Watch our full conversation on how to deepen your customer relationships with technology.

In the wake of COVID-19, businesses have adapted quickly and leveraged technology to reach their customers in innovative ways. There's still a lot of uncertainty about the post-pandemic world, but that hasn't stopped business owners from digitally transforming their operations to build, enhance and retain customer relationships moving forward.

In the twelfth installment of CO— Blueprint, a panel of small business experts discuss deepening customer relationships through technology and how to improve and scale your customer relationship management (CRM) strategies.

The biggest CRM challenges of the COVID-19 era

According to Tony Kays, area vice president of SMB sales at Salesforce, many small businesses have faced some significant challenges in managing customer relationships during the pandemic:

  • Uncertain customer demand. Small business owners may be unsure of whether customers are still aware of what they do and want to use their services.
  • Expanding communication channels. Kays noted that 45% of SMBs (businesses with 200 employees or less) have had to find more channels to communicate with their customers during COVID-19, which can be difficult if a business has limited resources.
  • Increased customer service expectations. "Customers want to talk to you, whatever they want, wherever they want, however they want," said Kays. "You have to be prepared to be ready to help them, and that's a major challenge for small businesses that may not have the resources or the savvy to have everything set up properly."

While these challenges existed pre-pandemic, the circumstances of 2020 brought them to light for many business owners, which has inspired some of them to rethink their approach to CRM.

"A lot of companies … [are] stabilizing and getting ready to disrupt or innovate in this new world," Kays told CO—. "It's a chance to revisit your strategy as a company, and think about the systems you have and how you can … [drive] growth, customer retention and employee retention."

[Read: Ready to Grow Your Business? It's Time for CRM Software]

We've had a CRM software that we've used from the very beginning that's been able to grow and scale with the business, which has been truly helpful.

Renaldo Webb, founder, PetPlate

CRM can serve as a 'single source of truth' for your team

Entrepreneur Renaldo Webb said CRM has been particularly important to his custom pet food subscription company PetPlate because all of its customer orders and conversations take place online.

"Customers are talking to us via a variety of different platforms, whether it's Instagram, sending us a DM on Twitter, emailing us or trying to use chat functions online," Webb said. "We need ways of consolidating … all of these questions, and making sure we're … resolving any of their issues."

Handling these customer issues would be much harder without a central repository for PetPlate's remote customer experience team — "a single source of truth," as Webb described it.

"[We're] able to consolidate data and then use that to update product roadmaps, etc.," he added. "We've had a CRM software that we've used from the very beginning that's been able to grow and scale with the business, which has been truly helpful."

[Read: How to Make the Most of Your CRM Software]

Having the right data in one place can make business pivots easier

Elizabeth Loge, CEO of CBS Rentals, says her construction equipment rental company prides itself on delivering legendary customer service. In an industry where time is of the essence, this means being a trusted and reliable partner who can be "first, fast and flexible" in providing solutions to a customer's needs. Loge and her team use CRM software to achieve this.

"We [provide] our team with all the information they need at their fingertips," she said. "The customer data … is all built into Salesforce, but we also have dashboards to help us monitor the business at a high level."

Like many businesses, CBS Rentals made changes to its usual operations throughout the pandemic. The company was able to shift its focus in a matter of days because all of its business data and information was streamlined into one customizable platform.

"It was, for us, about ease of communication," said Loge. "Being able to get that [data] at our fingertips and … put the information we needed into one platform has been a game changer for us."

[Read: 7 Common CRM Questions Answered]

Technology enables timely communication and responsiveness from the start of the customer lifecycle

For service-based businesses, successful CRM often means timely, effective communication with clients about their projects. Technology helps companies like digital product development and design firm Azul Arc make a strong impression with new clients right from the get-go.

"When you're in the selling process, you want to be responsive," said Zahir Palanpur, CEO of Azul Arc. "The sale is not just what you're presenting to them, but how you're presenting it to them."

Palanpur noted that prospects are already evaluating you on how responsive and knowledgeable you are when you engage with them. A CRM provides a treasure trove of data for your team to craft a quick, thorough response.

"Having the right systems that allow you to have access to all the information about the client and the solution that you're providing them is critical in the initial sales cycle," he added.