The Complete Guide to Finding the Right Shop Management Solution

shop management software

How many unused software tools do you have cluttering up your desktop?

Shop management software can be the foundation of your growing business. The right system will fuel your growth, make employees jobs easier and more productive, and help you not stress out on your vacation.

It’s not always easy choosing the right shop management software though. It can be overwhelming and stressful.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. Follow this 7 step framework and you’ll be on your way to finding a winning system.

Software tools vs. machines

If you’re anything like me, you love buying new tools. Not only are they new and exciting, but they offer the promise of a better future. We believe they will make our lives simpler, easier, and give us more free time.

This is especially true when we look at adding new software tools – especially business or shop management systems. As leaders, we look at those as the ULTIMATE solve-it-all-tool, with the promise of an even greater future. Customer relationship management, order management, production control management, and accounting all in one.

Unfortunately, even though this is the promise, it often seems that software systems that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars sit on the shelf unused. Of those that are used, many only live up to a fraction of their potential. This means that not only did it not solve the original problem, but it may have created more.

When comparing one brand of tool or machine to another, the differences are usually quality, price, and benefits (color, speed, options, etc.), but when it comes to overall function, each one is the same. A laminator is a laminator.

Believing the same is true when buying software, we approach it like buying a new machine. We review the specs, make sure it’s in our budget, and buy based on the belief that it performs the same basic function as the other models.

The wrong decision will cost you time, money, or something worse

Several years ago, I worked with a sign shop that purchased a management system from a vendor they met at a show.

They already had a fine-tuned system of spreadsheets, how-to documents, and a shop calendar. But it took them hours or sometimes days to create a quote due to calculating prices, checking in with their team, and getting prices from vendors. Tracking production on a shop calendar was also time consuming, and they only had one person that managed it. If that person was out, the whole process was at risk.

When they saw what using a more robust management system could do, they were sold.

They purchased the software, paid twice for onsite support, and the monthly fee to use it. Their team spent countless hours planning, learning, and setting up the system. After over a year of spending their hard earned dollars and resources, they still weren’t meeting their goals.

The pricing feature was difficult to setup, the system was cumbersome and often went down, and they weren’t getting the level of support they needed from the software company.

They were tracking customers, customer follow-ups, and using the system to create sales orders and invoices. But since the system wasn’t fully functional, they were still using the spreadsheets and calendar system they’d always used. Instead of making the process simpler, it created more work. Since they’d lost faith in the possibility of automating pricing, they hadn’t even started to implement the job tracking features. Their entire team was frustrated.

In the end, the system cost them time, money, and most of all, morale. Does this sound familiar?

I’ve managed software upgrades many times as an employee/user and as a leader. By taking a step back, I saw major gaps in approaching it like buying a new tool.

Thankfully, there’s a better way.

The winning framework for finding shop management software

When it comes to finding shop management software, the old mindset is all about finding something that looks simple to use, automates simple tasks, and is something that your company can grow into. While this may work when buying a new office space, it doesn’t work with shop management systems.

Taking a different approach will help you find the software that will not only be a good fit for your business, but will make you feel like it’s working for you instead of against you.

Here are 7 steps to finding the right one:

1. Make sure it’s the right timing

right timing

It’s important to make sure it’s the right time for your company to implement new software. As leaders, it’s easy to feel like we need to make a change when we are seeing the results of internal processes that are taking too long.

Blown deadlines, lost business because of slow quoting, and orders that were never billed are super frustrating. These common problems are all solvable with the right sign shop or print shop management software. But timing is important.

Here’s a few signs that it might be best to wait:

  • You don’t have the time or budget for a “proper” implementation.
  • You are in the middle of your busy season.

Take a look at the calendar and plan the best time to implement and then work backwards from there to map out the tasks you’ll need to do to hit your target.

For example, you anticipate your business will slow down in about 3 months – the perfect time to implement a new system. You also plan to add several new team members in 6 months. You’d like to give your team a few weeks to get comfortable with the new system before the new folks come on board.

software implementation

With 12 weeks to get your team up and going, your project timeline should look something like this.

2. Identify your Goals

identify goals

Before you start shopping for shop management software, it’s helpful to know where you’d like to be in 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years. Outline the driving factors behind your need for a better system and then format them as specific, measurable goals.

What are your goals?

