When you’re running a business, it’s not uncommon for things to get forgotten, lost in your inbox, and eventually done late and out of order. How often have you had to apologize to a customer for delivering after the deadline? And how many times has a job been completed, only for you to realize that the deposit hasn’t even been paid yet?
These problems slow down your business operations, lowering your overall productivity and your monthly turnover.
Sure, you could try working longer hours in order to get things done in an orderly fashion - and goodness knows you’ve tried taking lots of notes as you progress through the work day - but nothing you’ve tried so far has really helped you to get a proper handle on your business’s operations. You know there’s got to be a better way to operate your business, increasing productivity and organizing the numerous tasks that need doing, so that you can start helping more customers and making more money.
That better way is by using online tools for business operations - software and apps that manage the operations of your business, streamlining processes and freeing up time.
There is however a catch to a statement like this, because unlike large corporations, small business owners do not have big budgets for software solutions. You have to constantly prioritize your limited resources and decide how you are going to spend your money.
How do I decide when to spend and when not to spend?
The two-factor theory (Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory) teaches us that there are two categories into which we can categorize workplace factors:
- Those that give a positive result.
- Those that do not necessarily give a positive result, but oh boy when they are missing they cause huge upsets!
Not all actions will achieve the same result, and as a small business owner you need to make clever decisions about how to allocate your resources.
Brad Rosser, a serial entrepreneur, explained this by distinguishing between the ‘back end’ and ‘front end’ of your business:
- The ‘back end’ - parts of your business that are invisible to your customer, like business operations.
- The ‘front end’ - anything that gets people through the ‘front door’ and achieves sales.
In this case, the ‘back end’ may not be conducive for customer acquisition (unlike the ‘front end’), but if it’s missing, it can cause big problems.
It’s difficult to decide where to spend your money, and in the beginning phase of your business you can’t afford to spend too much on business operations, because you need to focus on getting customers in so that you can make money. You can ignore the ‘screams’ from the ‘back end’ until things are about to start falling off the table, but operations still need to run relatively smoothly, or you’ll lose your new customers fairly quickly anyway.
Ideally, you need tools that are affordable and work well - tools that will catch ‘back end’ business operations before they crash to the floor, without you needing to worry about diverting your resources away from the ‘front end’.
That's where these solutions come in.
Take a look at our list of life-saving business operations tools, and choose one (or many!) that will work for you. Take care when allocating your resources, and don’t jump for every tool - think about how each tool could help your business to operate better, and make informed decisions. (Many of these tools offer free trials, so you can test them out first.)
Check them out below in our post, or jump down to the Slideshare version at the bottom of this page.
We've divided this list up into six different categories:
- 3 tools for processing orders
- 6 tools for internal operations
- 6 tools for communication
- 3 tools for customer relations
- 5 tools for registrations and sign-ups
- 6 tools for finances
Three tools for processing orders
The ‘Manufacturing process’ workflow is a tool for any business that creates specific products as they’re ordered. This tool keeps your workshop in order by allowing you to receive new orders online, and then guiding staff through the business operations involved: quoting the customer, building the products, and following up on the outstanding payment.
Running a shop doesn’t have to purely take place from your premises, in fact, moving your business online is one of the best ways to reach a wider audience of customers. For instance, if your product is very niche-specific (like Pokemon fan gear, for example), you may not have many customers in your area, but would have tens of thousands of customers all over the world.
With Shopify, you can keep track of your stock, receive and process orders, and receive payments through payment portals - all online. The only business operations that would stay offline would be manufacturing the Pokemon fan gear, and delivering it to your customers.
Process repair orders
If you run a repair workshop of any kind, the ‘Bike repairs’ workflow can be adapted to fit your business. This tool keeps the operations of your repair business in check by recording all repair orders as they come in, prompting staff to order new stock as it’s necessary, and reminding customers to pay for and collect their bikes once the repair work is finished.
Six tools for internal operations
Buying new stationery or a new desk for your office is never quite as simple as you would expect. Most companies have a process that needs to be followed, before anything can be purchased.
The ‘Procurement’ workflow is perfect for solving small businesses’ procurement operations, while the ‘Extended procurement’ workflow is aimed at slightly larger companies (who have more staff involved in the process). Each of these tools manages operations by notifying the purchasing department once an order has been placed, and then by assisting them in forwarding the order to a supplier, and eventually making sure that the employee who placed the original order fetches the delivered order from reception.
If you have your own IT department in your business, there’s a big chance that you’re used to having support requests go unsolved. This is no surprise, especially if you have a small IT team, and a lot of staff who aren’t exactly IT gurus. The ‘IT support’ workflow is a tool that makes sure that IT technicians remember to attend to every request for help, while the department manager can keep track of all of the requests, making sure that everybody’s happy by the end of the day.
Every employee and employer knows what a pain it can be trying to get through the process of requesting leave. Thankfully, there’s a tool that makes it easy to place a ‘Request for leave’. This tool makes sure that the right people approve the request in a sensible order, and makes it easy for employers to monitor who’s on leave, and when they’ll be back in the office.
If any part of your business relies on hourly billing, Harvest is worth taking a look at. And even if you don’t bill hourly, it’s important to know how much time you’re spending on separate tasks. Harvest is a time-tracking tool that’ll allow you to monitor yourself and your business operations - which means that you can pinpoint where you need to improve in order to speed things up, eventually freeing up more time to focus on new customers.
Mobile phone system
If you’re running a small business, especially one that’s run mostly from a home-office, there’s a good chance that your employees will also work from home, or at least away from the office. Grasshopper is a phone system that allows you to run your business from your mobile phone, instead of from a landline. This is also a very useful tool for people whose business operations take them away from the office fairly often.
