Digitise Your Business Processes: Entry Level

Back office systems are a key part of running an effective modern business.

Guide

1. Understanding Back Office Systems

Choosing, maintaining and introducing the right software, processes and systems to your business can have a transformative effect on your ability to be productive, efficient and effective at work.

However, it is also a constantly changing environment. This guide is an introduction to the main concepts in back office systems. Rather than familiarising you with one or two specific software packages, this document should give you the skills and knowledge to make your own assessments and confidently judge how and when to manage your business using new back office systems.

Selecting a software package or plan can be a delicate balance between the needs of your business now, your needs in the future and the specific capabilities of different kinds of software. This guide should help you to understand that balance and find solutions and processes that are right for you.

What Is a 'Back Office' System?

A back office system is a broad term describing any piece of software that you use to run your business by storing, manipulating and updating information. This could include customer data, information about stock you hold, intellectual property, financial figures and more.

There is a huge range of software, tools and processes to manage nearly any aspect of your business, from accounting software to stock management, customer records and sales software.

Why Are They Important?

In many cases, much of this data can be held and managed in standard desktop productivity software such as Microsoft Excel. However, storing information in this way can make version control difficult, can be insecure and can limit severely how you can view, use, store and transfer your data.

Dedicated back office systems do require investments in time, training and often upfront or subscription costs. However, they do support specific improvements in business processes that can drive the efficiency and productivity of your business.

If you are starting to wonder how you can manage growing amounts of customer and business data, a dedicated back office system (or a combination of several) could be the next logical step for your business.

2. Packaged, Online Subscription and Hybrid Models

In the past, most business software was ‘packaged’, literally installed directly on a computer. Costs were high and the range of software available was small. This meant that the kind of benefits of dedicated back office systems were usually only available to large corporate firms.

However, in the last few years, many back office software companies have adopted different business models and provided lower cost, simpler and more easily adapted software for a range of different uses.

Broadly, these fall into the following main areas.

  • Packaged software – Traditional ‘boxed’ software that is installed directly on a single device, although in practice these are often downloaded rather than provided in physical boxes. This kind of software is usually aimed at smaller businesses and does not have a required online component.
  • Subscription services – Software As A Service (SAAS) software is online, usually accessed through a web browser and paid for by the month, year or per-user. Some software comes with a free tier of user account that allows small business users to test out new services without committing to a paid service.
  • Hybrid services – Increasingly services will combine the security and reassurance of local storage and backup of your user data with the flexibility and power of an online component. This may only be used to verify your license and provide updates, or it may offer online storage and sharing of your data with colleagues.

Understanding what kind of software you are looking at when you are researching a new back office system is the first step in confidently assessing whether it would be right for you and your business.

What is the Difference Between Different Business Models?

The different approaches to providing back office systems noted above have various advantages and disadvantages for you as a business owner. Check the table below to get an overview of how you can select an appropriate package for your business.

Traditional ‘Packaged’ Software

i.e. offline contact management software, accountancy packages, business databases

Advantages
  • A single, upfront cost
  • Most packages can be installed on a small number of computers
  • Stable features and functionality
  • No need for constant connectivity
Disadvantages
  • Slow update cycles
  • Can be broken by operating system upgrades
  • Backups usually must be done manually
  • Can ‘lock you in’ to a specific computing environment

Subscription Online Services

i.e. project management software, ‘cloud’ accounting software, document management and customer relationship management

Advantages
  • Usually offer tiers of cost by month or year, depending on usage
  • Data can be accessed from anywhere using a browser, desktop client or mobile device
  • Additional ‘seats’ or a higher tier can be bought as your business expands
  • Rapid and frequent updates with new features and functionality
  • Not dependent on a particular computer, device or network setup
Disadvantages
  • Data is not generally stored on your own servers or necessarily in the same country
  • Security is entirely managed by the service provider
  • Services can change or remove features and functionality you rely on
  • Service companies may discontinue a service or go out of business
  • Some services do not offer data export or use proprietary formats

Hybrid Model Services

i.e. productivity software, some customer relationship management software, etc.

Advantages
  • Offers offline or desktop software that integrates with an online component
  • Can be used without a data connection and in some cases backed up locally
  • Offers the stability of a desktop client with the convenience of online syncing and backup
Disadvantages
  • Desktop client software may only be available for some platforms
  • Uses for the desktop clients are severely limited without an online connection
  • Many of the issues with subscription/online services still apply to hybrid models

Why Does the Kind of Back Office System I Use Matter?

It’s important that your choice of back office software reflects the real risks and opportunities of your business, as well as being a manageable cost that genuinely adds value and enables you to be more productive.

Subscription services may be cheaper and more flexible over the short term than packaged software, but the compromises you may have to make with security, data storage and the stability of features may mean they are not a good fit for your business.

