Internal tools are where businesses run their operations. I know - it sounds very broad but that’s because each organization’s needs can be very different, and internal tools are widely used to perform various actions such as keeping track of the inventory, processing customer claims, confirming bookings and refunds, collaborating internally, performing KYC processes, managing fleets, exporting data, visualizing dashboards… this could be a never-ending list.
Some of these operations are common, and solutions like CRMs, ticketing software, or popular Business Intelligence tools (BI) fit their needs. Others are so specific to one organization that ready-to-use solutions are not a good fit for them, and such organizations are more likely to build internal tools in-house. In the past, it used to be the case of 99% of them but third-party internal tool solutions like Forest Admin have changed the game.
What are internal tools?
Internal tools are often called back-office tools because, in contrast to the front-office, they are never visible to customers. Does it make them less important? Let’s stop here for a moment. Obviously, the customer-facing app is king, as apps and services are designed to address the customers’ problems. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that customers are not impacted by the quality or the lack of internal tools. Without customer support tools, customers wouldn’t get their issues solved. Without KYC systems, financial services businesses wouldn’t be able to operate. Without analytical tools, product performance, retention, or growth wouldn’t be monitored.
As a customer, every time you easily get quick, precise solutions from a friendly staff, you can bet this staff is equipped with top-of-the-class internal tools. As a business, investing in efficient internal tools is one of the most effective ways to increase customer satisfaction and employee retention.
In this article, we cover in detail:
- What are internal tools
- Internal Tool vs. Admin Panel
- Internal Tool vs. CMS
- Internal Tool vs. CRM
- Internal Tools vs. database GUI clients
- Internal Tools vs. Dashboards and Data Analytics tools
- Internal Tools vs. Inventory management apps
- Internal Tools vs. Approval / Workflow Automation Apps
- Internal Tools vs. IT support ticketing tools
- Is it better to build or buy internal tools
- How to choose the right internal tool
- Where to find different internal tools
- How to share internal tools with external partners
Internal Tool vs. Admin Panel
The terms internal tool and admin panel are frequently considered as synonyms and used interchangeably. However, it’s important to know that internal tools have a broader meaning — every admin panel is an internal tool but not every internal tool is an admin panel. The main difference is that admin panels are built on top of the application’s database whilst internal tools can be built on top of any type of data source, like a SaaS provider such a Stripe, Intercom, or Salesforce. Internal tools built on top of such data sources allow for enriching the data that typically isn’t stored in the app’s database: payment details, marketing campaigns, customer support conversations, and similar. Thanks to that, business team members can handle complex workflows without worrying about where the data is located.
Internal tools also often refer to small tools tackling specific use cases that fit the needs of one small team or even one person. The admin panel is used by the whole company to collaborate on shared data from multiple sources across all teams and operations from customer support to warehouse management and financial controller.
Internal Tool vs. CMS
CMS stands for Content Management System, and it is widely used to create, publish, organize, moderate, and delete a website’s content. WordPress, Webflow, and Ghost are among the most popular CMSes, and they all work in a way that users add or edit their content using an HTML editor, and the content is saved with the back-end in the database. Then, WordPress or another CMS shows the content based on the previously constructed front-end. They are monolithic in the sense they have all the functionalities included.
An interesting type of s CMS is a headless CMS, also called an API-first CMS. Such a system also gives the non-technical content editors the interface for managing content, but developers are free to choose their front-end technologies. Contentful, Sanity, ButterCMS, Content Stack, dotCMS, and Kontent by Kentico are popular content platforms and headless CMS solutions.
Similarily to an admin panel, every CMS is an internal tool but not every internal tool is a CMS. As its name states it, a Content Management System can only manage content, which makes it the perfect solution to manage a blog or another website that is rich in content. Its advanced text editor widgets, video-embedding, visual builders, and category management features will make it the easiest tool to write beautiful articles, create static pages or organize the content of a product catalog. However, they don’t have many useful functionalities of the all-in-one internal tools, and they can’t serve as a data centralization system. A CMS will not be of any help to organize the shipping, reimburse clients, visualize sales KPIs, moderate user-created content etc. Companies often use both a CMS and an admin panel to get the best of each tool.
Internal Tools vs. CRM
Customer Relationship Management tools, or CRMs help your teams handle their clients and interact with them, whether that’s a first contact or everyday lead nurturing. Most organizations with substantial sales teams tend to invest into CRMs as their process usually relies on them being able to be in constant contact with their customers, and to be able to reach potential ones as well.
A CRM can be one of the most straightforward internal tools you can get started with, as all businesses rely on clients — even if your sales activities are just starting out, being organized and being able to act instantly are worth the effort and finances you can put into a tool like this.
Good examples of CRMs include: Salesforce, Pipedrive, HubSpot, Zoho.
Internal Tools vs. database GUI clients
Database Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) clients are simple interfaces built on top of the database that allow for performing CRUD operations. They’re far from being fully-functional internal tools but they allow to access the database and give full control over the data.
The biggest disadvantage of database GUI clients is that they can only be used by team members with technical expertise — we bet you wouldn’t like to give raw SQL access to your database to everyone in the organization. Another downside of database GUIs is that they don’t provide any dashboards to monitor growth and other metrics. However, if the need is to access data and to perform basic operations on it, and the lack of technical expertise is not an issue, database GUI clients, such as Postico, Sequel Pro for SQL, or Robo 3T and Studio 3T for MondoGB, can be a good choice.
Internal Tools vs. Dashboards and Data Analytics tools
We’re living in a data-driven world, and that’s true for businesses as well. With most of them conducting their activities online, data analytics and interpretation can be one of the most crucial things when it comes to their internal operations — especially if it’s all distributed across multiple data platforms.
