How do you act on the data you have about your customers? That’s the problem that customer relationship management (CRM) tries to solve. There are lots of CRM tools out there, and it’s important to make sure you find one that’s suited to your needs. In this post, we take a look at some of the qualities you should look for in a CRM tool. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at some of our favorite CRM platforms and what they’re best suited to.

What is CRM, exactly?

If you’re a business, you probably have information about your customers in a spreadsheet or contact list somewhere, but that may not be all you know about your customers. If you’re a B2B business, your sales reps likely have lots of important but less quantifiable information about your customers’ loyalty, needs, and history. And if you’re in marketing, you may have lots of demographic and behavioral data you’ve collected from your website or app. CRM is all about taking this data and using it to help you make predictions and automate processes.

More specifically, your CRM platform should plug into the other systems you use to manage your relationships with customers: your email and calendar systems, your business intelligence software, etc. With all your customer and lead data in one place, you (and your sales team) can have a comprehensive overview of your whole sales pipeline.

More advanced CRM features include analytics and automation. The analytics side often takes advantage of machine learning and other statistical analysis techniques to score leads, identify successful strategies, and measure sales team performance. The automation side helps your sales team stay on top of relationships by automatically following up with leads after certain points of contact. (Some CRM platforms have email management out-of-the-box, while others integrate with third-party services like Mailchimp or Constant Contact.)

What should you look for in the CRM platform?

When you’re in the market for a CRM platform, your main consideration will be balancing functionality and price. There’s a wide range of options out there, from feature-rich platforms designed for big enterprises to platforms geared toward growing businesses to specialized offerings tailored to niche industries. It’s definitely worth your time to do some research, and take advantage of free trial periods or free use tiers to make sure you’re getting what you need (and not paying for what you don’t).

But what features are going to be important to your team? While every team’s needs are different, there are general sets of features that tend to be used more by certain functions. Sales teams are the major market for most CRM systems, so features like workflow automation, lead capturing, custom reports and email tracking and integration are pretty standard.

That said, while most CRM systems were originally designed to support the sales function, many of their core capabilities are valuable for marketers and CS specialists as well. Marketers may get the most value out of the analytics and marketing automation sides of a CRM platform. For example, the ability to segment users and customers into cohorts based on demographics and behavior can allow them to more effectively target their marketing efforts. (This has a lot in common with customer lifecycle management). Paired with email marketing and social media monitoring capabilities, a good CRM system can significantly increase your marketing team’s effectiveness.

Customer support can also use those same analytics capabilities to create comprehensive and authoritative records of customer support instances and bugs, while also giving the CS team a platform that tracks email, phone, and chat interactions with customers. Here the integrations and APIs of a CRM platform might also be extra valuable, as it gives CS an easy way to pass along important customer data to the relevant sales rep or report a bug to the dev team.

Next time, we’ll get into the weeds with some of our favorite CRM platforms for growing businesses. In the meantime, check out our post on getting started with content marketing analytics for more great tips and info.