Management software for marine businesses - part 2

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Part 1 of Management software for marine businesses looked at various software solutions that are available for marinas and dealerships to manage their operations. But how do you know if having such a solution will help your business or become an expensive liability? And what featues should you look for in a dedicated management system?

So you think you need new software?

Most businesses run some form of basic business software such as an accounts package, maybe spreadsheets or a database of customer details. Usually these packages will meet a specific need and that will be sufficient. But what if the business is growing or moving into new services; what are the signs that you may need to start looking at a more tailored management system?

  • Everything is taking longer to do. In the good old days, it took half an hour every month to run off your customer invoices but these days it seems to take forever. Software should be a labour-saving tool; if it’s not, then perhaps you need to change it.
  • Too many manual tasks. As a business expands, the tendency may be to add on another process to manage it which means more record-keeping, more paperwork. An effective management system should keep tabs on everything that’s happening in a business, from berth hire right down to how many soft drink cans are in the vending machine.
  • Doubling up. The systems you currently run are stand-alone which means you often spend time entering the same data twice. An efficient management system will integrate the data entry and eliminate the need to enter the same information into different programs.
  • You’re spending more time fixing up mistakes due to incorrect information or poor data. Often a consequence of the previous point. It might mean you’re missing out on potential revenue or sales. At best, you’re the only one who knows about it; the worst case is your customers do too (and they’re not happy about it).
  • Your reports don’t tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. All accountancy packages include basic reporting capabilities but tailored management systems are much more extensive, often with real-time reporting so you know exactly what is going on in your business at any given moment. This means you can make better decisions and react as events unfold.
  • You are unable to predict what may happen to your business based on past results. Forewarned is forearmed. A management system should be able to tell you if you are meeting your targets and, if not, the areas of concern. It should be aligned with your business strategy and be able to tell you if it is working or not.

Management software made easy

Take a look at the feature list of any management software package and it’s easy to be dazzled by what they offer. Vendors like to highlight every single function a system can offer and they are constantly adding new ones. That doesn’t necessarily tell you though which one is right for your business.

Before engaging with a vendor, it’s worth taking some time to consider what you want to achieve with a tailored management system, what features are worth having and what you can live without.

A good starting point is to examine all the different parts of your business – whether it’s a marina or a dealership – to see where the right application of an integrated system might make a difference.

Accounts: managing money

If you’re using an existing accountancy software package such as QuickBooks or MYOB then naturally you want the new system to give you everything you already have – plus more. Analyse the tools and reports you already use – profit and loss, balance sheets, receivables – and consider how they can be improved or extended.

How difficult is it to generate these reports? How much time is spent on finding the information you require? Can this process be automated? Examining how your current finances are managed, and how much time and effort is required, is the first step towards identifying potential improvements to the process.

Procurement: managing suppliers

Who makes the purchasing decisions in your business? How easy or difficult is it to instigate and manage the process? Are there any bottlenecks or steps that could be eliminated? A fully-integrated system should be able to automatically generate purchase orders based on previous sales histories accounting for seasonal variations or busy periods, or in response to minimum stock levels. It should be secure and transparent to avoid duplication, over-supply or to prevent stock from ‘disappearing’ into a black hole.

Labour is another input so consider how the proposed system will manage your payroll or integrate with your current system to administer rosters and take account of part-time, casual and seasonal employees.

Sales: managing customers

What are you selling? It may be storage space in a marina, a particular service or a product package. How easy is it to communicate to the customer what is available, how long it will take to deliver and at what cost? Boat packages with their myriad options can be very complex products to compile and cost; marina memberships too may include a wide variety of different services or pricing options. Whatever is being sold, the information generated for the customer by your system needs to be accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive.

Consider all the products being sold and how they are compiled and presented in the system. Does it allow flexibility for custom builds, promotions or one-off show specials? Does it allow you to track in real-time the status of an order and any work-in-progress? Most importantly, the system should be able to identify the true cost of a sale so you can pinpoint where there may be scope for further discounting to help secure that vital order.

Inventory: managing parts

Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current system in terms of managing stock levels, providing an accurate snapshot of your inventory, importing manufacturers’ price lists, ordering and accepting stock, handling special orders and discounts, and integrating with the point-of-sale to process daily transactions.

How could this be improved? What are the blind-spots and labour-intensive procedures that take time and slow down customer service? A management system should be able to integrate with the parts department to deliver an easier, faster solution.

Service: managing maintenance

Service operations play an important role in many dealerships and marinas, providing another source of revenue and an on-going relationship with customers. Scheduling is a vital part of a busy boatyard, as is being able to accurately estimate and quote on different jobs and ensure there are sufficient resources and parts for the work to be done.

How well does the system manage these functions? Does it make it easy to access customer records and service histories? Is it able to track warranty work and ensure repairs are carried out as specified?

IT support: managing the network

Out of necessity, many small business operators become de facto IT experts as well – but that’s not why you got into the marine business, is it? Consider how much of your time and effort is spent on trouble-shooting your current systems, trying to make them do things they were not built to do, sourcing upgrades and patches. Would it be more efficient to have somebody else do this work for you and, if so, what would be the best way for them to do it?

Support and training from software vendors can take many different forms – online tuition, telephone hotlines, email, video networking or possibly onsite tuition – so it’s important to assess how much training and support will be required for you and your staff, and whether or not what is being offered by the vendor is suitable. Find out if you are able to talk to other users in a non-competitive environment to learn more about how the system works and help instigate better business processes across the industry.

What to look for in a management software package

Different systems offer different levels of functionality and how they are implemented may vary. In trying to assess competing platforms, beyond asking how much it will cost and what the ROI will be, there are a number of factors to take into account.

Integration: These systems are most effective in driving efficiencies when they are comprehensive and seamless. They should be able to touch all parts of your business with the aim of achieving a single system from reception through to the boardroom. Developers strive to integrate with third-party systems such as utility metering or payment solutions – how well does what they offer suit your business?

Flexibility: Implementing management systems should have the effect of making your business more efficient and professionally run – but that doesn’t mean you should have to bend your business to suit the requirements of the system. Shoe-horning your processes into an inappropriate and inflexible system can have the opposite effect to what was intended.

Upgradeable: Businesses change and, hopefully, grow and expand. Any system should have a clearly defined upgrade path allowing you to start small, if you wish, and add functionality as you grow and can afford it.

Support: Perhaps the most critical factor in any long-term relationship. What happens on the busiest public holiday of the year when the system goes down? Who will be there to help you? How much training is provided? What sort of on-going maintenance is included in the price?

Security: Of particular concern if the system is being run off-site. How safe is your data – and your customers’ data? Who is responsible for keeping it secure and backed-up? Who actually owns the data? If you decide to change developers, you need to be sure you can take your company information with you and in a form that makes it easily transferable.

This article first appeared in the October-November issue of Marine Business magazine.

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