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5 Affordable Ways to Make Your Small Business Run More Smoothly

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When a Fortune 500 company wants to run more efficiently, it will bring in consultants galore and roll out million-dollar enterprise software upgrades. But small businesses on a lean budget don't have that luxury. Fortunately, now more than ever before, there are affordable business practices involving free and low-cost tools that can organize and improve all aspects of your entrepreneurial pursuit.

The first place to start is to commit to improving and auditing your systems, processes, opportunities and pain points, including team strengths and weaknesses, cash flow, inefficiencies and assets. It's best if you can do this with input from all your stakeholders—employees, vendors, customers and clients, and management—at a slower time when you can focus and decide what can be done. Encounter issues? Spend some quality time with a root cause analysis, which you can configure in a variety of formats.

SCORE, the nonprofit organization that fosters small business development through mentorship, suggests that there are five tactics you need in your efficiency strategy:

Delegation: In the beginning, it may have made sense for you to run every department possible, such as HR, customer service and operations. But as your business evolves, that may not work as well. Start training folks so you're delegating most of the smaller decisions and workflow to them so that you can concentrate on the big picture, handling larger issues and moving the business forward.

Automated workflow and processes: There are so many transactions that happen every day between the company and customers, staff and management, and among the entire team. What makes sense to handle on a case-by-case basis, and what's better done through automation and digitization? It may be beneficial to automate regular orders that come through your online system, for example, but when someone has a major complaint, perhaps a human interaction is the best way to approach that communication.

Consolidate tasks: Let's face it, as much as we want them to, our brains can't always multitask. Consider blocking your calendar for specific tasks such as replying to correspondence, financial work, meetings and planning. That way you're less likely to get interrupted—and more able to focus.

Welcome change: How do you stack up to your competitors? How is your market changing? What tools are now available? Where can you pivot? There are often growing pains that come with change, but if you do something for the sole reason that you've always done it that way, you're probably not going to thrive—or survive—for much longer.

Consider available tools: Here comes the tech part—and there are so many products out there that can help. Can an online schedule be more efficient than a paper one? Would an automated job application process cut down on excess email? How about some streamlined digital project management?

There are some lower-cost and free apps and tools that can help you in nearly every aspect of your business. Before selecting from the countless available apps and tools, be sure to fully understand the risks and how they might affect your business or customers.

  • Art and design: You'll find low-cost subscriptions to apps that can assist you with graphic design and photo editing tasks and others that offer a diverse and creative lot of stock photos.
  • Training: There are platforms for creating video training and process documentation.
  • Scheduling: There are apps that can save you all those back-and-forth emails about who is available and when. Some have features like scheduling employees and tracking their time or the ability to collect emails from those who have booked appointments.
  • Mileage and expenses: These apps are a huge time-saver if you looking to log miles and expenses on the road.
  • Project management: It's a pretty crowded space and you'll find lots of options with valuable add-ons, but check for project and customer-relations management apps.
  • Document sharing and filing: Storing and transferring large files can be difficult but there are apps that help make this easier.
  • Social media scheduling: Load up social media posts in advance, receive analysis of how well they did, get audience insights and impact of your campaign.
  • Bookkeeping and payroll: If spreadsheet wrestling isn't exactly your Olympic event, look for apps for payroll, benefits and hiring tools to help with accounting.
  • Sales and customer relations management: There are many apps out there that will integrate with other programs you may already have.
  • Payments: Getting money and paying bills is critical to your survival. Check out apps for invoicing and getting folks paid.
  • Communications: No matter your needs, there's an app for it. Ones that are best for quick messages between employees, group texts, calls and fast email experiences.
  • Signatures: Get your signature online for contract-signing needs.
  • Inventory: There are lots of apps to choose from, most of which you can operate from your smartphone and sync with online shopping software.
  • Governance, risk and compliance: There are lots of ways to define “risk" when it comes to small business, but look for programs that help you manage compliance within the company and via your vendors for regulatory and compliance data, documenting processes, establishing relationships and monitoring key metrics.

Do many of these affordable business practices sound appealing? Maybe what you need is a “Swiss Army knife" with many solutions in one program. In that case, consider suites of products from a single company for more streamlined interface.

And of course, you can always check out Westfield's competitor-analysis tool for small businesses: SizeUp. You'll see how you stack up against the others when it comes to advertising, location, performance, among other insights.