Integrating the systems that run and grow your business
Investing in the right types of business technology
Too many new businesses miss out on a key success factor from day one, investing in the right business technology. Oftentimes, this is due to the perception of high upfront costs or sticking to what seems credible or familiar. The clock is ticking, but rushing to revenue at the risk of losing visibility into how you made the sale creates future growth challenges. It may seem daunting for the tech novice. Sure…there are a ton of choices out there, but it’s important to build a technology stack that communicates with each other – integrated systems.
But how do you know what business technology you need?
There are systems you must have; and those you should consider for your business. The must-have technologies include
- Accounting and financial management systems
- Employee management (ie. payroll processing, workforce scheduling, and timecard management)
- a Point-of-sale (POS) system for in-person sales and order management
- and of course a good website.
No matter how small of a business, unless you’re a sole proprietor, you’ll need all of these computer systems.
The business tech you should consider depends more on the type of business you are running, or how ambitious you are about growth. This includes things like productivity applications, sales-marketing-service automation (ie. email marketing or SMS marketing), customer or consumer loyalty software, eCommerce online shopping, supply chain management (also referred to as enterprise resource processing or ERP) social posting or listening, reputation management, and the list goes on.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the required technologies.
Accounting and Financial Management
Every merchant business needs an accounting and financial management software solution. This application is the heart of your business, so choose wisely. An accounting and financial management application manages a database of all your revenue income, business expenses, and your capital assets. It is useful to also help prepare your tax filings, as well as to track your business progress to determine if you are on track and financially healthy. Often your accountant or bookkeeper will recommend the system they prefer to use. Today there are a number of cloud-base services, some designed specifically for your industry. If you prefer to not place your financial data in the cloud, choose a local run solution. Whatever approach you decide, keep in mind two important factors: will the system grow as you grow, such as adding new franchises; and can you migrate your data to another system in the future if necessary. A popular system for small and medium merchant is Intuit’s Quickbooks.
Unless you are an extremely small business, you will have employees. The days are over where employee forms and tax filings are done on paper. Every government agency today uses online computer systems for managing employee tax withholding, and other calculations, so you too need an employee management application out of pure necessity. Things to consider when choosing an employee management application include the type of employees you expect such as hourly or exempt, will they work in multiple states, or countries, will you also have independent contractors, what level of turnover do you expect, and of course, how many employees do you forecast to have in the future as you grow. Another aspect to think about with employee management applications is the functions that it can support. If you expect a number of hourly employees you may need scheduling and timecard management features. Payroll is another important feature set that is usually designed to interface with your local employment agencies and tax centers, not only to calculate withholding but to also pay them. Popular small business employee and payroll services include products from Intuit and Zenifits.
Point-of-Sale (POS) Systems
Selecting the right point-of-sales system will be one of the most important decisions you make for your business. There is over 2,000 Point-of-Sales software companies just within the United States. Many of these business technology solutions are designed specifically for your industry, such as a restaurant, quick serve, grocery, drug store, convenience store, retail, and so on. (There are over a dozen software companies that offer point-of-sales applications just for car washes!) Your point-of-sales system helps you every day, and all day, to process your orders and sales. It also can track your inventory as sales are made. Also importantly, the point-of-sales system is usually integrated with one or more payment processors, to give you a choice of processing services. When evaluating point-of-sales systems, keep in mind the following considerations: is it designed for your industry, which payment processors does it support, can it be expanded to more terminals or franchises, how easy is it to use, and does it meet any special business needs that you may have.
Your organization website is the “face” of your business. It is very important to spend some time, energy, and resources to ensure that it represents your business the way you want it, as you really are. The reason you need a website are manifold, but primarily because that is the place everyone often goes to get a first impression or basic information about your business in order to decide if they can or want to do business with you. Your website should include information about the products or services that you sell, opening hours, and how to contact you for more information. It may also include background information about your business, and perhaps your business philosophy. When thinking about the content of your website, place yourself in the buyer’s mind, and always give strong consideration to place adequate resources toward the website design. (A good web designer is always a good idea!) And don’t forget to keep it updated; fresh content attracts, so puts some time and effort every week to keep your website attractive.
There are other optional types of business technology you should consider.
Organization and productivity applications can help smooth processes within your business. You will usually find this software as a cloud service, where you can establish accounts for all your users. The things you can do with productivity solutions include sharing documents, organize a project plans, organize and collect information, etc. This can be helpful for many back office functions, such as for preparing marketing campaigns. Examples of common productivity tools include Google Drive and Basecamp.
