In the second part of this article, we will look at a variety of ways to use COMPUTERS and the INTERNET to increase your work productivity...
If you never install another program on your computer, at least consider a basic office "suite". WORD processing programs allow you to create time-saving templates, use the merge feature to send out mass-mailings in a snap, and generally make document preparation much easier. SPREADSHEET programs can help you tally financial figures, create easy checklists, and maintain lists of important information. And DATABASE programs take the stress out of maintaining detailed information about your customers and prospects.
Another major headache for small business owners is financial record-keeping -- but ACCOUNTING programs reduce the time you spend on your books and increase your accuracy. Look for three important features -- a customizable chart of accounts, a tax planning feature, and the ability to generate detailed REPORTS. You will probably want to consult with your accountant when getting started, to make sure that your computer records accurately reflect the information your accountant needs at tax time.
Contact managers are one of the finest technological advances of the past few decades! Most contact managers come with a CALENDAR (for tracking appointments and recurring reminders), some form of an electronic ADDRESS book (for storing names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.), and a TASK list (for tracking your upcoming “to-do’s”). You should be able to categorize contacts into groups, such as “current clients,” “prospects,” and “friends” -- and search for information using keywords. Also look for a program that can link you directly to the internet -- where you can send and receive e-mail from your address book. And if you use a handheld device, make sure it can synchronize with your contact manager.
The internet offers a plethora of resources that you can put to use in your business. The web is a wonderful place to RESEARCH your competition and stay on top of trends in your industry. And don’t overlook the value of the many business development website and online newsletters available on the net. You can substantially increase your knowledge base without a lot of effort. You will also trip over a league of online CONSULTANTS who are more than eager to guide you -- marketing specialists, web designers, sales trainers, financial analysts -- it’s no longer necessary that you have an offline connection to find good professional help. Finally, the web is an outstanding resource for your CLIENTS. If you can point people toward the professionals, supplies, reference information, and other resources they need to get the job done, you come off as a hero!
E-mail is a wonderful way to keep in touch with colleagues and clients around the country -- at any hour of the day, without worrying about inconveniencing anyone. With most internet providers, you can check your e-mail over the internet from any computer, and you can stay in touch easily and inexpensively while you travel. Some people feel that e-mail has DEHUMANIZED communications -- but I would disagree. Sending an e-mail should be just like writing a letter -- and it’s the fact that we’ve lost the fine art of letter-writing that has made e-mail so impersonal. Because e-mail is quick, folks have a tendency to whip off a note with no greeting, no STRUCTURE, poor grammar, and no closing. There is no reason for this, considering the many options that today’s e-mail programs possess.
You can set up a variety of e-mail TEMPLATES for common messages that you tend to send over and over again -- such as sales letters, follow-ups, and answers to common questions. Then all you have to do is customize the message just a bit for each individual situation. AUTO-SIGNATURES are also terrific for adding an extra marketing plug to your message. Create one standard signature that expresses your company’s mission and gives your contact information -- or develop several that are customized to the needs and interests of the different populations you serve. And don’t forget about AUTORESPONDERS -- a great way to send a standard e-mail automatically when someone requests information from you.
Your e-mail program can also help you to deal more effectively with INCOMING messages. First, don’t just leave all of your incoming e-mails sitting in your in-box -- create a series of folders (like you would in a filing system) for sorting messages. Label according to the SUBJECT (“newsletters,” “personal messages,” “client correspondence”) or according to the ACTION required (“to research,” “to respond,” “to read”) -- whatever works best for you. As you download your messages each day, take a moment to sort them into the appropriate folder. Then, set aside time each week to empty those folders. If this seems like too much work, see if your e-mail program has a FILTER feature -- an automatic system of recognizing and sorting messages by sender, subject, or keywords.
Every business on the planet seems to have a website these days -- but most of them are terrible! Just slapping up a page on the internet isn’t going to bring you business. Websites are just like any other MARKETING medium -- you have to make it attractive, functional, and interesting for anyone to pay attention. You can consider hiring a web-designer to build a site for you, but beware! You might do better (both financially and in terms of technical competency) to get a college student who is majoring in web design to help you out. And if you’re a total control freak (like me!), you can get one of the WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) web design programs -- like Front Page or Hot Dog. These are generally as easy to use as a word processing program and are great for basic web design -- but expect to be severely limited in your capabilities when it comes to higher web functions.
Your first focus is on SPEED -- if people can’t get around your site quickly, they won’t stay very long. Avoid huge graphics, overly-long pages, and other features that will cause your site to load slowly on a phone modem. Remember, most of the world still doesn’t have access to high-speed internet access! You also want to keep NAVIGATION in mind -- if people can’t find what they are looking for, they won’t stay very long and they won’t ever come back! Include a site map, a “you are here” bar on each page, and have a logical structure in mind before you start putting pages together. It’s best to begin with a flow chart of what you want on your site and how it will link together first.
KEEP THEIR ATTENTION
CONTENT is one of the top features people look for on the internet -- teach them something they don’t know, provide them with a list of online resources, or give them a new perspective on an old issue. And your content needs to change frequently to attract people back to your site. You can also throw in a little INTERACTIVITY as a bonus -- quizzes, polls, forms, question and answer sessions -- get your visitor involved. And don’t forget the value of special offers. Offer an “internet coupon” that may be redeemed offline for your services, give them a discount if they contact you by a certain deadline, or offer a free gift when they refer their friends to you. All of the things you do to market your business OFFLINE -- newsletters, coupons, sale notifications -- can be duplicated with ease on the web.
ONE MORE TO GO...
In the final segment, we'll cover some other TANGENTIAL technologies -- like handheld devices, pagers, scanners, and more!
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