Replacing the technology you have with less expensive alternatives (like getting OpenOffice for free rather than spending hundreds on Microsoft Office) can save you money, but it won’t really upgrade your business. Bottom line, most people see a word processor as just a word processor, and a computer as just a computer, and don’t gain by replacing one version with another.
Automating manual processes and reducing the time spent gathering information needed to make decisions will cost money but improve business processes. Your trusted technology advisor can help you in more ways than you know. In fact, that’s exactly why they can help you: they know ways technology can improve your business you don’t know. So let’s look at three steps to get even more bang for your technology buck.
First, get a whiteboard or chalkboard or a roll of white butcher paper. Pick a business process, any business process. Any area of concern makes a good starting point. Often small businesses need to rework their ordering or billing process, or you may need to get a grip on what your three salespeople are really doing.
At the whiteboard, list every step of a process, like paying invoices. First shot at this seems really simple: get invoice, pay invoice. Dig deeper. Who receives the invoice? Put that person at the start of the process on the whiteboard. Who files the invoice? Put that down. Who checks to see if the price on the invoice matches the price on the purchase order? Write that down. Who verifies the items invoiced actually match the items received? Write that down.
You can’t do this alone. You need everyone involved in the process to participate. That’s why I recommend a whiteboard, so you can make the discovery process visible to everyone. When someone comes in and says, “Hey, I sometimes check inventory levels before we order parts,” you have to add their involvement in the process.
Warning: this will be painful at first. What appears to be a well-run office may turn into a Keystone Kops episode of papers going here and there, people using sticky notes to pass along vital information, and multiple steps where a misplaced paper means the entire system breaks down. Owners of less automated companies tend to be shocked at how many steps an office manager must go through to handle what appears to be a simple task.
If you’ve never been trained in sales management and the sales process, try whiteboarding a sale from the initial customer contact to payment for your product or service by that customer. How many steps did it take? How many calls did the salesperson make to find a willing prospect? How many meetings until the first sale? If you don’t know these answers now, get out your whiteboard and dry erase markers. Make the salespeople explain every step, every call, and every contact in the sales process. You may wonder how you can sell anything though the maze that will appear on your whiteboard.
The second step hurts less at first, then gets more painful: list constraints on the process. How long does an invoice received in the mail sit until filed? What happens if the receiving clerk doesn’t count incoming materials right away? Do you have more potential customers than available salespeople? Here comes the painful part: the owner and/or managers of small businesses are almost always a tremendous constraint on balky processes. Approve invoices before payment. Verify credit for new customers. Meet with the marketing consultant for new brochures. All these take time, and management bandwidth constrains every small business. If you’re the owner or manager, you’re a big part of the problem.
Finally, after your processes are “documented” as much as possible, call in outside technology help. If you don’t have someone you trust, get referrals from other business owners. Check references carefully, because some technical “experts” are just low-level salespeople with a card that says consultant.
Bring in your technical expert candidates, one at a time, and show them your whiteboard full of convoluted process diagrams. You’ll be embarrassed the first time, I guarantee, but you won’t have anything worse than an experienced consultant has seen before.
Ask the expert to suggest technology to streamline your processes and straighten out the maze on the whiteboard. Different experts will come up with different answers reflecting their backgrounds. Business process experts love turning paper into electronic documents, collaboration experts want better communication options, and sales experts like mobile technology for outside workers.
Pick a process to start with that’s small enough to upgrade fairly quickly. You may need a scanner and electronic filing cabinet to improve paper flow through Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, or you may just need training on the multi-function printer/scanner you already have. You may need to upgrade your paper sales reports into sales tracking software. Do something, but do small things first. Don’t sign some huge contract to fix everything, and don’t trust a consultant who suggests that.
You will spend money, yes. But you will gain control and time, which is often worth more than mere dollars.