Without repeat customers, the acquisition costs of obtaining new buyers can be too great for most businesses to keep their doors open. Having a system to keep track of who’s buying from you, customer spending patterns and how to contact your customers can be one of your most valuable marketing tools. Regardless of how many customers you have, you can create useful databases by including a variety of fields that are sortable for different data sets.

Software Options

Keeping track of customers via index cards or other paper means is an inefficient method; it slows down cross-referencing and doesn't allow you to send email or quickly generate invoices or mailing labels. Create useful customer lists with a simple spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel. Or, depending on your computer skills and budget, purchase a customer relationship management program, called a CRM database, also known as customer management software. Different companies make versions helpful for creating lists to help with billing, sales, marketing and nonprofit donations. Some require software that resides on your computer, while others let you keep your lists securely online.

Data Collection

How useful your customer lists are depends on the data you collect and how you enter it into your database. Decide what information to keep and use about your customers, such as:

  • name
  • address
  • phone numbers
  • gender
  • age
  • email address

Don’t be afraid of gathering too much information; it's easy to filter the information you need for different tasks by limiting your search criteria. For example, you can include purchase dates, types of products purchased, customers by territory or representative, customer complaint history and personal notes. To run a search of female customers who have spent more than $500 in the past 30 days, you need only those three data characteristics for your search. If you don’t have all the data you want, run a contest that requires customers to fill out a complete personal profile, or hire an individual or firm to contact customers about updating your customer accounts to better serve them.

Database Creation

As you build your database, create fields and columns you can easily identify and use for different searches. The more you break out each piece of information, the more searches you can create. For example, entering addresses using different fields for street address, city, state and ZIP code lets you create lists or perform searches with one or more of those criteria along with other fields. Keep first and last names separate to identify duplicate listings because of different first name, such as Rob and Robert. Make job titles and company names different fields.

Using Your Data

To get started putting your database to use, run some test lists to see how it works. Run simple sorts, starting with only one criterion, such as ZIP code. Then use two criteria, such as men by state. Once you are certain your database works the way you want it to, create lists that provide the information you want, such as mailing and invoicing, and sorts that provide information on customer purchasing habits. Update your database each time you interact with your customer to keep the information up to date and to help you avoid duplicate phone calls or email that can annoy customers.

Security and Use Policies

Once you create a customer list, you are responsible for its security. Be careful regarding who has access to your list, where you store it and how you back it up. Keep a backup of your original list and a backup of the list each time you update it, keeping the previous versions. This helps you backtrack to the last working customer list if the current file becomes corrupted. If you are hacked or someone gains access to your customer list without your permission, decide if you should let your customers know. If your list doesn’t contain sensitive information, such as credit card numbers or passwords customers use to enter your website, you might not need to worry. If you plan to conduct email campaigns with your customer lists, contact your Internet service provider to determine what its policies are for sending bulk email and if you must include an opt-out provision for customers.