The Operations Leader's Toolkit: 17 Essential Operations Tools For Fast-Growing Businesses

Luke Walker
July 13, 2021
10
minutes

Operations work is hard to generalize.

Looking from one company to the next, the roles, responsibilities, and objectives of their operations teams will look very different. They might not have anything in common at all.

That's because operations is a truly one-of-a-kind function in business – it's totally dependent on the unique requirements of the company, and how the company creates value. It's a lot of work with many different stakeholders.

For that reason, the software toolkit of an operations manager and their teams varies widely from business to business.

What exactly does an operations team do?

Generally speaking, an operations team’s mandate is to manage and optimize the processes that keep a business running and generating value (in a for-profit context, that's revenue for the company, and product or services for the market).

Ops can manage several, or all of the following core business initiatives:

  • Order fulfillment and logistics
  • Customer experience and support
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Support in product planning, service planning, and service itself
  • Overseeing supply chain and supplier relations
  • Quality control activities
  • System implementation
  • Process management and optimization

Breaking that down into two parts, whatever processes enable other teams to create value (e.g. supply chain management, sales support, marketing operations), as well as the processes and functions that deliver value to customers (order fulfillment, solution engineering) will usually be managed and executed by an operations team.

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Regardless of the industry or the business model, however, every operations leader is asking themselves the same question:

"How can we deliver our products and services most efficiently and cost-effectively?"

This is the true challenge of operations leads in every industry, and it's twice as relevant for those working in high-growth businesses, where scaling operations is paramount to continued success.

What are "scaleable operations"?

For all businesses, lasting success is defined by scaling your business – not by growth alone. In order to scale your business, you need to be growing exponentially while simultaneously keeping operational costs low.

For a business to scale operations means that it can handle increasing volumes of work or sales in a predictable, cost-effective way, and not compromise on quality or customer satisfaction.

When a company can grow exponentially while operations costs remain low and quality remains consistent (or even increases), they've reached the promised land of business scalability.

The technical problem with scaling operations

The problem with most operations departments in growth-stage companies is that their processes have evolved out of functional need and adaptability.

"What does the business need in order to deliver it's product or services? That's what we're going to do."

The manual operations approach

A hands-on, "manual" approach to operations is great for getting businesses off the ground and maintaining flexibility in early growth stages. But it can be very difficult to transition that into scaleable operations as part of a fast-growing business.

That's because, scaleable operations require automation – particularly, for the core business processes that will increase most significantly when the business grows.

The operations teams that hit rapid-growth without having the right systems in place find themselves in a scramble to buy and implement tools ASAP before things really get out of control.

The legacy systems approach

At the other end of the spectrum, you have enterprise systems like ERPs and CRMs, which have functioned as the de facto "operations system" for many businesses.

These systems are highly capable of automating and scaling operations processes, but there are several drawbacks for operations teams in high-growth businesses: they're not easily or quickly adapted, they take months (even years) to scope and roll out, and they're massively expensive. Hardly the ideal choice for teams seeking to solve a scalability problem fast and keep costs low.

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To summarize the point, operations teams in high-growth companies have very specific tooling needs that won't be met by manual "bootstrap" coordination or by investing in hyper-customized legacy software. They need the right tools for the job (each job) that are affordable, flexible, and can be implemented and deliver results fast.

17 software tools for scaleable, high-growth operations

If you want to scale operations there are several business functions to consider: communication, collaboration, processes management, finances, order fulfillment, customer support – the list goes on.

Fortunately, there’s a good selection of powerful software tools that are ideally suited for operations teams looking to improve their processes, automate manual things, and see quick results. We've assembled a list of the best tools according to operations leaders in fast-growing businesses:

Collaboration and documentation

Slack

Slack is where your everyday team communication should take place. Not only is it easier and faster than communicating over email, but it's also fundamentally better for your organizational performance when used properly.

Unlike email, Slack allows team members to control which channels they subscribe to, and which messages they wish to be notified about. It can be a focus game-changer, and will cut down on  time wasted reading through unnecessary CC:'s/BCC:'s. Slack also includes loads of integrations which can prevent unnecessary application switching for executing basic business functions.

Although many have challenged Slack's impact on workplace productivity, the fact remains: it's a superior communication platform. With good personal boundaries and company guidelines in place, Slack is a massive step forward from email.

