Computers have changed the basic way we operate as small business owners. If you are not using computers extensively in your day-to-day, you are missing a key ingredient of success.

How does a small business use computers? Besides the everyday jobs like accounting and information management, computers (with the proper software) generate a lot of information that helps business owners make better decisions. There are hundreds of companies out there selling management software for service businesses that will generate amazing data reports, too. This is generally referred to as the ?back office? part of management software ? all the stuff that goes in behind the scenes to create the accounting reports you are used to. Some of the better programs integrate their information with your accounting system, which means that you only have to enter the customer?s data once.

There are also many tasks that can be done quickly and easily by a business owner that used to have to be farmed out, such as marketing, payroll, human resources, scheduling, tracking bids and sales contacts, etc. Let?s look at some of these functions and how you can do them yourself in your own business.

Marketing is one of the fields that have changed overnight because of the computer applications available to the average business owner. I am not trying to sell anyone?s software, but there are some basic functions that can change how you market dramatically. Let?s look at a few here.

Mail Merge: This is a function that turns a basic anonymous marketing message into a personal message from a friend. By linking a database to a form letter, mail merge personalizes the message. If you ever got that letter from some magazine publisher that referred to you by your first name in the middle of the letter, Mail Merge is involved. If you use Microsoft Word, the mail merge is built in. We can?t give you step-by-step instructions here, but the ?Help? function will explain exactly how to do the job. When I was a contractor, I sent out personalized letters several times each year to every one of my existing customers, and managed to double my sales over the first two years.

Desktop Publishing: Using software like Microsoft Publisher, or any similar program, you can turn out better print materials ? everything from fliers to manuals. Publisher lets you create pages from blanks or from pre-designed templates, add pictures, turn those pictures or text blocks on angles or sideways or place them in the middle of paragraphs or whatever your imagination wants to see. You can use programs like this to create a Presentation Book for potential customers that show before-and-after pictures, a sample of your contract if you use one, a sample of your Guarantee certificate if you use one, etc.

Newsletter software or services: Newsletters like this one are easy to create using software templates in Publisher or Word. You can get ideas for content from companies on the internet, so you should always be able to turn out an interesting newsletter. There are companies on the internet (like Constant Comment, the company who manages this newsletter) who will allow you to use their templates and manage the jobs of maintaining your mailing list and the actual mailing. Publishing a newsletter is a great way to stay in contact with your customers and keep your name fresh in their minds.

Your computer gives you instant contact and instant information. Companies like Sales Genie and InfoUSA will sell you mailing lists full of contact names for potential customers, which can be downloaded or emailed to you in a matter of minutes after you pay for your list. These services will provide you with all of the information you need to keep your company growing.

One way we have expanded our customer base is to send postcards to potential new customers. We use a free program from Avery Denison called Avery Design Pro. We create some great looking postcards, mail-merge with a database of customers, and then print the postcards in full color. For as little as three cents per postcard plus postage, we are ready to go. We eliminate the old address labels, because the addresses are printed at the same time that the card is printed. By the way, you can buy blank postcards at Sam?s or Costco for as little as $6 for 400 ? only about 1.5 cents apiece.

Using software like FrontPage or Dreamweaver, you can easily create web pages yourself. Having a web page these days is fast, easy, inexpensive, and necessary. Web sites mean credibility, and will handle the selling process for you when it is convenient for the customer ? even at 2:00 AM! Most small companies create their own web sites, but they have options here. Due to the ease with which business owners can create their own web sites, the folks who used to charge you thousands of dollars to create a web site for you now will do the same thing for a few hundred.

Connecting to the internet opens up lots more potential for using your computer to grow your operation. You can research your competitors, find out about community social events where you can market your services, allow you to register your company to be eligible for state and federal work, list your company on several Yellow Pages services like Yahoo, and the list goes on.

One of the most important functions for your computer is tracking the results of all of your marketing efforts. Spreadsheets (like Excel, part of the Microsoft Office package like Word and Publisher) are an easy way to keep these records. Imagine that every time a customer calls, you ask ?How did you hear about us?? or ?How did you hear about this offer??. Tracking what you did and how much response you got will tell you the smartest place to spend your marketing dollars next year. You can create a ?bounceback? coupon or marketing message that will keep your customers coming back, time after time. Remember when I told you that we doubled our sales in two years? We just kept marketing to the same customers over and over again. They just kept saying ?Yes? over and over again, too. Isn?t life great?