Welcome to The Small-Biz Techie, a weekly series on the hottest technology trends that keep your small business running like the pros.

You know when you call a really, really big company like Verizon ( VZ) or Fireman's Fund, and they miraculously know who you are and how much you owe them?

Well, get this, fellow small-business owners: soon you'll be able to do just that with your own customers.

Advances in high-powered productivity and sales support software for the smaller enterprise may be the single biggest revolution in small-business technology since the desktop computer.

Seemingly everybody who's anybody in software -- Microsoft ( MSFT), Apple ( AAPL), Intuit ( INTU) and several start ups -- is offering new, super-powerful, super-cheap bits of code that automate lead tracking, call logging, invoicing, collections and accounting.

Mark your calendars: If by the end of 2008 you're not conducting business with said management technology, one of your direct competitors will be.

The Same, but Discordant

On the surface, all of these tools, such as Business Contact Manager that can come as part of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite ($449, $239 as an upgrade) and Intuit's Quickbase set of business tools ($249 per month for up to 10 users), are essentially the same. They allow companies to track -- by customer and by client -- every transaction of every employee. The software then relates that transaction back to larger business processes.

You'll find calendar and messaging capabilities similar to what you would see in Outlook or Entourage; word processing and file management as found in Microsoft Word or WordPerfect; and basic note-taking and task management as could be programmed into Excel or a similar spread sheet tool.

What's different is how these packages describe your business data, called "metadata," which is then related back to the functions that keep your business in business: For example, email can be linked to accounting; invoices to payroll; calendars to planning; travel requests to budgeting and on and on. Everything your small business does can be essentially connected, automated and monitored in real time.

Herein lies the problem -- and the opportunity. Yes, the process of automating the relationship between, say, a phone call and an invoice is powerful stuff. In my business I compete very effectively with much larger media companies using tools like free collaborative software from Google ( GOOG), called Google Apps , to build a Web-based spreadsheet that tracks and logs the electronics I test. It's actually more efficient than the zillion-dollar tracking software I used when I worked at the Walt Disney Company ( DIS) a decade ago.

However, the way I connect my email archives to this spreadsheet is not necessarily the way productivity software producers -- like 37signals, which has a very nice Web-based business-automation tool called Basecamp , (starts free, $149 for unlimited projects and other features), or Rave , which sells by-seat icon-based sales support tools -- believes I should. So I must build my own bridge from Google Apps to Basecamp. And that either means I eat time and expense of importing the data by hand or have a custom application built, with all the attendant issues of cost and debugging.

The Grunt Work of Change

And that's the rub: Great gains are possible using productivity software, but they require nothing short of constant tinkering to tease out the actual business practices that improve my bottom line. In effect, to make these tools work, I am always monitoring how we exchange information here in Blumworld. I am always experimenting to make data and project flow as effective as possible. I am always asking my employees to try something new.

Now, this all sounds very Jack Welch, Harvard Business School noble of me, but I assure you the process is very much not that. Change can drive you and your employees nutty.

So as I review these productivity packages over the coming months, you'll see change for what it is: cold, irritating, never-ending, wasteful even ... and marvelously transformative. Yes, you will need a real willingness to fight the integration fight it will take to fit these tools into the quirks of your own living, breathing, imperfect small business.

But imagine the power that lies ahead. These business automation tools offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to the exact same technology the biggest companies in the world use to be, well, the biggest companies in the world. If you can find -- and master -- the right business software tools for your business, I can't see how any competitor in your market can stop you.
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.

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