By Greg Reyneke

It’s the 21st century, everyone’s going digital…Stop being a Luddite and step into the information age. It’s time to get smart.

Business has been transacted for thousands of years without computers, so it’s hard to argue that they’re mission critical. But they can help you streamline your business be more financially efficient.

Computers can store vast amounts of information and perform analysis of data far beyond the realm of what humans can perform. By leveraging digital technology you can help your business run more efficiently and effectively than ever before. You might even save yourself some money.

What can technology do for me?
If you want to computerize your business, the first step is to take a serious look at how your business actually runs. Taking the time to map the path a piece of paper takes to get through your accounting process can be a real eye-opener.

In fact, most small business owners find that the mere act of identifying and mapping their business process and workflow causes instant improvements. This is because we often become accustomed to the redundancies and waste of ‘business as usual.’

Automation of a business is usually performed in the following stages to ensure maximum ROI and minimum disruption of existing business processes.

  • Back-office accounting

Accounting, order processing, inventory control, order fulfillment, billing, employee management and business analytics are part of the back-office function and are the core of any automated business.

  • Front-office accounting

Sales management, marketing, customer support, Internet presence and ecommerce are the front-office component.

  • Scheduling
  • If you run any kind of field-service operation, scheduling will make or break your profitability.
  • Field-service automation
  • While every serviceperson knows how to use a paper work-order, modern technology offers us many enhancements, like paperless work-orders and in-home credit-card processing

In addition to automation of business processes, the business-owner can leverage related technologies like GPS mapping, GPS tracking, VOIP and telecommuting.

How do I automate my business?
Automating a business is more about creating a workflow process than just buying expensive machines or paying consultants. In my experience helping small business owners grow, they don’t really have a business process of their own – they live in a state of ‘entrepreneurial chaos.’

Since most water businesses in the US are trans-generational family businesses, this chaos is inevitably transferred over the years. And it is seldom corrected.

Capture the scale of your business now and in five years
Just how big are you now and do you want to grow significantly bigger in the next five years? How much revenue do you expect to gross this year and in five years’ time?

Unless you understand what you are now and what you want to be, venturing into the digital realm is an exercise in futility.

Create an organizational chart
Who’s in charge, who reports to whom, who is responsible for purchasing and receiving, customer complaints, etc.? Document the jobs you have now and the functions that you will need to fulfill your vision of the future. Create a detailed job description for each role, listing daily, weekly, monthly tasks and responsibilities.

Build an operations manual
The operations manual is never truly finished. This living document evolves as the business grows and adapts to changing markets.

Every business will have its own unique manual. But the following sections should be included by all:

  1. Mission statement and vision statement
  2. Organizational chart
  3. Employee directory
  4. HR policies – hiring, separation, overtime etc.
  5. Daily operating procedures
  6. End of week, month, quarter and year procedures
  7. Marketing program
  8. Advertising strategy
  9. Sales policies and procedures
  10. Customer service policies and procedures
  11. Reporting, and recordkeeping policies
  12. Safety and security
  13. Disaster recovery plan
  14. Maintenance and repair
  15. Legal matters
  16. Ownership succession/exit strategy

Where do the computers go?
Once you have a true picture of your business, you can begin implementing measures to computerize the process. The first decision to make is whether you in-house or outsource your computing power.

Outsourcing computer power is not a new concept, but it has only recently become affordable. Since outsourcing can be extremely secure and reliable, I am currently recommending most of my clients to outsource their accounting and CRM functions to reputable companies like Microsoft, Netsuite, Salesforce.com and SAP.

Outsourcing can allow you to grow your business, without having to maintain an expensive data center or keep IT employees on hand for the inevitable problems that can arise. Outsourced computing is often referred to as ‘cloud computing,’ where the cloud is a metaphor for the Internet.

This is a style of computing where IT-functions and software are provided as a ‘service’ (SaaS) allowing you to access what you need, when you need it and you ‘pay-as-you-go.’ You’re essentially bringing computing to the same level as a utility… just like electricity, telephone or water.

When deciding on an outsource provider, or an in-house application, be sure to compare vendors. Talk to existing satisfied customers in addition to doing web-based research. Prices can vary dramatically, depending on how much consulting you require.

