An Office Like Alice

So many small business operators not only juggle the numerous tasks in a business and are frequently the most knowledgable practitioner that the business itself can suffer. Any tool that frees them to further their business is quickly grasped. Ian Yates reports

Most small business owners end up being their own IT support manager. While this is not ideal, unless your business happens to be IT consulting, it is usually the only ongoing support a small business can afford. Upgrading to the latest software is also an expense that SMEs don’t undertake lightly. They need to see a real business benefit not just a few extra features they may never use.

Microsoft’s Office 2003 release came with the usual swag of new features, but it also promised to significantly reduce the amount of expert help that users would require on a daily basis. Jeff Tubbenhauer, director of Central Australia Financial Planners in Alice Springs, was intrigued by the notion of running his business again instead of running the IT support, so he took the plunge and upgraded his office PCs.

"I'm a typical small business owner," Tubbenhauer says.

"Actually getting around to dealing with clients seems to be a case of whenever I can get away from helping my staff do their jobs, marketing the business to improve profitability, meeting with my business partners and everything else that goes on in a business. While I'm quite competent when it comes to IT, it isn't my core competency so I need solutions that are powerful but, above all, simple for the users and require minimum support from me."

Tubbenhauer also needed to improve his marketing efforts without hiring a marketing department and, having been burnt once by custom software, wanted to use off-the-shelf products.

"We had an instance last year when we commissioned the development of a database application,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was developed using a third-party database program and soon afterwards, the developer moved away from Alice Springs. The result was that when we needed support, there wasn't anyone locally who had enough expertise to help us out. This is the type of problem any sort of business can't afford and it's why I now have a strong preference to deal only with software that has a very broad support base."

Having already upgraded the company's PCs to Microsoft Windows XP, which he claims has saved him a great deal of time by reducing support demands from staff, Tubbenhauer participated in the Microsoft Office System Rapid Adoption Program.

"I wanted to evaluate the new application suite and see if it had the potential to improve productivity for myself and other staff members, as well as further reducing the amount of time I spend providing IT support. Within weeks of introducing Office 2003 to the company, our people were at last seeing the reality of information at their fingertips," he says. "With the same tools, I was improving our marketing efforts and the amount of desktop software support that was needed had dropped off significantly."

The lifeblood of Tubbenhauer’s business is marketing, but the time and money allocated for this essential part of building the business doesn't necessarily reflect its importance. While larger businesses can devote greater personnel and financial resources to marketing, Tubbenhauer has always maintained a policy of doing the best he can with the tools at hand. Using Office Professional Edition 2003, Tubbenhauer set out to revamp CAFP's marketing efforts, which now include a Web site, a ‘Capabilities and Credentials’ booklet, a client loyalty program and e-mail newsletter.

"Having Office 2003 means that aside from having normal office productivity tools, I have a full suite of marketing tools," Tubbenhauer says. "Why bother going out and spending a fortune on third-party products, when everything you need to develop marketing materials is already on-hand? I use Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 to design and maintain the business's Web site and even use it to create an e-mail newsletter I send out to clients every couple of months.

"For the business profile booklet, I put it together in Word 2003 using Visio charts, Excel spreadsheets and other Word documents," he says. "Images, charts and tables are some of the most useful tools we have in explaining to people how our services can benefit them - a picture paints a thousand words, after all. The ability to manipulate these in something as straightforward as a word processor is an absolute boon. There's no need to purchase another program and then spend time learning how to use it.”

Like any other IT "all-rounder", Tubbenhauer is also the person everyone within CAFP comes to when they need a quick lesson on how to use their systems for something that may be out of the ordinary. When he first installed Office Professional Edition 2003 on his own machine, he quickly recognised that the days of ‘if you have a question about Office, then just ask Jeff’ would soon be over. "I always like to familiarise myself with the Help options whenever I load some new software and that's when I clicked on the Training option and discovered the Microsoft Office Online Training sessions," he says. "Instead of learning by trial-or-error, buying a book, or paying for a trainer to come in, we're able to use the Online Training options straight from any of the Office 2003 applications and step through the lessons whenever they're needed...for free.”

Tubbenhauer is convinced that this upgrade was much more than the usual bug fixes and added features of dubious value. The new version of Office has improved the way the runs his business by giving him the extra tools he needed to make a major push with his marketing as well as reducing the time he was spending as the in-house help desk. Now he can spend more time running the business, or even make time for a round of golf.

"The simple task of upgrading to Office Professional 2003 is removing much of the IT support burden from my shoulders, getting our staff members to start really exploiting the new power of their desktops, improving our marketing and letting me concentrate more on running and building the business," Tubbenhauer says. "It's the ideal small business solution."

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