It astounds me that there are businesses out there that still use paper for invoices, office memos, contracts, etc. Even in my personal life, when a company asks that I print something off, sign it, and then email or fax it back to them, I practically hang up the phone and vow to never work with them ever again. It's 2017. There is absolutely no reason to be using paper for these sorts of tasks.

(That said, I do still support printed books. I am a writer, after all.)

For a lot of companies, but small businesses come to mind here, we are still very much in an adjustment period where some things are done online and some are still recorded on paper. And truthfully, I'd wager to say that by splitting some of these things between digital and print, it actually causes more confusion within companies--especially when the topic of older and younger generations comes into play, and what each is most familiar with.

If one of your big pain points as a company (or even as a freelancer) is in the realm of tracking, documentation, file organization, etc., then here are 7 different types of tools you should look at incorporating into your everyday workflow to maximize your efficiencies.

1. Project Management Software

Any company that has more than one client should have some sort of project management software in place that can give team members a high-level view of what projects are currently on the table. One mistake I see a lot of smaller companies make early on is not establishing best practices internally prior to rapid growth. What happens when they start to scale then is they don't really have any clear processes in place, which exponentially increases their growing pains. And one of these growing pains is always, without fail, effectively tracking the progress of each project currently within the company.

There are quite a few different tools out there that do these things, but a great one to look at here is Workzone, which essentially is a project management dashboard intended to help keep everyone on the same page. You can create project templates (based on services you provide, for example: a web development project template, a social media marketing project template, etc.), assign To Do lists, implement status alerts based on milestones, sync with a group calendar, and more. It's a pretty comprehensive all-in-one sort of tool, but what's more important is that your team establish some good habits when it comes to tracking project progress.

Because I promise you, if you aren't establishing the right habits when you have a team of five or ten, you will have an even harder time establishing those habits when you are running a team of fifty.

2. Time Tracking Software

This is a must-have for any company, but truthfully even solo freelancers should be utilizing tools like this to gauge the value of their time. Especially when you work for yourself, it can be very easy to just throw numbers out there for projects without really having a firm understanding of how long that sort of project will take you--and then ultimately how profitable it is going to be.

For businesses, then, you can already see how this sort of data is absolutely necessary to price projects and allocate resources appropriately. Because imagine if you sold a client on a $5,000 project, but didn't realize that the people on that project and their hourly cost ended up being double that. Suddenly, you've just signed a contract for your company to lose $5,000 (if not more).

Time tracking is one of those annoying but extremely necessary steps to building a profitable company. A tool worth looking at here is Harvest, which I like because they have a nifty phone app and Chrome extension as well. You just click to start the timer when you begin your task, and then turn the timer off when you're done. Do this enough and you'll start to really understand how long things take you.

3. Digital Storage

While some might say there is a limit to how many cabinets of files should be kept in an office at any given time, there is no limit on the number of terabytes you should have with important documents.

Even if you are using project management software, you should still consider some sort of other digital storage unit for archived projects, big files, backup versions, etc. Truthfully, your project management software should only be used for immediate files--things that are fairly recent. But beyond that, you might as well store everything elsewhere.

Some people swear by Google Drive, and I like it in some cases, but I find Dropbox to be the way to go in this department. You can use it as an individual, or set your company up with a business account. Either way, this should be where you store all the things you never want to lose, but don't necessarily need at your most immediate disposal (even though technically since it's digital it is always at your disposal).

4. Invoicing

What do you do when it comes time to bill a client? Again, it blows my mind that people still send paper invoices. There is absolutely no need. With the amount of digital options out there for creating template invoices, this should be one aspect of your business that is constantly operating at maximum efficiency.

The other reason it is so much more advantageous for you to do your invoicing digitally is because then you can keep everything more organized. Without organization, any business or freelancer at some point is going to run into some serious issues. And the real benefit with digital invoices is that you can track and organize the progress of each outstanding invoice.

If this is something you don't have implemented yet and need to dip your toes in the water, I suggest giving Sighted a try. Simple and easy.

The last part of invoicing that a lot of people forget about is the tracking of expenses. This is something you can do in a lot of different applications, but regardless, what's important is that you are diligent about it along the way. Otherwise, for every receipt you don't save now, you are going to be sitting there trying to find some record of it a few months down the road.

5. Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Now we're starting to get into some of the more advanced tools.

There are so many different kinds of businesses that can benefit from a CRM tool--which, for those that don't know, is essentially just a very comprehensive way of organizing potential customers and ultimately marketing to them in different ways. CRM tools are what allow you to put customers on different lists, set up automation sales sequences, etc. However, I would say the barrier to entry here is just pure revenue. It's difficult to warrant paying for a high-end CRM tool unless you are doing the necessary volume to more than cover the cost.

That said, if you are at that point in your business, the two big companies in this space I'd say are Salesforce and Hubspot. I am partial to Hubspot because I've used it more, but again it's important to figure out what tools work best for you and your unique situation. And if you've never tried a CRM tool before and want to take one for a test drive, I recommend taking a look at Insightly as a free option to start.

6. Content Management

Ok, a simple example of a content management tool would be something like Hootsuite. You map out your content calendar for the next month, you create the content in advance so that it's ready for social media, and then you queue it up in Hootsuite.

But then let's say you are managing a whole mess of different freelancers or content creators marketing for your company--so you aren't directly producing the content, but instead you're managing what other people are creating on your behalf. A tool I came across lately that really impressed me in this domain was ClearVoice. Think Hootsuite mixed with Elance for content writers, covering everything from posting the "job listing" to paying the content writer, with a little project management mixed in.

If you are managing more than five writers or content creators, I highly suggest moving your interactions to a more comprehensive tool for efficiency sake.

7. Internal Communication

And of course, one of the most controversial types of digital tools for a business to use: chat rooms.

This is one of those things that can either be of extreme use to you and your company, or can become the ultimate distraction. Notifications, period, are destructive to productivity, but if you can master the tool (and not let the tool master you) then this is a must-have.

A prime example of stellar internal communication software is Slack. This program has been game-changing (and it's funny because it's nothing more than a rebranded and easier to use version of AOL Instant Messenger) to my workflow. Whenever I start a new project with a group of people, I make a new Slack channel and that's where we do the most of our back and forth communicating.

Now, the flip-side to using a program like Slack is that there are absolutely moments when you and the other person just sit there typing to each other for far longer than is necessary. So again, if you can learn to use this sort of tool appropriately, it can be far more efficient than sending dozens of emails to the same person.

Published on: Jan 27, 2017
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