CIO. IPO. CRM. These are three acronyms that, to those sitting in the big chairs at digital marketing agencies, can seem just beyond the business priority horizon. Sure, a CRM system belongs somewhere on the business growth roadmap, but many people running SMBs assume these terms don’t need to be addressed until that magical critical mass is finally achieved.

There’s an argument here for the first two. In many cases, CIOs can be pre-emptive hires for SMBs (although this is changing in the age of data), and IPOs can usually wait (unless you’re blessed to be running a unicorn). CRM (customer resource management), however, isn’t something that should be looked at as just beyond the horizon—it’s something executives at digital marketing agencies should establish early to influence the data-driven, modern buyer more effectively and even increase cash flow.

Understanding it is important, however, it doesn’t get agency executives out of the woods. Smart managers may intuitively perceive the importance of treating every prospect like a VIP, and realize it requires the same diligence that supply chain management or HR/payroll requires in order to maximize cost-effectiveness and minimize hiccups.

But, and a bit ironically, having a step up on those who don’t even think about CRM can create problems down the line.

Those who appreciate the importance of CRM might mistakenly conflate the action of acknowledgement with the action of application; they might spend time thinking about it before it’s really needed and come to the conclusion that it won’t be a big problem because there are so many SaaS services that can be retained. This approach, however, does not effectively establish a good CRM practice because it’s missing a core tenet. CRM isn’t a piece of software, it’s a core philosophy that needs to be treated with the rigor of any serious business discipline.

CRM the concept.

A Google search of ‘CRM’ nicely encapsulates this problem: most of the results are websites that provide access to third party CRM software. For the most part, software will play into the CRM equation as it will be necessary for your agency to use some kind of software or service (particularly at scale) to ensure continuity of customer management across account and sales teams.

This, however, minimizes the essence of what CRM really is: a business conceptone that should be created on the blackboard before being introduced to the boardroom. Furthermore, the first step of applying CRM should not be comparing software costs or signing up for free trials. It should be whiteboarding the customer journey, the representative touchpoints, and the points of information capture, etc. A representative from every division of your company—marketing, ops, sales, even finance—should be included in the meeting to define all of the interactions your customers and potential customers will have and what data they will exchange with your company.

The goal here is to define what kind of relationship is most appropriate for you and your customers. Hence, it’s extremely important to not only to glean how they will treat you as a brand but who you will attract and how you will retain them. It might seem elementary, but it’s not. Are you a full-service company such as a digital marketing agency, information technology consultancy, or real estate or financial services firm that retains customers because of the service and interaction? Are you a company that biases towards convenience and minimal interaction (e.g., a subscription service where there’s little interaction outside of the app)? Does your product afford for the capability of customization or otherwise bespoke products?

After these questions are answered, the avenue for what constitutes an appropriate CRM process for your company will be clear.

The Goldilocks CRM

There’s no ‘right’ software for your agency, and relying upon a colleague or friend’s input to determine software can create problems because of the degree of customization required. But starting simple and building up rather than trying to customize an enterprise CRM platform can be much easier and cost much less.

As Eric Brown, CEO of third party order fulfillment and distribution company Fulfilltopia, explained: “Early on, we went looking for some kind of contact relationship management solution, and naturally we found Salesforce online. We later purchased Pardot, Salesforce’s marketing automation product, but despite working with three different development teams, could never get it off the ground.”

“Over the last three years, we spent at least $40,000 on Salesforce development costs alone, plus $600-$700 a month in licensing fees for service,” he explained. “Yet, the easiest thing for me to do at that point was to abandon Salesforce.”

With a clearly defined philosophy behind your business’ CRM approach, even the most elementary of products can be applied to create a good practice. When searching for a sales CRM system to understand pipeline and for forecasting, Brooke B Sellas, Founder and CEO of B Squared Media, tried a number of small business CRMs but several were too small and didn’t meet her needs. “When trying a free CRM, I quickly discovered I would need to upgrade to a costly marketing automation system to access some of the CRM basics we needed, such as visibility into the pipeline, robust reporting, forecasting, and messaging.”

Your system should do everything from organize communications channels to turbo-charge lead nurturing by automating research on prospects, keying in data entry, and enrichment.

Working with an experienced partner can also solve many issues. The right partner will have the specific technology expertise and experience needed to implement a new solution, train your staff, or integrate a legacy system or database into a cloud-based solution.

In practice, less than 1% of the world actually uses any CRM; most use email to track communications and spreadsheets to track contacts. But the best way to ensure you’ve worked out your philosophy is by how seamlessly you can migrate from a multitude of email and social media accounts as well as spreadsheets to a modern CRM platform. You’ll quickly find whether or not you have arrived at the definition of proper customer relationship; most of the time CRM software fails aren’t because of some kink in the machine or improper use, but lack of use. If you find your sales team opting out of the software, even if it’s not optimal, you’ll know it’s time to go back to the drawing board.