By Rebecca Day
Downsize and double up. That's the strategy du jour for many corporations. And if you want your home or small office to be as efficient as the headquarters of a corporate giant, you'll have to adopt the same philosophy.
You can start by slashing capital expenditures and overhead. When it's time to update office equipment, turn to software solutions wherever possible. For example, you can upgrade flash PROMs in a PC or modem (probably for free) to improve performance instead of laying out money for new hardware.
You can also increase productivity by making one office machine handle the tasks formerly done by two or three. Give the pink slip to desk-eaters like the telephone answering machine and replace them with more economical and space-saving telephone-management devices like those built into the Compaq Presario line. Scan documents, fax from your computer and program automatic fax broadcasts, and you can eliminate paper waste and free up employees for more meaningful tasks.
That's only the beginning. With Windows technology on your side, there's plenty you can do to enhance your company's image. Here are 10 things to consider for starters.
Want to eliminate low-level work that can be done by machine and free up staff members' time to use their talents in more productive pursuits? Fax-on-demand is a great way to do both. Large corporations have been using fax-on-demand service for years. This technology enables a computer to answer the phone, direct callers to the appropriate prompts and automatically send out faxes of brochures, forms or any other information the callers need.
Think what that could do for you. If one of your employees handles 20 phone calls a day requesting information, then spends five minutes per request printing a document, dialing a number and faxing out the document-that's 100 minutes a day spent on work that can be done automatically. And that doesn't even factor in the complications of playing phone tag.
Fax-on-demand is invaluable, to be sure, but until recently only large companies could afford these systems, which averaged $8,000 to $25,000. The good news is that new programs make these capabilities affordable for small offices, with programs starting as low as $1,500. Ibex Technologies' Fax-It-Back, for example, answers the phone, gives callers a voice menu and faxes out the appropriate documents. Designed to work with U.S. Robotics Sportster Vi modems, Fax-It-Back also accepts text files from contact managers in most database programs so that name and fax-number information can be transferred automatically for multi-recipient broadcast faxing.
Fax-It-Back has multi-line capabilities and can perform high-volume multi-port fax broadcasts. You can record voice prompts directly, or you can import .WAV-compatible files. In addition to modems and a dedicated telephone line, Fax-It-Back requires a 486/66 system with at least 8MB of RAM and Windows 95.
So get ready to save time and work more efficiently. And just think what a great impression you'll make on callers.
Once the fax machine became an indispensable office tool-more than 90 percent of businesses now have fax capability-it demanded a healthy chunk of office space, not only for the machine but for furniture and storage as well. Every '90s office needs a fax machine, telephone, copier and printer, but they don't have to be separate components. Multifunction machines do it all, combining printer, copier, fax, scanner and telephone in one box that can cost considerably less than buying all five pieces separately.
The Panasonic KX-F1600, for example, bundles a color printer and copier, plain-paper fax machine, black-and-white scanner and telephone in a single unit that sells for around $750. Its color printing and copying talents give your presentation documents the look of professionally prepared materials at homegrown costs. You can save even more money on the fax side by programming broadcast faxes to go out during the phone company's night-rate hours.
Ricoh's compact MV74 multifunction unit ($1,295) is similarly endowed. Aimed at telecommuters and salespeople working at home, the double-decker machine packs a monochrome and color printer, plain-paper fax, telephone and copier. Options include a scanner and a fax modem. The printer delivers 4 pages per minute at a resolution of 360x360 dots per inch.
One drawback to multifunction machines is servicing. If the copier portion goes down, you could lose fax capability as well, so be sure you're covered by a loaner product from your dealer. Another issue is features; if you're looking for all the latest bells and whistles, a basic multifunction machine might not fill the bill.
The way you answer the phone says a whole lot about your organization. Your office may have four employees operating out of a 15-by-20-foot room, but your communications center can give callers the mental picture of a megafirm just slightly smaller than AT&T. "Hello, you've reached the corporate headquarters of Bill's Bagel Basement. To place an order by fax, press 1. To request a price list, press 2. For national and international sales, press 3. For the marketing division, press 4."
