Excel is a great product for helping your small business with simple accounting tasks like creating invoices and tracking customer data. However, once your business gets busy and you have numerous clients, invoices and bills to track, you might want to consider billing and invoice software. Importing data into an accounting program can be pretty simple, especially when compared to entering every bit of data item by item.

Maybe you have been using Excel for a while and it seems to work for you alright. You may be wondering if the time and effort it takes to convert to billing and invoicing software is worth it. Excel can only get you so far. Yes, there are nice-looking free invoice templates available for creating invoices using Excel, which may work for a while. However, invoicing and billing software can help you become more efficient by automatically filling in information for invoices, quotes, estimates and payments. Many can even email invoices to your clients directly from the software. They also can create reports and automatically send overdue statements to your customers. So yes, it is worth the effort.

How do I know if billing and invoice software is the right fit for my business?
This type of software is perfect for freelancers, sole-proprietors, independent contracts, consultants and self-employed people who do not have employees. A few accounting programs offer some payroll tools, but that software is much more suited for managing employees.

So how does one make the big move from Excel to a billing and invoice program?
Many programs can import from Excel, however they cannot magically know what data you want to be imported into which area. Most import from Excel or other programs using a CSV file type. A CSV file is a comma-separated values file type, it is most often used to move tabular data between different software.

How do you convert an Excel file to a CSV file?
Converting an Excel file to a CSV file using Excel 2007 is easy – you simply just click “save as” then “other formats” then save as type “CSV.” However, it will only do this one sheet at a time; it will not convert an entire workbook. So you may have to separate your data out into separate sheets first.

How does the software know where to put the data?
CSV file formats store one record in one line of a text type file and each value is separated by a comma. For example, the first line in a customer record file in CSV format may look something like “Customer, Billing Address, Suite Number, City, State, Zip Code.” The second line may look something like “John’s Cleaning Supply, 1234 Apple Street, 10, Sunshine City, Utah, 12345.” See the image included with this article as an example.

First step before importing, arrange your data in the right order.
You may have to manipulate the order of your information in Excel to match how the program wants you to import the information. For example, if you are entering customer data, it may want the information in a specific order, such as company name, address, phone number, email, contact person, and you may have to move your information around to match that. Once you have it all lined up, start importing.

What kind of data does billing and invoice software need to start creating invoices?
Many will let you create an invoice right away, but to be more efficient and automatic it will need more information. Depending on your business and whether you are selling physical product or services, you will need to import customer information, pricing, item/service information, tax rates and your company information. Once this data is in the software, you can quickly create invoices, estimates and quotes using stored data that will fill in automatically.

What if the software will not import from Excel?
If your company’s information cannot be imported from Excel or as a CSV file you have two options. The first option is the old-fashioned way, take some time to cut and paste or type your information in. If you do not have an extensive client list, this is not a bad option. The second option is to sort your customers by most recent activity and start by entering your most active clients first. After you get down the list to one-time customers or customers that have not purchased in a long time, stop entering and save those customers in an Excel file as an inactive customer list. If it makes sense, you can use this inactive list as a potential sales list for a marketing campaign. If they do not become active, just keep them archived and only add them into the software if they buy something else. A similar strategy can be used for inventory items or services. Just enter your most popular things first and add the one-time items as they come up.

If you are thinking it is time to move from Excel to an invoicing and billing program that is a good sign; it means business is doing well and you are ready to grow and be able to provide better service to your clients. If you are mostly interested in automatic invoicing and billing, check out kBilling. If you want an easy-to-use program that can easily be updated to QuickBooks Pro someday, consider QuickBooks Simple Start. However, if you are a small home business and plan to stay small, you may want to look into Quicken Home and Business, which is designed to help you manage your personal finances as well as your small business finances.

If your business is growing so fast that you are thinking about hiring some employees or you want automatic banking with your software, check out our accounting software reviews.

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