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Shopping for technology

by Alan Cutler, USPTA

December 2001 -- You have an established tennis business that has been running fine for the last 10 years. Now you have ideas for expansion, but are a little bit unsure about how your current computer system and your current staff will handle it. Or, you may have been doing things manually, but the business is growing and you’re sure a computer can help, but you don’t know how.

Shopping for computer software and hardware today is like going to a grocery store. Sure, there are a lot of fast-food, microwaveable, ready-to-eat hardware and software packages, but you want to look at the nutritional value to see if you are really getting what you need for a particular situation.

Before going to the grocery store, you have to plan your menu for the week. In this case, plan your menu for the next five years. Start by doing a little evaluation and define what it is that you really do or want to do. Write it down and include in your notes where you think automation will help. Writing it down will give you an objective point of view.

For example, consider if you want the ability to do facilities management, or just produce fliers and mailing lists. You may want to consider inventory control and administrative applications like accounting and payroll.

What’s available
The following are areas where computer programs can help in automating processes and procedures.

Point of sale and online inventory control
These are software packages that track inventory based on bar codes both when inventory is received and sold. These programs identify what your current inventory is at all times, generate a series of reports such as reorder inventory, monthly sales, transactions based on salesperson or other desired criteria, voids and item sales. Aside from that, these programs can assist you in maintaining desired inventory levels and identify sales trends. You can set minimum reorder points and maybe do it automatically through the Internet. This is similar to the scanning process you see at the grocery store.

There are many bundled software packages that have been developed to handle online inventory control needs. You will probably want this software to scan your inventory when it arrives with descriptions, brands and dates of arrivals. You might also want this software to act as your cash register and to update your inventory as part of the point-of-sale function. It can also track the customer who purchased the item with address information to create a customer database that can be used to market products directly to those customers who purchase them.

If you decide you want to automate this process, this software is likely to require you to purchase hand held scanners to input the bar codes, in addition to the computer system. Scanners will simplify and automate the procedure of inputting accurate information.

Facility management
There are two types of software that cover this area: those that schedule facilities and those that do tournament draws. The first type allows you to schedule court usage, private, group and clinic instructional or appointment times. The second type is for tournament, leagues and round-robin draw sheets. It also can post tournament draws and results on the Internet, and keeps simple database files to track the uses of these services.

Scheduling facilities including court reservations, lesson times and appointment times is a basic function of every tennis business. The software you decide on should be simple and easy to use. More advanced systems can use your phone system to process both court reservations and cancellations without human intervention, 24 hours a day. This technology is called interactive voice response systems.

Before purchasing this type of software, you must decide how many days in advance you will allow court time reservations, how many courts you have, and the number of hours per day that you will schedule them. Since lessons tend to be scheduled further in advance, this will have to be addressed. Another consideration is if you schedule a series of lessons or if you are in a pay-as-you-go situation.

Your answers will determine the capabilities you need to look for when you shop for the program. There are a lot of facility management software packages on the market, but few have been developed specifically for tennis. You might want to look at software designed for golf applications and see if they can be adapted to meet your needs.

For tournament draws, you may be required to use a specific brand of software based on where you are located in the country, or if you run USTA-sanctioned tournaments. Many of these generate all the tournament and round-robin draw sheets, and have the capabilities to do reports such as match cards, press releases, check-in lists and fees owed. It should also keep simple data files of the people who compete.

Facility management and tournament draw software packages work better when you use a larger monitor (e.g., 20 inches) so you have a broader view of the facilities. You may also want a better quality printer for professional-looking printouts.

Graphics and marketing
The one thing that every pro shop or tennis business uses is software to market its business. These software packages generate publications, letters, brochures, Web pages, presentations and e-mail.

Most of the “suite” packages already include many of these features. A suite package is a group of programs that are sold as a package and share data from one program to another. They may include a word processor, a database management program, a spreadsheet program and a presentation application. You will want to make sure that the suite software you consider includes a method to generate professional-looking letters and envelopes, as well as brochures and fliers that use both text and graphics. The suite package should also be able to generate and maintain simple Web pages, and have a blind copy feature on bulk e-mails (without displaying everyone’s e-mail address to everyone you send it to).

Another feature that you should look for is the suite’s ability to share the information among all the types of software discussed in this article. You might also consider the ease of using the same information in the different programs to prevent duplication of data file information.

The only special hardware needed for this type of software is a color printer to generate great looking material.

Business applications
This is a catchall category that covers business applications such as general ledger, payroll, taxes, computer-generated checks or online bill payments. There are more bundled software packages available for business applications than in any other area. You need to decide what parts of these applications your business uses and find the package that best meets your needs and business size.

Some of these applications may be developed in one of the other suite packages, although it is recommended that you look for a package that is already developed. If you choose to develop this yourself, you will also have to maintain and debug the programs, which is very time consuming. Purchased packages, on the other hand, are used by many businesses. If a problem arises, fixes are quickly developed because of the sheer number of users. Many software packages already include useful functions such as general reports, templates, the ability to track debts owed for 30, 60 or 90 days, and print checks and labels. Many programs also prompt you when there are problems or irregularities.