  • Are you hoping to automate customer follow-ups?
  • Save 5 hours per week in your Sales process and reduce Quote turnaround time by 50% with automated pricing?
  • Give your production team a way to stay up to date on deadlines and special instructions?
  • Reduce time wasted walking the shop floor to get the status of a job?

It’s easy to get drawn in by shiny promises of features you think you need. Having a clear vision of where you’d like to be once the system is up and going will:

  • Help you stay focused when reviewing the options.
  • Keep you motivated while setting up the system.
  • Allow you to check whether the system is performing the way it should.

3. Involve your Team

involve your team

Jeff Sherman, of Sign Specialists Corporation, knows the importance of involving your team when selecting and implementing a new management system.

“The task of finding a system can’t be taken on by one person. It’s easy to think you’ll know the right answers when you understand how everything works, but it’s a recipe for failure.”

Excluding your team can make people feel alienated when it’s something they’ll use every day. You want to make sure your choice works for them.

“It may create some heated debates, but everyone’s input is equally valid.”

Getting their input will help generate momentum and create buy in before you start.

If you have more than 10 people on your team, you may have different people managing different aspects of your business.

  • Choose one key person to “own” each area.
  • Have them outline what the system needs to do.
  • Ask them to attend software demos, and participate in testing.

Learning that secret insight from the experts on your team could make a huge difference.

When it’s time to setup the system, have these super users train the rest of your team. They’ll be able to give your users support as they are learning the new system and be your best advocates for using it going forward.

Including your team will help make the system more successful, and get you one step closer to taking a vacation. Sound like a plan?

4. Map out your Process

process mapping

The number of apps available on the market today make it possible for many businesses to customize their own “enterprise” level system. It is an exciting concept, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Simplify the process of finding the right fit for you by creating your own list of features. The easiest way to do this is to start by charting your process from start to finish, department by department (sales, production, etc.). Include each step, phase, and decision.

process map

Imagine you were training a new person.

  • What type of information do they need to complete the task? Where does it come from?
  • What steps do they need to take to complete the task?
  • What do they need to do after they complete the task? Is there someone they need to notify?
  • What things should they do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?
  • What shortcuts or workarounds can they use to make the job easier?

As you chart your process, identify the gaps.

A “gap” is a bottleneck that causes missed deadlines, under or over production, bottlenecks, or limits your business from reaching its full potential.

Here’s a few examples of potential gaps in your process.

  • Not knowing the status of materials or outsourced items
  • Underestimating how much time it will take to finish a job
  • Customers that don’t show up
  • Inaccurate or incomplete info from customers
  • Miscommunication between departments
  • Uneven workload or quality of work between employees in the same position
  • Repetitive or unnecessary tasks
  • Workarounds created by someone who is on vacation or no longer with the company

Workarounds are one of the most impactful but often silent bottlenecks in any process. These are things that we add into our own process to make things simpler and faster. It could be a tool, a shortcut, or even a spreadsheet created to calculate or report statistics. We become so comfortable using the workaround that it soon becomes part of our regular process to the point that we forget we do it. It becomes second nature.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a tour of a manufacturing facility that made parts for the aerospace industry. They had to be extremely regimented in every part of their process, literally down to each bolt. They were very proactive about process improvement, and encouraged their team to continuously look for ways to improve efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness. However, even though they had built this culture, they had standards for process improvements and workarounds.

For example, a worker cuts a block of wood to a specific length in order to save time on something frequently measured. Overtime, wear and tear would affect not only the size of the block, but anything it was used to measure. In an industry where manufacturing is required to be spot-on, these “shop aids” could result in costly or even deadly errors.

These “silent” bottlenecks are often the things that will get left out when we’re training someone else or even when we document our process. Once we step “out of the process,” we don’t always realize when someone adds their own to the mix. New shop aids/tools, spreadsheets, or even software are added with good intention of getting the job done faster, but in the long run, these things kill productivity. When the volume outgrows the workaround or a staff member is absent, it strains the entire operation.

Mapping out your process is an extremely powerful exercise that will help you zero in on the gaps and major pain points in your process. More importantly, you’ll figure out why the gaps are happening.

If you double or triple your workload, even rock solid processes start to break down. Instead of blindly trying to automate the process, examine things a little closer. You might find a lack of training, miscommunication issues, or unnecessary workarounds are causing the problem.

After going through the implementation process several times, Jeff Sherman puts defining business rules and mapping workflows at the top of his list.

“Go through the business rules as a group. Define what each workflow should be look like and who should be involved. Get rid of the things that are workarounds or you no longer need. Then you’ll have a better toolset because you can give the software company your process and tell them what your needs are.”

