Running a small business can be one of the most rewarding endeavours of your life. It can also be one of the most challenging. I recently spoke with a friend who started a pest control business a few years ago. He had established a profitable business in the area and felt good about the economy. But I was surprised to hear that one of these fears was growth. As much pride, as he took in the making his customers happy, he was concerned that the customer management tools that got him to where he’s at today, may not scale much longer.
He went on to tell me that he managed his customer list in a simple Excel spreadsheet. What he needed was a simple CRM, but he didn’t know where to begin. Everything he looked at felt was either too expensive or too complicated. So I went on a mission to find some of the best tools for small business in today’s cloud-driven world.
How Saas Has Revolutionized Business
From my discussions with other small business owners, the fear of outgrowing your current tools is a common one. Before SaaS came along, it wasn’t uncommon for a company to invest in a toolset that only got them so far before it had to be upgraded to a more complex version. Software that worked well when your revenue was under $5 million may not work as you double your revenue and bring on new employees. But with wise research and investment in a SaaS product, your toolset can grow right alongside your company.
This week I’d like to take a look at some essential office tools to run your business. I’m going to focus on the core tools every company should consider. Some are more helpful while getting off the ground while others may play a larger role as you grow your business.
The tools below should be easy to use, reasonably priced with the ability to scale as your business grows. Let’s get started!
Square (Credit Card Payment System)
Once a mainstay of the local hipster coffee shop, Square has branched out to include nearly every business niche imaginable. Every six weeks I go to my barber to get my haircut. When I hand him my credit card, he pulls out his iPhone and attaches the tiny Square reader and scans my card. I use my finger to jot down my autograph on his phone, and I’m out the door. My receipt shows up in my inbox on the drive home. It’s an incredibly clever device that makes old POS (point of sale) system feel out of place.
Square offers not only a simple reader but a full POS and retail product depending on your needs. Both options utilise iPads for the display and include some simple tools for SMBs. These tools include:
- Ability to accept credit cards, cash, checks and gift cards
- Digital and printed receipts
- Invoice creation and recurring payments
- Real-time inventory management
- Sales reporting and analytics
- Tipping options
As a consumer, the best thing about Square is its speed and transparency. It uses large and clear text to show me exactly what I’m purchasing along with any tax. It actually makes it fun to leave a tip. It’s also eco-friendly because many customers will select the digital receipt option. And since the Square payment system recognises my credit card regardless of location, I only need to enter my email address one time. Square has taken the credit card payment system, that isn’t exactly known for innovation, and made it a lot more user-friendly.
Quick Tip: You can take payments when you’re offline. Maybe your LTE signal is weak, or your WiFi crashed as a customer tried to pay you. Just set your device to “offline mode” and any sales made while offline will be processed automatically when you’re back online.
Most people are familiar with QuickBooks as it’s become the standard accounting software for many SMBs. If any of you are still using Microsoft Money or Microsoft Excel as your accounting software, you should take a look at QuickBooks. Yet a lot of people don’t know that QuickBooks also offers a separate invoicing product that works great whether you’re using QuickBooks or not.
I’ve used QuickBooks Invoicing for the last four years as an independent contractor for one-off projects. I like how easy it is to create an invoice as well as allowing me to see when my client has viewed and paid my invoice. QuickBooks Invoicing allows you to:
- Customize your invoice
- Send recurring invoices
- Setup custom reminders
- Follow up on unpaid invoices.
Quick Tip: Use the reminders option to get paid quickly. It’s appropriate to send a reminder a week before the payment is due, the day it’s due, and every week after it’s late. You can also customise each reminder. Be friendly but firm. And never feel bad about following up on a payment owed to you.
This is Google’s business application package that competes with Microsoft Office 365. The basic difference is that all G Suite applications run from the cloud making collaboration and backup a simple affair. I currently work for a company that moved from Office to G Suite about two years ago. And while I still feel more comfortable creating pivot tables in Excel, I’ve moved most of my work to G Suite without much issue. That I was already using Gmail helped, but Google provides tools to migrate from many popular email systems.
Google has aggressively improved each product in G Suite to the point where only your advanced users may pine for Office. And that’s OK because most of your employees will be happy with G Suite when they realise how smoothly it runs on all their devices. I love being able to collaborate on a document on my Windows PC and pick up where I left off on my phone while waiting to get my haircut. Google has done their homework. Here are some of the essential features you’ll find in G Suite:
- Gmail includes powerful junk filters and new AI responses
- Store and share files using Google Drive
- Easily open/export/share files between G Suite applications and Microsoft Office formats
- Easy IT admin and strong security.
