What's the best method for customer data entry in Microsoft CRM?

According to Richard Smith, the best way to capture customer data depends upon the nature of the data that you are trying to capture and how you intend to use it. Read his advice for Excel and Dynamics here.

We are a small network support company and use Microsoft CRM 3.0. We gather information from our clients -- which includes server specs, number of PCs and all software used. These details are currently stored in an Excel spreadsheet. We are thinking of creating custom fields in the account section of Microsoft CRM so our customer service representatives could see all customer data and update the information as they see fit. We would have literally hundreds of new fields, so I am not sure if this is the best route to go. Are there are other options that work both from a technical standpoint as well as a business standpoint?
There are a few ways to attack this problem, and the answer that is best for your business ultimately depends upon the nature of the data that you are trying to capture and how you intend to use the data. Will the questions and answers change on a regular basis? Do you need to report on the data? How is the data captured (e.g. over the phone with a customer, after a site visit, etc.)? How often will the data be updated?

The first and easiest solution would be to leverage Microsoft Excel for customer data entry. Excel can make it simple to adjust the data captured to reflect the specific needs of your individual customer, keeping in mind that the information captured may not be the same across all customers. You can attach the spreadsheet to your customer account, a sales opportunity, or a support case. While this is by far the simplest solution, it may not be the most effective because of the risk of multiple attachments of the information and the inability to report on or search for the information.

Dynamics CRM's customization framework – specifically the ability to create custom entities – is a more sophisticated solution, but will likely offer a great deal more flexibility than an Excel solution. Using the entity builder, you can create a completely custom component for CRM that could be linked to an account and to multiple cases or opportunities. CRM even provides tools for designing an intuitive user interface for laying out the questions in logical groupings by tabs and/or sections. What is even better, new entities created through the Dynamics CRM tools will work with the Web and online/offline Outlook clients.

The nature of the questions would determine the best way to configure the new relationship. When we have created this type of configuration for a client, we have typically created a new entity that stores all of the questions, and then configure the relationships so that the entity can be linked to the appropriate Dynamics CRM account, case, etc. This makes it possible to access the data from both the account and the case record, for example, and to search for data using advanced find. Using SQL Reporting Services, you can also develop reports on the data.

One of the best benefits of using the custom-entity approach for customer data entry is the ability to create exactly what you need, in terms of the fields (questions and answers). If the information that you need to capture dramatically changes over time, it is possible to either extend the entity with additional fields or to create another entity that reflects the new information that is critical to your business. In working with clients to select and implement CRM solutions, we have found Dynamics CRM's customization support to be some of the best in the industry for enabling customers to model their business in their CRM solution.

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