It's a small, small CRM-ish world...and it's gettin' smaller all the time

Here are a few reasons why 2012 has already been a pivotal year from a small business CRM-Ish perspective.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor on

On Monday, I wrote this post about Small Business CRM technology which seemed to resonate pretty well among those who read it and who heard about it.  One thing I mentioned in the post in a variety of ways was (and is) the importance of Brent Leary, who, aside from being my partner in CRM Playaz (which we both find hilarious), is one of the most renowned Social CRM experts in the world - especially in matters of small business.

Well, not only am I lucky enough to get his take on small biz CRM but also I get the privilege of his announcement of the "CRM(ish) Awards for 2012" which are about...well, wait a minute, I'll let him tell you.

So, here we go. Brent, my good man, take it away!

Brent Leary On...Lots of Things

I had to write this now while I'm thinking about it.  Before another company gets bought by, well,  another company.

At the end of 2010 I wrote how I thought Social CRM was going to go mainstream in 2011 for my Inc.com column.  Incidentally 2010 was also the year I put together my first CRM-ISH List of companies to keep an eye on from a small business CRM perspective.  And at the end of last year I felt the same way about 2012 being the year small business CRM-Ish activity would begin to really breakout.   And a few weeks back while speaking at a couple of Small Business Week events it occurred to me that 2012 has already been a breakout year for CRM-Ish developments at the small business level.  Which is why I'm close to rolling out this year's CRM-Ish list of companies I think deserve a look from small businesses.

Here are a few reasons why I think 2012 has already been a pivotal year from a small business CRM-Ish perspective.

All Roads Lead to Small Business

Traditional vendors are building (or buying) social tools into their CRM offerings to attract small business customers.  And vendors who focus specifically on the small biz market are really upping the ante on their offerings.  InfusionSoft has always provided a great deal of marketing automation functionality in their service, but it wasn't the easiest application to use.  But with this latest release the interface makes it very easy for even the most traditional of small businesses to configure all kinds of multi-step marketing activities and functions.  And SugarCRM's updated interface and functionality received several rounds of applause from their user base during SugarCon back in April.

Then there are the new players to the small business space - so many you'd need a giant scorecard to try and keep up with them - and before you ask I actually do have a big scorecard, but I digress...  This includes companies that have come on board the last couple of years focused on specific aspects of social interaction like Sprout Social (which announced a very interesting integration with Zendesk recently), Nimble and Desk.com (The Artist Formerly Known As Assistly, now under the Salesforce.com umbrella).  Or VIP Orbit, which leverages the iOS platform to provide mobile relationship management to those who live on their iPhones and iPads. It also includes a company like Radius Intelligence, which provides sales intelligence on millions of local small businesses, enabling more insights and relationship building opportunities.  Or Payvement - a social commerce platform that turns Facebook into a shopping mall of sorts. (Btw according to a recent Payvment study 37% of small businesses use Facebook as their sole sales channel...)These companies could never be considered to be traditional CRM vendors, but in today's environment they are definitely CRM-ish.

That title can also be attached to companies like Yahoo! who recently came out with a marketing dashboard that integrates information from Constant Contact, Orange Soda, Google Analytics and other sources to provide small businesses with a singular view of the impact their marketing activities are having on lead generation and their online reputation.  Or LinkedIn with its acquisitions of Connected (CRM Idol 2011 contestant), Rapportive and SlideShare.net to deepen interaction capabilities.  Or even Dell, as their cloud business applications division helps small business integrate Salesforce.com with other cloud-based services to more effectively interact with customers.

In fact using their Boomi platform, Dell recently announced a set of Integration Packs that synchronize data between apps like QuickBooks and Microsoft Dynamics GP with Salesforce.com.  Dell customers can use a wizard to install the pre-configured Integration Packs and deploy them by checking a few selection boxes - without the need of professional services.

The Rise of Analyst/Blogger/Influencer/Fill-in-the-blank Relations

Being involved in the CRM industry one way or another for, gulp, 20 years I've been afforded the opportunity to attend (and in a number of circumstances participate as a panelist, speaker, moderator, CRM Playa, etc) a number of conferences and events.  But over the past 4 years or so companies like Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and Salesforce.com have created programs for independent voices to have special access to information and executives that was afforded only to analysts at the big-boy firms.  Some call it blogger relations, others call it industry influencers - but whatever it's called it has enabled a whole new group of industry watchers to analyze and write about what the company is doing, and speculate on the impact it may have on the industry.  Oracle's Susie Penner, SAP's Malcolm  Kimberlin (and Margot Heiligman before him) and Sage's Ryan Zuk are among the best of the best at doing this in the industry.

And while the bigger guys have been developing/formalizing their influencer programs over the past few years, vendors that focus solely on the small business space really haven't put together a formal outreach program to influencers - at least not that I had heard of.  But that's beginning to change.  Hubspot recently held their first analyst day type event in May.  I've known Hubspot since they were a two-man operation, and have watched them grow to over 300 employees and 6,000 customers. (Fun fact about Hubspot - they generate 45,000 leads a month for their business, with approx. 99% of them coming by way of inbound marketing activities according to CEO Brian Halligan)  When they asked me who the independents in the industry they should invite to the event, I was glad they thought it important to include us types  to take part in the day.  It's just too bad they had the event take place in the busiest week to date in the industry, but it's an important milestone to me.

