Getting Comfy With Office

A household name still does business automation best.
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Small business comrades, you are no longer the downtrodden castoffs of the techno revolution. Now you can track sales calls, consumer complaints and accounting just like the biggest of the big companies.

Oodles of sexy customer-relationship-management or business-process-automation software packages have hit the market. There are big names such as

Intuit

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with its

QuickBase ($249 a month for 10 users). And there are tools from

Salesforce.com (starting at $10 per month per user) and a product I like called

Rave from Entellium (starting at $33 per month).

Even

Microsoft

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has its own management tool called Business Contact Manager (starting at $249).

These are all well and good. But the best place for the average small business to dip its toe into the business automation waters is with software that's probably already on hand: plain vanilla Microsoft Office -- without any of the fancy-schmancy automation tools.

With a little channeling of your inner geek, you can turn Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and the rest into an integrated suite of services that can automate invoicing, customer lead tracking, communication and related document retrieval.

Obviously, none of these tricks will match a more sophisticated package in terms of user interface and features, but I have been using modified bits of Microsoft Office software for years. They are efficient, they already work in my business and best of all -- being the mega-cheapskate that I am -- I've already paid for them.

Here, then, are my top Microsoft Office business process tips:

Lose Your Grid Fear

If you take just one thing away from this column, make it this: Once and for all, bring Excel into your business life.

Way too many small business people avoid Excel like it were Britney Spears after too many highballs. I suspect it's a combination of the scary grid, the weird commands and maybe the name itself -- could there be any word with less meaning than "excel"? Regardless, succumbing to Excel-phobia is a grave small-business mistake.

Excel is the single greatest program Microsoft has created. In many ways it is the greatest piece of software ever created. It's fast, flexible, beautifully coded and capable of doing essentially everything in your business. And Microsoft -- although it gets no credit -- has developed a vast library of useful

Excel templates.

Think of the top three things you need to get your business organized and install those templates. Most are free. Some cost maybe $20. Not only will you get a fabulous way to do your invoices or code your ledgers, but you will start figuring out how to deal with the intricacies of Excel -- like cells and columns.

Launch Directly From Excel

Business process software, for all its complexity, is about one thing: cementing the relationship between one piece of data in your business' computers to another.

Apple

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Mac users have a tremendous advantage in gluing one digital thingy to another in

Automator. This application turns getting from one app to another into a simple drag and drop affair.

But Windows users can still get the cross-application job done. They just have to be a bit craftier with some specific commands. My favorite is the "hyperlink" function.

Say you want to connect data in a spiffy project management template in Excel to a customer phone log you created in Word. Simply right click on the cell data in Excel you want to mark up. At the bottom of the resulting dialogue box, open the "hyperlink" command.

You should see that you can not only link directly to a Web page, but to

any file

on your computer. Simply find the file containing the transcript of that client conversation, link it to your Excel page and voila: Your phone log is forever connected to that project management list.

Do another hyperlink to your accounting ledger and now you're playing with the big boys: You can see what you said to every client, what they expect of you and what they owe you. Nice!

See what we just did here? We allowed an outsider to organize our thinking about our business processes when we downloaded that template. We then connected that optimized process to another business process using hyperlinking.

And we did it with a reasonable investment of time and money. Best of all, we did not lose our minds ... or spontaneously combust by touching new technology.

Just imagine what starts to happen when you get everything in your business running like this.

Next week: Search like a pro.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.