Sales quotation

Five ways to raise quotes that suit your way of working …

Many businesses need to issue quotes or estimates for their prospective clients.  Very often standard systems offer only a basic option that requires you to perform all the calculations externally, and manually, and then transfer the details to a simple form letter or email.

We appreciate that the process of building a quote takes a lot of time and very often needs to be revised before you issue it to the customer.  Therefore, we offer significant flexibility over how you build a quote, and how you control margins and profit.  This ensures that you only issue quotes that will result in profitable orders.

Here are some of the key features of one of our bespoke quotation systems:

Hierarchical structure to build quotes

The idea is that you build a quote by creating a hierarchy based on your needs.  Perhaps you manufacture something, so you have a bill of materials that needs costing by component, or constituent parts.

Think of a recipe … to make spaghetti bolognese you need spaghetti and bolognese (no surprises there!).  For the bolognese part you need mince and sauce.  The sauce consists of multiple ingredients – tomato, garlic, onion, and so on.

One of our quotation systems will allow you to build the meal up element by element.  Each one is costed, linked to a supplier, and allocated a margin that you can default or adjust as required.  It can be a fiddly business building a quote this way, but for some businesses it’s the only way to be sure of making money on each and every job.  Also, it’s probably less work than all that messing about on bits of paper, especially when someone changes their mind about what they want!

Multiple options on one quotation

Sometimes you need to offer the customer a choice between a standard and premium product or service, or between two different styles and types of product.

That is straightforward in one of our systems, as you can replicate the first option if you want, and then go through it making the alterations to the details.  You don’t need to start from scratch every time.

The option becomes the top level in the quote hierarchy, so all the elements for each option are effectively quotes in their own right.

We’re also careful to be aware of the fact that quotes contains options, so you don’t double up on your sales pipeline.  A quote for two options worth around £5,000 each is not going to be £10,000-worth of business, sadly!

Adjustable margins and prices

Our systems always allow you to change margins, either on individual elements, or on the entire job.  You can also decide on a selling price, so if your system tells you it should be £4,750 you can decide to make it £5,000 and the margins will recalculate accordingly.

Our systems have supported all sorts of requirements from rounding up the selling prices to the nearest £100, and recalculating the margins, to enabling the client to adjust the final selling price, and then changing all the component selling prices and margins to match.

Every business raises quotes in a unique way, it seems!

Paper free process

Our quotes, when complete, are usually output as PDF documents, fully formatted and professionally laid out.  These documents are saved on your server, and then emailed to the customer.  You can choose to have follow-up reminders, and you can also control the level of detail that the customer receives.  You may want a simple letter giving the cost of the work, or perhaps a detailed listing of the prices for each element of the hierarchical quotation.

Integrated and flexible

Obviously our quotation systems come with a full contact management capability – this covers customers and suppliers, and offers a degree of CRM capability, as required.

It is also possible to convert a quotation into a batch of supplier purchase orders, once it has been accepted.  Alternatively, we have generated job sheets for the factory floor, all based on the data you have already entered.

The principle we work by is that once you have typed something in, you shouldn’t need to type it again.

So, there are a few of the key elements – in short, it’s a bespoke system designed to meet your requirements, but based on a few tried and tested processes.  We are confident that a version can be built for your business, whatever its complexities.

Your accounting system’s quotes option is unlikely to cut it, as it needs to be very generic.  It almost certainly won’t allow you to create or control a bill of materials with separate costs, margins and selling prices for every component.

Our systems needn’t cost the earth, either.  We work using standard Microsoft Office software that you have probably already got.  Generally, this means Microsoft Access for the user interface, and SQL Server for the data storage.  Again, we have used different back-end databases, and different ways of hosting the solution, so it’s very much a bespoke offering.

Everyone wants to know the prices, but of course that’s difficult when every project is different. From experience, many projects fall between £2,500 and £5,000 as a very rough guide.  We give fixed prices, so you have that security as well.  These sums of money are relatively easy to recover in the time saved in manually calculating and assembling quotes, which can be considerable in some businesses.

Why not call us today, or fill in the contact form on this website?  We will always have an initial meeting free of charge, to see what ideas we can bring to the table.


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Suitable business systems or a favourite pair of slippers?

We all like familiarity.  It makes us feel comfortable and in control, which are both good places to be when running a business and working with business systems!

However, when it comes to your software and systems, becoming too comfortable or familiar with one system or another can have a couple of unintended and undesirable results.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

I have worked with businesses who have very old and, frankly, creaky systems that are not really fit for purpose any longer, but have been dragged along to perhaps beyond the end of their useful life because of a reticence to undergo the upheaval of replacement.  It is an upheaval as well, and always carries risks, so such reticence is easy to understand … if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, putting off the inevitable is a matter of delicate balance.  The trick is to understand when the buffers are well and truly coming into view, and start to do something before they are hit.  Waiting until your old faithful software finally gives up the ghost before reacting does you no favours, and it isn;t ideal for whoever you get in to work on an upgrade, either, because everyone is working in a highly pressured environment, as you are now in a panic.

