John Cheney: Clarity is key for small and medium-sized enterprises

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The Independent Online

To say that we are operating in challenging times is an understatement. This is especially true for small and mid-size businesses, many of which don't have the depth

of financial resources to

ride the downturn. But while there is much discussion about the challenges that small businesses face in accessing finance, there are many other long-standing problems that exist within SMEs today.

Perhaps one of the biggest of these is having clear visibility of the business information that enables an owner-manager to make informed business decisions.

Throughout my career, which includes launching a number of businesses, I have been constantly frustrated by the lack of clear, useful data. I want good answers to some key business questions:

*How many leads do I need? How many will convert into successful sales? And what's it costing me to acquire these leads?

*Are my marketing campaigns effective? Was that trade show value for money? Which are my most profitable customers?

*Which of my customers are unhappy or at risk? Which customers have stopped buying from us and why?

I know I need good data to answer these questions. However, getting this data from the majority of IT systems targeted at the SME sector today seems almost impossible. And unfortunately my experience seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Many SME owners that I've spoken to have bemoaned the lack of useful business tools that provide up-to-date, insightful analysis of where their businesses are at in terms of sales, marketing, finance and customer service.

There is a range of business tools aimed at SMEs available, the vast majority of which are focused on a specific department – Sage or QuickBooks for finance; ACT! or Goldmine for sales, to name a few.

While they are adequate for the departmental function, they are expensive and unable to communicate with each other without costly upgrades and modifications. As such, many SMEs find themselves stranded with "islands of information", making it almost impossible to have a holistic picture of how their business is performing. This results in many businesses missing out on potential sales opportunities and economies of scale which, in the current economic climate, SMEs can ill-afford.

For many years, larger organisations have been able to take advantage of integrated business solutions such as Oracle or SAP, but these applications are a pipe dream for the vast majority of SMEs. They cost millions of pounds, which is unfeasible for most.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Advancements in technology are continuing to bridge this gap and enable small business owners to establish improved business processes without breaking the bank. The emergence of Cloud Computing – or Software-as-a-Service, as it is also known, has removed much of the cost of investing in business intelligence tools by enabling SMEs to pay a monthly subscription to companies that provide business applications online. This removes the huge costs of implementing technologies such as Oracle or SAP, while providing consolidated tools that deliver a single view of the business that applications such as Goldmine or Sage just cannot provide.

By consolidating all business information on to one hosted technology platform, SMEs can now have one data source for all customer, prospect, partner, supplier and financial information and one platform to drive all business processes; from prospect to cash. The result? A business where everyone has visibility of all the information that is relevant to do their job effectively. A business where managers can freely access real-time dashboards showing the status of the entire organisation and make informed business decisions.

These benefits cannot be underestimated – in the current economic climate, better business decisions are not just key to success, they are key to survival. How I wish I had such solutions throughout my career.

The writer is a serial entrepreneur, and the chief executive and founder of Workbooks Online (