Customer Management Articles

How to Choose Small Business Software if You're Not an IT Pro

by Christophe Primault
Published on 4 October 2010

There are literally thousands of business applications that are suitable for small businesses. But, if like most of your peers, you have had very little exposure to these products and you are currently running your business "off of a spreadsheet", getting started can be daunting.

Which features are right for me? Do I need an integrated suite? Should I pick the market leader or a niche solution? Is on-premises or on-demand the right deployment method for me? How will it integrate with what I already have? What can I afford? Should I pay up-front or on a recurring basis? Where can I find evaluation information for different software? Will I really use it once I've bought it? These are some of the common questions small businesses face prior to buying a new solution.

Here are some practical steps that you can take:

Identify needs, budgets and types of users

Start with basics such as an accounting package, an email management app and an office suite (spreadsheets, word processor, etc). Then consider a series of apps that are not always necessary but that most businesses would want to use. These include customer relationship management (CRM) tools, website tools, and email marketing and database management software. As your company grows, you may want to consider project management or collaboration tools and HR management apps such as payroll management or applicant tracking.

There are many small business suites of integrated programs such as Google Apps, Zoho or Microsoft Office that are well packaged, easy to use and often free or low-priced. If you are new to business software, it can be a good first step to go for these rather than buying individual products that may sometimes be harder to integrate.

Evaluate available solutions

Take time to research what options best match your needs, budget and user profiles. General search engines (i.e. Google) are a good starting point, but as your understanding of what you are looking for matures, you can turn to specialized online publications, consulting organizations, and vertical business app stores where you can search, compare, and evaluate apps, and contact vendors directly. From there, it's time to draft a shortlist and roll up your sleeves.

Most vendors offer a demo or free trial of their product, either fully functional for a short period of time, or with limited functionality or for a limited number of users. This is called "freemium" - you start off with a free version and eventually upgrade to paid premium services.

Make your final choice

It is particularly important for small businesses that all parties involved participate in the final choice. This includes the owner of the business (of course), the IT person, the finance guy and the people who will be the main users of the product. You should rate products from your shortlist based on the following criteria: features, usability, integration with your existing solutions, quality, scalability, price, ROI, cost of ownership, OPEX vs CAPEX, and vendor brand.

Avoid common mistakes

Small businesses often make the mistake of thinking that demonstrations are equal to evaluations. These are the five common mistakes that you should avoid:

  1. Proceeding straight to demonstrations/trials without defining your needs first
  2. Selecting too many products to start the evaluation - You need to have a shortlist
  3. Testing software without a set scenario in mind
  4. Being lured by additional functionality that you don't really need
  5. Forgetting to ask the opinion of the people who will actually be using the software

Business software can greatly improve the productivity of your company by automating back-end operations and freeing up time for more customer-facing activities. However, making the wrong choice can become counterproductive and expensive. By following the above steps and avoiding the common mistakes, you should be able to make the right choice and enjoy a new world of business applications that up to recently were only available to larger enterprises.

If you want to know which business software is popular with small business owners, you can check the monthly Top 20 Apps published by