Notion

As an operations leader, you need a single source of truth for departmental procedures, data, and strategy. Operations teams also need good, clear and updated documentation to carry out the organization's most complex work. Until recently, teams built intranets, which basically functioned as a company Wiki. Now, there's Notion.

Notion is incredibly flexible: it can be used as a planning tool, a writing log, a task manager, a database, and much more. We recommend it most specifically as a documentation solution.

Creating, editing, and sharing documentation in Notion is extremely simple, and actually fun to do. Notion's handles rich, interactive content, and you can upload and view basically any file type. And you can build and style your documentation system exactly how you want, all by yourself.

If you want your teams to take documentation seriously, Notion is a clear winner.

Task and Project Management

Trello

One of the earliest and still best-performing tools for project management is Trello.

Trello is based on a very simple concept: for effective project management, you need visibility over all of the relevant tasks, files, and stakeholders, plus the ability to rearrange things as priorities change or work is completed. It is a perfect tool to replace your team’s usage of email or Slack for task- or project-based communication.

Like Notion, there are many different ways you can use Trello. For operations teams, we recommend using Trello specifically for ops project management – in other words, projects  involving unique conditions, stakeholders, and tasks, but not everyday recurring operations processes. The benefits of Trello are visibility and streamlined collaboration, but not automation specifically.

Basecamp

Basecamp is another industry-leading project management tool that has withstood the test of time. The platform keeps helps keep teams and their projects on track, and boosts operational efficiency by eliminating the need for meetings and check-in's.

Every project in Basecamp includes 6 specific tools teams need to get the project finished: a message board, to-do list, real-time chat, the schedule, docs & files, and an automatic "check-in" to get a pulse on daily progress. The product design – which they ardently advocate – is based on a principle of less is more; specifically, that project management should consume less of your team's time, so they can spend more time delivering the work that actually matters to the organization.

Not to mention, for a growth-stage operations budget, Basecamp's flat-rate business pricing of $99/mo for unlimited users and unlimited projects is hard to pass up.

Hive

Hive is a leading project management tool that helps thousands of teams work faster. Hive brings all of your workplace tools to one single dashboard, so you can manage projects, chat with coworkers, send emails, and even start Zoom calls without ever leaving the window. Hive is more than just your classic project management software -- it's the future of work productivity.

You can use Hive online in a web browser, via desktop apps for Mac and Windows, or on iOS and Android mobile apps. Hive offers a free 14-day trial with pricing plans starting at $12/user per month.

Process and Workflow Automation

Zapier

Zapier is a powerful tool for automating business and operations tasks with easy-to-use web app integrations. You can connect two apps (or multiple apps) to automate repetitive tasks without writing any code to build the integrations.

Zapier works with just about every app your operations teams might use, and it also provides lots of helpful suggestions on how to combine other apps and systems that you might be unaware of.  Each of these automated steps represent time and effort saved for your teams, and the savings increase further when you start building multistep integration chains.

Zapier is not recommended as a standalone system. The operational benefits of using Zapier really shine through when used in conjunction with the rest of your operations tool stack, to fill in automation gaps in your workflows and eliminate your team's most repetitive, manual tasks.

Next Matter

Operations teams drive a business’s most vital processes, but they’re often missing a dedicated system to visualize and carry out their processes in a scalable way.

Next Matter is an all-in-one operations platform that enables teams to capture, visualize, automate, and execute their processes from end-to-end. Using Next Matter, teams transform their manual, email-driven operations into automated, digital processes that bring their team members, tools, workflows, instructions, and more in a simple-to-use, no-code/low-code system.

Next Matter features rules-based automation for task assignment, data referencing, decisions, conditionals, process scheduling, and notifications, and it integrates with the tools your teams use everyday to eliminate application-switching. You can also streamline processes involving suppliers, partners, or customers with external user access and permissions that can be setup in minutes. This is super relevant especially for businesses with looking to automate service operations.

For operations teams looking to automate manual processes and scale, it doesn't get much better. Managers can finally get the visibility and performance they need, and teams eliminate the coordination grunt work for good.

UiPath

Although RPA solutions are typically geared for enterprise use cases, UiPath’s open automation suite offers A la Carte automations and service bundles to support earlier, growth-stage automation requirements. For ultra-high repetition tasks that cannot be automated with a simple integration, RPA can be a major time-saving and scalability asset.

