Keep the Luddite out of the server cupboard


008137600_1227611552Mike Owen describes how persevering with obsolete IT equipment can blunt your USP and suggests an upgrade can be worth the hassle.

The brave new world in which we do business allows no room for Luddites and any weakness in you as a staff member, as a business owner or as a user of another business will be exploited by your competition.

Business systems become a regular point of discussion when I go onsite to meet business owners or to look at business performance.

Generally there are two camps, the first justifying elderly computers that may have been cutting edge before the turn of the millennium, but are now slow, bug-riddled and power-hungry. Very often these same machines are populated by equally Dickensian software, not uncommonly DOS based, and justified by the containment of cost. Owners of such systems entirely forget high power consumption and the over-involvement of management.

There is no economy in running old nodders or indulging a nerdy fetish – keep your focus on keeping your aftermarket business profitable, not on propping up ancient IT systems.
I’ve just been doing some work with a major company, and I have to keep reminding the bosses; ‘as a manager my job is not to be the best at the work, it is to create an environment in which the work can be done’. As you work within your business you should not be elbowing staff out of the way to show them how the job should be done, but looking at where there are problems. Once you’ve found the problems, don’t paper over the cracks but take action to remove the problem with training, tooling, policies and procedures – nowhere is this more important than in business systems.

As looking at business systems is almost as much fun as watching paint dry, the job is often given to the financial or accounting staff that, in comparison to their normal work-a-day activity, are likely to find this exciting.

The first criteria of any system is simple and it’s got little to do with bits and bytes. It is far more basic – does the system work for you, or are you expected to work for the system? The second criterion is a little subtler and that comes from its ability to integrate.

Research is the tool that you should use; consider every aspect of your business that could be streamlined. Give thought to not only what you do but what you would like to do and most importantly what your customers would like you to do. Now explore what other companies offer their customers, not just in the motor trade but consider what other slick companies have to offer. Yes, it’s time to start looking outside the box – you don’t have to be the inventor of every idea, there are times when a bit of plagiarism is good. There are companies out there who have taken customer service into the stratosphere; Tesco, Ocado at a national level and others at a local level – I suggest you don’t look at BT though.

In putting together what you want within your company you will automatically find the facets of any system you are offered, I remember being shown a system that incorporated SMS messaging by a client of mine and in 18 months he had never used it. If you buy system capability, ensure you intend to use it.

Data integrity

Most system providers become a bit prissy over data integrity – I can live with this as the whole system’s integrity is dependent on this but what you don’t want is either to have to pay for access to your own information or to have to re-create it in another system. Data integration is paramount. If a prospective system provider offers encryption for security, then you need to discuss export and decryption to .txt, .csv, .dat or a multitude of other file types that can then be imported into other systems.

Reporting is a key function. A system operated by a client of mine will deliver two different answers to the same question in different reports and I have questioned the integrity of the entire system – the provider of the software won’t let us see the data tables and will want to charge a lot to investigate for us. Once again, the question is who owns the data?

So what are the other systems that you should consider? There are the usual suspects as specified by the bean-counters such as wages and online banking but what about mapping to help you with understanding your markets and to focus your marketing to open points. Perhaps linking to your van trackers and SMS messaging to your next drop – DHL do it.
The simple question you must ask yourself when specifying business systems is, is the sky the limit – or you?

When planning what I want from a system I’ve given up on using A4 paper; I use a roll of wallpaper (lining paper) blue-tacked to the wall, post-it notes for every element of the service I want to deliver and then hours of work creating a flow chart. This covers all aspects of your business, customer handling, stock management, receiving and despatching, handling stock redundancy, and then the other side of the business; customer handling, sales management, call handling – the list goes on 
and on.

Your business will revolve around the system you choose, anything you want to do that your system doesn’t facilitate will be plain hard work – as a result you will probably just not do it, and there goes your chance to be unique.

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