My Journey To Not Lose Touch (with Contacts)

We’ve all heard that “it’s not what you know, but who you know”. The notion that relationship building is the most important part of our careers is a cliche that’s been around for ages. But cliches are cliches for a reason. It’s 100% true.

I got my first job out of college from a direct referral. That’s not to say that hard work, ability, and a little bit of luck didn’t play a part, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunity if it wasn’t for my connection. That alone was enough to convince me I needed to invest in personal relationships.

I didn’t exactly really know where to start with tracking this sort of stuff. Anytime I met someone they were thrown into a spreadsheet. Along with the basics I added fields like how we met, the last time we spoke, how often I wanted to speak with them, and most importantly, the next steps. If I couldn’t identify any next steps, that relationship probably wasn’t as strong as I thought it was.

That spreadsheet became my baby.

To me, it was a safety net that kept me from falling out of touch with important people. If I wanted to know who was slipping away I could just filter by “last contacted” and “reach out frequency”. At the very least, it made me feel like I had everyone I needed just a few clicks away.

The problem was that it was far from an easy process. Updating the spreadsheet was a constant interruption, and the manual data entry was a pain in the ass. On top of that, if I didn’t log info into it immediately (which happened from time to time) I’d forget some of the important details. Things became convoluted, with my workflow turning into a lot of flipping back and forth between my email, notes, and the spreadsheet. I got sick of feeling like I was wasting time, and began to look for alternatives.

My search for a better “relationship management tool” led me to the world of CRMs. I had zero experience with them, but at the surface level they had a lot of the structure I was looking for. I was eager to find a better solution, and willing to give any product a shot.

So I tested. And tested. And the results were underwhelming. CRMs turned out to actually be a worse fit than my janky sheet. Here’s where things went wrong:

Sales Focused

CRMs undeniably revolve around sales, and I wasn’t trying to manage leads, I was trying to manage relationships. With human beings. Stuff like call logging, revenue forecasting, and pipeline management was overkill for my use case.

Heavy

CRMs often fall subject to what I like to call “feature gore.” It’s what happens when you cram too many things into one tool. You’re trying to improve your product, but it begins to slowly drift away from its original mission. The result is the you spread yourself thin, and become ok (or mediocre) at a lot of things instead of being great at one thing. What I needed was a GREAT tool for managing contacts, not a dull Swiss Army knife.

Priced for companies

These tools get to be pricey because they’re directly tied to a revenue. I know that if I invest $X/month into a CRM, its benefits will net me something like 1.5x in sales each month. When managing professional relationships, that return isn’t so clear. While I still know it’s in my best interest to use a tool to manage my contacts, it’s much more difficult to quantify or even estimate the end result. And your company is typically paying for it, so of course the prices are inflated.

Automated

This is one of the main selling points for CRMs — they make managing a ton of relationships easy by automating much of the process. Templated emails, automatic followups, and AI assistants all are pieces of this trend. But if there’s a time and place for automation, genuine relationships isn’t it.

We spend all day reading emails, and have become good at telling who is full of crap and who isn’t. And we devalue relationships when they come across as fake. It’s like the difference you see from all of your friends posting “Happy Birthday” on your Facebook page (which is still appreciated!), and the person who sends you a personal text or gives you a call (which makes a lasting impact). So when I’m talking with my most important contacts, I didn’t like the idea of using a templated email or robot assistant to ask them for coffee.

Outside my Workflow

We all use dozens of different products each day. There’s probably more than 50 sitting on your phone right now, and every one of them is vying for attention. The ones that stick become a part of your workflow, like checking your email every morning or maybe opening Twitter after lunch. We get to the point where we subconsciously do these things.

Adding a new product to my daily presented the same problem as my original spreadsheet — it was an interruption to my natural workflow, making it hard to keep up with. It also took me a while to learn each unique system, which felt like a big investment of time for something I wasn’t necessarily sure was going to stick.


My choices were limited. Either return to my tedious spreadsheet system or attempt to morph a customer relationship manager into a passable solution for contacts. There was no middle ground, it was either painfully underwhelming, or complete overkill.

All of this frustration pushed me towards software development. If it doesn’t exist, I’ll just make it. But more on that soon…

PS: I think I have that spreadsheet somewhere still…I’ll remember it fondly.