Customer Relationship Management Systems

Customer relationship management is the process of interacting with and understanding your customers—and getting them to know, like, and trust you over your competition.


Across industries and geographies, customers tend to behave in a predictable way: they choose to work with those they know, like, and trust. Yes, they have to follow regulations and formally evaluate you against evaluation criteria. But if they know, like, and trust you, they will figure out a way to pick you. Conversely, if they don’t, they will figure out a way to not pick you.

For you to win, you must get inside your customer’s head to understand where it is really coming from—and to get the customer to know, like, and trust you over all your competitors.

This is best accomplished using the art and science of customer relationship management (CRM). Simply put, CRM is the process of managing all aspects of your relationship with your customers to get them to know who you are and what you can do for them, like you and your team (the team they will be working with day to day if they select you for their program’s execution), and trust you and your team so they will eventually select you over your competitors.

“Management” is the operative word, as CRM should not be done on the fly, but rather through a well-considered plan of attack that is expertly executed by your team.

With today’s limited budgets and super-competitive marketplace, companies that do CRM well will prevail. The residual payoff is an easier opportunity and proposal effort.

Best Practices

1. Start early.

It is perfectly permissible and recommended for contractors to interact with customers before and during the proposal process. Your goal is to listen to the customer’s needs and let it know how your solution can solve its problem—give the customer the opportunity know, like, and trust you.

Before an RFP is released, contractors can attempt RFP shaping, the process of influencing customers’ thinking to get elements of an upcoming RFP to reflect your company’s key discriminators.

As you get closer to the RFP’s release, shaping becomes more difficult. Many customers drop the “cone of silence” early—at, or often well before, the release of a draft RFP. Some may not release a draft RFP at all. This limits your insight into what the customer is really looking for in its program. To gain the most knowledge and exert the most influence, start early—months or years before an RFP is released, not after.

2. Develop and execute a contact plan.

When it comes to managing relationships with your customers, don’t wing it. Develop a plan of attack and execute it with precision.

One way to do this is by using a contact plan, which details the customers you plan to call or contact. Fundamentally, it should include:

  • Who you’re going to visit and who from your company will attend
  • What you’re trying to find out from the customer and what message you want to communicate to them
  • When you will visit (sometimes you want multiple meetings with different customer levels happening simultaneously so you can get data to compare)
  • Where the meeting will take place—your office, its office, a teammates’ office, or elsewhere
  • Why you want to meet with this customer—what you hope to accomplish
  • How you’re going to communicate your message

Your contact plan can be as simple or complex as you’d like. The important thing is that you develop it, execute it, and keep it up to date. The simplest form of a contact plan is a table in spreadsheet format. Below is an example:

• General Jones—PEO • What is the acquisition strategy? What is its opinion of our company’s performance? 7/23/14 3:30–4:30 Pentagon, Room A410 • Determine our acquisition strategy Slides
• Bill Kahn—Your Company VP • Express corporate commitment to this program and investment to date     • Find out if we need to do any customer relations damage control  
• Sue Kemp—Your Company Opportunity Manager          
• Ms. Smith—Tech Lead • What are the expected KPIs? 7/24/14 3:30–4:30 Our Company, Lab #14 • Get feedback on our solution Product demonstration
• GS14 Rob Hopp—S/W Lead • Run our solution by them for feedback        
• Jane Doe—Your Company Lead Architect          
• Rick Yen—Your Company S/W Lead          

3. Approach customer meetings in a strategic, organized way.

The contact plan allows you to visualize and archive customer interactions and helps you plan for customer meetings. Preparation is essential. Document what you want to say, who will say it, and how you will say it. Rehearse the presentation with your team to ensure that you are organized and that everyone knows what’s expected of them. Invite colleagues to your rehearsal that are not on the team and ask them to point out anything that is not communicated clearly. Also consider role-playing in your rehearsals to help anticipate questions that the customer might ask.

Just as important as planning for meetings, however, is documenting their outcomes. Follow the “two-person rule” for customer meetings: always have at least two representatives from your company attend. This helps in several ways:

  • One person can take notes while the other person is engaged with the customer
  • Because different people interpret interactions differently, it is helpful to have at least two versions of what the customer says to compare
  • One person can observe the customer’s body language/reaction to questions/statements made by the other person to look for favorable or negative responses
  • Attendees can take turns asking the customer questions, allowing the customer to get to know, like, and trust multiple members of your team

Next, be sure to document what was said in the meeting. An easy way to do this is to add a column to your contact plan and summarize meeting results and findings against the list of information you wanted to find out (the “What” column of your contact plan). You can also document how the customer reacted to information shared and any next steps discussed.

