Our business has grown quickly over the past 18 months. One challenge has been finding the right system for email, schedules, to-dos and new business leads to handle our growth and keep things organized.
Here's what we've done so far to get organized, and what I'm looking at to make the system better:
- My quest started when I read "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" by David Allen. This book helped me radically reduce stress by dealing with all the loose ends that come into my life & business. Allen's book provided me with a system to process all "clutter" that used to rattle around in my mind -- even when I wasn't at the office. Prior to reading this book, I typically had 1,000 emails in my inbox -- many of which were in there because I thought I might need them in the future. Now that I've applied the principles in this book, my email inbox is completely empty most evenings when I leave the office. Best of all - I no longer wonder if I'm forgetting something, because everything is accounted for in my system. I now have a system to process everything -- whether it be email, calls I need to make, or even remembering to pick up a loaf of bread on my way home from work. This book is a must read for every small business owner.
- After reading the book and applying the system described above -- I found a "Getting Things Done" plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, which helped me process my email in a way that aligned with the principles in the book. However, we were switching things over to 100% Mac computers in our company, and MS Outlook was not easy to integrate with my new Mac. I needed to find a better way.
- I tried several software options to replace Outlook, and finally settled on Gmail -- the web-based email powered by Google. At first I considered Gmail as a sub-par alternative to Outlook, that I was forced to use to streamline work on my Mac. However -- after less than a week of using Gmail, I started to realize its power and potential for my new system. I ended up importing 7,000 old email messages from Outlook that I'd archived over the past few years. Since Gmail is built on Google's powerful search engine, I can do an email search for "John Doe ABC Company" and in less than a second, Gmail searches my entire archive of mail and gives me results of every mail message where John Doe and ABC Company are mentioned in the same message. This has turned my email into a powerful database of archived "reference material" where I can find what I need in a matter of seconds.
- People tend to like Outlook because of the way it integrated Mail, Calendar & Tasks. Originally I feared I'd lose that integration when switching to Gmail. On the contrary, I was able to integrate Gmail with Google Calendar seamlessly, and then I found a powerful plug-in for Gmail called "Remember the Milk". With a couple of free plug-ins, my inbox has mail, calendar and to do items all on the same page -- like I had with Outlook. With a click or two, I can turn a mail message into a task, or attach it to a calendar item.
- Finally, I had to address the fact that I'd often think of things I needed to do while driving. I can send a text message from my cell phone and the message ends up on my to-do list -- but that isn't a safe option while driving. The problem was solved when I discovered Jott. With Jott's free service, I can call a toll-free number and speak my to-do items into the call. Jott automatically transcribes my speech to text, emails it to Gmail, and the item gets filtered onto my to-do list. It is wonderful!
I setup my Jott account so I can create a to-do item, add a topic to my next staff meeting agenda, add an event to my calendar, and more. All by making a free phone call.
A typical call to Jott goes something like this:
JOTT: Who do you want to Jott?
JOTT: Agenda... is this correct?
ME: Discuss the designers role on the new project from ABC Company
JOTT: Got it.
ME: (hang up)
When I return to the office -- the voice message will have been transcribed to text - emailed to me, filtered to my "Meeting Agenda" list in Gmail, and removed from my inbox. I don't have to touch it, because it's not in my inbox any longer. But at the meeting on Monday, I'll bring up the list and there it is. It blows my mind that this service is free.
I made all these changes, and it's helped me be a lot more productive. But as my productivity has increased, so has the number of new business leads coming into our business. I need a better system to track those prospective customers -- wherever they're at in the sales funnel.
I spent some time this weekend researching dozens of free open-source and paid options for CRM software to manage by sales prospects. I even loaded a couple of free options up and tried them out -- but most options felt clunky -- like a system that would complicate my work flow. If it's complicated, I won't use it. (Nor should I).
The best choice appears to be a paid program -- SalesForce.com. The deal-breaker for me is the way they integrate with the suite of Google products that have helped my productivity so much. In fact, last Spring they rolled out a specially branded product: "Salesforce for Google Apps." I've setup a trial membership, and I'm giving it a 30-day test that begins Monday.
I'm optimistic that this will help keep everything integrated and will position our team for further growth. But I won't know how well Salesforce will work until I put it to work for us.
I'd love to hear what other small business owners are using -- what works and what doesn't. What works for us may not be ideal for another business. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish. But if things aren't integrated and simple, it will never work. If you have ideas or questions, let's discuss them below, your comments are welcome.
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