When it comes to choosing system, data and marketing tools for your business, start with “the framework approach” but don’t be surprised if you decide a custom system is a better fit for you!  We’re talking CRM (Customer Relationship Management), MA (Marketing Automation), CMS (Content Management System), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), or BIT (Business Intelligence Tools).

Some of the best web development practices you may read about might be a great fit for your company or they might not.  It’s always a good idea to take “the framework approach” towards your business first.  After all, your company isn’t that unique, right?  So, if your company has needs for tools that can help it function more effectively and automate your processes, it’s pretty likely there are solutions out there you can then adapt and tailor to your company.

But not so fast.  Looking at the price tag of some of these systems that cost well over $100k to license and even more in costs of time and labor to implement, you have to weigh this and compare what you get in return.  How are you going to migrate your legacy data to this new system?  Who is going to maintain all of its moving parts once your high-priced consultant leaves?

You may have the best web developers but that’s not guaranteeing your company will transition smoothly to a new system and platform.  Your web developers are only human, I mean, even the most senior web developers are senior in only certain areas, but they’re always still junior in others.  I’m senior level in PHP, MySQL, WordPress, Symfony and Javascript/JQuery, but I’m not so senior in Magento and Drupal.  Besides my own personal projects and exercises to keep learning and stay fresh, I have been out of the heavy ecommerce side for almost 4 years now.

You may find out that your perfectly capable web development team likely never had experience integrating Salesforce, Marketo or other heavy data-driven platforms into a business, so that will be another challenge, especially if you’re a small company that can’t afford to stretch its resources to have part of your web development team working exclusively on this type of project when you still need execution for the daily grind development activities that will continue to keep your lights on!

Legacy Attitudes

We haven’t even addressed the most important question:  How are you going to migrate your people to this new system?  Your company may have some of the best web developers on staff but they might not be the most talented and skilled with your people.  So, how are you going to deal with this change?  You may find it’s too much change for people, you may also discover opportunities to automate processes that were performed manually before that would enable you to let’s say deprecate certain positions?

If you are optimizing your business and you are making your workforce more efficient, that is quite a business achievement.  Imagine if you could shift two full-time salaried positions out of, say accounting and invest more in good web talent or other people with newer skills and experience more tailored towards the technology-driven horizon you are taking your company.

Custom Systems

A lot of the heavy lifting of some of these enterprise tools aren’t that sophisticated, complex, or magical.  Having built out a few custom ERPs for retailers and factories, I can say that compared to the packages they were considering with price tags over $500,000, that’s a lot of technology talent they could buy for a few years with super custom, tailor made, yet still scalable solutions built right in with technical support.

The first reason they decide to go customized is the price tag, the uncertainty of success, and the potential future costs of ridiculously expensive upgrades and support contracts to off-shore call centers later.  The reason many smaller companies go the custom route is they trust their web team more than these slick “enterprise solutions” salespeople coming in with their big price tags not understanding the company’s intricacies, culture and existing systems that work fine.  They want to come in and burn the house down and start completely from their foundation of understanding, what a waste.  They want to redo everything their way and it’s difficult to pick and choose with cafeteria-style options to only buy what a small business needs because there’s a disconnect between the small business’s understanding of what these tools are capable of and these business tool sales and support people not understanding what the business actually needs.  You may get to this point in weighing your options and finally just say the hell with it.

So discussions go away, management just deals with the confines of an inadequate, dysfunctional system, and HR pays three extra people to enter information from one print-out into a screen so the same data goes into another.  All in the name of “keeping the peace” and not upsetting the apple cart.

Well, in my experience of helping companies, large and small – national retail chains and small manufacturers, I’ve seen the sense of helplessness in looking for “the right tools”.  Usually, the solution is pretty close at hand.  Often, the POS and other data systems are already collecting data into an accessible database.  If your company collects data and you can see reports somewhere, you may be 90% at a solution to help you automate perhaps up to 80% of your systems and processes that are achievable without buying expensive ERP and other “enterprise” solutions.  All you need is a knowledgeable and creative-minded web developer or programmer to outline your biggest priorities and system gaps and identify solutions that could be built all with NO EXTRA COSTS except what you pay the developer AND YOU WILL OWN THE CODE AND THE SOLUTION for eternity.