The UiPath platform combines the essential RPA capabilities of building, managing, and running software robots with analytics to report on total business impact. The software robots—instead of your teams—can perform highly repetitive and lower-value work like moving files and folders, entering and extracting data, filling in forms, and logging into systems. This can free up "human" operations personnel to focus more time on other initiatives, like quality control or customer experience.

That said, growth-stage businesses should be mindful of the high bot maintenance costs which they will likely incur if their operations processes are still fluid, or in transition. If your processes are not concretely defined, or do they not involve highly-repetitive human tasks, it's best to hold of on robotic automation entirely.

Customer Support Operations and Success

ZenDesk

With over 170,000 customers, Zendesk is a market-leading help desk software for fast-growing businesses. But that's not why we chose it as the help desk choice for support operations.

Lots of different things can happen when a company scales— it may offer new products and services, or take on a broader and more diverse range of customers. Whatever the case, your support ops teams will face new and different volumes of customer support.

Thankfully, Zendesk's software is seriously intuitive and simple to use. It's uncomplicated to set up, and with its own AI-powered automations and customizable workflows, your support ops teams can work smarter, faster, and reach more customers in a scalable way. Your customers can reach your team through whichever channel works best for them—chat, tickets, email, phone, help centers, or communities. You can even integrate Zendesk directly with your process management platform.

From an operational efficiency standpoint, Zendesk is truly your best bet for building simple, scaleable customer support operations.

Intercom

In-product support is one of the most important aspects of building scalable support operations, which is why the next tool we have on our list of best growth-stage operations tools is Intercom.

Although Zendesk is the clear winner in terms of a complete support platform and ticketing system, Intercom has an overwhelming advantage in terms of automation features for in-product chat and support. With rules-based automation and AI together, Intercom allows your to automate almost every step of the customer support journey, with ridiculously precise customer segmentation and dedicated messaging. This is a massive asset for smaller support teams in the earlier stages of their growth journey.

Intercom's pricing is also far more forgiving, which is ideal for teams not ready to invest in a full help desk CRM software like Zendesk. For teams looking to give customers a better way to interact with them, and improve customer experience in an automated way, Intercom is a sure bet.

Chili Piper

The incumbent scheduling application may seem like an odd fit for an operations team, but in fact, Chili Piper is a strong offering to optimize your customer success journey.

On the surface, Chili Piper is a slick, integrated calendar booking application, that allows customers to book meetings with your team in the simplest way possible: with single-click booking.

On the backend, however, is where customer support and success teams really see the automation benefits. Chili Piper automates the handoff from Sales to Customer Success, and success or support team members can instantly schedule kick-off and follow-up meetings, with automated reminders and the same, simplified booking experience. This way, you don't lose your customers to inconvenient calendar booking experiences.

Chili Piper also includes a large stack of integrations and automation potential. CRM records and workflows can be populated and triggered, respectively, based on customer actions taken in Chili Piper. Meeting caps, advanced routing, and group scheduling also help your teams save time, and ultimately focus on providing the customer experience itself – rather than spending time on the technical side of booking meetings with your customers.

Sales Operations

PandaDoc

If your sales and sales support teams need to create and send proposals, contracts, or quotes, PandaDoc can make this extremely easy.

As a cloud-based document management software, using PandaDoc will mean that your teams no longer need to print or scan in documents. If you're trying to scale up business operations, dealing with paperwork can be a massive time consumer, so using a tool where everything is handled digitally is a must. PandaDoc also enables your teams to create, send, and monitor documents all within the same tool, which prevents further application-switching and unnecessary follow-up.

Lastly, automation of document workflows can be achieved using PandaDoc's native experience, or combine it with your existing process or workflow  software to achieve the same visibility and automation benefits. In this way, document execution can be completed as one, automated step within an end-to-end operations process – for example, onboarding a new supplier or customer.

Pipedrive

Pipedrive is our pick for the best overall, operational CRM, and it's the perfect option for companies seeking to scale sales operations fast without all the custom configuration you'd need for an enterprise CRM solution.

Pipedrive actually got its start by helping growth-stage companies scale up sales. They intentionally focused their product experience on first-time, non-technical users. Setting up accounts and onboarding is a breeze. Pipedrive’s experience is highly visual, and it enables teams to create easy-to-understand pipelines and dashboards by themselves. In other words, it's a CRM that gives your sales team more time to focus on selling, rather than meddling around with configuring or interpreting complex data.