The remainder of this document explains the key things you should consider when assessing the need for a new back office system, including how it stores data, what it does for you and your business and how to compare and contrast your different options.

3. Data Storage and Security

Any back office system will store your business and customer data in some fashion, in order to make it accessible to you. This data is the most important element of the back office system. So it is very important that you understand what will happen to information you enter into any back office system you begin using.

Where Is My Data Stored and How Can I Back It Up Or Export It?

Most back office systems with an online component will use some kind of database to store your information. In many cases, this data will be stored in another country, or possibly on ‘cloud’ services such as Amazon Web Services.

When you are considering a new system, look for Frequently Asked Questions or technical support pages and try to find out where and how your information will be stored. Also consider how your information can be backed up, exported or moved to another service. A good example of this in action is Google’s ‘Takeout’ services, which allow users to export any of the data they have stored in Google’s web services (such as email, Google Plus, Google Drive and so on) in common formats, such as text files, PDF, word documents and so on.

Businesses based in the European Union should also consider data protection laws. In general, data stored and accessed outside of the EEA needs to be stored with providers or in countries that comply with UK and EU data protection and security guidelines. The Information Commissioners Office (https://ico.org.uk/) is a good source for the latest laws and regulations concerning storage of your customer’s data.

How Secure Is The System I Plan To Use?

Good data security is often primarily a matter of having good security procedures within your organisation, such as:

  • Changing passwords regularly
  • Enforcing the use of long, mixed character passwords and different passwords for different systems
  • Not sharing logins between multiple users

However, it also makes sense to review any potential back office system with security in mind. If the system that you plan to use is insecure due to inadequacies with its design or infrastructure, then your own security precautions will offer minimal protection to you.

When considering a new system, look for:

  • Enforced use of secure connections – URLs should begin with HTTPS and in modern browsers, the address bar will often turn green or show a lock icon when a secure connection is being used.
  • Two factor authentication – Ideally, your users should be forced to enter in a secondary code when logging in from a new device or computer, usually provided by text message or via a specialist application or dongle. This is a standard feature, especially for larger corporate back office systems.
  • Secure password resets – Secure systems should never send you a ‘password reminder’ in plain text in an email. Instead, a request to reset or change a password should provide the user with a randomised link to a page where they can change the password themselves.

4. Types of back office system

There are back office systems for nearly any conceivable aspect of your business, from timesheet management to accountancy and customer relationship management. This section offers a brief overview of the main categories of software and systems and how they can be used within your business.

ERP

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software describes specialised database and user client tools that allow a business to track and manage the stock, finances, people, systems, assets and other resources that are used by the business. There are a great number of ERP suites available, including some ‘modular’ packages which promise to provide tools to manage nearly any aspect of a business, from HR processes to warehouse management.

Productivity Suites

Many productivity suites such as Microsoft Office or the Adobe Creative Suite are now moving to online subscription models. These allow you to more regularly update your software and benefit from new features more quickly, as well as being able to add new users when required or reduce your software licenses as needed.

CRM

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software is one of the most common standalone back office systems that businesses begin to consider when they wish to improve the way they service and support their customers. It allows you to store and manage customer information and record how and when you interact with them.

Email and Marketing Software

Many businesses see real benefit from marketing directly to their customers using email newsletters, offers and reminders. A good email management system will allow you to store and manage large sets of customer data, design and send customised HTML emails and track the performance of your emails.

Other Types of Software

There are many other types of software, from knowledge management systems to document storage and retrieval software. In many cases, a category of software includes links to other products, such as a warehouse management system which will communicate with a timesheet and people management system.

For most small businesses, you should begin by considering the business problems you are attempting to solve, rather than the categories of software which may be available. The number of packages, online services and apps available is very broad, so starting with a definite objective will help you to avoid wasting time and money on tools which will not suit your needs.

5. Researching and Assessing a Candidate Back Office System

When you are considering a new piece of software or online system, you should ask yourself key questions each time. The actual process of assessing software is detailed below, but before you start, you should ask yourself these two questions.

  1. What business need am I trying to fill? – The first step is to understand what you are actually trying to do. Are you tracking stock? Or trying to talk to your customers? Break down the things you need to do and why you are having difficulties doing them before you even consider software. Good software is not a replacement for poorly defined or inconsistent business processes.
  2. What kind of system might meet my needs? – This document includes an introduction to some common types of back office system, but you should also conduct your own research to understand if there is a specific type of software that will do what you need. Once you have determined the business problems you are trying to solve and the broad category of software which addresses that problem, you can begin your own research.RESEARCHING SOFTWARE CATEGORIES

A good first step is to look for listings of software packages, or group reviews. In many cases, particularly for standalone single-purpose packages, there may be existing lists or comparison grids available online which will allow you to quickly grasp the main differences between different services and products. Never rely solely on the information available on a given vendor’s website to make a decision about what software you are going to use. Always compare different packages with each other and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Reviewing Support Documentation

Always check the support documentation for the services and software you are considering. This may help you to understand the full range of features and will give a good overall indication of the quality and reliability of the software. If there are customer support forums, check to see what kind of range of questions are being asked and, crucially, whether support staff are responsive and helpful to users who are experiencing issues.