Yes, that all sounds good, but how do you solve your business systems dilemma?  Trusted people with this experience can guide you through the process.  We can create a plan to help you prioritize your company’s own tailored ERP based on open source that runs right on your company’s secure intranet as a one-stop shop for all your company data and reporting, organized by department and restricted access by user roles and privileges.

All code, programming, logic and database design and setup are scalable and future-proof.  You may choose to go with a custom solution but you can still make sure your web team adapts a common development foundation, at least choose an MVC pattern and structure or go an actual PHP framework like the Symfony framework along with other options that will enable your current web development team to quickly integrate, familiarize and be productive contributors to your future proof, scalable custom ERP solution.

If you are a business looking for guidance for choosing the proper direction for a CRM, MA (Marketing Automation), ERP, CMS or you’re just swimming in this stew of acronyms and are getting confused, contact me to arrange a Business Tools Assessment by clicking here.  We know what questions to ask you to help present to you the pros, cons, strengths and weaknesses of going in the myriad of directions.  We’re your SME (Subject Matter Expert) for all things business management tools — I couldn’t resist to throw in one more acronym in there.

If you’re looking to go alone on a shoestring budget and even free solutions, I suggest looking into Odoo, the community edition is packed full of many features and Mautic, a robust open-source marketing automation tool.

As a leader in your organization, don’t you have a fiscal responsibility to save your stakeholders money?  One easy way to save money is to reduce the monthly Microsoft fees you are paying, it’s quick and easy to to transition away from the shackles of Microsoft Office.  If you tired of paying Microsoft license fees for office products and emails, I urge you to look into open source solutions!

Disclaimer: I own Microsoft stock, I love Microsoft, but I’m just not a big fan of their Office products, so when I hear a business owner complain about Microsoft and the licenses they “have to pay” for, including their email with Outlook/Exchange and other Office products, I don’t have much sympathy for them.

Microsoft is not the only choice for these type of office solutions. Granted, their products work well, but there are reliable and many free software alternatives out there.  The best alternative to pricey Microsoft Office licenses is Open Office.  This is an open source software project [http://www.openoffice.org/why/index.html] for Windows PC users, Mac users, and Linux that offers feature-rich capabilities similar to Microsoft Word (Open Office Write), Microsoft Excel (Open Office Calc), and PowerPoint (Open Office Draw).

The database and forms for simple data storage and manipulation is set up easily in Open Office Base, which offers many of the same features in Microsoft Access.  The other bonus is that you can usually open up MS Office files and edit them as standard .doc. .docx or .xls and .xlsx file formats, so you don’t miss a beat as you transition your team of 3…. Or 53 for that matter.

To replace your entire Microsoft Office suite and save potentially thousands of dollars of license fees, I suggest for those business owners who wince every time they pay their monthly Microsoft bill to look at these alternatives and give them a try:

Except for replacing Outlook, 90% of all offices I know could easily transition to Open Office and completely eliminate those pesky license fees of $4 per email address and $89 per year per user for Office, etc.  Not being able to replace Outlook is no reason to remain harnessed to Microsoft Office because there are feature rich, free alternatives to that as well!

For the free replacement of Microsoft Outlook, I recommend Mozilla Thunderbird. It also has calendar integration and other excellent features.
As an honorable mention, for desktop layout programs like Adobe InDesign, I recommend looking into Scribus! Even though their homepage is a little clunky and they have super large images loading as thumbnails, don’t be fooled! They may not know what they’re doing with their homepage content, but they make a great desktop publishing program!

In order to grow your business, you need to produce positive results and keep moving forward

All companies contract out some services.  I mean, unless they are their own internet service provider, they contract out their connection to the web, right?  They usually have a contract for their phone service, call a contractor for some specialized I.T. technical issues.  Many firms contract out some web development, search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimization (SEO) even when they have an in-house department.  They hire freelance content writers resort to hiring some creative on Elance or Odesk, they may hire a local video production company to produce a few TV commercials and videos.

