Choosing Computer Software For Your Business

Back in the late 1970s, when my company got its first computer, things were very different. Hardware and software for these minicomputers cost in the six-figure range. The monitors alone cost as much as a high-end personal computer does today, and they were black and white. You had to pay someone to program the computer, and you had to pay a programmer to make any changes you wanted later.

Well, times have changed. Personal computers and networks have replaced minicomputers, and inexpensive software can be bought off the shelf. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

It is, but there are drawbacks. Most software programs are not databased (a collection of data arranged for ease and speed of search and retrieval). More importantly, you never get exactly what you want when you buy software off the shelf and you can’t change it when your needs change, even if you hire a programmer.

You can buy software developed specifically for jewelers, however. [Note: For information, see special report on “The computer payoff,” page 118, JCK April 1995.] And the past couple of years have seen the development of Windows-format, databased software that allows you to create and modify your own custom programs without learning the complicated “languages” programmers use to tell computers what to do. This kind of software is called relational database or database management system – DBM for short.

Power, flexibility: DBM systems are incredibly powerful and flexible. Here are some operations we perform with our DBM system.

1. Order-entry orders, print orders and invoices. The system automatically prints mailing labels and invoices for each order, calculates charges including C.O.D., looks up and prints the applicable United Parcel Service zone and determines where the merchandise is in which warehouse. We can approve a credit card purchase at the time of order, and we can fax invoices and quotes directly from the computer screen at the click of the button.

2. Purchase orders, inventory control, accounts payable. The DBM system calculates, writes and prints checks, automatically filling in the appropriate information in the correct areas (supplier name, date, amount in numbers, amount in letters and to which invoices the check applies). It also tracks our checking account, showing what checks have not cleared yet, their total value and the balance in the checking account. Labels for the envelopes of bills being paid are printed automatically; labels for suppliers who provide self-addressed envelopes don’t print.

3. Accounts receivable. Everything is displayed on one screen. As checks are deposited, the invoices against which they are deposited disappear from the screen (they’re not lost or deleted, just not displayed). C.O.D. orders are sorted by C.O.D. number so they are a cinch to locate. Statements are produced at the touch of a button.

4. Product and sales analysis. Because of the nature of database applications, you can sort information virtually any way you want. We have some set reports for regular product and sales analyses. But we also require some one-time reports, which take anywhere from just a few seconds to 10 minutes to produce.

5. Charts. We produce charts with our system primarily to display sales analysis information. Quite a few chart formats are available (bar charts, pie charts, two- and three-dimensional, for example), and custom modifications are very easy to perform. A word of caution: charts such as three-dimensional multicolored versions require a lot of computer memory and could cause your system to crash (the screen freezes and you have to restart the computer) if your graphics resources are inadequate. It doesn’t hurt the computer, but it can be very frustrating.

6. Letters. We don’t use our DBM system for this, but you can write letters for advertising, bill collection and other purposes. The system automatically inserts the customer name and address and the contact name in the appropriate spots.

7. Product labels. We have a separate program for product labels and are reluctant to use our relational database program for this purpose. But it easily can print the appropriate number of labels for a particular product. Bar coding is no problem.

8. Deleting data. Database programs save everything until you delete it. Periodically, you will want to condense or delete old data. We have not had our program long enough to need this, but it’s easy to do.

9. Changing reports and displays. It’s easy to add, delete and alter data. You also can change the appearance of the screen by moving data displays or changing colors. You can even change the way you access data. All can be done very easily and quickly.

10. Security. The system offers several levels of security.

11. Finding data. One thing I really like about DBM systems is the ease of finding information. If someone calls and identifies himself as Joe, I can call up all our customers with that name in a few seconds. For a guy like me with a poor memory for names, this is a godsend.

Drawbacks: As you can see, DBM systems are almost infinitely flexible. As your company changes, you can easily and quickly change your software to meet the new needs. But like all software, DBM systems have some drawbacks.

For starters, they require a lot of resources. Our DBM system requires about 15MB (MB is an abbreviation for megabyte, which is a unit of storage). That can be a tremendous drain on the computer; at times it’s difficult to run word-processing with heavy graphics and the DBM system at the same time.

In addition, DBM systems are not an out-of-the-box-and-you’re-up-and-running software. They give you the tools to create your own programs, but you first have to learn how to use the tools. You could hire an outside consultant to do it for a few hundred dollars, but is this an expense you want to pay every time you’d like to make a little change?

Perhaps explaining our experience will make you less hesitant. We chose MicroSoft Access as our DBM system (I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on how this compares with similar systems). For security reasons, I set up the program rather than have an employee do it. I read the 800-page instructional manual in my spare time over a month. That gave me an overview understanding of how the whole thing works.

It took another month of not-so-spare time to actually set up the program. Quite frankly, every time I mastered a particular part of the program and went on to another, it was like jumping into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim. However, Microsoft Access is very user-friendly. Those few times when I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, Microsoft’s technical hotline was there to help me solve the problem over the telephone. If you like puzzles and other kinds of problem-solving games, you may actually find setting up a DBM system fun.

Once the program was set up, we had to transfer the data from a previous software. We bought software called Monach for Windows just for this purpose. Monach is easy to use and comes with the best-written manual I have ever seen. I had expected no problems with the data transfer, but was I ever wrong! The program we used before MicroSoft Access was written with little traps and bugaboos that made it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to extract data and get out of the program. (I suppose that’s one way for software companies to keep their customers buying upgrades.)

The net result was that we couldn’t extract the data electronically. Instead, we had to spend about 200 hours entering it into the new system by hand. That was expensive and extremely annoying, but well worth it.

We began to use the program as soon as some of the data were entered (we didn’t have to enter everything first). To my surprise, almost no debugging was required. One reason is that DBM systems use primary tools that write the programming for you. If you make a mistake by using the wrong tool, the system just won’t let you move on until you do it correctly. As of the writing of this article, we’ve been using the program about eight months. We still make little changes and additions as needs arise.

DBM systems are not for the fainthearted; they require courage and tenacity. But they are a powerful and flexible tool for any business regardless of size. They are well worth the investment of time and money.

Peter Shor is president of I. Shor Co. Inc./Shor International Corp., 20 Pkwy. W., Mt. Vernon, N.Y. 10552; (914) 667-1100, fax (914) 667-0190.