by Bob Walters | February 01, 2006

Today I received an e-mail from Barnes & Noble about the release of a new book by an author I like. I also received five spam e-mails for various mortgage rates and a newsletter from an association to which I belong. What do they all have in common? They  are examples, good and bad, of customer relationship management, or CRM.
    Most CRM systems focus on three primary areas of the business process: marketing,  which involves building a profile of the needs and interests of the audience; sales, which involves structuring the presentation and solution in a way that addresses the prospect’s needs and provides a formalized means of following up with the prospect; and customer support or help desk, which then manages the ongoing relationship with the customer.
    In this column, we will focus on systems helpful to planners working at small- to medium-size companies.

Among a host of options,  Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM product ( is a solution that can be deployed as is and also one that many companies are building extensions for, to address specific vertical market applications.
    For example, several providers of association management systems have developed a variety of forms and reports that use the Dynamics CRM database to present the information in a way that addresses their needs. The major attribute of Dynamics CRM is its tight integration with the full Microsoft Office product line. (Costs vary greatly, depending on modules and users.)
    Other solutions worth taking a look at range from those that can run locally on your network or PC, to those that are available only as an online solution. One of the best-known is ACT! from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Sage Software ( The most recent version has expanded customization capabilities and wider integration with Microsoft Office products as well as with many accounting and invoicing systems. Prices start at $200.
    Those looking for a fully distributed solution (accessible anywhere), hosted via the web and offering a broader range of capabilities at a more affordable price, might want to consider San Francisco-based (, RightNow CRM by Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies (, Techexcel CRM by Lafayette, Calif.-based Techexcel ( and NetSuite CRM from San Mateo, Calif.-based Netsuite Inc. ( 
    All of the above companies have worldwide offices and a wide variety of tools and add-ons to their basic CRM products. The costs for these systems are driven by the number of staff you will have using the system and can be as low as $65 per user per month.

The most important thing to consider when evaluating CRM systems are your specific marketing and profile needs. If you only are involved in marketing a set of seminars, meetings and educational programs to a predefined audience, you might want to look at a solution like ACT! However, your existing membership or meeting management system might already have the ability to define and track profile information about your members or attendees. 
    Too often, we overlook the fact that our current databases hold a world of information about our audience, such as their interests, what meetings they have attended, etc. Perhaps the initial step in considering CRM is to take a good look at your internal systems and determine what gold already resides in your database.