The ABCs of CRM: A CRM Terminology Primer

By: on February 14, 2017

When I first received the assignment to write about customer service and sales software, my wife said: “Write about how annoying it is to get asked for your phone number when you just want to buy pants!”

I responded, “I’ll get to that idea, but right now I’m busy on Google trying to figure out what CRM, SFA and MA mean!’”

Customer relationship management (CRM) is a complex practice with many specialized terms and acronyms, and it gets even more complicated when you start to discuss CRM software.

To help you sort it all out, we’ve put together this primer of CRM terminology for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Here you’ll find a list of some of the most frequently used CRM terms, so when you search for your own CRM software solution, you’ll know exactly what to ask for.

These definitions come, in part, courtesy of two experts and thought leaders in the field—Alex Haimann, the head of business development for Less Annoying CRM and Craig Borowski, Software Advice’s own customer service guru.

We’re taking our lead from the Gartner report “What’s Hot in CRM Applications in 2016” (available to Gartner clients) and examining the most important CRM terminology by dividing it into subsections:

(Click on button to jump to that section.)


Customer relationship management (CRM) software: A system that stores and organizes the info an SMB has about its leads and customers. It can also take that info and provide actionable next steps for what do with those leads. It helps SMBs that need to improve sales and/or be better organized in how they engage with prospects, leads and current customers.

For SMBs, CRM needs to be simple and straightforward with functionality to help them store the most important data on customers and leads, track follow-up tasks and organize critical processes in their business, i.e., lead/prospect tracking.

Sales force automation (SFA): A system for organizing lead and prospect cultivation so that salespeople know what they have already done and have guidance on what their next steps should be. It aids SMBs that need to better organize their sales processes and improve coordination within the sales group.

For many SMBs, SFA and lead management are synonyms, referring to the need to track, guide and receive reporting on their sales prospecting process.

Lead management: Typically a primary feature within a CRM focused on tracking the various types/steps/points of engagement a person or business (i.e., lead) has had with representatives of that SMB. This feature is used to help salespeople be more productive and more accountable in their follow-up and engagement with promising sales prospects.

Lead management aids SMBs that could be generating more sales but may be having difficulty tracking what communication has already taken place between their reps and promising contacts.

Contact management: Tracks and organizes important information about the individuals and organizations connected to an SMB’s business. It helps SMBs avoid storing critical contact information for the important people, leads, prospects, vendors etc. in multiple and/or difficult to access formats, from spreadsheets to sticky notes.

ActiveCampaign’s contact management dashboard

Reporting: A feature in a CRM or lead management system that displays a summary/deep dive of critical business information ranging from a simple filtered list to complex quantitative graphs. It aids SMB salespeople, managers and owners who need to see compilations of data on the many processes and contact points in their business.

For many SMBs, reporting is critical for viewing varying levels of detail related to their sales pipelines.

Interaction tracking: Typically embedded within a CRM, interaction tracking stores notes, emails and other important data about historical interactions an SMB has had to date with each of their customers, contacts and leads.

This function aids SMBs that do not have a clear organizational system for knowing what they last said to a customer or lead, who communicated with them last and when. Interaction tracking is one of the most critical and widely-used features within a CRM platform.

Pipeline/funnel monitoring: A type of reporting feature that helps an SMB see either high-level or very granular information about their progress in moving leads to a decision point, current stage of ongoing sales efforts, status of onboarding customers or any other business process related to leads and customers the SMB needs to track. It gives managers and/or owners a clear view into what volume and type of sales are coming in the future.

Teamgate CRM’s sales forecast dashboard

Sales predictive analytics: A CRM tool found in more robust systems that takes the information found in pipeline and funnel monitoring and uses it to predict future sales and sales potential. These predictions can be used to reduce uncertainty about market fluctuations over time.

Scheduling/reminders: Both of these terms can be used to refer to a CRM feature that allows businesses to automatically create a schedule—complete with customizable reminders—for when and how to next contact a lead/customer.

The reminders link back to the information found in the CRM database to make sure that SMBs don’t miss out on important moments of contact or forget what information needs to be exchanged or imparted in those calls or emails.