So, why do so many managers who trust these contractors to fulfill their obligations not treat their employees with the same deference?  What mental stumbling block do companies have when a salaried employee has to sit in a chair and work 9 to 5 (or 8 to 6) to accomplish the same work contractors do all the time outside of the office?

Your office may be full of busy people, but what are they really doing?

If you look around your office, chances are a good third of your co-workers are working and doing tasks that could be done remotely at any given time of the day.  They’re simply doing tasks that have to be completed, either to fulfill a client obligation or to complete a task that the plan requires completion of before they start another dependent task.  They’re moving the train forward, or doing their part to make sure the trains reach their destinations on time.

Here are a few facts:

  1. For local-based businesses, salespeople need encouragement and incentives to stay out of the office and be as valuable as they can selling your products and services.  All too often, salespeople who linger in the office aren’t nearly as effective as those who visit clients out in the field. Makes sense, since this is an integral part of relationship building.
  2. Many technical workers could be more productive when they’re not being constantly disturbed at the office, often about things completely unrelated to their job.  This means a company could benefit giving them the flexibility to work remotely.
  3. Flex time, the freedom of employees to work when it’s more convenient for them, could result in higher productivity and higher morale.

By “work remotely”, I mean employees are doing the work you pay them to do though they’re not physically on location.  This is sometimes referred to as “telecommuting” but that sounds old fashioned so I’ll call it “remote work” because it sounds more sophisticated.

Why are you still running your business like the days before the video recorder?

It’s actually a very similar argument that makes Video On Demand (VOD) technology so popular today.  People can watch their programs when it’s convenient for them.

Remember those days before video recorders or being able to stream videos online?!  If you wanted to stay caught up on your favorite program, you actually had to schedule your life around when programs aired.  Not very convenient, was it? Technology has allowed us to become untethered from a rigid schedule, in this case, when our programs were being shown.

You have the power to use free technology to untether many of your employees from a rigid schedule, don’t you?

Yet, even though these same dynamics apply to much of what we would consider traditional work today, business owners and managers still grapple with even flirting with the idea of allowing some of their dependable employees to work remotely, even occasionally, or even just work a flexible schedule.

They’re living in the days before Internet video streaming, heck, they’re living before the days of the VCR!

By flexible schedule, I mean flexible — they can put in 12 hours Monday and come in at 6 am in the morning, work late nights or weekends.  Of course, this isn’t always feasible for all employees to have this kind of latitude.  Your registers need cashiers when the store is open, but does your bookkeeper, entire HR and IT department really need to be in the back office because your registers are open up front?  Usually not.

Then there is the legitimate concern about the inexperienced employees and the ones you just can’t trust (why are they still working for you, by the way?!)  For the ones you trust, those valued, responsible, reliable, dependable, loyal adults who work for you, for those you do trust, whose loyalty is beyond reproach, why not introduce flex time and at least partial remote work?  You might be surprised at the increase in productivity when people at their best are working on their schedule, not yours.

Making remote work part of your Flex Time Program

So when you’re not forcing your employees to schedule their lives around your company like those pre-VCR days, crazy good things can happen for you.

Let’s assume you allow some remote working as part of your new innovative “Flex Time Program”.  Employees you can trust will be more productive, you will improve workplace morale, and even help lower your office overhead.  Less casual chit-chat and water cooler talk, too. It comes down to expectations, particularly expectations of work results.  There are also the expectations of maturity, loyalty, and trust.

If you stress to your employees the importance of putting their time in and suspect they aren’t while they are at the office, you may come up with a hundred excuses to never allow your employees to work remotely.  In many cases, these type of managers are more focused on controlling people and policing procedures — the how instead of giving their trusted employees some space and focusing on what matters to your company’s bottom line — results, the what.

In the end, if during the same period of time an employee produces the same results, does it really matter where they were sitting when they were working?  “But what about those who have to stay in the office?”  Well, we’re all adults, so that’s a perk for having the skills for that job instead of the position requiring people to physically be present.  Not everyone working on a movie sits behind the camera and gets their name on the opening credits.  Savvy?!

