Software strategies can solve inefficiencies in your SME

Planning ahead when it comes to your software requirements can save you money and allows you a greater insight into your business goals and objectives, said SME Awards judge Computer Conquest (CCQ).

Family-run software development company CCQ said most software projects fail because of a breakdown in communication between client and vendor but has claimed SMEs can mitigate this risk by actively choosing a software vendor that really listens to their ideas and needs.

Business development manager at CCQ, Ben Lange, spoke to SME ahead of the inaugural SME Awards ceremony about how businesses can get more value from software.

What are the biggest software challenges facing small businesses?

The biggest challenge is finding the right tool for the job and that is all software really is. Software facilitates work, automates manual processes to increase productivity, finds new clients and reaches new audiences. It doesn’t look to replace people; it helps them do their job. So when it comes to the biggest problem facing SMEs, it is about finding the right software that suits the business.

Software has got to fit around the people using it and the business itself. The problem often comes down to do whether you need something off the shelf or something more customised and tailored to the way you work, and there is no right answer.

Are good software decisions dependent on forward thinking entrepreneurs?

Across the board it is always better to plan and, in my experience, unless these businesses come from a technical background, technology and software is often an ad hoc process that can lead to difficulties. My advice would be to plan ahead, understand what it is you are trying to achieve, and find the best tool to help you do that.

What are the consequences to a short termism approach to software?

One of biggest consequences is manual processes, such as data entry – taking data out and then retyping it in elsewhere – and quite often this is a chain of people involved in this, which invariably breaks down. This can be laborious, insecure and prone to human error. For small businesses you really want your people to be working at maximum capacity, their time should be spent finding new clients or providing a quality service to existing clients rather than wasting time with manual processes that could have been automated if there was just a little more planning involved.

How can SMEs measure the inefficiencies that are taking place within their organisations?

Sometimes inefficiencies are hard to measure and sometimes they aren’t. A couple of key questions can tease out how much time you are losing. You can find out quite quickly how many hours are being wasted by manual processes and the maths isn’t that difficult. If you choose to put some effort into it, you can be very accurate and see how much time you are losing.

Off the shelf vs bespoke software solutions: Which is better for SMEs?

It varies from business to business, the reality is there are a lot of fantastic free tools out there for SMEs. We may develop custom solutions and use them ourselves, but one of our first thoughts when we need a tool is what is out there, what is doing well and what can we get for free? Small businesses often don’t have many staff and off the shelf packaged software is often free for up to five users as a standard, so why not use that to trial it out? Spend some time to see how the tool works for you. Even better, really try and understand what you are trying to do before you pick a tool. Once you have exhausted the free versions, you might consider upgrading to the paid for packages because the free version is no longer good enough.

Licence fees start to add up quickly over time and off the shelf can be difficult to customise for the way you work. Off the shelf can be difficult to use for new users as there is lots of functionality and it confuses them – too much can be a detriment to the usability of the system. Custom software wraps around the software you are already using, it is tailored to the way you work and the services you provide so you can really maximise your offerings to clients and indeed reach new audiences.

How can you develop custom software on a budget?

You can do it. In the short term, custom software might appear the more expensive option. However, off the shelf monthly fees quickly add up especially as you take on more staff. In a short time you will find that custom software pays for itself in productivity and new revenue channels. There is no denying off the shelf packages at say £40/£50 a month per user in the short-term is cheaper. If you are going down the custom software route, there is going to be a cost up front. The best way to keep that down is to do a proof of concept. You are developing a new tool for a company and you need to prove that the concept works and that the software will save staff time and will find you new opportunities. By doing a proof of concept, you usually build between 50 and 60 per cent of the product and functionality at a fraction of the cost. When you spend less and see it working in action, you can be confident in a decision to commission the remainder of the solution. When working on the proof of concept, you will also be able find out what is important, as a lot of it in the beginning is an educated guess. At the end of the process, you not only get a product that is just for you but you find out how you work in a much more detailed way.

Why should software jump up the priority list for entrepreneurs?

Because your customers feel it. Customers themselves often interact with software, be it web apps or mobile. Even if they are not, they know what quality of service is and if the software is hindering staff then the customer will feel the effect. We recognise good brands by how we are treated. Software and technology permeates every aspect of a sale. Should it be a priority for entrepreneurs – yes, and any other business owner for that matter.

What are your tips for SMEs when it comes to communicating with software developers?

Software developers are logical and mathematical by nature and sometimes there can be a barrier between the client’s requirements and how that translates to the people developing the software. Many software projects fail because of a breakdown in communication between the client and the vendor. How can SMEs mitigate this risk? It is entirely up to them to choose a vendor that they feel understands their requirements, and doesn’t just say yes to everything they say. An ideal software vendor will clearly demonstrate they are listening to the vendor and more importantly help the client achieve their goals and ideas.