My 10-person company sells customer relationship (CRM), service and financial management applications mostly to small- and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. We have about 600 active clients. We have had many fantastic, successful, awesome technology implementations. And we have had our share of horrible, gut-wrenching, profanity-filled failures. That’s because technology is just a tool. The smartest clients I know employ certain best practices to make sure they are getting the biggest bang for the buck from their technology investments.
So what are their secrets? Here are just five technology best practices you need to employ so that you can improve your company’s profitability.
1. Make someone the owner.
Every good team needs a quarterback. And every successful technology implementation we’ve had always had a central person who took responsibility for the project. Whether you’re implementing a CRM system, new security software or a collaboration product, you need to put someone in charge. That person, in my experience, should rarely be your tech person. The best “owners” are power users who are willing to learn, not be afraid to make mistakes and work every day with the people that are relying on the technology. They enjoy challenges. And they have the confidence to deal with people’s problems. The owners are responsible for knowing the software inside and out and be expert in its best use. They are there to answer users’ questions, resolve issues and troubleshoot problems. If there is something incorrect, out of date or missing from your system it’s not the owner’s fault, but it is their responsibility to fix and deploy internal controls to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
2. Give your owner support.
Your owners will only be as good as the support you give them. This is an investment you need to make and it should be budgeted from the beginning. You need to make sure time is allotted to properly undertake their responsibilities. Send your owners to software training. Hire an outside consultant to help them when things get too complicated. Let them purchase learning materials.
Give them access to user communities and forums. Let them go to user meetings, conferences and related events. Free up their workload so that they can devote the time they need to do their jobs. Consider having more than one owner of the system so that if one isn’t available the other can fill in and both can provide support for each other. And most importantly, stand behind your owners. Give them the authority to yell, scream, kick and twirl so that users know that you mean business and their word is the law.
3. Invest in user training.
Our typical client uses about 20-25 percent of the software they own. And you do too — just think about all the features of Microsoft Office or Google Apps that you’re not using which could, if you learned how, make an impact on your profitability. Studies show that more than half of security issues at small businesses arise because of a lack of user training. Our most successful clients don’t view user training as a one-time deal. They provide training regularly, both online and onsite. They pay consultants to come in and review their technology regularly to offer recommendations and better ways to do things. They are not afraid to send their employees off to conferences and out-of- town events where they can not only learn more about the technology but also meet others using the technology and get some best practices from them as well. They budget for someone to come in onsite and work directly with those users who need the most help. And they take into consideration that some users are slower learners but that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable to the company’s profits — they just need a little more TLC. Training is always left to the end and forgotten about. It should be your first priority.
4. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
To successfully implement and then grow a technology investment, you have to look at it over a long period of time. That means three to five years. You’re not going to change things overnight. And you don’t want to turn your company upside down just for the sake of some hot new app. You will find that as you slowly become more comfortable with the technology, confidence will grow and intelligence about the technology will improve. That means that as you consider future enhancements you’ll be able to bring in experts and consultants and discuss these changes with them having much more knowledge at your disposal then you did when you first started. My best clients start slow. They don’t bite off more than they can chew. They have a long-term roadmap. And they stick to their plans.
5. Finally, live it.
My worst project ever involved 50 users and a VP of Sales who, after spending six figures on a CRM system, decided he personally wasn’t going to use it because he “had his own thing going” in Outlook. Hence, the system failed within four months. Why would I use a system if my boss isn’t paying attention to it? Our successful clients have executives who live in the technology that they’ve invested in. They understand that nothing is perfect. They respect their employees’ feedback. But they are firm in that this is the company’s system and — by hook or by crook — we’re going to make this darn thing work. Once that message is clear, employees fall into line. You can grumble and complain when the door is closed or at home with your spouse. But when you’re at work in front of your people, you want to have a positive attitude and forward thinking outlook about your technology investment.
Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small business owner. He writes daily for The New York Times newspaper and weekly for Forbes maga-zine, The Huffington Post website, Inc. magazine, and several more publications. Gene’s passion is to help business owners, executives and managers understand the political, economic and technological trends that will affect their companies so they can make profitable decisions.