Nobody produces their best work in these circumstances.

I want what I’ve always had!

The other danger with familiarity is that you become so used to working in a particular way that you don’t necessarily adapt well to a new environment if you change jobs.  Again, I see plenty of cases where a new employee will arrive full of suggestions about systems that they used in the past, and then the conversations start as to whether their new business should go down that route.

There’s no right or wrong answer to that question, of course … often the new person is quite correct, and their new employer could benefit significantly from a systems overhaul, and if that means bringing in a system that is already familiar to the new finance or sales person, or whoever it may be, then so much the better.

But not necessarily.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter (as a newcomer to a business) of having to sit down and familiarise yourself with the operation.  Reports that you are used to seeing can be generated or reformatted very easily, so the fact that you are now using Dynamics instead of Sage, or Salesforce instead of InfusionSoft, or whatever it might be, should make relatively little difference – the data will all be there, so your customer analytics, or sales forecasts and budgets, can all be controlled in the same way.

Don’t try and force a change of systems until you have totally understood what is in place currently.  Change is massively disruptive, especially of wide-ranging, modular enterprise systems, and is definitely not something to be rushed into.

So, whatever systems you are used to running, be they your own long-standing old faithfuls, or something that you have used in a past life, and think you can’t live without, make sure that you change or update as appropriate, but not unnecessarily – it will be painful, as it always is, but you will soon get used to the new approach, and you never know, there may be some stuff in there that your old systems couldn’t do for you!

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Businessman drawing a Cloud Computing diagram on the whiteboard

Why the Cloud doesn’t bring rain …

This post first appeared on the Sage Business Expert Blog on 19th November 2015

What can I use the Cloud for?

Nowadays, pretty much anything. Not only can you sign up for Accounting or Customer Relationship Management applications, but with the use of integrated office systems like Microsoft Office 365, or Google Docs, you can genuinely run your entire business from a tablet.

In fact, I am writing this blog post in a café, while waiting for someone. The document is linked to my cloud storage, so when I fold up the Surface and go back to my office in an hour or so, I can open the same file on my desktop machine, and finish it off. It really could not be simpler, and there is no additional effort required over and above the creation of this content – everything else just happens, with no need for memory sticks or manual moving about of files.

Why is the Cloud complicated?

It isn’t in many ways. You have been able to log into remote business systems for many years, albeit with some aggravation; the cloud is essentially the same thing – it enables you to work on anything from anywhere, with nothing more than a simple internet connection.

It really is as simple as that – connect up, sign in and work. Some years ago you would have needed facilities really only available to larger businesses in order to access data that was in fact still stored in-house in any event! Today, you can still do this, but use cloud technologies to access the systems, even if they are internal – no need to use two different methods depending on where the information is being held.

I’m worried about security – is my business data is just ‘out there’?

Yes, it is. However, it is protected by layers of security, and is also (crucially) backed up by the cloud provider you are using. You are using a collaborative system with the data being shared amongst signed-in users.

Compare this with data being shared via email or on memory sticks, and stored on the office server subject to hardware failure, fire, flood, or theft, with a backup that is either not running properly, or not taken offsite, and very often is not regularly tested and verified as being able to restore your data, and you can see that the fears about cloud security are often misplaced.

What if my provider does fail, though?

Even the large, widely publicised failures of providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google tend to be brief. Critically, you may lose access for a period of time, but very rarely do you lose data.  As soon as the system comes up again, you can carry on pretty much where you left off.

Compare this with having to repair a server, obtain new parts, install and configure them, and then start restoring applications and data – again, there is no comparison between the cloud risk and the traditional risk.

What if my data gets hacked?

Consider the motivation of hackers – they are either trying to cause mischief and inconvenience, or they are trying to obtain data that they can sell. Therefore the likelihood of them targeting Bloggs and Son Limited is minimal. Even if they did, they would perhaps obtain some financial details that can be purchased for less than a fiver from Companies House, or they would get a list of your customers.

Unless they located a direct competitor and sold them your customer list, this is unlikely to turn into anything serious for your business, aside from a significant PR disaster!  I don’t make light of the risk that hackers can pose, and clients of mine have been targeted and affected, but it’s a matter of considering what data you are storing, and the implications of it being stolen.

If I was sitting on the recipe for Coca Cola then I may be more concerned, but the thought of somebody pinching my quarterly VAT Return is not something that I will lose sleep over.

I’m dependent on the internet, then?