And they are not alone.  Last year SugarCRM brought Chris Bucholtz on board to head up analyst relations, and they couldn't have made a better pick for that job.  He knows the influencers in the space (mainly because he is one) and is creating a program that is truly a win-win for the company and the influencer community.  And InfusionSoft is in the formative stages of creating a formal influencer progam, building on the great work Laura Collins has done to singlehandedly build relationships with a few of us.  Plus InfusionSoft is hiring Marketing Evangelists to help build bridges with the small business community - and they recently announced Ramon Ray (publisher of SmallBizTechnology.com) would be their evangelist in the NY/NJ region - the ABSOLUTE BEST person they could've hired for that job.

Net/net the value of these types of programs are not only for the vendors to get the word out about their products.  It's for the vendors to build two-way relationships with people who spend significant time with small businesses and have an independent pulse on what's important to them, and integrate this knowledge and feedback to create better products, services, best practices and experiences for their customers.

The Amazon Effect

By now most everybody knows that Amazon.com is way more than an online bookseller. But the vast majority of small businesses I come in contact with don't know about the many services Amazon has to offer their business.  They don't even know that many of the products they use, use Amazon Web Services.  All you have to do is check out the growing number of case studies to see who is using the Amazon platform to build their business upon.  If you use Tweetdeck you're experiencing the power of AWS.  If you check-in with FourSquare you're using AWS.  If you use UrbanSpoon to get the scoop on the restaurant scene in your area... yup - AWS!  And, according to the case study on the AWS site, if you are an UrbanSpoon member you're among the 5 million monthly users of the site - a site operated by a company with only 3 full-time employees.

So small (and large) software companies are take advantage of those services.  In fact many of the younger companies that entered CRM Idol last year were using EC2, S3, RDS, R2D2 (OK not that last one...) and a bunch of other Amazon web services.  And as services like these and more end-user friendly types (Fulfillment by Amazon, CreateSpace, Amazon Studios, etc) become more familiar to the wider small business community they will begin to take advantage of them in order to create their own flexible business models and processes, that will also be less expensive to maintain.  And will allow them to focus on customer engagement more than technology management.

But this goes way beyond Amazon.com.  Pretty much all the big players are creating cloud platforms for others to leverage their computing platforms.  And it's not just storage and computing power they're leveraging.  Google recently came out with Google Consumer Surveys allowing companies to leverage the millions of people interacting with Google products each day to gather insights they can integrate into product/service development - at a fraction of the price they'd have to pay elsewhere.  So as the "clouds and crowds" become even more accessible to mainstream small businesses, their adoption of these service will continue to trend up.  And 2012 seems to be a kind of launching point for this.

I Could Go On and On and On.....

There are so many signs pointing to this being a breakout year that I can't list them all.  Yeah social, mobile, local and cloud are huge.  But it's the consumer that is driving all of this.  And it's the small business folks who are demanding tools and services that allow them to keep up with today's quickly evolving, demanding customers.  They want trust to go along with those tools - meaning trusted vendors who will treat them like they need to treat their own customers.  And this year I am seeing more interest than ever from the small biz community in finding the right vendors to work with.

This year I organized the inaugural Social Biz Atlanta conference aimed specifically at helping small businesses start the transition from being a user of social tools to becoming a true social business.  I had the pleasure of having experts like CRM Playa #1 Paul Greenberg, small business Guru Anita Campbell, Social Media Today CEO Robin Carey - and executives from Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Sage and other vendors participate in the day.  And while I was hoping to have a hundred or so people attend the event, we ended up having over 240 people there, with the vast majority of them staying for the whole day.

I saw the interest and enthusiasm from the small business folks attending Social Biz Atlanta a few weeks later at InfusionCon 2012.  With their focus on the 25-employee or less audience it was eye-opening for me to see 1,500 charged-up people at the three day conference, as the last time I attended the event was 2008 - when the audience was about 200.  The scene was the same a few weeks later at SugarCon 2012, as over 1,000 attendees came out to hear and see the direction SugarCRM is headed in.  And although I didn't attend it, this year Zoho, another favorite of the small business crowd, held their very first user conference which had close to 200 people in attendance.

This scene has been played out over and over this year for me.  At the Atlanta Inbound Marketing Conference run by Jamie Turner and sponsored by Hubspot, and finally at both events I spoke at during Small Business Week - Atlanta Tribune's Moving Your Business Forward and LISTA's Emerging Technology Leadership Summit.

Actually I've seen this kind of passion and desire from the small business community for a long time now.  And now that passion is being paid attention to by a growing number of companies in the industry.  From the big guys, to the little guys - to the big guys who weren't players in this area who are now becoming players - there's a lot of action going on here.  And I believe we're just at the beginning here.

Companies like Get Satisfaction - last year's CRM Idol winner in the Americas - are creating community platforms that even the smallest of companies can take advantage of, while also making it possible to provide customer support wherever it needs to go with easy to use widgets that anyone work with.  Marketo announced recently announced social marketing automation tools (coming from their acquisition of CRM Idol finalist Crowd Factory) that work for their enterprise products, but also with Spark - their small business offering.  Hubspot is quickly integrating the marketing automation functionality from last year's acquisition of Performable to give their customers the ability to connect inbound marketing tools with middle-of-the-funnel automation functionality to increase the odds of converting content into closed deals.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope you're getting the picture.  2012 is the setup year, and we're not even halfway through it.  Small businesses have been waiting for this to happen, and it's good to see momentum is really moving things forward.

So I better get this year's CRM-Ish List out soon before something else happens.  But who am I kidding - something else probably happened while I've been writing this... but that's what making 2012 so much fun!  So be on the lookout, cuz I'm here to put The Ish back in CRM...I just hope the list is better than that sounded.

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