Also known as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, you may consider using sales, marketing, and customer services automation solutions. Sales automation provides a way to manage all your sales leads and opportunities in a database. They also support tracking all your communications with each prospect to give you a history of contacts, and they can provide reminders through a sales process to ensure no lead or opportunity is neglected. A good sales automation solution allows you to customize your sales processes to exactly fit your business. Some examples of easy-to-use sales solutions include Salesforce and Act!. Marketing automation provides a way to manage all your marketing campaigns to get leads. Often also referred to as email marketing some marketing automation solutions include list management for outbound automated email blast campaigns, or they can be integrated with your website for inbound lead management campaigns. Some examples of easy-to-use marketing solutions include Constant Contact, Marketo, and MailChimp. Service automation provides a way for you to manage all your customers. If you have follow-up services that are required for the products or services that you sell, the services management solution will provide pro-active reminders for you and the customer when to take action, or they can provide case management for reactive customer inquiries. A good service automation solution allows you to customize your services case management processes. Salesforce and other sales automation tools often include integrated service modules.
Loyalty solutions can help grow your business fast if you get it “dialed” right. Loyalty solutions come in different forms, but the primary objective is to get the customer to come back to shop at your business more frequently than they would otherwise. Some simple loyalty solutions are associated with payment processors, such as gift cards, or reloadable store cards. The more sophisticated versions of gift cards have options to offer Rewards after a minimum purchase amount. Others offer mobile app options, like Vantiv’s StoreCard, that work like a Starbuck’s app, but designed for small and medium businesses. At the higher-end of loyalty solution are in-store discounts for members. These solutions are often integrated with CRM applications for access to a unified customer database. They also require daily administration and management to manage discount by SKU.
The world of eCommerce can be extremely rewarding, but it also can be a lot of work to get it right. First, you need to ask yourself if you need an eCommerce site. Many in-store merchants often expand their business to eCommerce in order to get greater reach, but it also comes with competition from Amazon and other mega eCommerce sites. Additionally, if you offer your products or services via eCommerce, you may consider omni-channel features such as “buy online” and “pick-up in store” but then you need to ensure that your eCommerce solution is also tied to geographical location capabilities, along with your ERP system. There are many services providers with eCommerce tools to build your site, but generally it is best to have a professional set it up and integrate it with your inventory management solution.
Supply Chain Management
If you are a merchant that manufacturers your own products you may be buying parts or components from other suppliers. Keeping track of your manufacturing inventory and buying parts “just in time” without over tying up your cash can help not only your cash flow but also helps to ensure best pricing. Supply Chain management solutions can also provide workflows for a set of processes to perform a task, such as product installation processes for major appliances or services. If you are in the food business, order food items are a popular use of Supply Chain Management solutions.
Social Media Marketing
In today’s world it is difficult to avoid social media channels in our personal lives. As such, they too can be a valuable media to communicate with your prospects and customers. There are two types of social marketing solutions. The first is listening. Listening social solutions can set up to find anything written on selected social channels about your business. It can alert you to new posts or reviews so that you can interact with these message. The second is engagement. You can initial new blogs, posts, or messages on social channels to promote your business. Tools such as Hootsuite, TweetDeck, and Sprout are a few examples of easy-to-use social marketing solutions.
Every business has a bad day every so often, and sometimes it can lead to a bad post on a social media site. Keeping track of comments about your business is important and there is software that can monitor for these posts or messages. Addressing an issue immediately is important to avoid viral negativity about your business. Once you are aware of a problem you are halfway there to get it fixed. Solutions like Finecomb or Reputation Savior may need to be on your consideration list.
Where should I start?
You may have long list of solutions to consider. Many business owners become their own technology expert, but sometimes even they can get into trouble. However, if you one of most business owners that are more of an expert in your business than in technology, then you should consider getting help from an expert. Here’s why…
All business technology tends to have three parts. Unless you go with a cloud service, you have hardware that needs to be purchased, setup and managed. Also, you need to choose your software applications that can be purchased either through a monthly fee or straight up purchase. Lastly, you need expert services help to configure, customize, train all the users, and maintain the solutions to ensure smooth ongoing processes of your business. So do you buy; or do you do-it-yourself? Only you can decide.