Databases for Small Businesses: Implementing and Using Contact Management Systems

Databases help small businesses be more organised and sell more.

This article provides a general introduction to some of the things which have to be considered.

If you store customer or enquirer details anywhere then you have a database. That means in effect that every small business has a database. But what they don’t necessarily have is the knowledge to use it effectively.

Defining Databases

At its most basic, a database could be a collection of business cards, i.e. information. To paraphrase the definition given by the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (where the technical details of this article come from), information becomes a database when it can be input, stored, managed, processed and retrieved.

data mining

Inevitably, this means that databases are electronic in nature rather than paper-based collections. They can vary from using Microsoft Excel or Word documents to ‘contact management’ systems like ACT! from Sage or Goldmine from Frontrange, or formal database systems like Microsoft Access. More complex applications normally require bespoke software development.

The choice depends on the number of entries you will have in it and the frequency of usage.

Database Terminology

There are some basic terms needed to understand databases:

  • Record; each individual entry is a record. So if I was in your database, I would be a Record.
  • Field; these are the individual items of data needed to create a Record. So First Name would be a Field, as would Surname.
  • Entry; these are the details in a Field, so Jack would be the Entry in the First Name Field for my Record.
  • Table; sometimes you need multiple databases for different kinds of information. For example, contact details in one with sales history in another. Each separate database would be called a Table and they would need to be connected by some means.
  • Unique Identifier; the means of connecting Tables. So my Record would have a Field called Unique Identifier and the Entry in it would be something that only I had, a unique number for example. Each Table would have this Field so that each Table would know that it referred to my Record.

Tables are usually only required when the database starts to become complex, but the other principles are needed whether you buy contact management software or use Microsoft Excel.

Integration with Other Systems

As companies grow they tend to create another system with each new initiative. So they may start off with an Excel spreadsheet with all customer records on it, before buying Sage Acountancy software or some other software to manage sales and orders. Then they may have an email despatch system to manage their email newsletters.

That’s where the problems start.

For a database to be effective all these systems have to ‘talk’ to each other. This is why the Unique Identifier Field is so important – it ensures they are always dealing with the same Record. One other piece of terminology; ‘Feeds’. Feeds are the links between each of your systems.

These feeds may happen in real-time or alternatively they may be performed manually, perhaps monthly or weekly. Real-time is more costly as it usually involves technical development but manual feeds may not get done as they require someone to do something. They may also not get done correctly.

A single system which incorporates sales, accountancy and all other requirements obviously does not need feeds.

If you’re not sure how much time and effort to put into developing a database then read Using a Database Effectively. Alternatively, if it’s time to start making your database work for you, read Database Contents and Management.