You would not believe the number of printers and embroiderers who call to tell me the biggest mistake they ever made was buying a software package to run their business. These individuals confess to me that they spent hundreds—often thousands—of dollars on software to quote prices, track orders and run the shop only to discover it was a nightmare to work with, ate up more time than it saved and, in some cases, nearly destroyed their business. But here’s the ironic part: They are calling because they’re looking to do it all over again. The fact is, if you want to compete. . . .
Let me rephrase that. If you want to do more than barely survive in this business, you need every edge you can get. In this market, where one competitor drops off your radar screen each week only to be replaced by two more, you need to be able to operate at maximum efficiency, control costs and put out quality work. If not, you’re probably going to be the next casualty. But to do what it takes to make it in this industry without going crazy means you’re going to need help. You need a software system that can shoulder a large part of the organizational management for you. What you don’t need is to shell out good money to buy yourself more problems.
Well, I’ve got good news. Unlike some years ago where only a couple companies made industry specific software for your business, there are a lot of software packages on the market today. But I’ve also got bad news. It’s the same: There are a lot of software packages on the market today. Choose the right one, and your career gets the boost it needs. Choose the wrong one and, well, you know. So how do you find the one that is right for you?
Will the software tell you if the order is done?
Hopefully you figured out some time ago that your customers come in all shapes and sizes. So, needless to say, one size does not fit all. That’s why you offer different brands and styles of shirts to your clientele. The same is true for apparel-decorating companies: They come in all shapes and sizes. That’s why there are a number of entrepreneurs out there who decided they could make a better business-management software than the other guys. Now, if that statement sounds ridiculously simplistic: good. Because the problem most printers have when they shop for management software is that they look to see who has the most bells and whistles, the best sweet-talk, the most bang-for-the-buck. They forget to make sure the product they buy fits their business.
Consider this: You could sell the greatest shirt in the world to a client, but if the shirt is too small, you better believe there is going to be some buyer’s remorse. By the same token, if the software you buy was made for an operation that is bigger or smaller than yours, it may only cause heartbreak in the end.
The first companies to produce this type of software product made everything with only the biggest operations in mind; they were the only ones who could afford it and benefit from it. But eventually other developers saw the need to service smaller shops. Today, there are many different software packages designed to help every shop, whether you have 200 employees or just yourself. Where does your shop fit in? The answers to a few simple questions will give you a good idea which products are right for you, and what features you want and need.
For the most part, the players who make management software play in either of two different ballparks. The major league makes software for shops running multiple automatic presses and lots of embroidery heads. The smaller—but far from minor—league consists of companies that service shops ranging from one-man operations to medium-size output. There is one question I ask printers, to help determine in which league they want to play: “If a customer calls you to ask if his order is done, can you easily answer, or would you need the software to tell you?”
The answer creates a pretty clear starting point for determining what features your business needs from a management software product. The bulk of our industry is made up of small to medium sized shops who can answer this question without having to look further than their own memory. The order is done, and every person working there knows it. Having a software product track this information for a shop this size would be a tremendous waste of time. When the software product is made to be able to give you this information, then it probably requires somebody to provide this same information to the system. In other words, when the artist finishes the art he has to stop and tell the software system. When the screens are ready somebody has to stop and tell the system.
You get the picture. For every piece of information the system can give you, somebody has to take time to provide that information to the computer. A system made to run a large shop has to report a large amount of information when called upon, and to achieve that end, many employees will spend some part of their day reporting to various computer terminals throughout the plant. Many large systems require the equivalent of one or more person’s entire day spent giving the computer information. Compared to the alternative, that can be a great investment for a large plant, but an impossible workload for a small shop.
When you shop for a management package, you need to forget that you are shopping for a system that is going to report information to you. It’s more important to remember that you are examining a system that will collect information from you. Large shops can benefit greatly from knowing the status of any order at any given time, tracking royalties to be paid, monitoring shipping and receiving; but small shops rarely have use for such features. Features you don’t think you’ll need anytime soon are rarely a bonus. If there is a feature included that you don’t feel you need, you might be forced to use it anyway in order to keep the system working, and that will waste time.
In contrast, you also need to get all the features you really will use. There are very few exceptions. For example, imagine you need a product incorporating a financial-forecasting module that generates a pricing system based on your financial needs, but the software that best fits your company does not offer such a feature. You could consider having two systems and use the system that fits as your main software, and occasionally use the other system to evaluate your prices. I know a few dozen companies who do this but, for the most part, if you run a larger company that has a very real managerial problem and the software does not address this need, the lesser software could potentially compound the problem.