Do this by getting all company attendees together shortly after the meeting while information is still fresh in their minds. Documenting all information in your contact plan provides a great archive of all information in a single place, rather than distributed in multiple documents. This easy access to all information and context is important to supporting activities such as strategy formulation, value proposition development, solutioning, and proposal writing.

Finally, assign and document action items and follow up on them regularly. Keep asking yourself, “What else do we need to know from the customer?” and, “What else does the customer need to know from us?” If done effectively, you will have all the answers to both of these questions before the “cone of silence” drops.

4. Develop a marketing communications plan.

Hold win strategy and value proposition development sessions to identify what messaging you want to communicate. Then coordinate who will deliver messaging and how and when you will deliver it. Document brief elevator speeches in your contact plan. Plan messages through social and traditional media channels using a marketing communications plan.

Simply creating messages is not enough; you must have coordinated plan to communicate them.

Application in Diverse Environments

Use of external resources in larger environments

In the commercial, business-to-business sales environment, CRM is the responsibility of a sales or business development expert. The information collected by the sales expert is then provided to the proposal team as the RFP planning begins.

In large organizations where resources—people and money—may be plentiful, there may be several people available, in addition to your core team, to interact with customers. These include:

  • Consultants, ex-customers or friends of your customer, who can visit members of their former organizations more easily than you can
  • Brokers who find customers for you and build relationships with them
  • Government liaisons whose job is to focus on members of legislative bodies and their staffs
  • Local field marketing representatives who focus on specific agencies or Department of Defense (DoD) organizations

Coordination of these and all members of your team presents organization challenges, which your contact plan can help address. Properly coordinated, external representatives can be a great asset to your team by setting up meetings and making connections you might not otherwise be able to. But if efforts are not coordinated, your customers can be confused when several people from your company visit them about the same program and ask the same questions, leaving them with a bad impression of your company and how you’ve wasted their time.

A great use of these impartial agents is to check the pulse of how your company is perceived by customers—and do damage control if your company has performed badly for them in the past.

Small businesses may not have as many resources to engage customers, but contact plans are still essential to ensure that the resources they do have are used most effectively.

Recent Trends

Use of CRM software

Software is available to help you with CRM. A CRM system electronically captures all of your accounts, contacts, calls, meetings, tasks, email, documentation, marketing campaigns, and more. All of this information is available online to the whole team and reportable with a few clicks of a button. From building your contact plans in something as simple word processing or spreadsheet software to sophisticated off-the-shelf specialized software, there are tools available to fit every budget.


Interacting with global customers

In today’s increasingly global marketspace, it’s important to know how to interact with customers of all nationalities. Cultural awareness is critical when doing business internationally, so be sure to do your research before you make an international faux pas that could mean the end of a deal before you ever submit a proposal.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Focusing only on high-ranking customer employees

The most common pitfall is for a company’s team to focus only on high-ranking customer employees and have its own high-ranking executives handle interactions. It is just as important to include the customer employees who will be developing the RFP and evaluating your proposal. Match your own equivalent personnel up with customers’ so they can meet the people they will be eventually working with if they pick your company.

Leave egos and technical arrogance behind. And always be honest. Remember: customers will pick companies they know, like, and trust.


Misunderstanding of CRM’s role

A common misconception is that CRM is just the tracking of an opportunity and its logistics. CRM is not only that, but also the planning and execution of how you are going to coordinate meeting with—and listening to—your customers. Capturing the history of the relationship is critical as it provides context for those that will manage the customer after the sale is closed.


  • Customers tend to select contractors that they know, like, and trust, so a key goal of CRM is to build these bonds.
  • Begin CRM early by attempting to shape an RFP before it is released.
  • The early development of a contact plan is a critical best practice to ensure that you execute CRM in a coordinated, disciplined, and documented way.
  • Listening is a trait of successful, winning companies.
  • There are several software tools available to help you successfully execute CRM.

Terms to Know

Tools and Templates

See Also