'Our software is terrible!" "Our systems are out of date!" "We need something that's more user-friendly." I hear this pretty frequently. And mostly it's not true. It's an excuse.

The truth is that most business software that's on the market today, particularly if it's from a long-time and reputable vendor, is good and likely able to do the job that it was intended for. Usually when there's a problem, it's not a software problem. It's a people problem. Companies aren't getting the most out of the software that they have. In fact, in many cases I see, companies are using less than 30 percent of an application's capabilities. It's like they've purchased a nice new car and are driving it around in low gear. And then complaining about it.

Consider that you may not be using your business software very well. Bring in some experts, like your software partner or vendor, and have them show you all the things you're not doing with your application that you could be doing. In particular, take a very hard look at your application's workflows, alerts and triggers. What are those? If you're asking, then that's your first problem.

A workflow is designed to make tasks faster and more automated. The more advanced ones actually search your database for problems and then take pre-assigned steps to resolve those problems. If you bought your software sometime in the past 10 years, then your application has them. If you don't know where to find them, just ask your vendor. Look under the "Tools" menu or pay a visit to your software's technical support community. If your application has no workflow functionality out of the box, then see if anything's been developed by a third party.

An alert is a function that usually sends you (or someone else you assign) an e-mail or text when something happens in your database and you need to know about it before it becomes a bigger problem. If you can't find any alerting functionality in your software, then try a product called KnowledgeSync from Vineyard Software. This application will connect to your database and provide you with an interface for creating your own alerts.

Finally, there are triggers. A trigger is really the same as an alert or even a workflow, except triggers are generated directly from your back-end database. This means that if your applications don't have alert or workflow capability, but they are storing information in a database that has trigger functionality (for example, Microsoft SQL Server), then you can do the same things. But you'll probably need a little outside help because there is some programming involved. There are plenty of SQL experts that you can find on places like LinkedIn, Elance, Guru and oDesk who you can contract to create triggers. Once created, a trigger can fire off an e-mail or launch a mini-application that will manipulate data in your system based on a change or update of the database's information.

Now that you know what workflows, alerts and triggers are, how can you or your clients use them to help increase profits? I've got a few easy ones you can set up that have benefited my clients. Try these:

1. A workflow to handle inquiries from your Web site. Anytime anyone visits your site to request information, get pricing, sign up for an event or ask for a brochure, you will have a workflow established so that when the visitor completes a form, that data comes into your existing internal system without duplicating the effort. Your system either creates a record for that visitor, or updates an existing one because you already have that visitor's e-mail address in your system. The request is then routed to the right department or person. E-mails are sent to the visitor confirming their request. Follow-up actions are scheduled so that nothing falls through the cracks.

2. A workflow to handle new leads from that trade show. You spent thousands on that trade show event in Chicago, so please don't let it go to waste. Import the spreadsheet of prospects that the trade show organizer provided into your system and let a workflow that you previously designed automatically allocate those leads to your rainmakers based on region or interest. Then the workflow should schedule follow-ups and tasks. E-mails should be sent to those leads thanking them for their interest and letting them know to expect a call from James or Patty or whoever. The workflow could automatically add them to your quarterly mailing list or monthly newsletter.

3. An alert/trigger to remind of an overdue invoice. I have a few very smart clients who have implemented alerts like this to seriously help their cash flow. The minute an invoice approaches 30 days, a polite e-mail is sent to the customer and copied to the salesperson. After 30 days more, e-mails are sent (professionally, of course) and the collections person, if necessary, is then added to the loop. After 90 days, an e-mail is automatically sent to Tony Soprano. Just suggesting ... .

4. An alert/trigger or workflow about depleted inventory. Running out of inventory can cost your clients sales and annoys customers. By setting up re-order quantities in the accounting system and then configuring an alert or trigger, your client's purchasing manager can be immediately aware of inventories that are running low.

5. An alert/trigger or workflow to address proposals and quotas. There is nothing worse than hearing: "Sorry, boss, I forgot to follow-up on the ABC quote we sent and they went with someone else." Or, "I just looked, and ABC's sales this year are less than half what they were last year." Configure an alert, trigger or workflow to always be looking at open quotes, proposals and bids and sending out reminders a week before they're due. And configure another to compare the sales history of selected clients with a prior period.

One workflow I use is a "clients without contact" report - every month it scans my database and finds clients who have had no calls or appointments in the past six months and then sends me an automatic report.

Yes, there is no perfect system. But no, your system doesn't suck. You are probably not using it as well as you could. Before sinking a ton of money into a new system and disrupting your office, consider using alerts, workflows and triggers. Ask if the functionality is there. Purchase a third-party add-on. Hire a developer. The cost will be less. And your return on investment will be enormous.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses. Besides Accounting Today, he writes for Forbes, The New York Times and Inc.com.

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