Last year was a tough year for small businesses, and there may not be many who are sorry to see 2009 go. But the silver lining is that last year was great on the supply side of easy, low-cost and highly functional software applications. What you can do now with the simplest server setup, plus a mobile device, is far beyond what you could have done just over 12 months ago.
You don’t have to buy entire software suites anymore. Buy as you need-without buying what you’ll never use. For smaller businesses looking to get started in 2010, or existing ones trying to compete for choice clients, it’s a great time to upgrade business processes. Recessions create new needs and forward-thinking software companies are meeting those needs. Smaller, agile businesses can benefit during this time.
While assembling the list of applications you will use to make your business stronger, you should demand some key features. These products exist on their own and are ready for prime time. Accept no less than a free 14-day trial and the ability to be up and running within five minutes. You should expect reliable performance, easy scalability and available customer service.
The first thing most new businesses need to do is to bill customers. Small businesses typically outsource most of their accounting but they still need an invoicing program. Here is what you should demand, the gold standard:
An invoicing application should be available as a standalone product. It should be able to create invoices, quotes and charts, and schedule recurring invoices. It should allow users to send faxes or e-mail messages from inside the application. It should also integrate with complementary products such as an inventory management program.
The program should also calculate tax rates and send statements to customers who are overdue with payment. Finally, scalability is important. There should be a free version for the smallest of businesses, but it should provide an easy upgrade path for a more robust version that scales for multiuser functionality. This is all completely available in a single application, without having to buy a suite. Do not settle for less.
Look for an inventory management application that works with invoicing. For businesses selling products on the Internet-the most common small retailing operation-a scalable inventory management application is a must. You should not commit to a program that cannot grow with your business.
Here is where you start to see the building block quality of what is available now. Don’t get an inventory management system that doesn’t integrate tightly with an invoicing program. When you invoice a product, it should automatically adjust the volume of your stock.
The inventory management software should be able to categorize products, manage multiple locations from a single remote place, monitor stock levels, and send an alert when products need to be reordered. It should be able to transfer stock between locations as well. And you should be up and running in under five minutes.
With invoicing, these applications are a perfect combination for setting up either a Web store or a brick-and-mortar retail store.
Sound more corporate with telephony products
Once a small business is up and running, the key to a competitive edge is to seem bustling and bigger than you are. If you appear to have many loyal customers, it is that much easier to get new customers. Good telephony products enable a small business to sound bigger than they are. Three examples:
1. Automated attendants to direct incoming calls or to act as an information line for answering common questions
2. Telephone on-hold message players that come with industry-specific presentations
3. Virtual PBX for handling both voice over IP (VOIP) and non-VOIP telephone lines, eliminating the need for a more expensive phone system
Often, companies that need to appear larger also rely on salespeople who need to spend the lion’s share of their time on the phone, often calling long distance or overseas. For a company that does intensive phone work, installing a virtual PBX with a great Web softphone is key to managing phone calls without the hardware expense.
One warning here: Skype and Google Talk alone are too dinky to get the job done if you’re talking about something such as a telemarketing sales force or any sort of call center. To efficiently manage phone calls in this type of an environment, you need to be able to integrate with other telephony applications such as a dialing assistant.
Flexibility to Customize
Flexibility to customize
In general, when it comes to telephony products, some application suites are worth looking at-but only if there’s also the option to buy applications separately and maintain easy integration of features across those products. It is crucial to have the flexibility to pick only the features needed to customize a phone system.
For example, many businesses-from graphic design businesses to law firms-need to have phone conferences with a time-keeping program to keep track of calls for billing by the hour. That may be all they need from their telephony products, and they shouldn’t have to buy programs for extraneous business operations they won’t be using. Businesses looking for telephony applications should only consider those offering different tiers of service that compliment their business needs. The ability to integrate applications when the need arises is valuable to a growing business. But so is the ability to start simply.
Dictation and transcription
Part of competing with bigger businesses is having enough time to devote to your customers-to give them that extra level of customer service that people expect from small businesses. Finding that extra time to commit to your customers is often in a tug of war with taking care of necessary administrative details. One way to cut back on recordkeeping and data entry is by using programs designed to condense the processes.
Accounting firms, medical practices and law firms, in particular, have the need for dictation and transcription software that cut out time and even secretarial needs. First, a dictation application should be portable; a lawyer should be able to dictate into a PDA, Pocket PC, iPhone or Droid in court, hit send and have the file sent to the transcriptionist before even having a chance to forget. Then the dictation application should integrate with a transcription program that supports both audio and video.
With the right dictation and transcription software, many small businesses are able to cut out the secretarial services that have been traditionally needed. Software such as this saves time, so more time can be spent with patients or clients.
Setup shouldn’t require tech support
We are entering the second decade of the 21st century. It is not too much to ask to be able to install an application that functions professionally without getting a headache. Once an application is out on the market, it’s absurd if it can’t be installed without tech support lines ringing off the hook. Without any tech support, the average user should be able to get their application installed and working in three minutes.
So don’t settle for slow or intensive installations. That’s the beauty of using single applications. The idea is to remove the barrier of entry into the small business arena, and technical barriers can be as big an obstacle as cost.
One last thing: it’s important to look for products that maintain backward compatibility and minimum hardware requirements. All the applications mentioned in this article should still be compatible to Windows 2000 or Mac 10.28.
Peter Lupton is CEO at NCH Software. He can be reached at [email protected].