a company-wide CRM application it would reveal all that intimate information. Zoho worked with ECS Business Services to come up with a solution.

The business

ECS Business Services audits utility invoices, such as electric and garbage expenses, for large commercial properties. They make sense of complicated utility bills. They look at each line item to make sure their clients are not being overcharged, and if not, they look for ways to help them save money on an ongoing basis, explained Joel I. Kruger, Vice President of Business Development.

The challenge

“It was archaic…It was old school. There was no method to the madness,” admitted Kruger of ECS’ organization method for leads, prospects, and clients that existed all of just 12 months ago. Each person managed their own client case. And there was a big filing cabinet where much of the data was stored. Some was copied into an Excel spreadsheet. There was tons of overlapping information.

If a rep wanted to know if someone had spoken to an existing client or a potential client, they’d have to call into the office and hope somebody knew. It became very poor for client relations and attracting new clients because they’d have two different reps from ECS calling the same potential client. It looked horribly unprofessional, admitted Kruger.

Finding a CRM solution for their internally competitive environment

Given that a few people in the office had some knowledge of CRM, they knew they needed a CRM solution. It took them quite a while to come to a decision as they did trials with multiple CRM vendors and looked at quite a number of solutions such as Salesforce, ACT!, Goldmine, and anything that was web-based. They wanted their reps all across the U.S. to have access to the system, even on the go, so having a mobile solution was important as well.

What they didn’t like about the big companies is you really had to take it as is. There was very little easy customization they could do.

They had one request that wasn’t that unusual at all when you look at traditionally competitive sales environments. Each rep wants to keep their client base as much to themselves as possible. Meaning they don’t necessarily want other sales reps to see their clients, their notes, and relationships. But at the same time, they don’t want anyone accidentally stepping on their work by calling an existing client or prospect without knowing there had been previous contacts, explained Kruger.

ECS wanted a general search feature within the CRM where a rep could search a company, see if it belonged to anybody, and when was the last day of contact. It would reveal nothing else. That would signal to the other rep that it was either owned, or had been languishing. The inquiring rep could contact the other rep to ask the status. Kruger’s research revealed that none of the other CRM programs had that feature, including Zoho.

Zoho was eager to listen. They set up a conference call with ECS and asked what they wanted in the CRM application and why they wanted it. Even though Zoho didn’t have this feature, they were intent in creating the feature and making available for ECS and all their clients. This was just a few months ago and while the new feature is not 100 percent ready yet, Zoho has a variable that ECS is using now, explained Kruger.

“As a small company it’s all about the way you’re treated. You want to be treated just like the big guys are,” said Kruger about how well they were treated by Zoho. “Expectations were blown out of the water…They were really interested in us and our needs.”

We’re always talking about CRM offering complete transparency to all, but in a competitive sales environment, that’s not always desired. You want a certain level of visibility and non-visibility.

CRM became transformative to the business

We saw an instant change because everyone has visibility and you can collaborate on projects, said Kruger who discovered, thanks to the Zoho implementation, that one of his prospects was actually the best friend of one of his coworkers.

“If you’re in a small business, one, two, or three people, it doesn’t matter, you need to get some kind of program that will help you get organized, and remind you to call people when you need to call them and not lose out on a major opportunity,” said Kruger. “It is such a great organizational tool that will help your business grow.”

The Best Food for Business Growth is CRM

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After five years in business SEO Works deployed Zoho to break out of its small business organizational chaos to become a medium-sized company managing 140 clients.


Based in Australia and San Francisco, SEO Works is a medium-sized company providing search services. They work with clients that want to increase their visibility with search engines. Having started with just a couple of employees, SEO Works has 24 employees today and a thriving business with hundreds of ongoing projects.

The Challenge

Nine years ago when the company started, they had everything a new business would want – leads and referrals. Unfortunately that information was captured in a haphazard fashion. Leads were written down on slips of paper, or copied into spreadsheets. For a couple of people in the office, that was manageable. Once the company had four employees, they were seeing some problems, admitted Keith Paulin, Group General Manager and employee number one of SEO Works.

The poor management of contacts meant they were not able to handle new opportunities efficiently. “As you get bigger you need to make sure those opportunities, as they come up, don’t slip through the cracks,” said Paulin who realized that at 10 people it became critical for them to find a collaboration solution just so they could support their clients.

SEO Works faced the same troublesome issues most small companies faced. Their lack of organization, collaboration, and insight into how well the business was doing meant it simply couldn’t grow.

What CRM solution works for our growing business?

As they struggled to grow their business, SEO Works also struggled to find a CRM solution that would work with their unique needs while also not taxing them financially and with unnecessary development.

They tried a free CRM for a short time, but it was so unmemorable that Paulin honestly can’t remember its name. Then they gave Salesforce a go, and stuck with it for about a year and a half. While Paulin admitted that Salesforce is powerful, it was somewhat inflexible and didn’t connect with everything they wanted it to connect with right out of the box.

