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Making Business-Software Choices

From accounting and front-end software to tools for the back end.

This month, we'll examine three general software areas: accounting software, front-end software, and back-end software. Keep in mind that we're discussing business software here, not graphics-production software. It's somewhat misleading to consider these three types of software as separate and distinct products (and buying decisions). Actually, all three areas need to be compatible with one another in order to create an effective software solution. It would be very cumbersome, for example, to have a fantastic database application built to track prospective sales, but have it not interface with your customer and sales-order database.

Number crunching
Accounting software is probably the easiest area to find a solution for your specific business needs. A score of accounting-software options are available, including wellknown products such as Peachtree, MAS 90, and Platinum for Windows (all from Best Software), as well as Microsoft Great Plains and QuickBooks.

No matter which accounting software you choose, it should perform the basics: book sales into accounts receivable, record accounts payable, cut checks, process payroll, produce financial statements out of a general ledger package, and so on. The level of accounting software you invest in should depend upon your company's needs. That is, the amount of transactions you're processing and the level of detail you may desire from your accounting software will help you to determine how robust the software needs to be.

Be wary, however, of over-buying"?don't get trapped into purchasing expensive accounting software because it can "do so many wonderful things." High-end accounting software can be very expensive, so it's better to buy a package that will provide you with only the information you truly need.

The front and back ends
The second area of our focus is front-end software. This type of software may include several features or elements, including a quote system, an estimating system linked into job costing, order entry, client interface, sales-prospecting modules, data mining, and other applications.

Again, depending upon your needs, you may purchase a heavily loaded front-end package, or simply opt for something that will enable you to enter clients and can process and bill orders. Front-end software that's well conceived can provide you with some very useful tools in tracking customer and marketing data. If you decide to purchase a front-end system, such as a sales-contact management program, independent of a back-end system, you may want to look at a customized database application such as Microsoft's Access; another option is to pursue a specific package like GoldMine from FrontRange Solutions or Act! from Best Software.

Of the three general areas, it's the third area"?back-end software"?that provides the broadest range of solutions. This type of software offers tools for order tracking, job tracking, job costing, inventory tracking, inventory costing, material allocation, fulfillment, shipping and handling, labor-cost accumulations, equipment and machinery allocations, overhead burden costing, and other more specialized applications. Examples include the E2 Shop System by Shoptech, the System from CRC Information Systems, and Thoroughbred Software's Solution Repro IV.

You can choose a package that provides just one or a few of these solutions, or one that gives you a multitude of options. As with accounting and front-end software, your best bet is to purchase the application that provides you with the right mix of tools to help you compete more effectively. Otherwise, you may spend a lot of money, gather volumes of irrelevant information, and end up being worse off than you were previously, due to the extensive capital investment.

Past, present, future
In the end, software is about providing accurate measurements and generating data that makes sense for your business. The software you implement will only be as good as your ability to make decisions based on the output. If your current software provides you with the necessary information to make you competitive, you probably don't need something new. ,p>But the ability to gather more information about how your business operates will generate greater advantages. We all operate in a competitive industry with high technology expenses and significant overhead costs. If you're to succeed in such an environment, it's critical to have accurate, detailed, and timely data. Your information systems must provide you with an accurate picture of how your business has operated in the past and how it functions in the present, and it must assist you in planning for the future.

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