Database Basics Part 4 — Your Dream Database

By Beth Cohen | Posted August 31, 2004
As we've discussed in the previous three articles in this series, a good database can make a huge difference in running a small business. Consider these two scenarios.

A major customer calls and requests that you ship fifty of their most popular item except this time they want it in a mix of colors instead of the usual blue. You scramble around your office looking for the information you need to place the order. You're in trouble if you can't it; you don't want to call and admit that you have no idea what colors the item comes in. That shoebox you keep your customer information has to go.

A company consolidates a manufacturing plant into a smaller facility, and they need to reduce their parts inventory prior to the move. By using the data stored in a work-in-progress (WIP) database, they identify 5500 out of 9000 items that were either obsolete or redundant. The company saves thousands of dollars in reduced inventory costs.

Now that we have a good understanding of what databases are, how they work, and how they can help you, it's time to put it all together and identify databases that you can use to boost your business. Since it's more cost effective for most for small businesses to buy a commercial database, we will also discuss what features to look for in off-the-shelf packages.


Common Database Applications
Before purchasing any system, think about what business problem you are trying to solve with the deployment of the system. Match the system to your needs and purchase the system that has the features you need now and in the near future. For many businesses, the database they threw together 10 years ago to fix an immediate problem is still in place today — and still driving everyone crazy with its strange quirks.

There are literally thousands of database applications on the market for every possible niche. They range from the more common, universally useful databases — such as that business contacts address book in Outlook — to those designed for niche industries — the Point of Sales (POS) program you use for your video store. Depending on your company's size and needs, the common database applications are available in simple, inexpensive (often shareware) versions or complex systems with all the features that any company could want.

Customer and Vendor Relationship Databases
Wouldn't it be nice if you could add more detailed information about your customer or vendors' special requirements, possibly an area for last-contact information and other relationship management details? If you want to maintain more information about your many business associates, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Sales force automation (SFA) tools are just the ticket. They will make managing information about your prospects and vendors a snap — as long as you remember to collect the information as you go. As with any database, the data is only as good as what you put in and maintain. When it comes to databases, "garbage in, garbage out" isn't just a cute saying, it's reality.

Inventory Management Systems
If you need to keep track of large amounts of equipment or parts, consider investing in an inventory management system. Even inexpensive ones allow you to manage your inventory with barcodes or RFID tags so that the actual inventory is tied directly into your database. With more accurate inventory control, your annual inventory chore becomes a breeze instead of a dreaded and expensive reconciliation chore.

Shipping Logs
It may or may not be tied into an inventory tracking system, but all the major shippers encourage companies to use their systems. I don't ship packages often, but the five minutes that it takes to fill out the on-line shipment pickup request sure beats a trip to the post office or package delivery story. Depending on how many packages you ship, you could either purchase your own system that ties into all the major shipping companies or you can use their systems.

Document Management Systems
Most businesses need to keep track of many documents. Document management systems are designed to give your business records searchability, accessibility and accountability that a file cabinet full of paper cannot begin to touch. These systems fit a plethora of businesses and pocketbooks.

Point of Sale Systems
Point of Sales or POS systems are specifically targeted at retail establishments. POS systems keep track of customer transactions and inventory allowing you to learn more about your customers and what they purchase, so that you can respond to their needs that much faster. If you own a pizza parlor, don't reinvent the wheel; there's a database out there designed especially for your business requirements.

Specialized Industry Specific Applications
Unless your business is a really tiny niche, chances are good that someone has built software for your vertical market. For example, lawyers generally track lots of documents. Yes you could use any general document management system, but there are a number of systems that cater to the special needs of the legal profession. When choosing specialty databases, look for vendors specializing in your industry. That way you'll know the company has the knowledge to deliver a system that fits your requirements.

Conclusion
As with any application, if you find a system that matches the way you do business and meets 80 percent of your needs at a reasonable price, go with it. There's no reason to spend large amounts of money to customize a database application to your exact specifications, unless you can justify the additional efficiency and increased business it will generate.

Don't consider building your own application unless you really can't find anything commercially available. Databases can be highly effective tools for making your small business a success, so take advantage of 30 years of database development work and find an application that's already been built.

Good Sources for Databases

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, Inc., a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in different industries including manufacturing, architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is available for consulting to help your company identify the right IT infrastructure to meet your business objectives.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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