You can get sophisticated voice-mail service like this through a variety of sources: from the phone company, from an integrated telephone/answering machine or via a software program on your computer. One way to give your office this kind of big-firm feel, and then some, is with Microsoft Phone.
Using a Windows 95-compatible voice/fax modem, Microsoft Phone can answer your calls, direct callers to an unlimited number of mailboxes and store infinitely more messages than you can cram into the typical 30 minutes allotted by standalone answering machines. The program can also dial phone numbers via voice command, send faxes based on caller prompts, translate your e-mail from text to voice so you can retrieve e-mail from a remote location, and beep your pager or cellular phone when a call comes in.
If you subscribe to Caller ID, the name and number pops up on the screen, and you can choose whether to answer the call or direct it to a voice-mail box. Microsoft Phone also allows you to dial manually using an on-screen pad. You can speed-dial, put a caller on hold, click for Call Waiting, log calls, and store and dial from a built-in address book.
Microsoft Phone's first implementation is in the new Micron Electronics line of multimedia computers. Bundled with the Diamond Supra 288iSp telephony modem as part of an OEM package, the feature is sure to find its way into other computers as well.
Other systems also have compelling telephony features. Compaq has been offering the Phone Center in its Presario series from the initial rollout of the line. Phone Center lets you answer the phone by clicking your mouse; you speak into a tiny microphone located in the monitor. The full-duplex speakerphone may not deliver the same clear audio you get from your desk phone, but it's a major improvement over traditional speakerphones that allow only one person to speak at a time.
In addition, Phone Center provides 10 separate voice-mail boxes that are accessible from remote locations. The system will even respond to voice commands. One caveat: Computer-based answering systems require you to leave the computer on at all times. But don't worry about your utility bill: Compaq says its power-down mode uses the same amount of electricity as a 10-watt light bulb.
Your system will need a voice modem if it is going to serve double duty as a speakerphone. Basic voice modems enable you to place and receive calls, as well as record messages, from your PC. More elaborate mo dels pack voice/data switchck to voice simply by dragging an icon-during the same phone cing capability so you can cut from voice communication to data transmission and baall. You could call client, discuss his or her needs, send a price list via fax or modem and confirm an order, all in one shot.
At the high end of the voice-modem market, digital simultaneous voice and data (DSVD) technology enables modems to transfer data and voice concurrently on a standard phone line. That saves small- and home-office owners the cost of upgrading to a pricey ISDN phone line to get similar capability. Multi-Tech Systems' MultiModemPCS ($399 to $899), for example, provides 28.8Kb-per-second data and 14.4Kbps fax transfer rates, but it also supplies voice communication through any analog telephone provided by the user. The software bundled with the MultiModemPCS detects whether an incoming call is voice, data or fax and then directs the call to the proper location. If the phone isn't answered within the specified number of rings, the call automatically goes to a voice-mail box on the PC's hard drive.
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Though you may want your small office to have the professional appearance of a large corporation, you don't always want your company to operate like one. Too often in giant companies, the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. A solid contact management program will help you and your employees work like a team. There are several popular contact managers on the market, including Janna Contact, ECCO Pro and GoldMine.
Contact management software enables individuals to keep detailed records of their own sales calls, status reports and client lists. It's also important for one salesperson, for example, to know what another is doing to best serve clients when their own contact isn't available.
A shared program like GoldMine from GoldMine Software Corp. ($295 for a single user; $895 for a five-user license) enables anyone connected to the system to find out the status of an account and to trigger the next scheduled step, whether it's a follow-up fax, e-mail, phone call or letter. Although GoldMine was designed to be used as a team program, the networking aspects are transparent to the individual user.
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Wynd Communications' WyndMail
These days, you need to be able to deliver a critical document from the road as well as from your desktop computer. You and your colleagues must have access to the same urgent information, whether by phone, pager, e-mail or fax. There are a variety of remote software packages to help you get the message across no matter what.