Yes, you are – there’s no getting away from that! However, even if your internet connection fails it’s a simple matter to relocate until it is fixed – you can go home, or even to a local hotel or coffee shop (I’m still in the café, by the way!) and you will have access to all your business systems. Obviously this doesn’t work for everyone – you may need to answer the phone, or have access to files, but it does provide a Plan B for many.

The biggest risk is the cloud provider you sign up with – this is where you need to do your due diligence at the start of the process. If you use a major provider, then you should be relatively secure – however, if you sign up with AllYourEggsInOneBasket Software Inc., and they go under with all your business data you are going to have a problem.

It makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity to back up and extract the data held in the cloud on your behalf, but that’s a subject for another day…

In the meantime, embrace the cloud, and don’t be frightened of it. It isn’t perfect, but it is massively powerful, exciting and (most importantly) enabling. It is no exaggeration to say that you can run an entire business from a tablet, and of course it enables you to work with anyone, anywhere, and at any time – what more could you ask for in today’s connected world?


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Don’t let software get too out of date!

Owning software sometimes seems like a constant treadmill of upgrades and paying out money all the time, but it’s very much a case of getting what you pay for.

Many businesses that I see are still using old versions of Microsoft Office, for example – 2003 is still kicking about, despite being now unsupported by service packs. This is a function of the old pricing model, of course, where you paid your £300 and owned the software outright. The temptation then being to sweat it for every penny, and keep it running as long as possible.


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Who is in control – you or your inbox?

If you are anything like the average person in business today, you will be getting hundreds, certainly dozens, of emails on a daily basis.  My inbox is probably no different to the average, although I think I may get a little less spam than some do, for reasons I will cover shortly.

Obviously I can only really comment on how I deal with emails, but it seems to work for me, so hopefully you will come away with a couple of ideas to help you manage your inbox. (more…)

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It’s not business, it’s personal!

My legions of regular readers will have noticed that I have been a bit quiet over the last couple of months.

You hadn’t noticed?

Well, take it from me that I have been quiet.  I might tell you why in a bit.

I have a lot of friends on social media who are people who, whilst I do know the majority of them personally, I don’t always know that well.  Not well enough to discuss personal or family stuff, beyond the usual small talk about schools and holidays etc.


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Data puzzle concept

Four ways to get your business data under control

[This post first appeared on the Sage Business Experts blog in January 2015]

I (for my sins) spend a lot of my working days managing or interpreting data for my clients – there is a surprising amount of it. Customer data, order data, product data, financial data, management information and reporting data – all of this stuff matters if you are a business, and managing it properly will pay you dividends (probably quite literally!)

Here I will share a few tips to help you get your business data under control in the first place, and also to keep it under control.


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Problem to solve? Stop thinking about it …

We’ve all heard the rather glib saying that there are no such things as problems, but only opportunities.  I’m reminded of the story of the guy that gets that response from his boss when he raises an issue, so he says “Well, sir, we seem to have an insurmountable opportunity here.”

Of course, the message behind the saying is that you shouldn’t give up, and just decide that something you are trying to achieve isn’t going to be possible.  You’re unlikely to build a successful business that way.

However the same people that trot out the soundbite about problems and opportunities will probably also give you the one about success being built on a foundation of failures.  I prefer to paraphrase one of my favourite authors, Samuel Beckett – “Fail again. Fail better.”

Sadly, people that come up with endless soundbites are often so busy trying to inject them into every conversation that they fail to notice that they can be contradictory.  Indeed, the two I have just mentioned are not really compatible.  If every problem is an opportunity, then how often are you going to experience a failure on which to build your success?

I do a certain amount of development work, so I am often coming across problems that require a coding solution, or a bit of business logic that doesn’t quite tally with what’s needed.  Sometimes, to fit the system to the business can present a significant challenge.  As with all things, you can sit there wrestling with the issue for quite some time.

With system development, there are definitely some problems that can’t be solved.  Generally, these are logic-related, and stem from businesses being used to making human decisions that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate automatically.  To do so would [a] be prohibitively expensive in terms of time and [b] render the system inflexible.  Neither outcome is good.

However, the vast majority of problems can be solved, but not necessarily by getting bogged down by them.  I find that having different projects on the go simultaneously enables me to move away from something that I’m stuck with, even if only for a few hours, and it’s amazing how often a solution pops into your head when you’re not looking for it.

I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of ‘a watched kettle never boils’ (another soundbite!) but just stepping back from whatever blockage you are facing sometimes allows your brain to work subconsciously to find an answer.  Just flogging yourself over a hot keyboard will only result in frustration and potentially error.

So the next time you have a problem to solve, just walk away from it for a bit.  You’ll be amazed at the number of times that will provide the answer you’re looking for.

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A new blogging challenge

Well, this is the final post in a series of thirty that, as part of a blogging challenge,  were supposed to be done consecutively for thirty days without a break.  I think I was late once, half-way through, and this last post is a day late, as I had a lengthy trip yesterday (lengthy in time, not so much distance!) to take our son to a University open day in Manchester yesterday.

