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Small Business Tech Toolkit 2010
How To Run A Data-Driven Business

Gene Marks, 04.23.10, 05:50 PM EDT

You can't manage what you can't measure. Check out these helpful tools.

In the end, it's all about the data. I should know: I sell databases.

I sell the accounting application that tracks your revenues and expenses. I sell that customer relationship management (CRM) program that prints out your mailing lists, stores customer notes and creates your quotes. I sell the order entry and inventory system that keeps tabs of … well, your orders and inventory.

I sell all this stuff for a very good reason: Data is powerful and it's essential to helping businesses compete--but only if you 1) know what data you need and 2) can measure it in some reliable, consistent and digestible fashion.

In Depth: Seven Ways To Boost Productivity With Data

Terry Hill, owner of Hill's Heating and Air Conditioning, in Baldwinsville, N.Y., thrives on data. That wasn't always the case. Ten years ago "everything was everywhere," says General Manager Shirley Hammond. She means spreadsheets, Microsoft ( MSFT - news - people ) Word documents, index cards, Post-It notes. Yes, Post-it notes.

Over the years Hill's Heating, now with 30 employees, implemented an accounting, CRM and inventory-management systems. But all that crunching power isn't worth much if it doesn't yield any useful data and report it in a meaningful way.

At Hill's Heathing, Hammond generates about 50 types of reports that she monitors on a consistent basis. A "Do Not Service Report" spits out names of customers who shouldn't get services because of bad credit or other unique issues. The "Service Contracts That Are Expiring" report lets her get ahead of the next round renegotiations. Then there's the "Pending Installations By Location" and "Inventory By Truck" reports. And many, many more.

Hammond's productivity tool of choice: Crystal Reports, made by SAP ( SAP - news - people ). The software, in various iterations, has been around for nearly 20 years. It's so good that many accounting and CRM systems offer runtime (built-in) Crystal reports. The software also lets developers customize the code to fit their needs. Crystal training literature abounds, too. Cost: $600 to $7,000, depending on number of users and features.

Crystal is certainly not the only game in town. Depending on their needs, data-driven companies have plenty of options. For a list of seven, click here.

KnowledgeSync, made by Vineyardsoft Corportation and used by some 4,000 companies, anticipates trouble so you can act fast. The software sends alerts, via e-mails and pages, when, say, a customer's invoice goes past 30 days, or when an inventory item falls below a safe level. The application runs on a server and connects to most databases made by the likes of Microsoft and Oracle.Cost: $2,000 to 4,000, depending on the number of users and database connections.

Don't want KnowledgeSync but still want alertsω Many databases, like the popular Microsoft SQL Server, allow users to create so-called triggers--e-mails to selected users when disturbing ripples appear in your database. (Note: You've got to be really, really familiar with SQL programming to write these triggers. If you're not, and you can't find an affordable consultant, consider KnowledgeSync, which is much more user friendly.)

When in doubt, there's probably a whole lot more you can get out of that old standby, Microsoft Excel. All you need to learn is how to connect your spreadsheet to a live database. (In Excel 2003, click on Data, then Import External Data; in Excel 2007, click Data, then Connections.) Once connected, you can create queries to create "Pivot Tables" to sort and extrapolate information in all sorts of ways. Get really good at it and you can configure spreadsheets to automatically refresh with new data every time the connected database changes.

Want a little more than what Excel offers but don't want to pay extra for itω See if you have Microsoft Access installed on your workstation. (It may well be part of the same Microsoft Office suite that includes Excel.) Access is a powerful reporting tool that can create complex queries and reports. While Excel is primarily an analytical tool, with Access you can use queries to add, update or delete data in other databases. (That's because you can create tables of information from databases outside of Access and then work with that same data.) Microsoft Access reports also can be formatted to include graphics, like a company logo, for that professional look.

Final word of warning: Don't listen to the software vendors when they tell you that "reporting is easy." It's not--or at least not at first. Effective managers use data to recognize trends and preempt problems, but most are not database gurus or IT jocks. That's why data-driven companies need one more tool: a few smart people who know how to set up this stuff.

Gene Marks is owner of the Marks Group, a technology consulting firm, and author ofThe Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists.

"All parties involved know exactly what is going on with each client the moment an activity takes place. KnowledgeSync makes our job easier and it makes us look great."

Luisa Alejandra Shah
Gibraltar Bank

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