Whether you run your own business or you’re trying to keep your extended family organized — or maybe even both — having a robust system able to keep your contacts organized is important.

Organization isn’t enough, though. An electronic Rolodex isn’t really enough, though that’s pretty much what most of us rely on these days. Instead, we need to be able to tell when we last talked to a given contact, if we promised to handle any tasks or any other details that our address books don’t track. That means we need some sort of contact relations management. CRM isn’t just for the folks with big fancy corner offices anymore.

GMail’s Contacts Just Aren’t Enough

It’s very easy to fall into the habit of syncing everything to GMail. After all, Google is kind enough to automatically add anyone you communicate with to your address book, keeping the whole process pretty simple. But when it comes to managing your contacts, GMail just falls short. Say I want to find a doctor in the hundreds of contacts that call my GMail account home: I have to know the name of the doctor I’m looking for. Searching just for ‘doctor’ only pulls up the emails that have that word in them — far too many to sort through.

It goes beyond missing job titles, though. Aside from very basic notes, I can’t really add information to my contacts. If I want to remember a birthday or a project that my contact is working on, I add it as a note, and hope I remember that it’s there. We’re talking about a less-than-ideal approach to contact management.

The Practical Reason Behind CRM

By the time you add up your second cousins, the guys you met at that networking event last year and all of the various maintenance people that keep your home in tip-top shape, you have a stack of business cards that that could rival the height of a small office building. Would you be able to lay hands on the exact phone number you need in an emergency, even after you’ve added all those numbers to your address book?

I don’t think I could. It’s a matter of how we remember who we’re looking for. If I needed a plumber, for instance, I’m probably going to remember who I got his name from or when I last called him long before I remember his name or company. The same can hold true for business contacts and a lot of CRM software makes allowances for the way our brains operate. Highrise, for instance, allows users to search through notes, emails and other data for keywords, like ‘plumber’ or ‘programmer.’

Putting Business and Personal Together

CRM software is generally developed with a sales team in mind: rather than ‘contact,’ the C in CRM usually stands for ‘customer.’ That’s why you’re able to add so much information. Anything that can lead to a sale, from remembering a birthday to a preferred work out time, has to fit.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add your personal contacts to your management system. CRM solutions can help you make both your personal and your professional life more productive. That statement assumes, of course, that you’ve managed to keep them separate. I know I haven’t, and the thought of trying to keep them separate is more than a little scary.

But why should we have separate programs notifying us of family members’ and sales leads’ birthdays? To manage two systems requires double the work — perhaps even more for that cousin you regularly do business with. With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn — where most people have connected with both personal and professional contacts — it seems more than reasonable to start managing all of our contacts from the same place. I get the feeling that a lot of companies discount the value of maintaining a system for personal contacts — despite the number of leads and networking opportunities that come from outside the office. Luckily, once you’ve actually got CRM software, no one can stop you from adding your personal contacts as well as those people you know professionally.

The Sticking Point

Your contacts of all kinds are valuable. If you’ve ever done sales for a large company you know how hard employers work to keep a Rolodex when an employee leaves. A good CRM file is worth money — it’s a matter of deciding how valuable your file is.

The real sticking point for CRM software and those of us without companies willing to pay for it has to be the price. Joel wrote about some of the online options yesterday and none of them had a price tag I could justify for personal use. Sure, there are some free options, but they do have some serious limitations.

The solution isn’t precisely simple: it’s worth our while to be more productive, but much are we willing to spend on CRM? Perhaps we aren’t able to justify a high price for our personal use, but what about managing the contacts that can help us improve our careers? Our own businesses? Our outside projects? The price I’m willing to spend goes up with each group of my contacts I think about managing — how about you? How many contacts outside of your 9-to-5 job do you have? And what are you willing to do to manage them effectively?

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