When you’re first starting out, it makes sense to use the tools you have at your disposal. But there comes a time in every business when you have to bite the bullet and get the right tool for the job. Excel is one of those go-to applications that are often used to do jobs it wasn’t designed for.
Excel is a fantastic spreadsheet tool with some great features to manage financial and numeric information, is easy to use and you can quickly get a spreadsheet up and running. But if you are using an Excel (or any other) spreadsheet to manage your customer and prospect contacts, then you are probably starting to realise it’s not a good fit for purpose and are no doubt experiencing some pain and challenges.
A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) solution is purpose built to manage customers and prospects, and there’s more than a few reasons why it’s preferable to Excel.
Firstly, let’s start with some of the core information you will typically be needing to record.
- Customer, Prospect and Lead company information with segmentation, industry or other categorisations, and contact details (HO phone, address etc)
- Company contacts (usually multiple at each organisation), with contact details, or individual customers and prospects.
- Opportunity and/or Order information, such as value or deal size, expected close dates, notes, products and/or services to be purchased – usually with the need to capture more than one product
- Interactions – both planned (future) and historical interactions, so that you have a full history of your communications and meetings, plus links or copies of any emails sent or received.
- Process steps, which may reflect the sequence in which a deal, contract or order must proceed within the business, with various people needing to add, update or interact with that data depending on their role
- Critical dates – start or end dates of contracts or programmes or work, and any other important dates or milestones throughout your sales or order processes. Some fields or dates may need to trigger tasks and activities for follow up or action.
- Other associated information, such as marketing lists, invoice or finance details etc.
It becomes obvious that the data set and process can start to get quite complicated, with lots of relationships between the differing types of records, which is very difficult to manage in Excel. It is feasible that with an extremely in-depth knowledge of Excel and utilisation of advanced formulae and techniques that you could build a spreadsheet to capture and structure some of the information above, but it would be cumbersome to maintain, could not capture or reflect all elements, and would still not solve the challenges we are about to explore. So, let’s explore some of the challenges for Excel when attempting to use it as a CRM.
Security & Access
Accessing Excel is like any other file on your network – anyone with permission can access the entire file. If more than one person starts updating the file at the same time, then you’re going to get problems. You can’t define roles or allow people to access data that is only relevant to them.
CRM allows you to define security and access so that staff can only access the solution if they are licenced, with multiple staff able to access the solution simultaneously, while only accessing and updating information that is relevant to their role.
Data structure and duplication
Excel uses rows, and each row reflects a different record. So, if you have more than one record per customer or prospect (e.g. multiple contacts, opportunities or sales), it has to be added as additional rows and the customer information needs to be duplicated. And if you want to reflect multiple products under each opportunity or sale, then the complexity for Excel just increased exponentially. Having multiple records introduces data duplication and the potential for errors, and you might be double counting records.
It also means that data in Excel must be represented as rows, going across the screen, and cannot be structured in forms for intuitive data capture or improved user experience.
Excel is great in that you can capture data quickly and easily. Within cells you can capture free-form notes, or even add multiple contact names or dates all within the same cell (to get around the lack of relational data structures). But that flexibility is also a disadvantage as the integrity or usefulness of that data is severely limited.
CRM uses relational database techniques to allow relationships between different records (such as one-to-one and one-to-many), so that a single Customer can have more than one contact, opportunity or sale, and that any sale could have multiple products. Records are presented on a form for each record, that can be arranged and structured for intuitive data capture and an improved user experience. And this is all without having to duplicate or repeat the core customer information, as it is linked to the single record, not repeated. So, you have that full single customer view.
Adding & Deleting information
In Excel, adding new rows (records) and making sure all calculations are inherited needs a lot of forward planning and can introduce inconsistencies within the data. And anyone can delete a row, a column or a cell (field) – without an audit trail or ability to recover that data. (Yes, SharePoint will allow you to recover an older version of the file, but you will lose any changes made since the backup.)
With CRM you can restrict who has delete capabilities (generally a select few), and there is full audit trail of changes made to critical records. Users cannot add or remove fields unless they have very specific permissions (which is generally not the case). CRM is not as flexible as Excel, but it introduces security and peace of mind regarding the integrity of your valuable data.
File copying & duplication
With Excel, it’s so easy to copy and start another spreadsheet (would you be happy if a salesperson took a copy home?). Perhaps one of your users has another purpose for some of the core data (maybe a marketing list, or an order run-sheet), and they’ve taken the core spreadsheet as a base, but then added their own columns and different data, and now maintain it as a separate file. It could still be on the network or saved to their personal device. We’ve seen cases where more than a dozen files exist with similar core information spread throughout the organisation. Now you have multiple sources of customer information that will evolve and grow independently. We’ve seen cases where it takes a few weeks each time to get all the different sources together to just do a simple mailing each month.
In CRM, if a different business unit, department or set of users has different requirements to the core users, then additional forms (or fields) can be added just for them (with security if needed), linked to the core or related information – removing the duplication and maintaining that single customer view.
Workflow and business process
In Excel, you can define columns and a series of cells to capture important information and dates, so long as there is a one-to-one and consistent relationship. But Excel is static, and cannot dynamically create new records or pathways for capturing new data – for example: if a date is reached, create an activity for a staff member to follow up; or a business rule now requires a different process to spawn to capture different data.
The power of CRM is the ability to overlay business rules as to how data is captured or manipulated, and the ability to have multiple business processes (sequences of stages and steps) that users need to follow to manage important interactions, processes, contracts or orders, engaging the right staff member as required, capturing the relevant information, escalating to management (if required), or triggering an email or communication to a supplier or the customer as conditions are met.
Linking with other data such as Outlook
If you’re using Excel to capture customer and product information, your staff will still be using other tools such as Outlook for email, calendars, and to-do / activity interactions. Excel cannot link to these standard toolsets to record all of the interactions your staff have had (or plan to have) with customers, and there is no guarantee that even the names for customers and contacts are the same between Excel and Outlook.
Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM integrates with Microsoft Outlook so you can link an email, meeting or to-do with a record in your CRM (or visa-versa, by generating that email or activity from within CRM), so that you can easily manage and record all of your interactions, and maintain that single customer view.
When you’re starting out it’s natural to build an Excel spreadsheet to start capturing your basic data - the information was simple, and only used by one or two key staff. But as your company grows, more staff are now needing to use that spreadsheet, the information it needs to capture grows, and different versions start growing up like weeds. No doubt you’ve experienced many or all of the challenges described above and are wondering how to move forward. You’ve reached the point where you are now managing your business on what we call the spreadsheets and miracles approach – it’s a miracle if something doesn’t go wrong.
It’s time to evolve and put in place a solution that will provide you more flexible and powerful capabilities to help you manage your business as it grows – with more customers, staff, data and processes - with better control, security, data integrity, integration and insight. And that’s not even mentioning the hundreds of capabilities, features and functions that CRM can introduce to your business to improve account management, sales, service and marketing.
We have helped many small businesses in their journey from Excel to CRM. Contact us to find out how we can help you.