Making Effective Use of Client Databases

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Feb 18, 2009

Gathering business cards and e-mail addresses is great—if those resources are used effectively. With the advent of social networking tools—like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter—HR consultants are faced with ever-increasing opportunities to network and make important business connections. But these networking tools do not take the place of a well-designed database, say database experts.

Brian Berg, owner of BB Direct in Cape Coral, Fla., notes that, for HR consultants, the best business is repeat business. Consequently, one of the most important assets for any HR consultant is a list of customers. “It is imperative that you maintain a database of customers, contacts, referral sources and vendors,” he says. In addition to serving as a source of important information on clients, as the database grows it becomes a rich source of information that can be mined to identify trends and opportunities, he says.

Pamela O’Hara agrees. O’Hara is president of BatchBlue Software in Barrington, R.I., a small business that develops client management software for other small businesses and freelancers. While social networks allow HR consultants to maintain client lists and to communicate with those in their network, these tools generally do not allow client information to be exported for any type of external communications—e-mail newsletters, holiday cards, or invoicing, notes O’Hara.

Christopher Larson, the owner of WICA Technologies, Inc., in Hainesville, Ill., says that social sites all have a place but are best used as an end point to gather information to incorporate into a main database for all customer, vendor and relationship information. In addition, not all customers and vendors will be members of a specific community. “Pressuring them to join a community as part of a marketing strategy is foolhardy at best,” he says. However, referencing that the customer or prospect is a member of a certain community in an internal database can provide additional information and marketing value, he notes. By monitoring which, if any, social networking sites prospects and clients use, HR consultants can gain insights into how responsive they are to these communication tools.

These sites can offer additional value to HR consultants, says Jennifer Goldman, founder of My Virtual COO, a Baltimore-based company that provides business development and operational support services. “I recommend uploading your contact database to LinkedIn, because it is easy to use, you can build a list of testimonials easily and non-confrontationally and you can easily add the LinkedIn icon/hyperlink to your signature, showing you have awareness of the power of social networking,” she says.

Meeting Your Minimal Needs

In the beginning, there is no need to invest a lot of time or money in a database, says O’Hara. “To start off, a simple spreadsheet application is an easy and familiar tool for capturing basic information,” she says. “And you can add as many columns as you like to collect all sorts of information on your contacts,” she says.

Larson agrees. “It doesn’t matter if the database is a simple predefined Microsoft Access database, Microsoft Outlook address books or something as scalable as SQL Server or Oracle— having that information available in one place for adding, editing and changing can have a profound effect on a company’s customer resource management,” he says.

As HR consultants find their lists of contacts growing, a simple spreadsheet might no longer meet their needs. “As your client list gets larger you will probably find that database software specifically designed for client management will make searching through large numbers of contacts much easier,” says O’Hara. Software packages specifically designed for contact management can make it much easier to create reports and general mailing lists as well, she says.

To Host or Not to Host

HR consultants have a couple of different options when it comes to the software they use to manage their client and prospect lists.

One option is to use software that resides on their computers. “If keeping the information on your computer, be sure you keep your anti-virus software current and keep frequent back-ups somewhere other than on your computer, especially if using a laptop,” cautions O’Hara.

There can be benefits to using a hosted service where the software is accessed over the Internet. “An online contact management system is generally more mobile, as it can be accessed from any computer with access to the Internet and frequently from mobile phones, as well,” notes O’Hara.

“I recommend web-based CRMs because then you can have access from home, when you work from home, and they almost always sync to a smart phone,” says Goldman.

When looking for a web-based option, look for one that has permission-based systems so multiple people can view the database, each with a specific and different set of rights, Goldman suggests.

Making the Commitment

Regardless of the format chosen, the most important thing about a database is frequency of updates. If the data is stale, it is useless. HR consultants thinking of establishing a database need to understand fully what is involved and to be committed to keeping the database up-to-date.

Michael Hayes is the owner of Momentum Specialized Staffing in Phoenix, where he specializes in recruiting hard-to-find employees. His database is updated daily, he says.

Commitment extends beyond the administrative tasks associated with maintaining a database. For the database to provide value, HR consultants need to have a clear idea of how they will use the database to maintain contact with prospects and clients. Hayes does this through a series of regularly scheduled events. “We make sure that all contacts are spoken to every 90 days through the reports feature,” says Hayes. “We have an e-mail newsletter that goes to everyone once a month, and our reps are required to make at least one client visit and two prospect visits per week,” he says.

To make the most effective use of their database, whether homegrown, in-house or hosted, Goldman suggests that consultants:

  • Categorize every entry made. “My favorite categories are: network, client, prospect, vendor,” she says. She recommends adding a holiday and newsletter category to simplify mail merges or e-blasts.

  • Include dates of birth or other special occasions, and set reminders to be alerted.

  • Capture e-mails, conversations and personal tidbits about clients to easily understand what happened last with the client and stay up-to-date on what is going on in his or her life.

  • Use the tasking function to track outstanding items that need to be done for each client.

Finally, she suggests, create a “cheat sheet” as a reference guide to provide you with the quick tips you need. “Or, better yet, have a staff person create it,” she says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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