I did actually try to post from the train using my phone, but the mobile signal (despite being ‘enhanced’ according to a note stuck on the wall beside my seat) was very variable, and it’s difficult to sort out links and images and all that good stuff when posting from a phone.

Anyhow, my thanks are due to Sarah Arrow at Sark e-Media, and her Thirty Day Blogging Challenge.  I have managed to come up with some sort of constructive content (I hope) for most of the days of the challenge and have learned a number of things:

My posts are too long.  I knew that anyway, if I’m honest, but writing every day makes you realise that long posts are not sustainable, either for you or the readers!

It actually is possible to post every day without too much pain and inconvenience.  I found, if I was feeling like a bit of a breather from normal work, that a few minutes pulling together a post was a refreshing diversion.  It also enabled me to do it when an idea came to me, perhaps prompted by whatever work I was doing at the time.

I suspect that posting regularly helps you to sound more natural and unforced.  I try to do that anyway – I write in a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style, and will generally just read through it once and then publish.  I very rarely re-write or edit very much unless I have become distracted part-way through and lost the thread, so I found that the ‘pressure’ of having to write quickly each day was empowering – it made what I do anyway feel like the right approach and not the lazy approach!

Most importantly, it has made me realise that it is going to be possible and practical to run with a small business blog idea that I have had for some time.  I still have some elements to pull together, but as soon as it is done I will let you know!

I’ve covered everything from how to knock out some Excel formulas, through how to manage business data, how to work with some analysis models in your business, and I’ve squeezed in a few more light-hearted posts.  All in all, it has been a brilliant experience.

Have I earned money from it, or got any extra work?  No, not as yet, but I know that I now have new connections, and that more people now know some of what I do and how I can help businesses than was the case thirty days ago.  At some point in the future, one of those people might remember me when an opportunity comes along.  That’s how I network, and that’s how I get work.

The new blogging challenge, therefore, is to keep it up.  I will be posting regularly on this blog (although perhaps not each and every day!), and as I said before, keep your eyes open for a new one in the near future.

Thanks for reading, and speak again soon!


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Weekly time sheet

Another week gone – time management!

I’m starting this post at 18:19 on a Friday evening, after a particularly hectic week – a fair bit of rushing about, as well as some time at my own desk on project work.

However, it’s been a week of shifting timescales, and as such has prompted me to look afresh at some time management strategies.  I had everything planned out fairly well – a little tight on time, but I reckoned I could do all I planned to do, both personal and professional,  as long as nothing too drastic happened!

I should have known better.  The thing is it always snowballs, and that’s the main time management lesson to learn: Always do whatever you can as soon as you can.  If you leave it ‘for later’, then the time you had allowed for it will magically vanish!

So on Wednesday afternoon I had to sort something out for my elderly mother (nothing serious, but it needed attention unexpectedly), so that cost me a few hours, which I had earmarked for some preparation for a meeting today (Friday).

Not too drastic, as I was scheduled to be in London on Thursday, but not all day – if I got back late afternoon I could make up the time then.

Except that I was in London the whole day, in the end, not arriving home until after 7:30 in the evening, and that was after leaving the house at 6:15 in the morning, so I didn’t get too much done then.

Never mind, there was always Friday morning.  My meeting wasn’t until 14:00, so I could just get up early and finish off what I needed to do.  Except that late last night I get a text asking if I can bring it forward to 13:00 …

So this morning, there I was working away, and my wife returned from the school run at about 8:30.  “The car’s screwed,” she said, not beating about the bush.  Given that I was about to head off to Watford in the other car, and wouldn’t be available to do the school pickup, or take my son out to his subsequent activity, this needed to be dealt with.

Down the road we went to our friendly local mechanics who, with a remarkable grasp of their own time management, sorted the broken fan-belt within a couple of hours for us.  Superb.

So that was another chunk of time gone.

Now the point of all of this is that this is what the week is like for a lot of us, especially if you are self-employed and flexible over time in terms of being able to attend to elderly relatives, or do the school run, or whatever.  I think that the time I ‘lost’ to unplanned activities and meetings being shifted amounted to between eight and nine hours between mid-afternoon Wednesday and lunchtime on Friday.

In the event, I did get everything finished, and that was all good, but it wasn’t done without a degree of aggravation that I could have done without.  There’s no real right and wrong to time management for this type of work, but I think that the golden rule is not to leave everything (or indeed anything) to the last minute, as the ‘last minute’ has a habit of vanishing without notice!

So I will be re-visiting the whole question of time management in the next week or two, and trying to ensure that I can better deal with these issues as they arise.  Any tips that you can offer as to how you overcome this sort of thing in your own business will be gratefully received!

In the meantime, I’m off for a beer.

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