One further scalability asset, Pipefy's AI assistant also recommends which deals you should focus on, which supports a growing sales team to invest the bulk of their resources in the right opportunities, and move further toward scalable revenue generation.

Accounting

Xero

When we asked operations leaders what the "ideal" accounting software should do, the most frequently heard answer was that it should enable to spend less time managing finances.

Xero meets this requirement by automating your accounting and invoicing processes, and by making accounting tasks as simple as possible to execute. You can send electronic invoices, and if your business generates quotes or estimates, you can convert them to invoices in seconds too. You can also schedule recurring invoices, payment reminders, and overdue notices as well, eliminating manual recollection work. Xero automatically imports bank and credit card transactions, and matches most transactions automatically. And if any financial activity should takes place in the field, Xero's mobile experience is second to none.

Xero's pricing is also geared heavily toward businesses in growth-stage, with a lower price point of entry, and loads of A La Carte add-ons for every additional feature your business needs to scale up finance ops.

Inventory Management

inFlow

Inventory management is a crucial function to get right within a growing and scaling business. As an early-stage retailer with a surplus of product stored in your warehouse, you might get by with tracking inventory by hand – or even by memory. But what happens when product demand spikes, and you start losing customers over backordered or missing items?

inFlow mainly serves the needs of inventory managers who want a simple-to-use tool that can store and retrieve warehouse-related info on the go. That being said, Inflow is our recommendation for any fast-growing retail or ecommerce business on the lookout for more robust, inventory tracking capabilities.

Unlike traditional ERP offerings, Inflow offers increased flexibility and customization that you can (mostly) setup yourself. Inflow customers get a 2-hours long onboarding with Customer Success, setup a launch plan, and their up and running with product and sales fast. This is a far cry from the standard consulting services, fees, and multi-month roll-out you can expect from a big box ERP.

Not to mention, inFlow has one of the highest usability scores on the market and 98.7% customer satisfaction. For fast-growth retail and ecommerce, it is a must-try.

Supply Chain, Shipping, and Logistics

Shippo

Shippo – as the name suggests – is a shipping platform that makes eCommerce delivery processes really simple. By integrating Shippo with your store, shopping cart, and marketplaces, you can easily import your orders, purchase shipping labels, and print packing slips in a couple of clicks. Best of all, Shippo automates carrier rate comparison for each order - so you save on shipping each time, without any of the extra legwork.

Like many other solutions in our list, a flagship benefit of Shippo is that you can set it up, integrate it, and start shipping with no custom development or coding required. As part of a growth-stage shipping operations tool stack, it an ideal choice getting products to customers faster, more affordably, and in a scalable fashion.

One drawback of Shippo is that customer support is limited to chat and email. However, for the majority of use cases and integration requirements, Shippo is ready to deliver out of the box, and won't require any support to get started.

Anvyl

One of the greatest challenges of scaling a business is managing supply chain operations without driving up costs. Supply chains and other production processes require high visibility and non-siloed communications. When it’s time to scale up, spreadsheets, legacy systems, and manual communications no longer cut it.

Anvyl helps teams to simplify the supply chain. They bring all of your suppliers, vendors, freight forwarders, and design processes under into one platform. This allows supply chain managers to have an end-to-end PO with just a few clicks. On top of that, Anvyl also has a massive network of suppliers, freight forwarders, and designers which they can connect to you directly through the platform. For lean teams in growing businesses, this can help to double the bandwidth without having to add more head counts.

Anvyl is highly customizable, and also relatively easy to customize yourself. Your team can have the equivalent of a full-service ERP, or just the specific supply chain capabilities they need, for a fraction of the price and time commitment of a legacy, custom-built system.

Conclusion

All in all, scaling your business operations will require a great deal of work. As an operations leader, you'll probably spend some extra hours testing out tools and fine-tuning your new processes, in order to determine what's working and what's not.

However, the good news is that once you have your new processes in place, things will actually get a lot easier overall – exponentially easier compared to the manual way you've probably been doing things so far. Your operations will run much more efficiently, processes will be much more transparent, and unexpected increases in growth and work volume will be much more easy to handle without compromising.

To do this, it’s very important that you take the time right now to invest in getting the right tools for your business operations. Don't wait until the house is burning down.

The tools listed here are a good starting point, and some of the leading software on the market when it comes to scaling businesses operations. Use their innovation to your advantage and get started today.

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About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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