Checking System Requirements

On top of reviewing the support forums, look for technical information about the kind of computer and/or browser you will need to use a particular product. In particular, check carefully that desktop software is compatible with your desktop operating system and any mobile devices you wish to use. Also check whether any software you access over the web will work with the type and version of the internet browser you use.

Finally, look for any plugins or special downloads you may need to use to interact with online services, such as special video or audio players.

Demos, Free Trials and Working With Sales Teams

In general, try to look for services and products with clear feature lists, well documented interfaces and extensive support forums. Ideally, trial downloads or demo systems that you can explore on your own are also a positive. Products which do not offer any specifics or require you to sign up for tutorials or conference calls with sales advisers are usually best avoided, since they will try to push you into a software solution that is not best fitted for your needs.

In some cases, where you have specific questions or wish to better understand a feature or concept of a product, you should speak to an available support or sales person. However, do not commit to purchasing a product or taking on a contract until you are completely satisfied that it is the best solution for your business challenge.

6. Glossary

Accessibility

An approach to web design and digital services which seeks to ensure that users using assistive technology such as screenreaders can use your website

or service.

Automation (Marketing or Service)

Systems which will do things for you without intervention, based on rules you set up, such as sending an email to a customer when they sign up to your mailing list.

Back End

The interface of a system seen by internal users, as opposed to the front end seen by the general public.

Back Office

Administrative and operational activities that are carried out in order to deliver business products or services.

Cache

Files stored by your web browser to speed up reloading of an already accessed page.

Cloud Computing

Delivery of software and services over the internet, from a server to a web browser

Cookie

A file stored on a user’s device to help identify them. Commonly used to manage access to the front end and back end of a back office system.

CMS

Content Management System – any back office system that allows the content of a website or online store to be managed by non-expert users.

CRM

Customer Relationship Management. Often used to refer to a database or contact management system used to track and plan interactions with the customers of your business.

DNS

Domain Name System. The worldwide network of specialised servers that translate human-readable web addresses (such as www.google.com) into machine-readable IP addresses. Changes to DNS allow websites to change IP location but keep the same URL.

Domain

Part of a URL, which allows users to find a website or online tool. Top Level Domains (TLDs) such as .com, co.uk and so on are used to group websites and online resources.

eCommerce

Buying and selling products and services online, including online shop hosting, sales processing, order fulfilment, inventory management and tracking.

Encryption

A security measure which allows two or more computers or servers to communicate with each other securely.

ERP

Enterprise Resource Planning – a category of business processes and associated software that helps businesses to organise and run themselves more efficiently.

Firewall

A security measure which monitors and prevents unauthorised access to servers and systems inside the firewall.

Front End

The interface that an end user/member of the public sees when interacting with your website or online service.

FTP

File Transfer Protocol – a method of uploading, downloading and sharing files directly over the internet.

Intranet

A limited access network between computers and servers without your organisation.

KPI

Key Performance Indicator – something you choose to measure in order to gauge the effectiveness of a business process or attainment of a goal. This is relevant when working with third party online services as agreed KPIs will form part of how you specify and measure the usefulness of back office systems.

LAN

Local Area Network – physical hardware that allows your intra-office systems to communicate with each other.

Plugin

A small, usually optional addition to a software product or service, which usually allows it to be connected to other services or offers a particular piece of functionality. For example, an eCommerce service might have the option of a plugin for managing different shipping rates to different parts of the country.

SSL

Secure Socket Layer – a type of encryption that allows webpages to be delivered securely. When you access a webpage whose URL begins ‘https://’ you are accessing a page secured with SSL.

Server

A computer connected to the internet which serves files on demand, which are usually used to display webpages and other online content.

Session

An active visit or use of a website or online tool by a single user. Relevant for back office systems as a user session often corresponds to a specific set of actions by a user, such as logging in and creating a new item in the system.

SLA

Service Level Agreement – an agreed minimum for a specific aspect of a service offered by you or a third party supplier. SLAs should be defined and enforced by a contract in most cases. Examples might be time that your system should be available (known as ‘uptime’) or time until customer support tickets are normally resolved (for example responding within 24 hours, resolving within 72 hours).

URL

Uniform Resource Locator – a humanreadable web address that allows a customer or staff member to reach a website or other online tool.

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