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What’s the best CRM software for a small business? How do I get sales order processing to link with accounts? These questions are frequently asked on UK Business Forums. Seeking the experience of others is a sensible thing. How a software application performs is of utmost importance to a small business, but it’s not the software that should be the focus. It’s the data. Chris Watkins, from ffox Software. explains the process.
Start with these questions: what data does the software need? Where will the data come from? What value is the data to the business?
Data and information are the oil in the motor of any business. A customer name, address and contact details, for instance, should have only one valid source within the enterprise. It may be stored centrally in the accounts, or maybe the CRM, software. All other instances of that information should be read only and should be regularly refreshed from the central source. That way you don’t get employees wasting valuable time trying to make sales and support contact with people who left the client’s employ last month.
Unless applications are sourced from the same vendor and share a common data source, business software such as payroll, accounts and CRM tend to lead to duplication of data.
So, is it good practice to buy all the software from the same vendor?
Unfortunately, as software houses are in business to make a profit, almost invariably, tying a business into a single brand of software will carry a higher cost than shopping around for individual packages. This means that some data duplication is unavoidable, not only within the business applications, but also in personal contact lists. Control is essential and data management saves time, money and enables employees to deliver the professional levels of service essential to your brand.
Business applications are the software used to process data against algorithms that ensure legal, ethical and business rules are met and, while it is possible to manage without them, processing manually would be more expensive and more open to the risk of error.
A payroll software vendor, for example, would ensure that the software in use is up to date with all of the latest HMRC PAYE rules without the user needing to worry about them or even understand them.
Given that business applications are probably essential, and that the ‘best fit’ applications will come from different software vendors, it becomes apparent that strategy is required.
Any data held within an IT system should have a single source. Any changes made to a customer contact detail, for instance, should be made only once and the change should then be propagated throughout the system. Making changes to the same data in several software applications is not only wasteful and expensive, but also open to error.
What is needed is a corporate policy on information and that should give rise to an information strategy. It sounds awfully grand, but it doesn’t need to be complex.
Creating a business information strategy
1) Sit down and make a list of all the places data is going to be stored. Customer contact details should belong to the CRM or, if you have one, the sales ledger.
2) Use the export tools within the software to extract the data for distribution around the enterprise. The extracted data should be stored as ‘read only’ and stored on a network share or, preferably, in the cloud.
G-Suite allows you to lock down access to the levels of ‘view’, ‘edit and change’ and ‘create’. Office 365 does the same, but also allows you to store such data in SharePoint lists, granting easy mobile access via computers, tablets and smartphones.
3) Use the import tools on secondary software to load the data. So, contact data from CRM is exported and imported into Sales Ledger etc.
These processes can be automated if required or can be performed manually under the control of a workflow task system.
Users who have no access to either CRM or account packages can still use the data, in its read only intermediate form in the course of their working day.
Business application procurement then, should not be taken lightly. The business need is paramount and while a good software sales effort should be telling you what the software does well, it cannot tell you how it will perform in your individual business. That is for you to decide and it should depend on what you need to do with the data and how deployment will affect your day to day business.
Most business applications can be tailored and some vendors offer access to a network of approved developers who can get into the code behind the application and adjust it to suit individual business requirements. This, of course, carries a cost and many businesses choose instead to adjust physical work flows and business practices to suit the software standard capabilities.
A consideration here is how changes to impact the business in general; do staff resent the change? How often do we hear; ‘in the old days we used to…’?
Will staff adapt to the new methods and do the changes require staff re-training? That also represents a cost which the business must bear.
Most business application allow for bulk data import and export and many businesses use this facility to extract data to use in secondary applications. For example, customer data may be extracted from a CRM system on a regular basis and uploaded to sales ledger.
This external processing is often done with word processor and spreadsheet applications.
External processing has its own risks. As businesses grow, use of word processor and spreadsheet manipulated data often expands to an extent where it starts to fall into a category known in the corporate IT world as ‘shadow IT’. That is to say, it is data stored and processed outside of the control of whoever is in charge of the core application and sometimes outside of the control of those in overall charge of information in the enterprise.
Spreadsheets and documents are stored on multiple PCs, emailed from one individual to another and becoming duplicated, changes are made, but the changes aren’t updated on all of the documents, leaving outdated documents around the system.
Any processing or pre-processing of data should first be controlled and secondly shared. Again this can easily be accomplished by the use of Office 365 or G-Suite. All internal methods of manipulating data should be documented and the documentation needs to be kept up to date whenever revisions are made.
Changes to process methods should be restricted to particular individuals, who have access to the guide documentation. The processed data should be shared with all in the enterprise who have a need to use it on a read-only basis.
Clear information policy and strategy are fairly simple to create and allow you to make really informed decisions about software purchase. This, in turn, allows an organisation to develop an individual business model that really works.