Do you remember the days when all business information was stored in a Rolodex? Before the days of email and personal computers, when business owners needed to find contact information for a customer, they’d pull out their Rolodex and begin flipping through index cards with info written on them.

Although mainframe computers came into use as far back as the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that small businesses gained access to personal computers in the workplace. The possibilities created by the introduction of digital technology seemed endless.

One of the first and most obvious applications for computers in business was contact management. Instead of pulling out a heavy Rolodex and searching through files to find customer information, entrepreneurs could store those digits inside their computer. The very first customer management softwares were basically just digital Rolodexes.

The thing is, although technology has evolved rapidly since then, many businesses still aren’t using their CRM software for much more than that.

What is CRM? It stands for Customer Relationship Management. The term was originally coined in 1995 to refer to software used to manage business contacts and sales opportunities. It was almost called Customer Information Management (CIM), Customer Information Systems (CIS), or Enterprise Customer Management (ECM). But the term CRM won out and is now widely used. In fact, it is so widely used that many business owners are now unsure what it means.

Strengthen customer relationships with data-driven communication

The most important part of the CRM acronym is R: relationships. It’s essential that companies understand the variety of customer relationships and how to manage those connections, otherwise known as relational intelligence. Although businesses often record thorough demographics and CRM reports, some fail to take advantage of relational data.

Without this relational intelligence, CRM software cannot benefit businesses. The key is data.

To illustrate the role of data in your customer relationships, just think back to the last time you had to call a business’s customer service line to get support for an issue. We’ve all been there — having to repeat our information over and over, being handed off from person to person, and getting sales pitches for products you don’t need instead of solutions for the problem at hand.

These interactions can be painful for customers. It’s not uncommon for people to hang up out of frustration when a misguided rep isn’t able to understand the problem and offers irrelevant solutions.

Poor customer handoffs like these can have drastic effects on customer retention. 99 Firms shows us that 39% of consumers will abandon a company after a single instance of poor customer service.

68% of customers automatically delete irrelevant emails and 54% unsubscribe.

Without accurate data that’s organized and accessible within a CRM, it’s difficult to send relevant, well-targeted messages to prospects and leads. The consequences of not doing so are expensive.

Disjointed communication also has impacts that reach far beyond customer service. Not only does it damage a business’s ability to retain customers, it also hampers efforts to attract new ones. Research shows that most customers automatically delete irrelevant emails, while some even unsubscribe or ignore mistargeted marketing efforts. However, other customers react far more negatively. In fact, once they unsubscribe, 35% of customers will never subscribe again, and there is nothing that brands can do to change their minds. A majority of customers categorize mistargeted marketing emails as junk or spam, and most subscribers believe that more than half of the emails they receive are useless.

The link between data and relationships: creating a single customer view

Although data can certainly be part of the problem when not used intelligently, it’s actually the key to a lasting solution. In the same way you show your friends and family that they matter to you by remembering their favorite foods and calling them on their birthday, storing and leveraging data so you can remember your customers’ preferences also shows them that you care.

If a business used its CRM effectively, customers would never have to repeat information about themselves. From the first time they fill out a contact form on your website to their initial purchase, customers would receive targeted communications and interactions. After receiving timely marketing messages and content catered to their needs and interests, customers would develop an idea of the potential value your product or service would add to their life. That’s when the sales team would step in — armed with helpful solutions to the customers’ problems. If customers needed to speak with a different sales rep, the handoff would be handled seamlessly. With their background and information easily accessible, the new rep would be prepared to address customers’ issues and offer insight.

Once leads become customers, all the information they share would be used to tailor their experience and serve their needs. If customers had a service request, they would simply provide their name or account number to a sales rep, who would be able to access the customers’ history of interactions with the company.

This type of unified approach to customer data management is called a “single customer view.” According to, this view merges customer data into one comprehensive record and creates a holistic representation of a customer. What this means is that all the data available about each customer is brought together in a single place.

In your CRM, this “place” is the contact record. Anyone within your organization can see all the data points available for every customer by pulling up their contact record. This makes for more seamless handoffs between departments, more insight into each customer’s unique needs and preferences, and better brand loyalty and customer retention. With a single customer view powered by a CRM software tool that makes it easy to capture and use data, it becomes far easier to treat every customer and lead who crosses your path as a human being with unique wants, needs and concerns.

Putting your data to work with automation

Of course, having all the information about each customer at hand inside your CRM is still akin to the digital Rolodex — it’s just a far sleeker version. Customer Relationship Management isn’t just about storing and searching for data. When your data is all in one place, with a well-organized single customer view, it paves the way for you to do a lot more to build those relationships than you might think is possible.

By combining the power of your CRM with automation, you can actually nurture relationships with customers by consistently managing interactions as your company grows.

Here’s an example to explain how CRM and automation make this possible. Let’s say you are a wedding planner. When leads come to your website, you offer them a free wedding planning workbook to download in exchange for sharing their email and the date of their upcoming wedding. Based on the date, you send them automated emails that contain helpful planning information that is targeted to their current planning phase. Eight months before, you send information on selecting a venue, photographer, caterer, etc.; four months before, you send information on choosing their music, planning their seating arrangement, and so on.

By sending timely information that’s highly relevant to what they’re already focused on, you can build valuable relationships to turn more leads into customers. For clients who choose you as their wedding planner, you could continue to use your CRM and automation to follow up with them after the wedding date. You could ask the newly-wedded couple to leave you a testimonial or online review one month after, or send them a gift on their one-year anniversary. These gestures will lead to more brand advocacy and potential referrals.

The best part is, all of these processes can happen without you working to remember each prospective bride’s wedding date or manually sending these emails. After setting up the automation, it can run in the background while you focus on other marketing efforts.

Automation is a highly powerful tool that can be used strategically to develop relationships with customers, but it can also damage your reputation and customer relationships if it’s not used in tandem with a well-organized CRM. The secret is to use your CRM as the backbone and the brains behind your automation strategy. All your customer data lives in your CRM — and when your automation is fully based on that database, you can use it to build real relationships without the noise of irrelevant messages or unhelpful interactions.

About Megan Monroe
Associate Editor Megan Monroe is a graduate of Santa Barbara’s Westmont College where she studied Philosophy and Communications. After working for several local small businesses (where she gained firsthand experience with the frustration of manual segmentation and follow-up), Megan joined the Ontraport Growth Team. When she isn’t writing marketing copy, social media posts or educational guides for entrepreneurs, she enjoys taking advantage of the Central Coast's amazing wineries and cooking without following a recipe.