I recently spoke with a professional services firm executive who had this to say about maintaining his firm's contact database:

“Every January we say the same thing … this year our firm will focus on routinely cleaning our contact database and not waiting until the end-of-year holiday card season. This year, our firm will implement a data hygiene program that everyone in the firm participates in. Of course, it never happens that way.“

Sound familiar?

As I explained in my last post, entering and validating contacts is tedious business, but the tangible benefits are well worth it. But what if you don't have a formal database (also called a “house list”)? Or what if you aren't happy with the tool you use now? Where do you start?

A contact database can be a simple Excel spreadsheet or a feature-rich CRM, such as Salesforce. I've learned the hard way, however, that it's critical you take the time to choose a product that's going to fit your current and future needs. You'd be surprised how difficult it can be to move all your data from one product to another. It's far better to spend a little time upfront defining your requirements than investing many, many hours later manually migrating hundreds or thousands of custom tags, notes and attachments.

How do you choose the right tool? There's no easy answer to this question, but here are a few questions and pointers that should help:

  • Decide if you want an online tool or one that resides on your own computer. This decision will immediately narrow your options.
  • Do you need to access the tool from a mobile device? Some providers have great support, others none at all.
  • How much customization do you need? Some tools offer a lot more flexibility than others.
  • Do you want to be able to set up the tool yourself, or are you okay paying a consultant to configure it for you?
  • How much are you willing to spend? Does a monthly fee bother you?
  • Gather everyone who will be using the tool. At the very least, you will want to include the CEO, the head of marketing and a sales representative in the discussion. List all the ways your team will want to collect and segment data. Spell out the reports you will want to generate.
  • Decide who will enter and maintain the data. Will each person do it themselves? Or will there be a centralized resource? How well will you tool handle your preferred method?

Once you've selected a database tool, give it a test run. Most providers offer free trial periods — be sure to take advantage of it! Believe me, it's almost impossible to understand what a tool can and can't do just from reading the sales literature or watching a demo video. You'll want to get your hands dirty and try out key functionality on real data.

In the coming weeks, I'll be offering more insights into the care and feeding of your list. So check back soon!