Your business efficiency could be ramped up by using information technology | Daily News
So, you want to start-up and develop a small business – Part 22:

Your business efficiency could be ramped up by using information technology

Just about every business - big or small - information technology (IT) is used in one way or another to carry out the functions. From generating reports to communicating with clients, IT does a lot for the efficiency with which a business is run.

Using IT effectively can help you do many things for your business, for eg:

(1) Save you and/or your employees time.

(2) Stimulate ideas that can help make your business grow larger and more profitable.

(3) Manage your personal and business finances (think online banking and accounting software).

(4) Deliver advertising and marketing to targeted sectors.

Initial advice

Never buy expensive new business hardware and software until you talk with several other small-business owners who’ve used the product for at least a year. Be sure to exercise self-discipline when you’re surfing the web to find small-business services or to identify software you may want to purchase.

Few websites offer useful information for the sake of offering information; more often, websites offer “free” small-business services and business plan advice, and so on in order to keep you clicking through the site. The goal, of course, is to sell yousomething, not to educate you. Do not get sucked into these money-burning sites.

Now that we’ve addressed the warnings, we can proceed with the good stuff - the ways in which you can use IT to better conduct your business and separate your company from the pack. This instalment contains few suggestions for the best ways to utilize IT in your small business.

Improving your business’s efficiency

IT costs money to buy and implement. So, the simple promise of making your business more efficient isn’t enough of a reason to spend your hard-earned cash on IT. For you to buy a particular IT resource, the improvement offered by that resource must more than pay for the cost of buying it.

Let us discuss how to get the best bang for your buck in terms of improving your business’s efficiency through IT.

Managing your time

In the early stages of your business, only one person can make or break your business. That one person is you, which means that every minute of your time is valuable. Thus, the management of time - especially the time that belongs solely to you - is potentially the most valuable service that IT can provide.

Every small-business owner manages his or her time differently. Some owners still use the ubiquitous manual methods - to-do lists, calendars, and various forms of the good old-fashioned Day-Timer. Today, however, more and more successful small-business owners are turning to IT to manage their time, whether via computer-based calendars, e-mail, or scheduling programs on cell phones and smartphones.

Smartphones which double as cell phones and e-mail devices, are increasingly considered a must-have time-management device for today’s fast-paced entrepreneurs. They enhance your opportunity to manage schedules, multitask, and get the most out of your day. Every small-business owner should at least experiment with the use of smartphones because, when used appropriately, they can make the user undeniably more efficient.

Another great time-management tool is computer networking. For example, you can network your computer at home to the one at your office so that you can manage your calendar and be on the job from either location. Just be careful not to let IT turn you into a workaholic.

Finally, e-mail is the second most efficient communication device of them all. No waiting for someone to pick up the phone, no wasting time with idle conversation, no telephone bills at the end of the month. Just type your message, click Send, and wait for the response.

Communication does not get much more efficient than that. Just do not make the mistake of using e-mail for important issues like selling to customers, providing feedback to employees who report to you, or resolving any kind of conflict.

In those cases, more personalized communication, such as in person or by phone, makes greater sense.

Providing supplemental web services

In addition to using your website for marketing purposes, you can use your website for various operational and customer-service functions that would otherwise require the time and energy of you or one of your employees. For instance, your website, when properly configured, can provide order-entry service for your customers:

A few clicks of the mouse by your customer and his or her purchase order can be entered, printed, subtracted from inventory, and invoiced, all without the involvement of you or any other human being. Yes, someone still has to pack the order and ship it, but stay tuned; someday maybe even that function will be automated.

For those of you with small businesses in the hospitality industry (restaurants, bed and breakfasts and so on), you can also use your website to take reservations and send confirmations.

You can also accept payment for products and services: When a customer completes an order online via your website, your credit-card company or an online service like PayPal either accepts the customer’s account number or denies it. That means no more bounced checks, no endless phone calls, no unheeded promises, and no collection agencies.

If you are interested in what your customers think about your company but don’t want to go to the expense required in mailing a printed questionnaire, IT can help! You’ll get a better response rate, the responses will come faster, and the costs will be less if you e-mail your questionnaire to the proper people.

Lowering your administration costs

Computers, when configured and used properly, can provide a number of administrative services, reducing the time and manpower needed for such tasks. Consider how computers can make the following administrative tasks more efficient and less expensive:

(1) Letters and memos: Type the letter or memo, print it, sign it, and mail it instead of dictating it, having someone else type it and send it back to you to edit and sign, and then mailing it. Computers make this task quicker, less expensive, and more private (no administrative assistants nosing around in your hallowed company secrets).

(2) Communications: E-mail is the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to communicate.

(3) Filing: Electronic filing of letters, worksheets, financial statements, and so on is quicker, neater, less expensive, and less space-consuming than manual filing. Just make sure that you back up your files daily in case your computer crashes - which it inevitably will!

(4) Worksheets: When you know how to work with the software, you can develop and fill out electronic spreadsheets in half the time (or less) that it takes you to fill out manual spreadsheets. As an added bonus, electronic spreadsheets are more professional looking, easier to file, and easier to update and change. Given their pre-programming ability, they’re also much less prone to error.

(5) Office supplies: Why waste your time and aggravate yourself driving to an office-supply store when you can more quickly and cheaply buy most office supplies for your business online?

(6) Mailing: Printing computer-generated mailing labels is much faster than creating hand-addressed postcards or envelopes. Remember, direct mail is only “junk mail” when it doesn’t seem relevant and personal! For all its bad press, mass mailing, when done right, can lead to increased sales.

Of course, computers and the accompanying IT can also waste your time if you happen to get hooked on surfing the Internetor reading endless computer manuals.

Scanning and managing inventory

Inventory scanning is especially useful for retail- and manufacturing- based small businesses that include extensive, and expensive, quantities of inventory. Handheld, wireless scanners make counting inventory a relatively easy task - especially when compared to the tried-and-true, yet slow and less accurate, manual method. The best small businesses we know take frequent inventories - quarterly or even monthly.

Without the requisite scanning technology, the process of tabulating inventory can be time-consuming and inaccurate. And the more SKUs (stock-keeping units) you have in your inventory; the more important inventory scanning becomes.

Scanning devices are multiplying within the inventory-carrying small- business sector.Check with your industry trade association; it can make you aware of the latest technologies available in scanning.

Inventory scanning technology for small-business owners in the retail industry can be either a stand-alone function or part of a complete management software system. For instance, one national vendor we know offers a system that includes a bar-code scanner, a credit-card reader, a receipt printer, and a cash drawer.

Such a configuration of products allows the retailer to track inventory, create purchase orders, determine sales taxes, and avoid many of the time-consuming minutiae that often plague the typical retailer.

IT person

Most small businesses do not have an information technology (IT) person, yet as the business grows and as the network grows, the need for a network administrator of some sort grows, too. At a minimum, there should be one person in your office who knows how the system is set up and the basics of how it works. This person should be in charge of (a) all passwords and product keys, although you, too, need to know where they are stored, (2) Regular system backups, if done manually, (3) Basic repairs and updates

Another option is to schedule a monthly maintenance and service call. There are companies that offer tech support for small businesses for a small monthly fee. This also gives you access to tech support online, over the phone, or in person, as needed.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 30 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer.)


 

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