They wanted a solution that would map their entire business from end to end, in their point of view (e.g., from phone call, to request, to project). While that was possible with Salesforce it would have required a ton of learning, an external consultant, and very detailed development work. They simply didn’t have the time nor money to deal with that.

SEO Works admittedly had a love-hate relationship with Salesforce. And once they got to ten users then the licensing costs became an issue, said Paulin.

How discovered Zoho

When I asked Paulin how they discovered Zoho he simply responded, “We’re a search engine optimization company.”

Through just natural search SEO Works stumbled upon Zoho. Four years ago they were dazzled by the fact that requests could come in via websites and then fed directly into Zoho. That’s nothing by today’s standards, but back then to SEO Works it was a big deal.

Not only was the simple usability attractive, but so was the flexibility of the licensing. It was extremely easy to add users. Paulin didn’t have to worry about signing long term contracts with a CRM vendor. As a growing company, it was very important for them to easily add new licenses and not be encumbered by a long term contract.

Using Zoho to map the entire business flow

“One of the great things about Zoho is you can hit the ground running quite quickly,” said Paulin. “We were literally an out of the box user.”

SEO Works quickly put their entire business flow into Zoho CRM and Zoho Projects. They bring in leads. Leads become accounts. An account then creates a case. They create products, prepare quotes for clients, and then convert those to sales orders which are moved into a different cloud-based accounting solution, explained Paulin who also liked adding business rules to leads which automatically routed them and triggered further actions.

That flow continues when Paulin is outside of his office. He uses Zoho on his mobile and loves the feature that allows him to enter information about a call right after the call completes.

Visibility into all operations

“We no longer have that level of small- to medium-sized business discomfort that says, ‘How’s my business doing,’” said Paulin. “I can see very quickly, literally in two screens, how we’re traveling, where that business is coming from, how that’s moving through the system. Our business revolves around Zoho.”

Unlike SEO Works’ early days, they now have very measurable benchmarks thanks to Zoho. They know the number of leads that come in and how many of them are hot.

“Those kinds of benchmarks for a growing company are very important to us,” said Paulin. “We would never have been able to grow to the size that we are and to deal with the clients that we deal with [such as IBM and Telstra].”

“We wouldn’t be able to manage those projects and we wouldn’t be able to make sure we manage them effectively, deliver a good product, and deliver it profitably. So to be absolutely honest, without Zoho we wouldn’t have gotten to the stage that we’re at,” admitted Paulin. “I wouldn’t know end-to-end about 400 projects and duties going on. I couldn’t have that at my fingertips without Zoho.”

What are you going to do when you do get the business?

Many of SEO Works’ clients are young companies looking to grow themselves. While Paulin’s business can drive traffic and generate leads, they’re not designed to reinvent their clients’ businesses.

Before they deploy a SEO solution that will deliver results, SEO Works asks their clients, “When we generate this business, then what?”

The response is often met with silence to which Paulin will often respond, “We think you need a CRM solution in place to begin to deal with this stuff.”

The client may hem and haw, but it’s necessary not just for the client, but also for SEO Works.

“It’s selfish for us because we want them to see measurable results coming into their business,” said Paulin.

Using Zoho to Teach Students Project Management

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“Ahem, class, are you paying attention? Your first assignment is to find a project management tool that’s easy to use, friendly, and can work well with a CRM application.”

Believe it or not, that was the first assignment Robert Braathe of Braathe Enterprises gave to his students. Braathe runs a virtual internship program that gives college students real experience. And teaching project management is critical for operating in the real world, said Braathe.

“If you don’t have a project management tool in place, you’ll just throw a lot of spaghetti on the wall,” Braathe said. “With a project management tool you can keep things on track and do more things at once.”

At the Small Business Expo in New York, I spoke with Braathe about why he and his students chose Zoho. He said that Zoho met their comfort level. It was user friendly and most similar to Google Apps. But they also liked Zoho because they were looking for a CRM tool as well. In their search they discovered other CRM applications, but they were either very clunky or really expensive. With Zoho, Braathe and his students liked the interactivity with other applications, the ability of multiple people to sign on, and the ability to just scale it up as they need it.

The Critical Need to Integrate All Customer Information

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The more knowledge a salesperson has about a particular customer or group, the better decisions they can make and insight they can gain, said Paul Greenberg, Principal of The 56 Group and Chairman of the CRM Evolution 2012 conference in New York City where I spoke to him about the importance of integration.

Companies are gathering information about their customers from a variety of sources such as the social web, traditional communications, and the commerce transactions captured in their CRM.

“You’re much better off knowing all of that, than just a part of that,” said Greenberg stressing the importance of integration. Yet Greenberg knows that companies aren’t necessarily going to dump their investments in their web, financial, and CRM systems just for the sake of integration. Rather, they’ll look for ways to tie existing systems together.

Technically, integration can happen through the use of middleware or via application programming interfaces (APIs), which are pieces of codes that allow disparate systems with data to talk to each other, said Greenberg.