So what about the Internet?
The Internet was designed to be a redundant network of interconnected computer networks. It was launched officially in 1983 and has been abused ever since.

According to a recent study, more than 50 percent of all corporate email is spam. The same survey suggests that employees in America spend more than half of their at-work Internet time looking at or participating in inappropriate content and activities.

Yet the Internet is really a conduit to get to resources. What resources you access depend completely on you. From a liability prevention and security standpoint, content filtering is critical on a business Internet connection and should be incorporated as part of or in concert with your firewall application.

Choosing to install an Internet connection at your office is a smart business decision. Having access to the Internet will help you communicate with the outside world and enable you to connect with clients, business associates and vendors.

Should I have a business website?
In one word…YES !

Not having a website in the 21st century is like being unlisted in the telephone book last century. Customers are turning more to search engines than ever before and in some regions, search engines are used before the yellow pages when shopping for goods and services. Your existing customers and prospective clients can and will judge you by the presence that you project on the Internet.

Domain names
Buying a domain name is a smart business decision. Domain names are the human-readable names given to network addresses on the Internet, which make it easy to remember and navigate to.

Instead of typing 216.197.126.168 into your web browser, you just type in wcponline.com as an example–simple and easy. Your domain name should be a reflection of your brand, and easy for your customers to remember.

Website design and content
Your website should be a reflection of the professional and ethical company that you are.

Keep the content simple and clear.

Avoid ranting about political or personal issues and simply promote your business. The following are critical parts of any legitimate business website:

  1. A description of your company with a little history and what makes you special
  2. Your location and contact information
  3. Products that you offer
  4. Services that you offer
  5. Your privacy policy
  6. Testimonials from satisfied customers
  7. Your warranty and return policy

With websites, less is more. Avoid the temptation to over-embellish the site with sound effects, animations and videos. Keep it simple and easy to navigate.

Creating and editing a website is very easy, especially with software like Microsoft® Frontpage®/Expression Web® and a host of others. Many webhosting providers will offer free or discounted deign assistance as part of your hosting package.

Blogs, Facebook, and LinkedIn
The most significant impact of the Internet in modern society is ‘social networking’. People from all over the globe and around the neighborhood are able to communicate effortlessly together.

Blogging is a great opportunity to communicate your thoughts with others. Just remember that it can usually be read by everyone, so make sure that whatever you post in blogs and discussion groups is suitable to be read by your clients, your religious leader and your banker !

The same rules apply to Facebook and MySpace. You and your employees will be judged by the company you keep online. LinkedIn is a particularly powerful online social networking tool for business professionals where you can meet and connect with other professionals without the clutter of traditional social networking sites. Feel free to connect to me at http://www.linkedin.com/in/gregreyneke.

Email
Even if you don’t get your own website, get your own email address that has a legitimate domain. Don’t opt for the kitschy freeware addresses like AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, MSN, etc.

That just smacks of unprofessionalism. Even without your own website, you can still procure a custom email address from reputable providers like Network Solutions.

Search engine optimization
Search engine optimization (SEO) is popular and has achieved much notoriety. Essentially, it is the art and science of increasing the quality and quantity of web traffic to your site.

For most small businesses, this can be very confusing and is usually best left to professionals. You can do a very good job of promoting yourself by actively participating on blogs, bulletin boards and discussion groups. Be sure to promote your website on all company correspondence and vehicles.

GPS navigation and tracking
If you run a traditional dealership, you need to visit clients at some point. Simple devices like GPS vehicle navigation systems can save you and your business the inconvenience and hassle of getting lost.

Certain models have up to the minute traffic information and can provide voice-guided turn-by-turn directions. GPS tracking devices are usually mounted in your vehicle and can be used to properly monitor and control usage of the company fleet.

Many fleet operators realize a significant decrease is gas consumption, as well as an increase in net productivity after installing GPS tracking. It should be a comprehensive part of your fleet management program.

The paperless office
While once a publicist’s dream, the paperless office will one day become a reality. By relying more on digital technologies, you can make your business more efficient, effective and environmentally friendly while lowering your net labor overhead.

Always make and keep current backups, especially off site backups of mission-critical data. Embrace technology…but always remember that it is the people who make the business.

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