The traditional sales database was just a list of names and contact details, with products and meetings loosely attached, if you were lucky. Unwieldy, inflexible and tricky to navigate, those databases contained a lot of information. But much of it wasn’t what you really needed to know.

For a really productive customer relationship, you need to fill in all the gaps: social profiles, online activity, connections with other members of their networks, and all those other vital details that just wouldn’t fit in an old-style customer software package.

But at last, a new generation of sales management tools has caught up with how sales actually works. The ability to focus on customers has seen the boundaries between sales management and customer relationship management (CRM) blurring and in some cases disappearing altogether.

Creating a social profile of our customers is the basis of everything. Knowing our customers helps us offer interesting services that will benefit them.”

Bruno Cercley | CEO, Rossignol

Customers are no longer just customers – they’re connections. A sales strategy now has to link up with social networks, devices and data. On the high street, for instance, global research consultancy Forrester estimates that by 2018 connected retail - shopping with a social, search or web research element - will influence 44% of European transactions.

That’s not unique to consumer sales; business-to-business is also well on its way to becoming a mobile, intelligent network which runs 24 hours a day and can be handled seamlessly in Beijing, Brussels or Birmingham. The days of nine-to-five, office-bound paper-and-pencil transactions are long behind us, replaced by vast volumes of data stored in the cloud, with a suite of tools to make sense of it all and give you the ability to see a customer relationship from all angles.

An old-style customer database, often not much more than an address book nailed to a transaction list, simply isn’t equipped to handle the amount of information that can now be used to help connect with a customer and turn a one-off sale into a fruitful, long-running relationship.

That’s where real sales CRM comes in; offering a 360-degree view of a customer’s sales history and interactions, social likes and dislikes, wider networks and connections. The end result is a customer-first relationship, where marketing and sales are oriented towards the buyer. You’re not selling at them, you’re co-operating with them intelligently – while also turning sales leads into solid contracts.

See how ADP use Sales Cloud to connect with over 600,000 customers

Properly integrated sales CRM can give a 360-degree picture of a customer, allowing far greater knowledge of how to handle every sales lead.

When you're tracking and managing activities around your customer there are several benefits

  • Increased accuracy of sales data
  • Richer data (there are millions of contacts in data.com, for instance – a Salesforce service)
  • Ability to be more confident and targeted in driving your revenue and your deal conversion
  • Higher sales team efficiency

Mobile is a big part of this – being able to access, update and share data on the run is vital. A cloud-based CRM solution lets your sales team collaborate in real time, whether they’re separated by two desks or two continents.

There’s been much discussion about Big Data – the ability to capture a previously unthought-of quantity of detailed information. Its possibilities are huge, its potential power enormous. But one challenge of dealing with that amount of information is handling it usefully and sifting out the vital information from the irrelevant details.

One excellent way to manage that is to focus on one aspect that’s particularly relevant for sales leads – like the customer journey. For example, Marketing Cloud is a specialised tool which offers the ability to focus on a customer journey rather than just a single touchpoint.

Let’s say a customer contacts your mobile phone company to cancel a contract. If the customer retention team isn’t able to persuade the customer to stay, that used to be the end of your relationship with that customer. But now you can put that customer into a journey and 12 months later – when their new contract is due for renewal – take action to bring them back in; the software can manage your customer journeys, all the way from first contact to termination and then reactivation.

The Internet and cloud computing have revolutionised the whole process of selling, enabling you to put the customer at the heart of the process rather than making them a feature of the product. That ability was pioneered by Salesforce 15 years ago, and the company continues to lead the way in cloud-based CRM systems (read the Beginner's Guide to CRM Systems).

It’s now possible to have a fully rounded view of your customer that’s not limited to their relationship with your product. And the social dimension gives you a further element. You can listen in to clients’ discussions online and use that to drive customer care, marketing or even new sales opportunities.

The next stage is bringing employees into that conversation, enabled by a suite of social technologies such as forums and real-time live chat groups. For example, a customer using social media can raise an issue that gets picked up by a customer service agent, who then uses an internal social network to find an expert answer within the company, making collaboration instant and improving the customer’s experience.

Cloud-based, extensible solutions allow you to either build your own solution or add extensions, choosing just the functionality you need to meet your business’s needs.

As a fast-growing company you may start with a small but specialised set of needs-- perhaps you’re only adding a few customers a week and you’re still training your team. As you grow, and your needs for customer information and team collaboration grow, you can add more sophisticated and capable functions, even building bespoke solutions into your CRM system. Eventually you’ll have a flexible, personalised system that meets your needs perfectly – and because it’s based in the cloud, it can keep changing to keep pace with your business.

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