As a CPA, I've learned a lot about reducing costs over the past 15 years. Sometimes from unlikely places, too. Like customer relationship management systems. This technology can help you reduce costs. Really.

Here are a few things I've learned.

1. By creating workflows, you can save time. The scar on my head has healed by now. But it was a nasty one. It was caused by a roof shingle that had fallen to the ground, then was picked up, and then was thrown at me by my wife. We were walking out the door to a party and she was wearing a new dress. And she asked me how she looked in it.

Need I say more?

Once the bleeding stopped, I thought to myself how we needed repair work done on the roof. And my roofer, a long-time CRM user, taught me something about using his CRM system. When a new job comes in, at least 20 tasks need to be performed, including ordering materials, sending thank-you notes and scheduling trucks. He asked me to help him configure workflows in his CRM system so with one click of the button, all of these tasks were accomplished, along with reminders and alerts to ensure that nothing fell through the cracks. And it worked!

So if you're spending too much time doing repetitive tasks, you might find that automating them in your CRM system will cut labor hours and increase productivity, too. And stay away from the metal shingles. They hurt like hell.

2. If you stop the data chase, you improve productivity. We waste enough time in our lives. We sit in traffic. We wait in lines. We watch that kid get older and older on Two and a Half Men. In the office, we run around looking for quotes, e-mails, invoices, purchase orders. We place customers on hold and they get steamed. We miss important calls because we're out in the back trying to find an old file. Time is being wasted. Service is impacted.

So stop doing this. With a CRM system, all activities like calls and appointments are linked in the activities tabs. All e-mail exchanges from anyone in the company are there in history. Any document you want is linked in the notes tab, so with a single click the document is retrieved. It's all there. In one place. No searching. No yelling. Time is saved. So is money.

3. If you know something before it happens, you can prepare. One day, many years from now, we'll all be sitting together in our diapers and unable to remember what we had for breakfast. But we'll all remember the Genius In His Own Mind - the customer who takes up everyone's time, but doesn't pay his bills. So what's the secret to dealing with him? Letting everyone know in advance who he is. And nipping his antics in the bud.

I know a few smart business owners who use their CRM systems to help them deal with the dreaded Genius In His Own Mind. They set record alerts and run reports so if someone like him calls, everyone immediately know about it. This is so these people can be identified as early as possible and, as Tony Soprano would say, dealt with. Remember, it's business. Just business.

4. You can save lots of money by reducing travel. One of my service guys, Dave, had a great day last Thursday. He started the day at a client site in Wilmington, Del. Then he had a lunchtime visit with a customer in Allentown, Pa. And then, to cap it all off, he had yet another visit with yet another client back in ... you guessed it ... Wilmington. Old Dave was happy as a clam - he claimed almost 200 miles in reimbursement and got to listen to the entire Howard Stern show ... twice.

If we were using our CRM system correctly, we would've searched for customers by location and then used the service calendar to schedule visits within a reasonable geographic area. But you live and you learn. I learned that this could save a lot of time and money. Dave learned the life story of Sandy, the One-Legged Stripper.

5. The more your Web site talks, the more your database listens. I know this guy named John who drums up new clients for his insurance business by running seminars. Mainly he gets a bunch of retired people looking for free dinners. It used to be that people would call his office to register and the receptionist would fill out forms and send confirmation materials. And then send reminder materials. Try doing that for a hundred people a month. Try feeding baked chicken to this same crowd. Not pretty.

But many now use the Internet. So John configured his CRM system to import this feature from his Web site. Now when someone wants to attend one of his seminars, they go to his site and fill out a form, and the data gets sent to his CRM system automatically. Using workflows, his system creates a record and then automatically sends registration and reminder e-mails, as well as survey results and follow-up actions to his sales guys.

Not only has this cut back on administrative time, but it's improved response time, too. His seminars are now cheaper to produce. His sales turnaround time is less, meaning that his sales guys can work on more people in the same amount of time. The chicken's still pretty dry, though.

6. Finally, looking stupid costs money. My wife is from England. She's a pretty lousy cook. That isn't such a big surprise. Amazingly she's got pretty nice teeth. Go figure. We already know she's got a good arm.

She goes to England frequently to visit her family. She takes the same flight from our local airport each time. For 20 freaking years! Do the people there recognize her? No. Offer her a free Coke? No. Greet her warmly? No. Now she looks at other airlines where she can be treated better.

With a good CRM system, your business doesn't have to be this way. As long as everyone in the office is keeping things up to date, then whenever a customer calls in, whoever picks up the phone can act like they're his best friend: "Why, hello Mr. Kline. How are those ... Dodgers ... doing? And your son ... Max ... is he out of jail yet? He is? Super. I see here that Maria spoke to you a few days ago about the question you had. Is there something I can help you with?"

Good CRM systems help you not look like a dope in front of your customers. That saves the cost of losing a customer or two, eh? Good CRM systems don't just increase sales. I've learned that they can decrease costs, too.

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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