filing cabinetRemember when someone would say “CRM” and (y)our eyes would glaze over?

CRM, public relations and small business

While it’s now a huge industry, good CRM (customer relationship management) is a practice that many of those who are forward-looking-and-thinking PR pros (such as WUL’s own Kirk Hazlett, to name just one example) are meticulous about.

And when it comes to those of us who are business owners as well… well, we have to know how to manage relationships with not just the media, bloggers and our community, we also have to keep track of our business relationships. Which makes a good CRM system for small business a necessity.

Image: t. magnum via Flickr, CC 2.0

Because we can only grow our businesses if we have a system that helps we keep track of conversations in play, as well as those we need to initiate. There are a lot of CRM systems out there, but not very many for the small business owner (and by “small business,” I mean “micro to the point of bootstrapping it right now”) that are affordable… at least, when we start out.

Enter Streak

After much soul-searching, er, surfing, I stumbled upon Streak. And while I don’t know how it will change over time, right now I think it is one of, if not the best, CRM systems for small business owners (note, you need to be using Chrome or Safari) on a budget, and who primarily work in Gmail (or use Google Apps). Which is many, many of us.

And right now at least, it’s free.


How Streak works

1. Get the Streak extension for Chrome (or Safari introduced recently), install and login.

2. Start creating the pipelines you want to use to track whatever. E.g.: if you want to create a pipeline specifically to track new business leads, prospects, and conversions, you can do that.

If you want to create a pipeline to track your progress while organizing an event, you can do that.

Streak has several templates you can use when you’re starting out, and you can modify them as you need to. And if you don’t find one that fits your needs, you can start out with a blank template and customize it as you go along. Here’s what the starter screen looks like:

creating pipelines in Streak

And then, lather, rinse, repeat.

It really is that simple.

Here’s what I love about it:

1. It integrates completely with Gmail (or Google Apps).

Many, many of us now use Gmail, or Google Apps, as the primary interface for our daily communications. Which makes Streak perfect for those of us who want everything in one place.

Just as your folders show up on the left side of your screen, so do all the pipelines you have set up in Streak. Like this:

Streak pipeline view in Gmail

2. It lets you look at the status, and stage of all your leads (or whatever it is you’re tracking) very easily.

For example, here is one of my pipelines. You can see how I have identified different stages in the sales cycle, and based on where my conversations are with various leads/prospects, I know which fall where. And as those conversations progress (or die), I can easily move them from one category to another.

Depending on how you customize your pipeline, you can also keep track of what is most important to you (in this post, Christopher Penn shows you how to use Streak to keep track of your job search).

For example, I like to identify where my leads are coming from. That’s important to me, because this will show me which my high- and low-impact activities are. What is the dollar value of the lead? And so on.

Even better, you can create a “contacts” (I think the Streak category is “people”) column, which integrates with your Google Contacts. So you can link each lead (whatever stage it’s in) to a contact in your address book. How beautiful is that?

managing your pipeline with Streak

3. Keep a record of emails to/from leads/prospects.

You know each of those items (I call them leads) that you see? Streak calls them “boxes.” So each lead gets its own “box.” This is just a terminology thing, nothing to get worried about. Think of a “box” as a “folder” in your Gmail or your file cabinet. That’s all that it is.

Streak logo

The very first column in your Pipeline view consists of little boxes that look like the Streak logo:

The cool thing about Streak is that for each email you send/receive, you can add it to a box in Streak – either one that already exists, or a new one.

This means that in addition to tracking your various conversations at any point in time, you can also see all the communications that have gone back and forth between you and a contact (or several) regarding <whatever>.

To do this, all you do is click on the box icon that is to the left of the lead you are looking up. It will immediately take you to a view that shows you the email history, as well as the Streak history (e.g. when you edited it, when you moved it from one stage to another, etc.).

4. Send yourself reminders from Streak.

Just as it is in successful public relations, a key factor in maintaining relationships is staying in touch regularly. All good business development professionals know this.

With Streak, you can set up and send yourself reminders for each box. In addition to any other system you might have – say setting a reminder on your calendar – this is a very useful tool to ensure you don’t let too much time lapse between your points of contact.

These reminders come to you as emails, and what I’ve started doing is “starring” them in my Gmail, since I try to take care of all my starred items before I shut down for the day.

5. Set yourself (or others) tasks.

I haven’t used this feature too much, but it allows you to add a “task” label and checkbox to any email thread in a box. So, for example, if you have a proposal due to a prospect and have an email conversation about that, you could make it a task and check it off once it’s done.

List-checkers, rejoice!

6. Share pipelines with others.

This is very useful. Just as you can share Google documents, etc., you can share specific pipelines with others. This is a great way to give teams access to pipelines, so that everyone knows what’s going on, not to mention add their own updates, etc.

Once you have shared a pipeline with someone else, they will also have access to the emails associated with that box. This can be very good or very bad, depending on how circumspect you are in your emails, so be careful about how you categorize and assign emails.

Streak also has a nifty comment feature which allows multiple pipeline users to post comments, which everyone can see. So you could, for example, post a comment asking one of your colleagues for clarification on something, and they could reply to you by doing the same.

adding comments in Streak

7. Schedule emails and add snippets.

I’ve seen this work well in Gmail’s new compose feature, not so much in the old one. Basically what this lets you do is schedule emails to go out later, and add them to an existing or new box, all at the same time. So this can be very useful from an efficiency point of view.

If you remember, I talked about Boomerang for Gmail a while back, and which I still love and use (and which has added several new features over the last couple of years). This is Streak’s answer to BfG; personally I prefer BfG, but it’s certainly nice to have the option in Streak.

Snippets are Streak’s version of Gmail’s “canned responses.” Let’s say there is a standard reply or note you need to send quite often. Instead of typing it over and over again, you create a “snippet,” assign it to any pipeline you want, and then you can easily insert it when you are typing a new email. Here’s a post from the Streak blog that explains these features.

Using Streak for other purposes

I’ve described how I use Streak to manage my business development function, but as you can see, you could use it for practically anything.

Say you’re a media relations pro but can’t afford one of the larger PR suites. You could set up a pipeline in Streak for each client, and track your pitches (and conversions to stories) in it. You could  file emails along the way, setting up reminders for when you need to get in touch with them next, send them information (create tasks), and so on.

Writer or blogger? Use the journalism template to keep track of your stories, which stage they’re in, etc. If you manage a blogging team and want to keep everyone informed as to what is going on where, you could try using Streak to do so, assuming you are willing to give them all access to the specific pipeline.

All in all, and as you can tell, I’m pretty impressed with Streak. Right now they’re in beta, and they say they’ll be introducing a premium version at some point, so I’ll be watching to see if/when/what they do next. Whatever it is, I hope it only adds to what is a very promising tool and platform.

Have you used Streak and, if so, what is your experience? Are there other CRM systems you are fond of? Why? Please share, since together we are all much smarter!