Are you missing out on an information windfall?

If there’s one thing every small business knows, it is that these days, very little in the world of commerce comes for free. Which makes it all the more surprising that there is a pot of valuable free stuff in many small businesses, which is going unused and forgotten. It’s your data.

Even the humblest of one-man bands has useful data locked away. Think about:

  • Your client records

  • Lists of purchases and expenditure

  • Supplier lists

  • Invoices and receipts

  • …Even your little black book of business cards

All of this is useful material – and yet most small companies do nothing with it.

Chris Apperley of Hampshire-based Microsoft Small Business Specialists, Westlake IT, says “Oddly enough, the two big problems with putting information to work for a business are exact opposites: either we have problems with data that you don’t want other people to see, ie security and storage, or we have problems with data that we’re desperate for other people to see, ie sharing and collaboration.

“Typically, we find that customers come to us in a crisis. They have data stored in lots of places – on memory sticks, individual hard drives and so on – and they don’t appreciate the commercial value of the data until it’s gone – usually because of a lost laptop.”

The answer is not only simple, but nowadays cost-effective too. A server allows for centralised and secure storage, including:

  • Effective anti-virus and security to keep everyone’s data safe

  • Central file management (so there’s no need to ‘fire up Linda in Accounts’ laptop while she’s on holiday’ (to find a single file – and assuming she’s left her password available to all!)

  • Policy-driven security: so that only employees authorised to see files can see them- and setting up those authorities is a doddle

  • And easy synchronisation with other storage systems – particularly the limitless opportunities of the cloud.

That’s the security part of the story, but what about sharing? Keeping prying eyes out should not stifle employees and the broader circle of your business from doing their jobs.

“That means using a range of new and highly affordable technologies”, says Apperley. “The tape drive - once the staple of mass storage - is definitely dead. With a server, you have access to ample shared but secure storage with networked hard drives. Then there are the many opportunities for collaboration with business contacts, clients, partners and suppliers through the cloud; using services like Office 365.

“This is particularly important for smaller companies who, instead of working with internal departments, have ad hoc partnerships with outside organisations. If you’re a designer and you work with an illustrator, or a builder working with contractors, it’s almost more essential as a small business to be able to share beyond your four walls than it is when you’re a bigger company.”

All that data however, is useless unless you can enter it easily and then use it effectively to extract useful business information. For managing customer interactions, there are now two exceptional options available which work easily within small business budgets.

Business Contact Manager (BCM), an add-on to Office and free with Office 2010 Standard and Professional Plus editions, adds customer management functions to your Outlook email. This includes, for example:

  • Being prompted automatically to give clients follow-up calls.

  • Forecasting the value of customers so that you can plan your finances and devote your time to high-value clients over time-wasters.

  • Sending marketing emails to carefully selected target recipients in seconds.

BCM is ideal for smaller businesses with simple sales and marketing processes, and particularly useful if you’re a dab hand at Outlook but don’t really want to learn a whole new program. Apperley says “Many small companies don’t want to spend their time learning new software, and certainly don’t have the time to re-type customer information into new systems.” For these circumstances, BCM is perfect.

For more advanced and integrated sales and marketing campaigns, all the analytical features you could want, and delivery via the cloud which means no new investment in technology, there’s also Microsoft Dynamics CRM – used by corporate giants to plan their marketing campaigns and now available to small businesses for just £22.75 per user per month (promo price until 31 December 2011).

For extracting and analysing data, however, the ultimate solution may well already be on your desktop: it’s Excel. Millions of small companies around the world rely on Excel already for financial management, invoicing, forecasting, stock control and drawing up quotes and project plans.

Excel 2010, the latest edition, however, includes a range of features to do more with your information than ever before. Apperley says “Windows Small Business Server and SQL Server are designed to integrate perfectly with Excel; meaning that everyone in your company can dig down to raw information and extract just the useful stuff that they need to get the job done- all without expensive programmers.” Your accountant (or you, with your financial hat on) can extract pricing or forecasting data, while your salesman (or, ditto, you with a sales hat) can pick up client data. With a Windows Live ID – and if you’ve got Hotmail, Instant Messenger, or Office 365, then you already have a Windows Live ID – you can even work in realtime on spreadsheets with other parties through a simple web browser thanks to the Excel Web App.

And that information doesn’t need to be dry or impenetrable numbers, either. Excel 2010’s party piece is to present data in more useful and easily understood ways than ever:

  • Sparklines are tiny charts which fit into single cells next to the data they refer to- allowing you to spot trends in an instant.

  • Slicers add interactive controls to datasets, making it easy to construct intuitive filters. If you’ve ever wanted to find out who has bought your widgets in the South West, or how many people owe you more than £500, a Slicer is the new way to do it.

  • And there are more visually appealing, presentation-ready chart types than ever (along with some nifty 3D visualisations, too).

The crucial rules of making the most of the data you already own are simple:

  • Store as much of it as you can; by making data entry simple

  • Keep it safe, secure and centralised, either on a server or in the cloud

  • Open access to your information to everyone who can use it to make a difference to your operations

  • Give them just what they need to work effectively: avoid information overload

  • And maximise its utility by extracting workable information and using it to inform as broad a range of business decisions as possible.

With a server, Excel 2010 and Microsoft’s CRM tools, you can achieve all of these, turning raw information into opportunity and profit.

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