Yes, you may be depriving yourself from a form of entertainment you get controlling other grown adults and you will have less opportunities to remind them of your superiority over them, but instead of expending time and energy worrying if your employees are putting in their 40 – 65 hours each week, focus on setting realistic and ambitious goals and focus on the results.  Remove barriers for them to do their job, don’t become a barrier yourself.  If a manager comes to you and says they trust and need their employees to work a few days remotely, why not give it a try?

Small companies can’t spare to lose a day of productivity from anyone if they are running on full cylinders.  This means if an employee is sick, you should give them the option of working remotely.  Isn’t it better to get the same productivity out of them while making sure they won’t get other people sick instead of losing a day of productivity?  What futility.  You’re not thinking like man invented the VCR yet, be bold and get with the times.  Results, focus on the results and making progress!

There’s always an excuse to not allow working remotely or flex time

Many managers’ fall back excuse to not allow remote work or flex time is they don’t want to open up the flood gates and create other problems, like animosity between those who can work remotely and those who can’t — even though no one ever questions, or should question, the absence of the owners, salespeople on sales trips, IT administrators, or contractors who work nights.  The fact is, it’s no one else’s business except the business owner’s, so these excuses are disingenuous.  If the business owner says it’s good for the company, no more questions.

Not only that, but working remote for some employees is seen as a perk, as part of the benefits that are included in their agreed-to salary.  You may find some employees are willing to work for a little less pay if they are granted a few days each week to work remotely — saving them commuting time, gas, and giving them more flexible time during those days.

The point is, you can either trust an employee or your can’t.  If you feel you can’t trust them to be an adult and be trusted with working remotely, even though you trust them with your money, security codes, company reputation, customer service, customer data, your finances, and your property, perhaps your inability to trust your employees arbitrarily is a lack of understanding that seeing an employee in the office is different than seeing the results they actually produce.  Some employees at the office will shirk their responsibilities, take longer at the computer doing tasks directly out in the open right under your nose.  Measuring your employees by the results they produce instead of by how they are producing the results will help many managers identify which employees they could trust to work remotely.

If employees are rewarded for producing results, you may find production accelerates because you are measuring them by what they accomplish, not how they accomplished it.

Rigid schedules will always hold companies in the creative business back

Have you ever asked your brain to come up with a good idea, concept, design or the best wording for a script on demand?  Silly to expect the best on demand right?  Inspiration has to come to you, creatives need time to think.

Let it sink in, think about it, get inspired.  The best breakthroughs come at the most inopportune times, it seems.  In the bathroom, in the shower, 2 am and the dog has to go out.

Many trustworthy employees, who would be better off being away from distractions, are actually being hindered by rigid schedules.  Creativity and new ideas don’t come on any schedule.

Many programmers, web developers, tech workers, and creative positions would experience an improvement in quality because flex time and working remotely allows them to produce their best work at the best time for them.  I’ve found that after writing code for most of the day it’s best to do something creative and not touch the project again until the next day and sure enough I’ll come in and solve the problem I was working on for hours solved in minutes.

Try writing a concept for a new ad campaign, writing a new TV commercial script, or writing code for a new system or tool while constantly being bombarded with distractions from everyone at the office.

Remove your creative people who are producing content for you from distractions and untether them from your rigid schedule and antiquated pre-VCR policies and you will enjoy higher quality and faster turnaround.  The better assets they produce for your company means happier customers, higher profits along with higher employee morale.

The argument for synergy and the fog of office dynamics and politics

Yes, synergy and being physically in the same space to have discussions is very important.  Schedule those face-to-face meetings, align your employees’ schedules so they will be able to work together, but by limiting access to each other you may find the face-to-face meetings are more productive.  If people know they will be with each other all the time, they may take the time they spend together for granted.  As is quite often, the fog of office dynamics, drama and politics start consuming more of your producers’ time.  They are now subjected to being involved in meetings and discussions they would have been able to avoid if they weren’t present, instead of working remotely focusing on their own tasks.  There is no such thing as multi-tasking!

The fog of the office consumes probably 30% of all employee time diverting them from their most profitable activities and delaying the production of results that fulfill their actual profitable purpose.  Such futility eats into your ROI.

Perhaps it’s time to get one of those newfangled VCR machines?!