This software requires no special hardware unless you need a special printer to print checks or labels, but this is not generally needed.

Now that you know what is available, go back to your original notes. Then, based on your evaluation, make a shopping list. Make sure you divide the list into your needs and wants, keeping in mind the possibility of business growth in each. When you do go to the store, bring your description in case there are other areas that you didn’t think about where new technology can help.

Here are some simple suggestions for putting together your shopping list:

  1. Define your needs, but allow room to grow. These needs are going to change as your knowledge increases about what computers can do. Computers are great at doing repetitious tasks, but someone still needs to input the information. You will also need to prioritize what programs are needed first, second and so on.
  2. Define your budget. You may have to project a budget for the following year or you may be lucky enough to be able to do this now. Give yourself a cushion for unforeseen things that will come up. The budget needs to include the computers and the software packages necessary to run the business. Also, remember that software can be added as you go. Don’t forget cabling, communication requirements (phone lines), electrical requirements and maybe even someone to help you set up the equipment. Also, allot part of the budget to training staff, and budget adequate time for staff to be in training.
    Consider the size of your business and project where you might be in the next five years. The life span of computer-related equipment is five years or less, and you will want hardware and software that will be useful for at least that period of time. And remember that there are often annual software maintenance costs.
  3. Research what software packages are already available, but do not forget to consider the possibility of developing the programs yourself. Although program development is sometimes very time consuming, it will address all of your specific needs that can only be met by a custom program.
    Don’t be shy about asking questions and for demonstrations of the software you are considering to see if it will meet your needs. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the software based on your specific needs. Also ask for a list of customers in your area that are using the software, and call them to ask about what they like and dislike about the software. Keep in mind that salespeople are in the business of selling you their product, even if it’s not always in your best interest.
  4. Develop an implementation plan. Give yourself adequate time to get through the installation process and fully test and debug the software. When developing this plan, always allow extra time. If you complete the project sooner than expected, both you and the project will appear more successful to your supervisors. This is the “promise less, deliver more” concept. You should also allow for downtime. Remember that when there is a change in the workplace, productivity will initially go down because of the learning curve. Once new skills are learned and proficiency in the program goes up, productivity will too.
  5. Arrange for any electrical changes that are needed and have any cables run. Try to make sure that cables are not run in traffic areas and that you are not overloading power circuits. Also contact your phone service to arrange for the installation of any necessary communication lines.
  6. Purchase hardware, which includes computers, networking supplies based on software requirements, hand-held scanners and printers. Hookup and installation is the next step. Most of these purchases are pretty straightforward, except for networking equipment.
    Networking allows you to share information between more than one computer, and there are two basic types of networks: Peer-to-peer (two computers connected directly to one another, allowing both to share data on each machine) and Local Area Network or LAN (a computer called a “server” is connected to a hub or communications device and all other computers are connected to the hub). A peer-to-peer network is cheaper and simpler, but can be limiting. A LAN allows all users to share all resources such as multiple printers, scanners, etc. Although more expensive at the outset, it is more cost effective in the long run because it allows plenty of room for growth. If you have never installed this type of hardware, ask for help. Nothing is more frustrating than using the trial-and-error method.
  7. Purchase the software and install, customize it for your business and test it. If you purchased a bundled package from a company, a representative should either be there to assist you or be available by phone. This service should be part of the purchase.
  8. Post implementation: Read the documentation and go to training. Do not try to reinvent the wheel because you will want to use both the software and the hardware as soon as possible. A word to the wise: Make sure you keep both manual and computer records for a period of time, just in case you find a problem down the line. Most importantly, make backups of your data on a regular basis. It is recommended that you run a backup daily or weekly, depending on how much data you have, and that you keep backups for at least four weeks.
Just like shopping in the grocery store, make sure that you come home with all the essentials. It’s OK for you to come home with a few goodies and treats. And it’s OK if you take advantage of sale items that you will need in the future. And the old adage, “buyer beware” still holds true, even for technology shoppers. Alan Cutler, USPTA, is the head tennis professional for the City of Whittier, Calif. He is the California Division secretary, a local excellence training site coordinator, and has completed Levels I and II of the USTA sport science certification. He has a master’s degree in computer science and more than 20 years of experience in technology and information services. Rather than recommending specific software by brands because everyone’s needs are slightly different, I will try to provide you with a method to do the research on the Internet. The trick to using the Internet is learning how to ask for the information you want. Just go to your favorite search engine (Yahoo, Alta Vista, Goggle) and search for:

  • POS or point+of+sale
  • Inventory+control
  • Facilities+scheduling
  • Tennis+tournament+software
  • Tennis+software

If you have additional questions please direct them to USPTA@USPTA.ORG

Alan Cutler, USPTA, is the head tennis professional for the City of Whittier, Calif. He is the California Division secretary, a local excellence training site coordinator, and has completed Levels I and II of the USTA sport science certification. He has a master’s degree in computer science and more than 20 years of experience in technology and information services.
 
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