Digitise your business processes: intermediate level

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

Guide

1. Overview of 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.

This guide is an overview of good practices in developing and managing a good strategy for the delivery of effective back office systems in your business. It assumes a basic knowledge of the range of back office systems available and their applications in the workplace.

This guide should help you to understand how you should select, test and implement specific kinds of back office systems and equip you with the knowledge to appraise and compare different offerings from different providers.

For further detail on the topics summarised in the first section of this guide, see our Entry Level guide to Digitise you Business Processes.

Understanding Back Office Systems

A ‘back office’ system is any software or service that helps you to run your business. They are important because they support specific business processes in a repeatable, efficient and structured way. Customer and business data stored in a consistent way can be a very powerful tool to help you to improve your business, since you can analyse it and manipulate it to answer questions you might have about your business, your customers and the way you work.

Business Models

Back office systems typically come in three main types:

  • 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.

Each of these has key advantages and disadvantages. Traditional ‘boxed’ software can be more stable, more secure and does not require a constant internet connection, while online subscription and hybrid services can offer immense flexibility and potential for growth while compromising on security and longevity.

Researching and Choosing Back Office Systems

Selecting a good back office system for your business is mainly a question of doing good research and treating most claims of functionality and benefits with healthy scepticism. Begin by reviewing third party listings and impartial reviews of software in a particular category, then check the support documentation and forums for options you are interested in finding out more about.

From there, you should come up with a shortlist of software you wish to investigate further and check its system requirements, planned roadmap of new features and its suitability for the future growth of your organisation and then look for demos, free downloads or potentially a sales team who can demonstrate a product for you. Be sure not to commit to any product before you are satisfied that it will meet the specific business challenge you are trying to solve.

2. Enterprise Resource Planning

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.

What Is ERP Software?

Essentially, the label ERP covers any software tool which helps you to understand and manage your 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. Large scale ERP software includes firms such as SAP, Oracle, Siebel and Microsoft and often involves extensive customisation and integration work. In most cases, this will not be the best choice for small to medium sized enterprises, where buying individual off the shelf software or services may be more flexible and lower cost.

When assessing ERP software for your business, consider the following:

  • Modular or single-purpose? Is this software part of a large, integrated modular system of software like Oracle or SAP? Do you anticipate needing to use other aspects in the future or are you looking to fulfil a specific need?
  • Does this require integration? Many off the shelf, single purpose ERP systems (such as eCommerce systems or invoicing software) can be used with minimal customisation and without engaging another firm to help you set up the system. However, the benefits of having a customised interface that can work alongside other systems you might use can make this kind of work worthwhile.
  • Support and usage – Check how long a particular firm has been around and look for reviews of their product. The field of available software changes regularly and it is essential to understand the tradeoffs in reliability and future security you may be making by choosing to use a specialist or newer single-purpose ERP system versus an established one.

Considerations, Benefits and Examples

The key benefit of integrated ERP software is the visibility and detail it can provide to a range of different users across your business, especially management members of staff who can make decisions based on in depth reporting data.

An example might be an ERP system installed in a mid-size manufacturing firm. The different modules of the system will give different teams in the company useful information. For example, a stock management system might enable warehouse staff to track and manage resources as they are added to or taken away from overall stocks.

Timesheet software would allow the HR team to record and manage employee attendance and deal with under or over-staffing. E-Commerce or marketing modules would allow sales and marketing teams to track orders and special offers from the initial offer to the customer (say via an email) through to the final shipped product.

While a fully integrated ERP system using all of the available modules from a given vendor may usually only be appropriate for large scale companies, single purpose ERP software or specific modules of broader systems may be useful on a case by case basis.

3. Productivity Software

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.

What Is Productivity Software?

Productivity software describes general purpose business packages such as spreadsheets, presentation software, word processing and desktop publishing and some graphics and database software. It is very common and likely to be widely understood and used by most office-based workforces.

Advantages Compared to Traditional Boxed Software

When assessing a productivity suite option, consider the importance of future compatibility (i.e. do you need to be able to open older/newer documents from clients) and how reliable your internet connection is (since you will need a regular and stable connection to confirm you have the license to use your productivity software).

