Technology and Your Small Business

Wally Bock
©2003 All Rights Reserved

What am I doing this for anyway?

There is the desk or the worktable. It's piled with papers, and bills, and telephone message slips. Those damn little post-it notes are everywhere. Somehow it all has to get done, in addition to the real work of the business. Is this what you thought of when you started working for yourself?

Most of us didn't. We got into our businesses because we liked the work of the main business. The accounting, the sales, the administration - that wasn't what we thought about when we thought about having our own shop. But we do.

Part of the problem is that unless the administration and the sales and all those other things work well, it's hard to pay attention to the core business. Part of the problem is that most of us, frankly, don't have a lot of training or aptitude for those other things. But there are some things that can help, even if they make you a little bit uncomfortable right now. Those are computers.

Originally, computers took up whole rooms, required a staff of hundreds, demanded lots of special attention, consideration, and care, and cost a fortune. None of that's true anymore. For a couple of thousand dollars you can pick up a good, state-of-the-art computer, a decent printer, and some good software to run. If you do that, there are some benefits that you'll get.

The first benefit is that lots of things will get done or get done more effectively than they are right now. The second benefit is that you'll very likely get those things done by lowering your overhead costs.

For most small business there are three kinds of software to look at that have the greatest leverage for affecting the way you run your business and fatten your bottom line. Those three are accounting software, contact management software, and communications software.

In this article we'll take a quick overview of what those things can do for you. In succeeding articles we'll talk specifically about the things you can do inside your office and ways you can do outreach.

Let's start with the thing most of us hate most, accounting. I don't know anybody, other than accountants and bookkeepers, who got started in business because they really liked the bookkeeping and accounting part of the game. That means that it's highly likely that this is something you don't like and that makes you uncomfortable.

You're probably a lot like my friend John. John started up a little service business because he enjoyed the work. He liked working with people. He liked helping them get their cars to look better. But all the accounting work had to be done.

In the beginning, lots of years ago, his solution was to hire a bookkeeper who would come in once a week and do the things that needed doing. That bookkeeper cost him several hundred bucks a month. The bookkeeper also filed the taxes and got stuff ready for the accountant who looked at stuff a couple of times a year.

Now, like most of the things we'll be talking about, the basic system won't change a whole lot. The basic system involves writing checks, sending invoices, collecting money, putting that money in the bank, and recording all of this in standard forms.

Accounting software helps John get the job done. Now, instead of paying a bookkeeper several hundred bucks a month, he uses a software package that cost him around a hundred dollars. His wife comes in once a week to write the checks, make the deposits, and so forth. She uses the accounting software. And that means that instead of taking days to get those standard forms done, they're cranked out almost immediately and automatically.

Net result: John's saving quite a bit of money, and, maybe more importantly, he feels like he is on top of his business finances. The software even gives him some great graphs that show him what's going on without having to understand heavy-duty financial statements.

Now let's look at Jim and Janet. Their situation is a bit different than John's. They run a little graphics arts business. They service a number of clients and Janet is actually pretty good at the administration stuff. So the accounting software for them just helps them save money. Their problem is that neither one of them really likes the sales process.

They both know it's important. If you don't sell anything, you never make any money. But they just have trouble organizing the process. It isn't so much the actual sales itself. Jim's real good at showing what kind of work he's done and explaining what kinds of things are necessary. And that's usually all most good small businesses need for sales.

For most of the people we sell to, if we can make a good presentation about what we do, and show them how are rates compare with others, they can make an intelligent decision about whether or not to hire us. The problem for most of us is organizing our efforts so we get to talk to the people we need to talk to.

Jim and Janet's solution for that is something called contact management software. Actually it goes under several names including personal information managers and calendar programs. What those all have in common is they help organize the process of contacting people who need to be contacted.

Most of the software also has calendar functions and the ability to actually dial the telephone for you.

Here's how Jim and Janet use it. Jim takes a break at mid-afternoon every day and he's made a commitment to following up on all the calls that need to be made that day. Actually that's probably overstating the situation a bit. What actually happens is that Janet gets him and sits him down and says, "Jim, it's time to make your calls."

With the contact manager, Jim knows exactly who he has to call and what their numbers are. He's able to dial the number automatically, and make notes right in the records. He can even mark things for follow-up for later days.

What's the result? The result is that Jim and Janet are doing the kind of follow-up they need to keep a flow of business coming to their little company. By using the contact management software they've made their life a lot easier and gotten a lot of those little slips off the desk. Sure, somebody actually still has to sit down and do the calls, but the process is now much easier than it was, so they're more likely to get done.

Now lets look at something a little further out for most folks. Phil runs a business doing auto detailing. The best customers for him are people who make a pretty good income and work for pretty good sized companies.

In the last year, Phil has added a World Wide Web site and electronic mail to his arsenal of business tools.

He uses electronic mail to reach the people he wants to reach in corporations quickly and efficiently. Electronic mail reaches them either at their desk, or at home, or sometimes even when they're on the road at a time that's convenient to them. Because replying is easy, he gets answers back that he needs.

Phil uses email to aid in scheduling, do follow-ups on service and generally stay in touch with folks. He also uses it to send them little articles that help them care for their car.

What about the Web site? Phil put a couple of thousand dollars into setting this up and is spending about 100 bucks keeping it there. What does it do for him?

One thing is that it makes his basic information available all the time. Anybody who's interested in what he does, who has access to the Web, can check out the Web site and find out about his service, when his shop is open, what things he does well, and much more. Some of those articles and tips that Phil has always given to customers he now puts on the Web site.

What Phil's been noticing is that over the last year, more and more people have visited his site and have used electronic mail to contact him. As he takes a look around, what he's finding is that since more and more people are getting onto the Net (it's doubling about every six months), more and more people will use this means to get information from him.

What's the net result here? First, wider reach. People who want to find out about Phil's service can do that at any time of the day or night, from any place where they can get an Internet connection. The second benefit for Phil is that when they get that information, they get it without incurring any additional costs to him. Instead of Phil or somebody else having to fold up a couple of sheets of paper, stuff them in an envelope, address it and mail it, that information is grabbed right off the Web site. There's some real cost savings there.

Phil's convinced that the Web and the Internet are going to be a key piece of his business in the years ahead.

What have we got here? Three ways that using a computer can help you be more effective and more profitable. As a bonus, they'll also help you make your life easier by taking some of the worry and confusion out of basic tasks that aren't your core business.

Contact managers can help you organize your office marketing function in the same way that accounting can help you organize your office financial functions. In both cases, you should be able to do more, more effectively, in less time and at lower costs.

The Internet and the World Wide Web give you ways to reach lots of people with information that's important to you. For a cost about the size of a display or a directory ad, you can expand your reach and make it easy for the very people you want most as customers to find you.

Together, these set up a core of inside efficiency and outreach tools that will make your business better.

Wally has an extensive collection of articles and other resources on his Resource Web Site.

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