Marketing automation (MA) software: Helps marketers manage and optimize digital campaigns. Most MA systems help SMBs perform the following functions:

  • Nurture leads through the sales funnel (especially with automated emails)
  • Deliver marketing and promotional materials (through email, social media and other channels)
  • Provide surface insights about customers to improve marketing efforts
  • Automate time-consuming, repetitive manual tasks

Many systems also provide templates and ideas that aid marketers in attracting new customers and visitors to their website through the creation of engaging content.

Email marketing: Marketing messages that are sent to a specific list of email addresses or even an individual email address. These can be gathered from a number of places and stored in a company’s CRM database. Most email marketing takes the form of either email blasts or drip marketing.

The email automation page on Campaign Monitor

Email blasts: Marketing emails that go out to a specific subsection of subscribers in a company’s contact database. They are typically short, have an immediate and explicit call to action and feature a singular, focused message.

Email blasts use individual messages that stand on their own, rather than being part of a longer series of linked/related emails, and they provide new information, special offers, updates and/or announcements (often in the form of regular newsletters).

Drip marketing: Marketing emails sent over an extended period to personalize and nurture a customer’s experience with your company.

The goal of drip emails is to drive prospects closer to transaction, with each email triggered by a particular step that a prospect takes along the sales funnel. These drip campaigns are designed to be personalized and based on either specific interactions or specific timing.

Each email is tailored to the individual consumer or prospect, based on information about that contact stored in the CRM database.

A drip marketing campaign on Hatchbuck

Customer Service

Case management: Case management is an organizational style that has long existed in government, legal, insurance and health care industries. It is now also increasingly used in other industries, such as banking, retail, real estate and land development. It involves recording and collating information about individual cases or complaints as customers and employees report them.

Increased pressure for decision-making transparency and traceability, regulatory compliance and unique, contextualized handling of work is behind the growing interest in formal case management systems.

Problem/issue/complaint management: The core function of a customer service and support (CSS) application used by call centers. This customer service software function allows SMB does the following for SMBs:

  • Coordinates a multitier, multi-owner service and support environment
  • Enables pattern analysis
  • Provides management reports
  • Facilitates requests for additional service and support resources by providing hard numbers on the service workload and its changing nature

Because project management tools can also track service-level agreements (SLAs), they are valuable for monitoring compliance.

Freshdesk’s main customer support dashboard

Knowledge base: A knowledge base is the collection of rules and data (which may include logical statements, rules, objects, and constraints) used by a computer system in order to present information and make suggestions to a user. Its organization is based on knowledge representations.

In a customer service context, a knowledge base is the digital collection of information that agents use to address and resolve customer service requests. It’s often organized by topic into individual articles, each of which gives a step-by-step process for solving one specific issue. A knowledge base can also be used to populate customer-facing self-service resources, such as online FAQs and troubleshooting pages.

Knowledge management: Knowledge management (KM) is a business process that formalizes the management and use of an enterprise’s intellectual assets (investments in brands, design, technology or creative works). KM promotes a collaborative and integrative approach to the creation, capture, organization, access and use of information assets, including the tacit knowledge of a business’ human resources.

Customer experience: Customer experience is defined by the customer’s perceptions and related feelings caused by the one-off and cumulative effect of interactions with a supplier’s employees, systems, channels or products.

Trouble ticketing: The recording of a customer (or employee, in an IT service desk context) complaint or problem, usually created in a call or contact center. The ticket remains active until the issue has been resolved.

TeamSupport’s ticket grid

Help desk: The point of contact that provides technical IT support and assistance within an organization. (Note: In recent years, the term “help desk” has also been applied to customer support services that assist customers rather than employees.)

Next Steps

Now that you know what all these terms mean, here’s some next steps to take on your CRM journey:

  • Email me at for more information. I’m happy to help you figure out what your own CRM software needs might be and connect you to one of our expert software advisors for a free, no-obligation consultation!

You may also like:

The Eight Building Blocks of Small Business CRM

Motivating a Sales Team to Adopt Sales Force Automation [INFOGRAPHIC]

Sales Force Automation Software Small Business Buyer Report – 2016

CRM Software Small Business Buyer Report – 2016