Six tools for communication
Transactional emails (emails that are triggered by specific events, like a quote being approved, or a customer placing an order online) are a modern-day convenience that automatically keep staff and customers in the loop during the operations of your business.
- Sparkpost and Mandrill are two services that offer personalized transactional emailing - but most small businesses don’t have their own developers who can set these transactional emails up properly.
- On the other hand, Kotive has built-in transactional emailing (without any coding necessary!), although the emails sent from Kotive can’t be personalized with signatures, and are sent from an email address that has nothing to do with your company.
- Thankfully, Sparkpost and Mandrill are integrated with Kotive, giving you the best of both worlds: Custom emails with your own signatures, sent from your business email address, and set up without the help of a developer.
When customer interaction is constant, but brief, sometimes emails don’t quite cut it in terms of notifications. Clickatell and Twilio are two solutions for this - instead of emailing your customer every time that a minor update needs to be sent, an sms can be sent.
This convenient messaging keeps your customers in the loop, without them having to check their email regularly. Clickatell and Twilio are also integrated with Kotive, turning their SMS services into transactional notifications.
Internal business operations rely on one thing to run smoothly: quick, clear communication. When you need to get a team member working on something right away, email isn’t always the best way to let them know - emails can get shunted to spam for no reason, or can simply be ignored in a busy inbox.
Slack is a brilliant messaging tool for internal communication that solves these problems, and when it’s integrated with Kotive, it’s another alternative to transactional emailing.
Another useful tool for small business owners who work from home or are out of the office a lot of the time - GoToMeeting allows staff to gather online for meetings, instead of in person, saving travel time and expenses. And these online meetings aren’t restricted to staff alone - you can use GoToMeeting with your customers, too.
Three tools for customer relations
Customer feedback is ridiculously important in any business, but it can be a headache trying to keep track of all of the feedback forms that come in - some via email, some on printed forms, and always with missing answers to questions or handwriting so messy that the answers can’t be deciphered, anyway.
‘Customer satisfaction evaluation’ is a tool that allows all of those forms to be captured in one place: online. It also prompts you to follow up with the customer if necessary, and makes it easy to organize the feedback into different levels of importance.
Keep all of your contacts in the same place, from customers to leads and vendors, and manage your CRM tasks with a calendar and full history of your customers, using Capsule. It also features the ability to track bids, deals and proposals, keeping you constantly up-to-date with where your future income will be coming from.
Data entry is a constant pain to anybody who needs to log their calls and emails as they make them. The solution? Close.io. This tool automatically logs your calls as you make them, and your emails as you send them, freeing up time to focus on efficiency and customer relationships instead.
Five tools for registrations and sign-ups
Running workshops of any sort can be a great way to expand your income - if you have a skill to pass on, people will often flock to learn from you. The ‘Workshop registration’ workflow is designed to manage the process of signing up for a workshop, and make sure that all payments are in before the workshop begins.
If you’re an NPO, or simply need a few volunteers once in a while, ‘Volunteer management’ is a tool that can be a great help. Receive new volunteer applications, approve or deny them, and assign them to team-leaders in one easy place.
Gaining new volunteer translators and training them up to meet your standards can be tricky to keep track of - especially when you have a high turnover of volunteers. Using ‘Crowdsourcing translation’ will make sure that no volunteer starts translating without being properly trained.
When somebody new signs up to join your mailing list, you shouldn’t have to manually add them to your contacts. Mailchimp is integrated with Kotive so you don’t have to. As soon as a new person signs up, they’re automatically added to your mailing list. (A tool that uses Mailchimp in this way is ‘New membership’.)
And the great thing about Mailchimp, is the ability to easily create attractive newsletters to send to everyone on that list, with user-friendly templates.
Six tools for finances
DocRaptor is a brilliant tool that allows .pdf and .xlsx files to be generated from html templates. Although finances are not the only area in which DocRaptor is useful, it quickly becomes apparent why it is particularly helpful here - by using DocRaptor within a business operations workflow, you can automatically create quotes and invoices from templates, saving you a lot of time, and making finances easier to manage, too.
Feeling confused? Here’s an example of how DocRaptor can improve a workflow:
Clone and then update the ‘Billing for gardening service’ workflow:
- Simply add DocRaptor to the workflow, before the ‘Email bill to client’ email, to generate a .pdf invoice.
- Then, instead of detailing the invoice in the email, place the link to the new .pdf in the email text.
And there you have it: a professional invoice is sent to your customer, without any extra administrative work on your part.
Freshbooks has everything you might need to make your business’s accounting easy. From creating invoices and capturing expenses, to time-tracking for billable hours and collecting payments online, it’s the full package.
Don’t lose track of your receipts - use shoeboxed to scan and organize your receipts as you get them, to generate expense reports, and even to track your mileage.
Expense claim manager
A tool for similar scenarios to shoeboxed, ‘Claim expenses’ makes it easier to manage the expense claims coming in from employees during the month. Approve or deny claims day by day, instead of worrying about piles of receipts and forms at the end of the month.
Easy tax management
If you hate worrying about tax (who doesn’t?) then Freeagent is worth your notice. On top of managing your daily admin and keeping track of the bigger picture with an overview, Freeagent makes tax easier to deal with, too, because you can set up multiple sales tax rates for your countries, and all of the countries that you do business with.
With so many affordable tools at your disposal, the hiccups and problems within your business operations are easy to clear up, before they become issues that can affect your customers. Have you tried any of the tools on this list? Which ones would you recommend?
This list is pretty comprehensive, but it’s impossible to cover everything in one post. Do you have a favorite business operations tool that we haven’t mentioned?
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Life-saving business operations tools for stream-lining your processes. #BusinessOperations #tools #SmallBusiness