by SCORE VOLUNTEERS

Looking for software for your new or growing small business? The good news is that there is a wide variety of quality products to choose from. But with so many choices available, how can you be sure your investment will pay off as your enterprise continues to evolve?

For example, take accounting software, a must for every small business that wants to manage its finances as efficiently as possible. Most products offer the same basic features: accounts receivable/invoicing, accounts payable, payroll/employee management, project budgeting and management, financial reports and inventory. Other features that may prove useful include time tracking and billing, banking activities, credit card processing, tax services and electronic payments.

Begin your comparison by making a list of features you’ll need today, and those you may need in the near future. A feature you may not need for another five to 10 years may not be necessary, as new versions may emerge in the interim that prove more beneficial and cost-effective than simply upgrading or adding new modules to your existing software. Also research the availability of industry-specific software products, as they may include time-saving features and shortcuts to further speed your accounting processes.

Some of the leading accounting software products for small businesses include QuickBooksPro, Sage Accounting, AccountEdge and Cougar Mountain.

A similar process can help you assess options with customer relationship management (CRM) software, which many small businesses utilize to organize and oversee information about the people and firms they do business with. CRM is also helpful for keeping contact lists and buying patterns, so that you know exactly who and when to call.

Note that CRM software is often bundled with other products you may or may not need, such as point-of-sale and inventory management. The key is to start simple and add features as you go along. Products developed with small businesses in mind include InfusionSoft, TeamSupport, MHelp-Desk and ActOn.

Depending on your type of business, you may need other types of software for email, point-of-sale, presentations, audio/video communications, blogging and website content management, and IT resource usage.

In examining any type of software, make sure its compatible with your hardware, communications and networking system, as well as any other software you may use with it, such as software for accounting and tax preparation, word processing and design, and presentation.

Even cloud-hosted software, an increasingly attractive and cost-effective alternative, will lose those promised efficiencies and features through compromised performance. A variety of software developers also provide free online demonstrations for users to test-drive their products.

Other good sources of information and guidance include product reviews and comparisons by leading small business and IT publications, talking with other entrepreneurs, and consulting trade and professional associations for your particular industry.

And while most software products have been thoroughly tested before coming to market, be sure the developer offers readily available support for more than just routine questions, and its security against viruses and other online attacks. Also find out what costs, if any, are involved in order to keep your software up-to-date with patches and updates.

To learn more about this and other small business issues, and for an appointment with a volunteer mentor, contact ashevillescore.org. SCORE is a nonprofit organization.

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