The main advantage of a subscription model is that you will usually have continuing access to the most up-to-date version of a given package. In some cases, such as with the Adobe Suite, you will also be able to pick and choose which parts of the product package you wish to use, which can be a cost-effective way to distribute specific tools to your workforce (for example, some users in your organisation could be provided with Photoshop, while others use different parts of the Adobe suite).

Considerations, Benefits and Examples

Productivity software includes packages such as Microsoft Office, the Adobe Creative Suite or Apple’s iWork suite allows users to create and manage a huge range of work.

Online and subscription-based versions of these products are quickly becoming the future of the marketplace, allowing more regular updates, online backups of documents, access on mobile devices and integration with other products such as email and calendering.

While there are free alternatives to most individual productivity products, Microsoft Office and other similar products are a de facto standard. Subscription-based services such as Office365 will tend to increase this de factor standardisation as more and more users use very similar versions of key software and more modern document standards such as DOCX and XLSX become more common.

When considering a subscription-based productivity suite for your office, consider the per-seat cost versus the support and time costs of using older, non-standard or unsupported software. A subscription model may offer significant benefits as your business grows, but this should be assessed carefully against your actual requirements.

4. Customer Relationship Management

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 track and manage your customer data and understand how you are interacting with them.

What Is CRM Software?

At its simplest, this can be a simple database of customers managed in a desktop software application such as Microsoft Excel or Access.

However, if you are serving customers online, sending them emails or interacting via telephone and over the internet, then a more advanced CRM system can help you to understand who your customers are, how often they are contacting you and how you might be able to provide better service to them and sell more products and services.

Considerations, Benefits and Examples

When considering a CRM system, you should look at:

  • Access requirements – Do you need to access your customer information on desktops within your office only? Or do some of your employees need access on mobile devices or laptops? If it is the latter, then you should consider online or subscription-based services which offer phone, tablet or browser access.
  • Integration with website and phone systems – If you use a website or telephone system to communicate with your customers, you may need to consider whether all of your interactions will be recorded in your CRM system by hand, or whether there is the opportunity to automate some aspects (so, for example, if someone uses the contact form on your website, whether that would be automatically added to your CRM system).
  • Training and business processes – Many CRM systems will explicitly or implicitly support certain ways of working or structuring your business. You should consider whether the system you are considering will suit the way you currently work, or if your employees and business model is flexible enough to learn new ways of working and adopt more efficient business processes.

Many large-scale ERP software packages offer CRM as part of their ‘modular’ approach to business software. However, you should consider carefully whether a standalone or single purpose CRM package may be better in the short or medium term if you are not intending to use other aspects of ERP software.

Effective CRM software can give you a real boost in understanding and actionable information about your customers, letting you identify opportunities to improve the service you provide and generate more revenue. For example, a good CRM system could let you know when a customer is considering a purchase and help you to make contact at the right time, with the right information, to turn a lead into a sale.

You should also consider your likely future needs and select a system which can grow with you. CRM software, when planned, trained and used consistently, can often become business critical, giving your employees information that they previously would not be able to easily access. Over time, this means that your business can build up a reliance on CRM systems as a tool, so switching to a different service or provider can be very difficult, costly and time consuming if you realise later on that you have not selected the appropriate one.

Look for systems that offer exports of data as above and also look for good support, optional tiers of user features and the ability to add new users and data sets over time

5. 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.

What Is Email and Marketing Software?

Email management systems allow you to create customer databases for marketing purposes, gathering email addresses and other customer data from a range of sources. They then allow you to create and send emails, track their performance and automate processes such as thank you emails or reminders.

Considerations, Benefits and Examples

Systems such as Campaign Monitor and Mailchimp are recognised by most large email providers, meaning your business emails are less likely to be marked as spam. They also offer excellent customer support, forums and guidance online to help you create and send better email campaigns and improve the return on your investment.

