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part one: big data

Like too many small business owners, Henry Faber's customer relationship management software used to be the generic contact-list software that came with his computer.

But as a partner at Bento Box, a Web-development and business-development company, as well as a manager of a co-working space his company runs in Toronto, Mr. Faber found the contacts he had to manage started to pile up – along with the projects associated with them.

"I wanted to process a lot of people and relationships to tell which one might be our next partner," he says.

Not only was he trying to keep track of prospective clients, contractors and tenants, but also the practicalities of running a shared space and projects meant staying on top of running correspondences with contractors like plumbers and electricians, and the tasks that needed to be accomplished to keep the space running.

Was this a job for CRM?

Customer relationship management software won't stay in its box. The category was a once a staple of fields like sales and fundraising. Electronic databases proved a perfect tool to keep track of leads, customers, clients and donors, keeping on top of everything from their sales histories to the names of their kids.

In the last decade, as computing has moved online, CRM has led the way into the cloud. Storing this kind of data online is a natural fit for the market, and big players like SalesForce were among the first cloud services to make it big.

Today, however, CRM for small business has exploded. It's not just a tool for big business, but for any small operation that's outgrowing its Rolodex. Not only is the marketplace for small-business CRM busy to the point of fragmentation, but the category has evolved to encompass both the social networks that dominate the Web as well as new ways of working.

In a busy marketplace, here are three ways that cloud-based CRM is pushing forward:

Connect to other services

Both you and your customers have spent years assembling contact lists online; why start from scratch? Modern CRM products like Connected []/note> are adept at sucking in contact lists from all sources, starting with your personal contact books (Outlook, Mac Mail, Gmail), and then with your social contacts: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, for starters. (In fact, LinkedIn bought Connected and now maintains it as a free service.)

The upshot is a service that pre-loads all of your contacts on day one, filtering out duplicates as it goes. Because it talks to these different services, it keeps itself automatically updated, promising an end to manual data entry.

CRM software can connect to other online services to spit out data as well as bring it in: Mr. Faber's software of choice, a suite called Hirise []/note>, connects to MailChimp []/note>, a popular mailing-list service, allowing him to send group e-mails to selected groups within his contacts.

Track correspondence

CRM doesn't just keep track of who people are, it tracks the relationship you have with them as it progresses. – when the last contact was made, what was agreed upon, and where the correspondence left off.

CRM software either integrates directly with your e-mail software, or can be looped in by bcc'ing e-mails to a drop-box address run by the CRM company, which will automatically sort and archive them. Once e-mails are available to a CRM, they're freed from the constraints of your own inbox, and can be viewed by anyone on a team with access to the project.

Manage more than relationships

CRM is also pushing past people and into projects. While project-management software is a specialized category unto itself, Mr. Faber found that Hirise worked well at keeping tasks on track.

During the process of adding a new kitchen to its office space, the same software that stored his teams' potential client lists also kept track of running correspondence with contractors, from electricians to the guy who installed the shelves. Because the e-mails were stored centrally and everyone on his small team had access to them, anyone could act as a point of contact for the contractors, should the regular one be out of the office.

"I can keep my team informed about what I'm doing really easily," he says. "It's a highly simple, flexible idea."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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