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Software programs can go a long way toward improving efficiency for your company — but only if you invest in the right system. To make sure you find a good fit for your business, consider the following.

1. Determine your needs. Before you talk to vendors, think about each step of your current practices and how you envision using the software to accomplish them. Make a list of must-have features as well as questions for the vendor. “When we first put in our point-of-sale system, we had to think about how we wanted to number our items,” says Kelly Reed, operations manager at the Contemporary Watercrafters in Gaithersburg, Md. “Or, if we bought the same item from several different vendors, would the software be able to handle different pricing and different case quantities from different vendors?”

2. Talk to the vendor. Call or meet with an actual vendor representative to discuss your company’s needs. “Is the software going

to require that you change the way you do business in order to accommodate the software?” Reed says. “Or will you be able to modify the software to work with the way you already do business?”

3. Ask around. Find out which software systems similar businesses are using and what they like about them. Ask about what they don’t like, too. “You have to figure out if it’s something you can live with or not, or what the workaround is,” Reed says. Once you’re up and running, get in touch with other customers who use the same system to exchange ideas about how to maximize your software.

4. Get a geek. While most software vendors provide extensive support for their products, you also may need help handling hardware or network connectivity issues in-house. Hiring an outside IT contractor when these issues arise can be a valuable investment. “If you’ve got to put a new hard disk or graphics card in, you’re going to need somebody who can do it for you,” Reed says. “It is important to have somebody nearby.”

5. Be patient. Sometimes it can take a few months or even a year to fully take advantage of the system. “That first year, we called our system the $30,000 paperweight,” Reed says. “Well, the next year we could see everything that we sold during the first six months of that prior year and what we had on hand. So we only needed to order the difference. That was fabulous. Earlier, that process used to be an all-day thing.”