- The best thing about G Suite? I don’t have to install any software. Man, I love that!
Quick Tip: Using templates can be a huge time saver. G Suite makes it easy to access templates frequently used by your team by organising them in a gallery found at Apps>G Suite>Drives and Docs>Templates. No need to recreate the wheel each time when one of your coworkers has probably used the same file you need.
Most CRM products require a lot of training, and a lot of patience and a fat wallet. Highrise removes all the clutter and unnecessary features that tend to clog many of the popular CRMs in use today. Highrise does two things better than any software I’ve used:
- Tracks lead
- Manages follow-ups
If the most important features you need from a CRM is to make sure sales leads don’t fall through the cracks, then Highrise should be on your shortlist.
And unlike every other CRM, you won’t need a manual to use it. Highrise tracks interactions with your customers and then allows you to set reminders on when to contact them again. This is the ideal product for business owners worried about potential leads falling through the cracks. And because it runs from the cloud, your team can access and collaborate from anywhere. What I love about the Highrise solution is that it knows exactly what it is and what it isn’t. It doesn’t try to take over your business. Instead, it focuses on an area that’s critical to every SMB: closing sales with potential customers.
Quick Tip: Re-engage with your customers using the follow-up features in Highrise. Especially if someone has saved a quote with your company or spoken to a sales associate. You can also set follow-ups that are date dependent. For example, Highrise makes it very easily to send an email to all customers you’ve not heard from in 3 or 6-months. The Highrise gang has tons more helpful tips at this link.
These are a few of my favourite products for SMBs. I recommend a lot of SaaS products for SMB entrepreneurs because I know how easily they scale while still providing a good economic value whether you have 50 or 500 employees. I’m realistic too. I know most companies still rely on local computing resources be it an Exchange, Windows or file server. Microsoft creates some products that compete in the same space as those products I mentioned. It’s worth checking them out as well.
Buffer (Social Media Management)
We’ve seen a proliferation of social media management tools over the past couple of years. These are heady times as businesses are looking for ROI in their social media efforts. The days of tossing out a few Facebook posts or tweets and calling that social media engagement are over. The best social media management tools make it easy to post across multiple platforms, track engagement and analyse what type of content connects best with your audience.
My recommendation for the best tool out there today is Buffer. Like other tools on this list, it nails the core tasks of what a social media management tool should do. Buffer allows you to schedule posts on the most popular platforms: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram. It also includes link shortening and tracking as well as a robust social analytics module. While some competing products are difficult to use, Buffer lets you get started immediately. It’s perfect for small businesses who want to begin engaging with their fans.
Quick Tip: Adding images to your posts is one way to drive more traffic and engagement. But each social media platform prefers a specific size or format which means a lot more work for you. Buffer solves this issue with a feature called Pablo. Add your pictures, a header and whatever text you want and Buffer does the rest.
Zendesk (Customer Support Software)
I’ve searched and tried some Zendesk competitors, but always return to Zendesk. The reason? Zendesk combines two primary functions that seem at odds with each other: It’s both intuitive and customizable. That means that it won’t take months to setup nor weeks to train your agents on the software. Yet it fits any size or type of business like a glove.
Older customer support software was built on the assumption that most interactions took place over the phone. Email integration was eventually added, but that was about it regarding channels. Zendesk integrates email, social, chat, phone, text and messaging channels into its platform, so you’re able to reach customers wherever they are. Zendesk also allows you to tap into business rules and best practices they’ve learned from other teams that will help you keep your customers happy. You can customise these rules for your staff as well.
If you haven’t already built a Knowledge Base or FAQ, Zendesk will help you create them based on frequently asked questions and support tickets. This helps keep customers happy when your support team isn’t available. My favourite feature of Zendesk is the robust analytics module. Satisfaction Prediction is one unique feature of analytics. It can predict bad customer satisfaction and aid you in tailoring a support solution for the customer. There are less expensive options, but you won’t find a better solution than Zendesk.
Business Backup Software
And of course, make sure you’ve taken regular onsite backups to protect all your business data. Years of work will be lost if you can’t restore your applications when disaster strikes. Fires, flood, hurricanes, are all a real possibility – even if they are not always top of mind. However, human error is very often a cause of data loss, and so is data corruption or software or hardware crashes.