Feel like you have some cleanup work to do before diving into a shop management system? Check out this free sign shop management software.

5. Create your Wish List

feature wish list

Review the repetitive/time consuming tasks or bottlenecks in your current process and make a list of what you’d need to solve these problems. Make them specific. For example, you may want to reduce the time it takes to produce a quote (automate pricing) or easily produce a list of all the jobs that are currently in your shop.

Most shop management systems are organized by function – such as customer relationship management/sales, production management/control, and purchasing. It’s helpful to keep your list grouped by department or type.

Prioritize each feature by rating it on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being that the feature is extremely important to the future of your business, and 5 being a feature that would be nice but not critical. This will help you quickly decide whether a system might be a good match.

Get Your Own Copy of This Wishlist Template

It may be impossible to find a system that does everything you want it to, but if you can find 80% of what you’re looking for, it will be a good fit.

6. Find options

research software solutions

This is the fun part. Shop for a list of perspective systems. Online searches and trade shows are a great outlet for this.

When you find options, check to see if it’s in your budget and then compare the set of features to your wish list. Most companies list their pricing options and system features on their website.

Narrow your list to 3-5 that match the overall scope of the features you need. At minimum, all of your medium to high priority needs should be met.

Here are some guides to help you get started:

7. Demo and Test

demo and test shop management software

Request a demo from each company. During the demo, ask the rep show you how to perform the tasks from your feature list. Then rate each on how well it meets your needs.

Here are 5 additional key areas to focus on:

  1. Workflow – Look for ease of use and flow as the rep shows you how to create a quote, a job, etc.
  2. Integration – Find out what other systems it will integrate with. This will help you determine how easy it will be to automate things like web inquiries and shipping.
  3. Reports – Ask the rep to show you what types of reports there are. Reports are key to helping you streamline your process by automating redundant tasks and, showing you where you can improve.
  4. Support – Find out if the company offers support with implementation and how they handle ongoing support. Having someone guide you through the setup process can make a huge difference in the success. Make sure you feel comfortable with how well the rep knows both the software and your industry.
  5. Cancellation Policy – Create an exit strategy and find out if there are any cancellation fees and if you’ll be able to export your data.

“It’s important that a system be cross-platform. If it isn’t, then you could be limited by the weaknesses of the software you’ve chosen.” – Jeff S.

If possible, get a trial version and do some testing.

Follow along with your process map to complete the steps you take on a daily basis. For example, create and track a sales lead, create and send a quote, send and track a customer proof.

Look at it from your customer’s perspective.

Are the quotes, invoices or emails confusing? Sending yourself a quote via email will give you an opportunity to see it as your customer would.

Pay attention to how easy it is to use the system and how well it will integrate into your existing workflow. In the end, you want the system to make you more efficient, so you’ll want to set it up to maximize workflow throughout your entire process.

If features you need aren’t there, or there are tasks or steps that seem clunky in the software, it may make that part of your process more cumbersome. In cases like this, most people will create new workarounds to accommodate the system, which completely defeats the purpose.

The number one reason shop management software “sits on the shelf” is that the ease of setup and use fell short of expectation.

I’ve seen lots of leaders get really excited about the possibilities only to abandon the effort because they can’t make it work like they hoped. Most often it’s because they change their process to fit how they think the system flows. The key is to make the system match YOUR workflow, not the other way around. If necessary, ask the vendor for some tips on how to make it work for your shop.

Having a clear understanding of what each system’s capabilities are, what type of support you’ll get, and how well it will fit into your existing process will give you the confidence you need to select which system will best meet your needs now and in the future.

You know your business best

As entrepreneurs and managers, most of us specialize in the type of work we do as a company, not the latest and greatest in software applications. The selection process can be tough and frustrating.

Ultimately, you know your industry and business best. Making sure it’s the right timing, staying focused on your end goal, utilizing your internal resources, and spending the time to vet out both what you really need and what a system’s capabilities are will help simplify the selection process and ensure that you choose the right one.

 


About the Author

Dawn Petek

Dawn is a systems analyst, process whisperer, and business interpreter who helps sign makers and printers reclaim their shops. She loves teaching growing shops how to get more done by using the right technology. Dawn advises shops on how to take their business to the next level – by streamlining existing workflows, fixing broken processes, and building automations that save tons of time and money. View more posts from Dawn.