I am asked this question just about every week: “What CRM and Project Management System should I use to manage my web design business?

It’s a good question. The problem is, there is no definitive answer. “The best” will be different for every person and company.

Web design, development, and marketing is a detail and process-oriented profession. There is only so long that you can successfully run your business out of your email box without going completely insane. Email-based management might work for a lone-ranger for a period of time, but once you start collaborating with others, game over is imminent.

And others might not even mean contractors or team members. Simply collaborating with clients can be enough to overrun your Gmail filters, leading to missed deadlines and dropped promises.

At the first moment of frustration, it’s totally natural to think, “shouldn’t there be a system that can manage all this for me?” After 13 years of managing a web agency, what are my thoughts on the subject?

Well, let’s get into it…

It Isn’t You, It’s the Tool

I imagine for almost any professional discipline, there is a need to train for process and to discover the power of tools. A few years ago I was learning to fly small single prop planes. Before I could get into the cockpit, I had to spend a lot of time in a classroom and at home reading about the basics of flying. I didn’t just jump into the cockpit and start wheeling around the airport.

But that’s what we do when we discover a new CRM or PM tool. We just jump in and wheel around. We start importing our contacts and forcing “the greatest tool to solve all of our problems ever, ever, ever” on our entire team.

(Seriously, if any of my team are reading this, they know the drill all too well.)

The net result is almost always failure. Somewhere along the line you will realize there is a feature that doesn’t exist, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

When I first took off in a Piper Archer at Jeffco Airport in Broomfield, Colorado I looked at the mountains and said to my instructor, “when do we get to fly over those?”

He looked at me and said, “Never.”

I didn’t realize the plane we were in couldn’t fly over the mountains. There was no way to get the necessary power out of a single, non-turbo prop. It’s dangerous as hell and requires separate training and a beefier plane (preferably a twin prop or a jet).

Without proper instruction, and if I was flying by myself, I might have attempted to give it a go. Obviously aviation training is set up to never allow such moronic behavior.

But when it comes to the newest tools, we aren’t so lucky. There is rarely an instructor there to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. Besides a web apps sales page, we have very little information about what a tool can and can’t do prior to going all in.

Define the Necessary Tool With Napkins

You can definitely hire a consultant to help pick a tool for your business and teach you how to set it up, but I will try to save you some money and time by letting you in on how we do it.

The first step is to always define what you are trying to accomplish. Be specific.

Example 1: “I want to make sure I never miss a client support email.”

Example 2: “I want all project communication and assets to be found in a single place, organized by client.”

This will set the objective you are trying to accomplish, and allow you to be certain that whatever you are setting out to do actually gets done.

The second step is to define your process on paper, preferably napkins, at a local restaurant or coffee shop. Defining your process on a napkin, outside of the office, will allow you to focus on what is important: the workflow.

A tool will do you no good if you aren’t following a systematic and repeatable process. And you will have no idea what tool is really best for your business if you don’t already have a process that you are trying to match a tool to.

The third step is to find a tool that can take over the entire process you’ve defined, or maybe even just one piece of the process. Try to get a tool that solves bottlenecks, rather than a single platform to soak up your entire process.

I’ll give you an example. For years we tried to get “super tools” that would help solve every problem within our entire company in one go. What we ended up doing was making sacrifices for other departments. For me, I needed a card based sales tool that allowed me to define my different steps of my own process and carry leads through deal-closing across the board.

My team needed to be able to track project assets during a build and then during issues once a project was launched. So instead of getting a system that solved all of those problems, we found a different system for each.

I used Pipedrive for sales, and my team used Basecamp for projects and Zendesk for support. My pen and paper process defined a “hand-off” step that required me to input a client into Basecamp once a deal was closed. When a project was launched, we trained the client on our support process and set up some triggers in Zendesk.

The three tools ended up working beautifully together, even though they never talked to one another. They worked well because we built to a pen and paper workflow that made sure the right thing happened at the right time. Now, all of these programs had APIs and if the “hand-off” time became significant, we could have linked up all of the software to automate it.

But the automation would have had to happen in just the right way for it to make sense. If we would have been forced to work with a built in automation, then our process might be negatively affected in a way not worth the savings of automation.

The problem I see with a lot of web professionals is that they get way too excited about integration and automation. They get way too excited about the tools, and not excited enough about developing a bulletproof process that works for the whole team.

When our team understands the workflow behind a process, and we implement a tool that matches up with that process, then there is almost no training required. People use the tool correctly because they defined the workflow.

Slow Down, Get it Right

This idea of defining a workflow first and finding the tool second took me a decade to discover. I ended up getting slapped in the face by a consultant when we were evaluating tools to help our business grow. He was like, “Guys, tools don’t help businesses grow. Processes do. Until you can define your workflow on a napkin, don’t look at another tool!”

This approach led to significant changes. I stopped forcing new widgets on my team. I started talking to them to discover what they needed and how they thought the hand-offs and workflows should work. When we could all dictate what the ideal workflow looked like, then and only then did we start researching tools.

The beautiful part of taking it slow and working out your process first is that it makes tool selection ever more simple. You can easily call up a company and say, “here is our workflow, show me how that would happen in your platform.” If they can’t show you, or the software makes your workflow convoluted and clunky, then move on.

By defining the outcome ahead of time, it will be much easier to attain it. You’ll also avoid doing something stupid, like flying into the mountains on a single prop.

The best choice for a CRM and PM platform is really less about choosing and more about finding what best fits your defined process.

So what are you waiting for? Get those napkins out and start defining the workflow for the sales, marketing, project management, and operations of your business!