Other marketing software packages may offer more advanced features such as customised content, user tracking across campaigns and identification of leads. Assessing and testing these features and their suitability to the kind of customer contacts you wish to create is essential when choosing whether to go for a more complex email marketing service versus a simpler one.

Many systems also offer flexible ways of paying, such as paying for each campaign you send, or ‘unlimited’ tiers for sending to smaller mailinglists. You can also in many cases use automation to email a customer automatically when they take an action (such as downloading a product), or try out different subject lines and content using so-called A/B testing, which will automatically send emails to your full list based on test samples.

Data protection is a key consideration with marketing software. Always ensure that when you are collecting customer information they are explicitly opting in to receive email communications from you and look for systems that automatically manage unsubscribes and spam complaints for you.

Remember that in most cases data is transferable between different email marketing software, as they are designed for large importations of data in formats such as Excel files, text files and CSV files. So it may make sense to start using a more limited piece of software and change to a more in-depth marketing solution when your strategy demands it.

6. Risks and Benefits

When considering a new back office system, you must pay close attention to the potential risks and benefits you are weighing up when selecting, testing and implementing.

These risks and benefits are often a trade-off depending on the type of software you wish to use, the business model of the provider offering it and the regulatory and computing environment your company operates within.

Data Storage and Security

The first and most important consideration you should assess is where and how your data will be stored. By definition, many online services will store their data in ‘cloud’ services, which will regularly store, copy and interact with data in other countries. For example, a large number of small startup companies offering niche back office systems use Amazon Web Services (AWS) who provide cheap cloud storage for online businesses. The servers for AWS are located all over the world and are controlled, ultimately, by Amazon.

Most organisations who offer services that are legitimate and offer genuine value will be clear and open about how they store your data and that of your customers. Look for details in their Frequently Asked Questions and support forums.

In addition, you should look for services that offer a secure connection (using HTTPS) and ideally which use so-called two-factor authentication, meaning that users who login from a new location or device need to enter a special code, provided by text or by a companion app, in order to confirm they are a genuine user.

Customer 'Lock-In'

It is important to consider your available options for leaving a service when you are considering joining it. Look for evidence that the service offers data exports in common formats, so that you are not left dependent on a service which may change in the future or be discontinued.

If you are able to import data into the system using simple formats such as text files, Excel documents or CSV files, you should also be able to take your data out.

While the cost and time required to do this will rise over time as you make more and more use of a service, you should still have a strategy in mind for changing to another provider. It is unwise to hand over the critical data you need to run your business to a third party service without being aware of how you might get it out again in future.

User Interface Stability and Training Costs

The main attraction for many modern web-based or subscription services is that they reduce the need for extensive training as they are generally simpler and easier for your staff to get to grips with. As they are designed with many different kinds of businesses and are not often heavily customised for a particular business, they also do not have extensive specialist interfaces or complex structures. This offers a great benefit to small businesses in particular, who can adapt their business processes to fit a particular piece of software with relative ease.

However, these kinds of services also change more often as the companies who make them seek to gain market share and provide more value. Most of this change is positive, as features expand over time. Indeed, as a business owner you may have the opportunity to provide feedback or requests which end up influencing services and products you use.

In some cases though, features you use heavily may end up being removed or altered, so as with data security and export, using a webbased or subscription service means you that you may be vulnerable to change which you have little control over. It is important to keep abreast of changes in the product categories that you use and never to become too dependent on one solution.

7. Implementation

Although some implementations will be as simple as creating an account on your service of choice and beginning to use it, for most business software and systems you should consider several things when working out how to introduce it to your business. Below is a simple overview of things you should consider when looking at a new software package.

Business Process Assessment

The most important step is understanding your own business processes and the challenge you are trying to solve using a particular software package. For example, if you are considering using a CRM system, try writing out the things you would expect to do with it (such as creating a record for a customer, updating that record when you speak to them, reporting on multiple customer records). Against each one, consider how you do things currently and whether that would need to change in any substantial way to work with the software you are reviewing. If you have people in your business who would be heavily involved in using a new piece of software, speak to them about the frustrations they have with your current way of doing things and consider how you can avoid carrying over current problems to a new piece of software.

