I love what I do. Running an integration company is usually a blast. I get to play with all the cool new toys, clients love what we do and the systems we install, and I make a decent living to boot. But there are some aspects of running the business that are not so much fun: proposals, invoicing/bookkeeping, marketing, and service calls come to mind.
I was recently talking with my friend Mark Feinberg (www.hometheateradvisors.com) about ways to run businesses more smoothly. I love to pick his MBA-trained brain on business, financial, and marketing topics! We came up with a list of the top five business tools we should all have in our arsenal.
1. Proposal and Business Process Software
Stop using Microsoft Word and Excel! Joe Contractor types up his proposals in Word, and it looks shoddy and unprofessional. Step up your professionalism and get purpose-built software. Some of the key players in this category are D-Tools, Simply Reliable, BidMagic, and others. Your proposals will look great and you will win more projects.
Your proposal process should also speed up as you get familiar with the product you choose, and your proficiency builds. Speaking of process, make sure you leverage the processes built into the packages. Even the largest companies in the world can use process improvement. When they make the multi-million-dollar decision to implement SAP, Oracle, or another business process improvement package, they need to redesign some of their key processes to work within the bounds of the software. That is not because the software isn’t doing it right, it is because the developers of the software have seen how hundreds or thousands of companies operate and have instituted best practices into their software. The same is true in our industry. The developers of D-Tools, Simply Reliable, et al know how the proposal, PO, work-order, and invoicing processes should work.
You should not be reinventing the wheel. Take advantage of all of the work that these companies have done to identify the best way to execute these tasks efficiently and successfully.
2. Bookkeeping Software
Tying in with your proposal and invoicing software is critical. The hands-down leader here is going to be QuickBooks. It seems that most bookkeeping integrations with proposal software are shifting towards QuickBooks Online, which is an annual subscription. I really like QBO; I can download all my credit card transactions from my bank and quickly categorize them and get through the tedium quickly. Come tax time, I run a couple of reports and hand them over to my accountant, and I am done. It really makes things easy. I have met guys who are still using Excel for the bookkeeping, and I cannot figure out why. There are some other players here (Xero, Peachtree, etc), but I’ve found Quickbooks to be the most universally accepted and integrated.
3. Professional Marketing Materials
I’m not referring to any software packages here. This blog is about tools, and one tool that you should ALWAYS have with you is marketing materials. You should have something you can easily hand to a client, prospect, architect, or stranger on the street if necessary. It can be a single sell-sheet, a tri-fold brochure, a multi-page booklet or anything in between. You want to be able to pull something professional and polished out of your bag to hand to someone at a moment’s notice. Work with the marketing companies that specialize in AV (ie Relidy), a graphic designer you know, or do it yourself and print it with Vistaprint. Regardless, you need to have printed materials that you can hand out. We present each prospect with a 12-page brochure during our initial walk-through for a proposal. These cost less than $5 each to print and can make you stand out above your competition
4. Home Network Analysis
This goes toward being the expert in the room. There is nothing more satisfying to a prospective client than to see you pull out your laptop, fire up MetaGeek’s Chanalyzer, and show them what the interference looks like in their home. I guarantee you that not many integrators are doing that during the proposal phase. We are not doing a full analysis, but are just showing them the readings from a single location and explaining what we see. We then let them know that we can do a full analysis for a fee, but that this is the type of information we use when designing their network and control system to ensure we minimize interference from other systems (especially critical in urban environments). This alone has won us many jobs. Not to mention the fact that for the jobs we win, we always use Chanalyzer to understand the airspace and set up our systems for optimal performance, reducing service calls due to poor signal strength or interference.
5. Network Management Platform
Speaking of service calls, the best way to reduce one of the biggest headaches is to install a network management platform ON EVERY INSTALL. I wrote about the various offerings a few months ago and the fact that whether or not you are selling service plans, you need to have a solution in place for remote support and network management. Again, we use mycrestron.com and BlueBolt, while Mark is a huge fane of the OvrC platform. I do like that with OvrC, you can put a Hub into any install, regardless of the network infrastructure and get at least some visibility and control over local devices as well as a VPN tunnel. It is a great, inexpensive way to offer remote support for even the smallest of projects. Regardless, pick a platform and start specifying it into every install. It does not matter is it is OvrC, BakPak, FingBox, Domotz, or any others. Test a few out in your home or office and pick the one that works best for your company and your business model. You will not regret it.
That’s it. Those are my top 5 tools to improve your business processes so you can focus on what you love: selling and installing really cool stuff! Let me know what you use, I’m always open to new ideas!