Information technology: Building your productivity
The tools range from simple (accounting packages) to complex (full-blown enterprise resource planning systems).
But regardless of the tool, they all aim to improve productivity by automating otherwise manual business functions, Thereby freeing you and your people for other tasks, and ultimately reducing costs and errors, and increasing profits. An Information technology investment is no different from an investment in a piece of machinery There is a return on investment, and you calculate that return based on the automation of functions within your business.
Accounting is the first function many entrepreneurs think of when they look for technology to help in their business, and for good reason. Managing cash flow is one of the most critical challenges entrepreneurs face.
The good news is that many products exist to help improve cash flow management by accelerating bill collection and tightening expense control. They can also save time and reduce errors that come from manually inputting information.
Many accounting packages can track expenses and income, and prepare budgets, tax information, and reports. Advanced versions include inventory optimization functions and project financial tracking, as well as in-house payroll support.
Here are some other accounting tools:
- Online billing can help you build your cash flow. It not only speeds up collections, but it also saves money on printing, stamps and cheque processing. You can also sign up with an online billing provider.
- Some offer basic invoice processing and allow customers to pay online via a bank account or credit card. Others integrate into your accounting software and offer handy features such as a unique web page for each customer account that allows clients to see their invoice history and make a payment.
- Smartphones and tablet computers are making invoicing and payment almost instantaneous for a growing number of companies. Today, you can log into a mobile billing service and enter transaction details and your customer’s credit card information. The payment is processed on the spot, and your customer gets an electronic receipt. An e-invoice is also entered into your accounting system.
Having a hard time keeping track of your customer information and sales leads? Is important information scattered in different systems across your company or on the computers of sales professionals?
Do you wish you could give clients more personalized customer service to encourage repeat business? If you have challenges such as these, your business may benefit from customer relationship management (CRM) software. These systems store all your customer information in a central, secure place—giving employees access to it with just a couple of mouse clicks. Using information already gathered, including sales history and trends, these tools help businesses serve customers better and generate more sales.
They run the gamut from simple contact management databases to more robust CRM systems that are integrated with your other business software, such as accounting and production-planning systems.
Think of how quickly customer reps at a call center pull up your client data when you phone. They are likely using a CRM system to quickly access your sales history, account information, customer profile, and a record of interactions by phone, email or in person.
Here are some of the advantages of CRM
- It gives employees centralized, real-time access to information on existing and prospective customers, allowing better coordination of sales efforts.
- It helps companies to identify the best customers and market segments, and focus marketing campaigns and customer-service investments.
- It lets companies customize responses to clients—for example, sending employees a reminder to contact customers every six months and tracking whether they have done so.
It helps new employees quickly get up to speed on customers and ensures information is passed along seamlessly when sales reps and other employees leave.
It allows companies to monitor sales in real time on dashboards and through customized reports on sales performance and trends.
At the heart of any CRM system is information—piles of it. This includes customer profile information (who clients are, and their location, size, and type of business), buying patterns (how often they buy and when) and buying preferences (what they buy and why). The system pulls it all together and gives you a more complete view of each customer.
Having all this information in one place helps you in these areas.
- Sales: It allows reps to align their pitch with a customer’s buying profile and keep track of customers through the sales cycle.
- Marketing: It helps you understand your customer’s better, target marketing messages more efficiently and appropriately, and boost customer loyalty.
- Customer service: It lets reps review past interactions and resolve issues more quickly.
If you are considering a CRM system for your business, be sure to first develop a written CRM strategy. Its overriding goal should be to make customers feel like they have a one-to-one relationship with you.
Next, choose the right technology to support your business strategy (see part two—”Ensuring your tech investments pay off”). The least expensive are web-hosted CRM systems that you use on a monthly subscription.
They’re generally the easiest to implement and maintain but provide the least amount of flexibility. A higher price tag gets you customized, on-premises CRM systems that can be integrated with other applications within your business.
Be sure to develop a privacy statement if you want to collect data on customers. Mobile CRM is also available for use on smartphones and other mobile devices. It gives sales reps and other employees such as repair technician’s access to client data when they’re on the road.
“No more waiting for a laptop to boot up or fumbling through account notes before an important sales call,” one mobile CRM retailer says on its website.
A mobile system can also feed customer emails received on a smartphone into your CRM system’s client database. Mobile CRM can even be used to map service calls and optimize an appointment schedule based on the most efficient route.
Human resources are another area where many businesses benefit from an investment in technology. The main attraction is automation. HR software can manage payroll and track benefits, such as vacation and sick days.
Today, many payroll systems also integrate with banks and handle fund transfers. “You can definitely save a lot of time by automating such tasks, instead of tracking these things manually and cutting cheques Clock-in software is another potentially powerful application.
If you’re struggling to track employee and subcontractor hours, clock-in software replaces manual
Punch clocks and time sheets to ensure accurate and efficient tracking of hours worked.
Many businesses are concerned about reducing inventory to cut carrying costs and free up cash flow. The key to effective inventory control is proper sales forecasting. That’s why many of today’s inventory control systems include tools to forecast demand and plan purchases. Many of these systems either integrate with or include CRM modules that track a business’s sales pipeline.
A company can fine-tune inventory levels so there is just enough stock to fill orders on time, reducing storage costs. More advanced systems will also detect and correct for seasonal purchasing trends and the probability of making the sales in your pipeline.
Many tools can also be integrated with point-of-sale software that instantly updates inventory records after each sale. Related technology products—such as bar-code scanners and radiofrequency identification tags—reduce errors and help to liberate staff from having to manually update records.
Operations are another area that offers exciting opportunities to apply technology. The right tools for your business depend on its size, its complexity and the nature of its operations. For many businesses, project management solutions can help you estimate and plan projects, allocate resources, and track profit on individual projects.
Other businesses turn to tools to improve efficiency through enhanced manufacturing and material utilization planning. Many of today’s more advanced tools help you manage all the steps involved in getting products to clients.
They allow you to integrate and automate the supply chain, track materials, and manage workflow,
and stay on top of orders.
Innovation is an essential ingredient in keeping businesses competitive—but it can be difficult and costly to achieve. Information technology can help turn innovation into a more manageable challenge.
A critical source of innovation is employees, but few businesses have a systematic process for collecting and developing their ideas. Enter idea management software. The software offers a structured way to manage idea generation and development. It includes tools to help employees collaborate on and debate ideas, vote on them, and shepherd them into new products or improvements in business processes.
Communication technologies are evolving quickly and making businesses more productive than ever. For example, many small and medium-sized businesses are slashing communication costs with Internet-based phone calling (known as voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP). Instant messaging, video conferencing and company intranets can also save costs and encourage collaboration.
Combining technologies can enhance efficiency even more. Employees can access the latest version of important information with a smartphone or laptop while they’re on the road. They can also have a single interface to manage their email, instant messages, task lists and e-calendars.
An ERP system is all-purpose software with modules that manage several key business functions with a shared information database. ERP systems include such functions as accounting, customer relationship management, human resources, inventory, and operations. With an ERP system, a business no longer struggles to integrate various tools in different departments and cross-reference the data. An ERP system does it all.
Combining all these processes saves money and time, and can help ensure technology investments generate a higher return on investment. Costs are reduced because many functions are included on the same technology platform, thereby reducing acquisition, implementation, training and maintenance costs.
ERP systems can also offer powerful new insights into your business by allowing you to analyze data that is collected and stored in one place.