Once you have a list of the business processes you want to include in your use of a service along with the key people in your business who will use it, you have a good yardstick to use when assessing whether each service or product will be suitable for you, as well as a much better idea of what you are actually trying to achieve.

Email, Calendar and Phone Integration

Your choice of provider for your email, calendar and phone services may be a key consideration if the software you are looking at is able to integrate with any or all of those functions. For example, if you use Microsoft Outlook for email, you may be more inclined to consider their CRM software since the integration will likely be simpler. Likewise, if you use Google Apps for Business or another email/calendar provider, you might fight a more focused, lightweight piece of software may be designed to integrate with Gmail and Google Calendar directly.

This is more applicable to systems which are about talking to your customers (such as CRM systems and marketing software), but you should consider it in any case, since the benefits of email notifications, calendar updates and potentially even phone/text messages from a system could be considerable.

Syncing and Data Migration

You may be coming from an existing system or you may have been manually managing data on shared network drives or similar ad-hoc systems. You should begin by conducting a high level audit of the data you have that you hope to use with a given system, such as customer lists, projects, accounts and so on.

When you have an idea of the range of data and the differences between different sources, you can use it to create a summary of all the different fields and types of information you want to store and use. You can then use this to check services you are considering to ensure they will support your business data.

System Set-Up and User Provisioning

Once you have decided on a system, you should draw up a list of the users in your business you will need to create accounts for and work through support documentation to understand what you need to do in order to set up and customise your system. In many cases, a few changes from the default settings can make your system much easier to use for your own users (such as adding your company logo, setting default addresses and so on). Also consider establishing a process for adding new users and assigning them appropriate permissions so they can see the information they need in order to do their job.

User Training and Engagement

You should consider whether different users in your business will need specific training to understand and use effectively the system you are considering. In general, your staff will always use what seems the easiest, which will tend to be things they are familiar with, unless they can see a clear benefit to using a new system. It is essential, therefore, that you communicate clearly with your staff, explain the benefits of using a new system and enforce its use rigorously.

Interoperability and Collaboration

Many systems offer a range of plugins and integrations which will allow you to easily move data back and forth between different systems. For example you may be able to take a contact in your CRM system and use it to generate a task in an associated project management system, or take data from a timesheet system and use it to generate an invoice.

If you have ways of working which do this manually or other systems you are already using, it is worth looking at this up-front as part of your selection process, specifically checking support documentation for plugins and interoperability.

As you add further back office systems, this may influence your choices further. You may choose to use a specific ‘ecosystem’ of related software products (such as Microsoft or Oracle systems), or you may use unrelated applications and software which are integrated by means of third party plugins.

Security

When you implement a new back office system, you should consider the data security and system security aspects discussed earlier in this document.

However, you should also consider security during your system setup, user account creation and internal training processes. If possible, you should adjust security settings to ensure users are creating and updating secure passwords, as well as educating your users on the importance of safeguarding customer data and accessing the systems they use securely.

8. Developing a Back Office Strategy

The implementation processes noted above would apply whenever you were considering a specific business need. However, as your business grows and you begin to add more systems and processes, it is useful to have an overall strategy for how you manage your business software needs.

Assessing Your Business Needs

As we noted earlier, it can be very useful to define, from start to finish, how specific business goals are achieved and what they should involve in terms of data, staff interactions, customer experience and final outputs. However, this process should not be done in isolation for each business process.

Before committing to any specific back office system, you should first work on understanding and mapping out all of your business processes and how they interact with each other. You may have done this, in whole or in part, in the past, but it is a good exercise to carry out once or twice a year as your business grows, changes and evolves.

When you are considering a new back office system, this overview of everything you do will make it easier to understand whether a specific service will meet your needs. The high level overview can also be used as the basis for a more detailed breakdown of requirements for a specific business process. So for example, you could follow the process of a customer order from start to finish at a high level, then break down the individuals steps required to take a payment from your online store, if you were considering a new online store system.

Comparing Costs, Benefits and Risks

Our entry level guide to Digitise your Business Processes explains in detail the main differences between different kinds of back office system.