Wynd Communications is taking an unusual approach to remote communications. Its WyndMail product turns your remote location into a full-featured wireless office. Subscribers can send wireless messages from portable devices-including notebook computers and PDAs-to an alphanumeric pager, an Internet address or a fax machine. You can even dispatch a message to a telephone, thanks to a built-in converter that translates data into a computerized voice message. The subscription service starts at $29.95 a month for 200 messages of 150 characters each; beyond the basic package, it costs a nickel per message unit for data messages and 39 cents each for fax and phone messages. WyndMail works in the Macintosh, Newton, Windows, GeoWorks and DOS environments.
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Peachtree Software's First Accounting
All the whiz-bang technology in cyberspace doesn't mean a megabyte if you can't manage the bottom line. Financial software programs targeted at small businesses combine a number of functions into a single package to help you work more efficiently.
For a wide-ranging accounting package tailored toward small businesses, try QuickBooks 4.0 ($99 disk; $129 CD-ROM) from Intuit. Its online help includes industry-specific documentation for more than 20 different types of businesses. The Easy Step Interview uses a question-and-answer format to help you set up the company's ledgers, along with reports, transactions and menus geared toward your needs.
Big Business, from Big Software, is available in single- and multi-user versions. It offers a full-featured accounting program including general ledger, accounts payable, financial statements and accounts receivable. The program adds a built-in contact manager, sales program, inventory tracker and Web-page generator. The notes feature in Big Business functions like e-mail, enabling users to send each other notes and add orders, quotes and other information. The package's street price is $199 for the single-user version, $149 for a competitive upgrade and $999 for a three-user package.
JIAN markets two template tools for small businesses. AgreementBuilder ($49 street) is a collection of 100 business agreements and supporting documents for fields including real estate, marketing, employee management and contractors. Designed to shore up business owners' knowledge of legal issues, the program offers on-screen explanations and a 300-page reference guide, including a primer on contracts and advice on utilizing the services of an attorney.
LoanBuilder ($89 street), also from Jian, was designed to improve your chances of securing a loan. Compatible with Excel and 1-2-3, LoanBuilder guides you through the application process and includes 32 templates for documents, including resume', loan proposal summary, schedule of business debts and a multitude of standard forms.
Targeting small businesses with up to $2 million in sales and 10 employees, Peachtree Software's First Accounting ($49) is a no-frills starter package for companies automating their bookkeeping for the first time. Designed to operate under Windows 3.1x or Win95, the program is expandable, enabling users to upgrade to more sophisticated programs as their needs grow. Included in the basic package are 75 new company setup templates, navigational aids, smart guides and a tutorial. With the program, even novices can access reports, fill in supplied forms, do cash- and accrual-based accounting, choose from flexible invoicing options, track jobs and payables, and reconcile all accounts.
DacEasy's full-featured DacEasy Accounting & Payroll 95 ($149.95) targets the small-business user with up to 50 employees. Windows 3.1x- and 95-compatible, the program offers more than 90 business templates. Features include layout designer; communications tools such as phone dialer, contact management, time billing, e-mail, fax statements and letter merge; fixed assets; payroll operations including vacation/sick-time tracking, tax calculation, 401(k) plans and W2s; inventory control and invoicing; and customizable interfaces.
If you could predict the future, you'd never have inventory or back orders, and you'd know your exact expenses month to month. That's just a pipe dream, but there are forecasting products on the market that can help you make an educated attempt at forecasting sales, revenues, demand and other important variables that directly affect your business. Forecast Pro, from Business Forecast Systems, uses artificial intelligence and four prominent statistical methodologies to help you predict those variables. The $595 (direct) package can steer experienced or inexperienced forecasters to the best approach based on your background.
Over the next few years, electronic transfer of data, documents and other information will substantially reduce mailing and paper costs, and provide instant delivery of information. As the pipelines widen and the amount of information available to the average company reaches vast proportions, you'll need something to sift through all those grains of sand to collect the information that's most pertinent to your business.
One way to do that is with AT&T's Business Network. An electronic gofer for the small office, the service is transitioning from AT&T's Interchange publishing platform to the World Wide Web, with relaunch slated for September. Available for $24.95 a month (for 10 hours; $2.95 for each additional hour plus extra charges for certain services), Business Network offers a package of information that small companies wouldn't otherwise be able to access.