Do you really want that feature?
Industry-specific software companies usually create their offerings with a specific shop model in mind, then try to accommodate some degree of latitude to service operations that differ from the model. There is a limit to how much latitude a company can provide, however. The fact is, every program has a core management philosophy that the software follows. If your idea of how your shop should run differs greatly from that ideal, tough luck. You are likely going to have to make changes in how your shop runs to accommodate the software.
So comes the question: Who’s philosophy is better? If you find yourself thinking that the person who designed this package knows nothing about running an apparel-decorating company, you could be right. What works for one operator might not work for the next. The features they thought were important and how they operate might not be what you need. Here are some comon features, that are handled very differently by different packages, that you’ll want to examine closely:
The “QuickBooks Hook”—Most management software packages offer to either work directly with, or export to, an accounting software, usually QuickBooks. For large shops, this is a necessity. They absolutely need to be able to keep inventories up to date, observe sales trends by customer metrics, and watch cash flow on an up-to-the-minute basis. For medium size shops, the accounting feature can be a blessing or a curse. Consider inventory: If a printer screws up a shirt (that never happens!) the inventory module needs to know about it; somebody has to stop and tell the computer. For small shops, having a direct report between the management software and the accounting software is the most frequent reason reported for dropping a software product. They’ve reported that the software made for too many instances where something had to be reported and mistakes were made, or the learning curve was simply too steep when everything was combined.
You should also know that management software operating with accounting software doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all set to marry the two and keep running seamlessly. In order for the management software to integrate with the accounting software, you’ll have to have the right accounts set up the way the management software dictates. This means you may have to edit the way your accounting software is set up, or even archive the old system and start from scratch. Some management software products leave an accounting “hook” as optional; some don’t work without a specific accounting software attached. If you decide not to “hook the books,” that’s easier than you might think.
Accounting software products can be incredibly dynamic as to how they are set up. Using QuickBooks as an example, you can use as much of the software or as little as you choose. Your accounting software doesn’t have to keep your invoices, customer lists or inventory to function perfectly alongside a management software. It’s your choice. If you have a management software running side-by-side with an accounting software, but not actually communicating, you can benefit by having the management software track customers, invoices and orders in process, while letting the accounting software pay bills and employees, and generate government-required reports.
The method is simple. Each day, you make a checkbook entry with your deposit amount, and specify the account as “sales.” This gives QuickBooks all the information it needs to keep your income statement and so forth up to date, while your management software keeps other details about those sales: customer lists, invoices, artwork, ink formulas and the like. Quickbooks does what it does best, and your management software does what it does better than the accounting software can. All it takes is one little daily entry.
Pricing and quoting—Many packages designed for the smaller shop will have a financial-forecast module that can evaluate your company and create a proper pricing system for you. Most packages designed for larger shops won’t have this facility because larger shops got to be larger shops by possessing an astute sense of price. If your pricing structure was derived by borrowing a competitor’s price list, and undercutting each price by a nickel, I’d say you might want one of these. Unless, of course, you feel your competitor is a financial genius and your only objective in business is to make less money than he does.
That said, the scary side to having a financial-forecast module is that you have to trust that the author of the software is up on the details of how to develop a pricing structure for you. It’s a very complex task and, in the end, it’s your prices that are a huge determining factor of your success. You need to be sure your system makes money, not just gets orders.
Tech support—Tech support is a huge cost for every software manufacturer and, needless to say, they all try to control this cost. Ever try to call tech support at Microsoft, QuickBooks or your graphic software’s manufacturer? Trust me, the pain you endured in making the call was probably part of the plan. So when the developer of your management software promises all the tech support you need, what do they really promise? If you shell out thousands of dollars for the product, you better expect—and get—a decent amount of quality help when you need it. Many developers tell you up front what to expect, or even sell you a tech support package. I’ve heard that most of the high-price packages will deliver what they promise. But what about the lower-price packages, the products that sell from $40 to $999? You’ll probably get what you paid for, either in quantity or quality. Which brings me to my final point. . . .
Ease of use—No matter what product you buy, you’ll be light years ahead if the system is self-explanatory enough that you aren’t calling for support continually. Most of the products under the thousand-dollar mark offer a downloadable trial version that may or may not act pretty much like the full version. If you can put that software through it’s paces without a lot of questions, and it seems to answer your needs, you’ll stand a better chance of having a product that you’ll enjoy for some time to come.