Last month I introduced a short series of articles aimed to help business leaders like you and I evaluate the ways we can “invent our own wheel” in terms of technology systems, software, and mobile apps. I divided the paths forward into three categories – Customization, Integration, and Coding from Scratch. In this month’s column, we’ll dive deeper into customizing off-the-shelf software to meet business needs and how to evaluate the right time to take this step.
There are thousands of tools available today available to help you run your business, whether it’s accounting, logistics, or even selling online. If you need an accounting system, you can go out and buy QuickBooks. If you don’t want to deal with installing software at all on your computer, you can get QuickBooks Online and do everything within your Internet browser. If you want to manage your shipments you can go with a tool like ShipStation. If you’re ready to better track customer interactions, you can purchase a license to a CRM such as HubSpot. If you’re looking to… you get the idea… “There’s an app for that” is rarely an exaggeration in today’s world.
How do you know if one of these solutions will meet your needs now and into the future? If all you need is to enter account numbers or contacts, you’ll fit right into the mold of any accounting or CRM package. Tools like this are designed around a broad template that may fit many businesses, but before you can use them, you’ll need to customize them to suit your needs.
Customizations come in a variety of levels of capability and complexity. While one tool may allow you to define custom fields that you can use for your specific needs, another may only allow you to enter data into the fields they’ve provided. While one tool may let you name your business within it, another may let you fully brand it with your logo and color scheme. You should also consider what you get out of a system you’ve customized. Pulling data back out into meaningful reports, dashboards, and other methods will truly help you make customized software work for you.
Is there a time to bring in a professional to help customize software? Certainly, but it’s not always the case. My business recently helped a client customize a CRM system to not only track customer interaction but also produce electronic e-mail blasts, connect to their accounting system, and provide their mobile sales force access to data on their smartphones. While these levels of customization begin to approach what we might call “integration” rather than customization, they’re still working with standard tools and simply connecting the dots.
As you consider your step towards personalized software, customization is a great place to start, but keep the future in mind as well. Just because a tool is easy to start using doesn’t mean it will be as simple to transition out of as your business grows and needs become more complex. As we dive deeper into integration and custom coding in the months to come, we’ll continue to explore ways to connect systems in ways that allow you to scale your technology tools as your business grows.
For publication in the Business Leader
By Chet Cromer