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How to choose the right software for your business – and squeeze the pips out of it

Tom Gibson

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to more than 80 small and medium-sized business owners about software. Choosing it, buying it, using it, getting their money’s worth from it. They told me about the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the mistakes and the wins. There have been tears. 

I’ve written a guide to choosing software

You’ll soon be able to find the results of my research in our new website (beta version here). It will include warts-and-all case studies as well as tools and templates to save you time and money if you’re considering buying software.

But before you see that, there are a couple of things I want to share with you.

I am NO technology whiz kid

My degree was in history. My first job was five years with management consultancy McKinsey, looking at how big tech could help big clients do big things. Then I spent five years in senior strategy roles, developing new better ways of doing difficult or complicated things, sometimes with technology.

This experience means that I am now:

  1. A huge fan of technology – and its power to help businesses grow and become more efficient
  2. A massive skeptic – about the way the tech industry sometimes ignores the needs of small businesses or treats them as a bit of an afterthought
  3. Deeply aware of the challenges involved in buying the right technology – I’ve seen quite a few go wrong

Cost, complexity and jargon from software vendors

A lot of switched-on, successful SME owners tell me they feel the same – put off by the cost, complexity and jargon involved in buying software. They know that things like CRM systems and accounting software can save them time, money and free them up from piles of paperwork. But they find it hard to navigate the marketplace, get past the sales blurb and work out what they really need. Not to mention making the most of it once it’s installed.

No wonder people get their fingers burned by software

A lot of business owners we spoke to ended up either:

  1. Splashing the cash out on a top-of-Google-results product that’s not quite right for their business
  2. Spending the budget on pre-purchase consultancy fees but not choosing the right consultant
  3. Getting the right software but failing to implement it or communicate it to employees properly
  4. Not buying anything at all and struggling on with an ever-expanding set of spreadsheets

Small businesses stand to gain a lot from the right software

The irony drives me a bit mad – small businesses often get the great productivity gains from the right software, but they are the least well served by the industry that’s selling it. So when I got the chance to join Be the Business, to try to fill that gap, to make technology more accessible for SMEs, I jumped at the chance.

So there it is. I’m no digital whiz kid. But neither are you. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Five reasons you are up to the tech task

Because another thing I learned from listening to so many small business owners talking about tech is this. The skills, knowledge and experience that make you great at running a business are the same skills, knowledge and experience that will help you get the best from a new software or a new system. You might think you don’t know your back end from your front end, but here are the things that show you’re more than up to the tech task:

  1. You’re good at setting a clear vision. You do this every day in your business, your brand, your employees and maybe your bank. You have a plan and you know what you want to achieve. Similarly the first step of any software-buying journey is to decide what you want it to do: which problem do you want it to solve or which goal do you want it to achieve?
  2. You’re good at communicating with your team. You know what day-to-day pains your employees are going through with admin-heavy processes or time-consuming tasks. You know where your weaknesses and bottlenecks are. This is your list of requirements and when you’re shopping for new software, you know exactly who the users will be and what they’ll find most useful
  3. You’re good at weighing up pros and cons. You make decisions every day, sometimes based on hard facts, sometimes based on informed estimates. The same combination of inputs will serve you well when you’re looking at the business case for new software. How much will it cost and what can I expect to gain? Nothing new here
  4. You’re good at knowing who to trust. And if you’re buying software, you might currently not trust anyone. You’re right to be cynical of the vendor marketing blurb that promises you everything and the slick sales reps who do the same. Successful software shopping starts with successful research so that in the end you can trust yourself and challenge the salespeople.
  5. You’re good at being realistic. You don’t love uncertainty, but you’re at home with it and you’re used to wrangling with it. You know that no software is going to solve 100 per cent of your problems. You’re able to bank any benefits, cope with a few trade-offs and learn from any mistakes. After all, improvements don’t need to be earth shattering, just a small five per cent bump in productivity would have huge benefit for your business

So thank you to all the business owners I’ve talked to about software recently. You’ll see we’ve put it to good use in our new website – keep your eyes peeled for relaunch in February.

Visit the new technology for SMEs website (beta version)

Why is productivity so important?

About Tom

Tom is head of new programmes at Be the Business and develops new tools, products and services for small and medium-sized businesses who want to improve productivity. He’s been focusing on technology, specifically software, as one of the most important levers of productivity for small and mid-sized businesses.

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