From XLS to CRM: Understanding the Power of a Database

I have been privy to the planning stages of many new businesses. Most businesses, when first coalescing their ideas into practical data, tend to use Microsoft Excel to organize their customers, vendors, and other charted data. While this works for the most part, invariably these same businesses find themselves quickly growing out of a simple spreadsheet. Then, when sharing the data among people becomes necessary, this same spreadsheet is either emailed back and forth, or one lucky person becomes the caretaker of the spreadsheet, having to constantly look up information for everyone.

Does this sound familiar?

In steps Google. Google Sheets can import Excel spreadsheets easily, although formulas on cells becomes more difficult, and it has its limitation as well, even with the extended capabilities of sharing the Google Sheet with other people. Reporting and correlated data searches (which we’ll call queries from now on) are still rudimentary at best. So how does a growing business manage and scale its critical customer data?

Databases Explained

Think of a database as, for all intents and purposes, a collection of spreadsheets; columns, rows and so forth. It stores numbers — with or without a decimal or plus/minus sign, text in any amount, true/false ‘flags’, preset dropdown lists, even images and other files. The database engine is the software that allows you to connect, or relate different tables based on common elements (ID numbers, types of payment, etc.), giving you a combined result. The language that is used to query the database is called SQL (‘sequel’). Each database engine has its own flavor of SQL, and your developer should be familiar enough with at least one.

It is the relationship of data in different tables based on queries that is the true power of a database engine. Excel is only now beginning to provide relational functions, however it requires an upgrade to Excel 2013, and takes about 30 steps to set up. This is why you hire developers; so you don’t have to deal with this sort of thing.

Just the Facts

Databases are very sterile and utilitarian. They’re supposed to be; all they want to do is store and retrieve data, something they do very well. Most users need a way to interact with a database that is intuitive and user-friendly. They don’t need to constantly see the entire list of raw data the way they do in an Excel or Sheets spreadsheet. So your developer creates an interface for you to add, update, delete, and query data. Nerds call it CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) for short. Now you and your users can get the customer data they need in a meaningful way.

The Great Leap Forward

If your developer is good, he or she will be able to continue making changes to your online database to meet your company’s needs. I have created applications that have customer data going back years, with thousands of customers listed and gigabytes of data stored. For established businesses with revenue, it’s easier to retain a developer to constantly work on maintaining and upgrading your database. For new businesses, that isn’t always an option. Typically, they need a database backend with an intuitive frontend that can be manipulated enough to suit their nascent business’ particular requirements.

Enter the CRM

A Customer Resource Manager is just such an application. It is a collection of tables that allows you as the business owner to enter all of the information you need for entering and tracking new customers, clients, donors, or leads. The better ones have reporting, messaging and calendaring, and workflows which allow you to track a sales process from end to end.

All CRMs [that I’ve researched. Fourteen so far.] follow a specific generic model. Since a CRM is a sales tool, it is biased towards sales organizations, but the underlying functionality is the same. It allows you to track leads, accounts, opportunities, documents, alternate contacts, as well as create email campaigns to send to existing and potential customers. All permit you to label these particular elements to suit your company. For instance, organizations may label their accounts “Donors”. The CRMs that I’ve worked with also allow you to customize and modify features, form fields and other elements to make your CRM a personalized and indispensable tool for your business.

By setting up and utilizing a CRM system, you can fit the pieces of your data puzzle together to see your company’s full picture.

Are you ready to talk about installing a CRM for your business or organization? You can contact me to set up a time to discuss your specific needs.

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