This guide also includes key things you should consider for each back office system you are looking at. Overall though, you should consider writing a guide to what risks and costs your business is prepared to accept overall. You may wish to rule out using services which do not have EEA data storage guaranteed, for example, or you may wish to make clear that you cannot work with web-based services or which require the use of Java applets.

Creating this guide will help you to consistently assess and compare different systems and will effectively narrow your options to those which will suit your organisations appetite for risk and toleration for change.

Selecting, Buying and Managing Back Office Systems

Make sure to take note of the dates and costs that you incur when you subscribe or purchase a software package or service, so that you are aware of when items are coming up for renewal and how long you have committed to something.

You may also wish to appoint individuals in your business that you trust to act as administrators on given systems, so they can manage things like new users, duplicate or incorrect data and so on.

Finally, set time aside regularly to monitor and address any issues that arise with your back office systems. If bad user habits, data issues or security problems are identified early, then the confidence of your users in the system will be maintained and you can often resolve problems before they begin to adversely affect your business.

Changing Needs and Priorities

Finally, remember to be open to change and to continue investigating alternative options for your business critical data and processes. IT hardware, internet connections and the software market as a whole are constantly evolving, opening up new possibilities and making previous ways of working obsolete. Sticking rigidly to older processes and software may deny your business key competitive advantages and in the worst cases result in security and data integrity issues.

However, implementing and working with systems and processes does require commitment and proper training for your team, so it is also unwise to be constantly changing which software or service you use. It is a good idea to work on a three year basis – consider what you did last year, what you are doing this year and what you will be doing a year in the future. This will help you to identify what is critical to your work now, what is less important as your business changes and what your current system may not allow you to do in the future. When the list of things you are missing out on or risks you are encountering grows longer than the benefits of the existing system to your workflow, it may be time to consider migrating to a new system.

9. 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.

Client

A software application which communicates with a server to allow users to work with back office systems. This may be a thin client, which is essentially

a specialised web browser and usually cannot function without an active internet connection. Alternatively it may be a thick client which has the ability to download and store data for offline work.

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.

Database

A store of information, in a format that allows it to be manipulated by a given system. Some database types are proprietary and will only work with a given type of software, while others are open source or are a de facto standard and will work with multiple types of system.

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 organiseand 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.

Integration

The process of tailoring software for specific business needs, including creating interfaces and plugins for specific sources of data and specialist applications. Custom integrated systems can be heavily adapted for the requirements of your organisation, but require ongoing support and maintenance relative to the degree of customisation.

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.

OTS

Off The Shelf – a description of back office systems which are usable with minimal customisation or setup. Off The Shelf systems tend to be less flexible, but are usually cheaper to run and manage compared to custom integrations. Some OTS systems can also be integrated and customised.

Open Source

Open source software is any software whose source code can be viewed by anyone who wishes to improve on or supplement the software. Note that open source does not always mean free; some commercial software is open source but still a commercial product. The open source nature of the product usually has benefits in the availability of plugins and the reduced likelihood of undetected security issues.

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.

Proprietary

Systems, formats or data which is owned by an entity and not available for development or use (except under license) by other organisations. Proprietary systems can offer specific benefits, but often involve a degree of lock-in.

QA

Quality Assurance – the process of testing and confirming whether a new product or service is working and is suitable for the requirements of an organisation.

Requirements Gathering

A step in the usual process of integration or setup of an OTS system, where the things an organisation wants to achieve using a back office system are recorded, prioritised and agreed. This is a necessary prelude to effective customisation and integration work.

SaaS

Software as a Service – a category of software which is primarily delivered via a web browser or via thin client software. SaaS vendors primarily offer their products and services on a subscription basis.

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.

Source Code

The computer code used to deliver a piece of software, whether it is on desktop or online. Not usually available to non-expert users, but may be available if the software is open source.

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).

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.

UAT

User Acceptance Testing – a period where genuine end users of a back office system are given the opportunity to extensively test a back office system and confirm that it meets their requirements.

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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