Harnessing Better Applications to Avoid the Agony of Growing Pains ; SMALL TO MEDIUM ENTERPRISES ++ Business First ++ Small and Medium- Sized Businesses Are Increasingly Likely to Use the Best Software Available as They Plan Further into the Future in an Attempt to Compete with Larger Companies and Reach Ambitious Growth Targets

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The name MessageLabs might be familiar from the bottom of emails, where it often appears certifying that the email concerned is free from spam, viruses or other potential security threats. What is less well-known is that MessageLabs is a medium-sized company based in the UK that is successfully taking on larger, usually US-based rivals.

It currently has about 11,000 clients and employs about 350 people in seven offices around the world in addition to its UK base in Gloucester. But, while acknowledging that it is facing increasing competition, it is seeking to become the world leader in its field and hence is aiming for dra-matic growth.

John Simpson, senior director, sales consulting at Oracle, says that one of the ways the company is going about this is by installing a customer relationship management (CRM) system. He says CRM is vital because acquiring new customers, looking after existing ones and making sure none are lost is vital for growth. MessageLabs is using it to help it focus on improving sales, marketing and client service by measuring, respectively, leads per member of the marketing team, deals per head of the sales team and tickets per head in the client service team.

It is a sign of how even comparatively small companies are turning to the sort of technology that was once the preserve of the largest corporates in their attempts to become more competitive and to achieve ambitious growth plans. Moreover, high-technology companies are not the only ones recognising the benefits of using increasingly sophisticated software to help them run their operations. Software companies that have traditionally dealt with larger businesses, such as SAP and Microsoft as well as Oracle, are all seeing growing interest from smaller customers as it becomes more widely recognised that installing high-performance technology need not be as expensive as had been thought.

Many companies stick to CRM or some other distinct application, such as finance or human resources management. Indeed, CRM even has its own subset, called sales force automation (SFA), which has as its goal the streamlining of the entire sales process to make businesses more efficient, improve customer interactions, increase customer satisfaction and save time and money.

Paul Fielder, applications sales manager with Explorer, an Oracle partner based in Leeds, says: "SMBs [small and medium-sized businesses] tend to buy software to solve specific problems. This means they end up with a lot of different systems, which makes it very difficult to get business intelligence."

In addition, each time they upgrade they have to re-engineer all the applications, which is expensive and time-consuming. This, in turn, tempts them not to upgrade so often with the result that their systems become out of date.

Increasingly, though, such businesses are being encouraged to buy software strategically. Accordingly, they are looking for software systems that can grow with them so that they do not have to keep changing as the business develops, adds Fielder.

This is tending to fuel demand for enterprise resource planning, or ERP. This is a business management system that integrates all parts of the business, including manufacturing, sales and marketing. In a manufacturing company, for example, its use can be seen in the handling of an incoming order. As soon as the order comes in, the system would spark an inquiry about whether the necessary parts were in stock and if not order them. Information obtained during the ordering process would allow it to schedule a date for fulfilment of the order and hence a delivery date for the customer.

Because it brings all the operations together, this technology enables costs to be reduced through such areas as cutting waste in inventory, consolidation of purchasing through a single system, speeding up of accounting information and increased salesforce efficiency. …