Positioned as a higher-level service than CompuServe but lower than Lexis-Nexis, Business Network is designed to help small businesses operate more efficiently. Business Network finds Internet sites that are relevant to businesses in 19 different industries and provides access to sources including Dow Jones Newswire, CNN Interactive, Dun & Bradstreet Information Services, Standard & Poor's, Thomas Register of Manufacturers, Cowles Business Service and TRW Business Information Services. Business Network offers seamless links to the Internet, too, but users need Net access-AT&T is banking on its own WorldNet service-before they can plug in.
Videoconferencing is nothing new. Corporations have been using the technology for years to hold press conferences, sales meetings and training sessions over long distances, as well as other discussions that are better conducted with eye-to-eye contact. What's new about teleconferencing in the mid-'90s is cost.
The PictureTel Live200i, for example, is $1,995. At that price point, even small businesses can justify the technology, especially when you consider that videoconferences often result in enormous reductions in travel costs. The system uses an interface modeled after Microsoft Office, and includes support for 32-bit color, a customizable floating toolbar and an address book.
SEMS is also bringing the price of videoconferencing to a point that most small businesses can easily afford. SEMS' Eye-2-Eye system, bundled with a hardware package that includes a desktop camera, video capture card and full-duplex sound card, costs less than $1,000 and is compatible with Windows 95 and Windows NT. The 32-bit application offers live, two-way transmission over LANs. Versions for standard phone and ISDN lines should be available by late summer. Video options include a blank-screen privacy mode, image freeze mode, record capability and clip-and-capture for document-sharing.
While telephone communication will always be crucial to business, e-mail is poised to become the messenger of choice in the business world over the next few years. You can get easy access to Internet e-mail with America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy, for a monthly fee of about $9.95 per month for five hours. Local Internet service providers and even the phone companies are other avenues to the Net.
You can also try the new Juno e-mail service from D.E. Shaw & Co., which lets you send and receive e-mail free. Of course, you know that nothing's really free. D.E. Shaw is banking on the same advertiser-funded formula that supports other media. You have to wade through the commercials that pay the bills for the service.
Whether your office is a four-wheel vehicle, a converted game room or rented space in the local industrial park, you can give it the glitz and proficiency of a large corporation, while keeping costs in line with small-business budgets. But you'd better look out-these business boosters may not only make your company look big, they just might expand your piece of the market pie.
Rebecca Day is a freelance writer based in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.
By Lori L Bloomer
The business buzzword of the moment is "Web." Don't miss out-you can make clients think you have your very own Webmaster even if you can't afford one. And if you know nothing about HTML, you'll need tools to make the job less troublesome.
Word, PowerPoint and Excel users will want to check out the free plug-ins for these programs available on the Microsoft Web site (http://www.microsoft.com). Microsoft's Internet Assistant tool for Word (see review in this issue) allows you to create a Web page the same way you'd set up a Word document, and then save your page as HTML. This is a good bet for those who don't have the time to learn HTML design but already know Word. The company also offers a plug-in to translate Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations to HTML.
HotDog Professional 2.0 is a tool that will grow with your company and let you design snazzy Web sites with all the slick style of the big guys. This powerful page-authoring program lets you see your changes as you make them, preview your page in multiple browsers, make clickable image maps, spell-check your document and check your HTML syntax.
Adobe PageMill (currently in beta for Windows 95) is another robust Web authoring tool that allows in-place image editing, along with page composition that mimics a layout program such as PageMaker.
$149; $99 if purchased online
|HotDog Pro 2.0|
Anawave Software/Sausage Software
|Microsoft Internet Assistant|
Free download ($5 shipping)
|AT&T New Media Services
|Juno Online Services
770-840-9966, fax 770-734-4601
|Business Forecast Systems
617-484-5050, fax 617-484-9219
|Compaq Computer Corp.
310-275-7788, fax 310-275-7333
|GoldMine Software Corp.