Integrating a simple graphical dashboard with a graphical user interface can help you make sense of all your data, and even present it in a nice way — put some analytics behind it, and it becomes a powerhouse. One important thing to keep in mind is that these solutions themselves aren’t necessarily ones to handle complex data manipulation: most of the time, they are there to analyze and visualize it for you.
Popular examples of dashboard solutions include: Tableau, GoodData, Sisense, Datapine, Inetsoft.
Internal Tools vs. Inventory management apps
While dashboards provide a graphical interface that is aimed at visualizing data, sometimes, that’s not all what you need. Inventory apps allow businesses to have a streamlined interface that can integrate with robust databases, with automations to help with processes involving said inventory, whether it’s new orders, cancellations, or deliveries.
Managing your business’ inventory can be one of the most time consuming and crucial internal activities, hence why many companies opt to start out with an internal tool already in place for it. If you know your business will have to handle a lot of commerce, make sure you take a good look at inventory management tools.
Popular inventory management apps include: Sortly, Veeqo, Ordoro, Delivrd, Inventory Now.
Internal Tools vs. Approval / Workflow Automation Apps
There comes a point in every business’ life when approval processes and workflow automation become necessary to be able to function properly. Regardless of when that happens, the management of your internal operations — whether we’re talking sales processes, product decisions, or anything else — is key to sustain a well-functioning, structured company.
Approval and workflow apps can help with streamlining these processes, giving you a platform to integrate into your activities, and use it with a healthy dose of convenient automation. This can range from anything to product approvals to multi-level business decisions that require managerial oversight.
Great examples of approval and workflow automation apps include: Integrify, JotForm Approvals, Checkbox, Decisions.
Internal Tools vs. IT support ticketing tools
Just like sales teams have CRMs to help make their work as efficient as possible, IT support also has something: ticketing systems.
With these solutions, support specialists can manage incoming requests from people inside and outside the company. Support departments usually have plenty to deal with, which is why the scheduling and structuring capabilities of tools like these can be extremely helpful for them and their employees.
Popular IT support ticketing tools include: Zendesk, Freshdesk, HappyFox, Jira, Intercom
Internal tools: Build vs. Buy
The big question everyone has to answer before making a decision in favor of any kind of an internal tool is whether to buy a ready-to-use solution or build it from scratch. In the past, almost every internal tool has been developed in-house, as other ways of having internal tools were simply not available.
At Forest Admin, we decided to do our own research and we surveyed early-stage companies in the fintech industry. Choosing fintechs was not a random decision — companies operating in this industry have to comply with strict regulations regarding data protection and preventing money laundering and fraud. It means such companies have to have internal tools ready from the first day of the launch and it is absolutely crucial for them to have all the data under control — the question is how they prefer to get it done.
Our survey showed an almost 50/50 split in answering the build vs. buy question.
What makes users choose the off-the-shelf solution then? First of all, building and maintaining internal tools takes on average up to 30% of development time. As development resources virtually always are the bottleneck of any tech company in 2021 (seriously, who has too many developers and not enough projects to develop ?), it is strategic to allocate these resources to building unique differenciating features on customer facing apps, not coding from scratch an authentication, CRUD, roles and permissions, and charts for internal needs. On top of that, internal tool developers and designers are difficult to hire - professionals involved in product management, design, and development in most cases prefer to work on customer-facing apps.
Respondents who were in favor of building internal tools in-house wanted to make sure the application is secure. However, this concern can be addressed by choosing the tool that was created with all of those in mind. For example, Forest Admin has a hybrid architecture thanks to which user data only transits through an admin backend hosted on the client's server, and its layout editor and smart features give a lot of flexibility for the internal tool to fit every specific needs of every business, as developers can introduce custom coded logic and views.
Off-the-shelf solutions like Forest Admin also tackle issues that most business owners are concerned about such as:
- Data security. User data goes through the admin API hosted on your servers, right into your end-user browser interface. It remains completely invisible to Forest Admin servers.
- Scalability. Forest Admin is built to scale with your application - it will handle the company’s growth from a few to thousands of employees.
- User Experience. Our UI is aesthetic and intuitive. Not only your dev team but also product and design teams can focus on the customer-facing app knowing a third-party internal tool is user-friendly and professionally looking.
Where to find internal tools
Let’s say you’re now convinced to use third-party solutions instead of building your internal tool in-house, from scratch. How to choose the best one, then?
As we’ve already mentioned, there are different types of internal tools: from database GUIs and simple admin panel templates to all-in-one data centralization systems used by hundreds and even thousands of users from different teams. Finding the perfect solution depends largely on the size of the company, its business logic, and the needs of team members they are going to work with it. Here are a few options:
- Admin panel templates — pre-built packages that allow for a quick start as they provide a ready-to-go admin panel in literally a few clicks. However, their simplicity is a double-edged sword as they don’t allow enough flexibility for projects that are even slightly more specific and complex. We have covered this topic already in the article that explains why you most likely need more than admin panel templates.
- Open source internal tool solutions. Some web development technologies have internal tool solutions available out-of-the-box. For example, React has React Admin, Django - Django Admin, Ruby in Rails - Active Admin, Laravel has Laravel Nova, just to name a few most popular. They are ready to use, which is a significant advantage, just like the fact they’re well-integrated with their frameworks. However, they’re also limited in terms of functionalities and can’t be used for big projects with complex business logic. They also require coding skills to make even the smallest edits, which is not the case with third-party solutions with a WYSIWYG editor.
- Off-the-shelf solutions like Forest Admin. We believe they give users the best of both worlds. For example, Forest Admin has plenty of out-of-the-box functionalities that don’t require any coding but it also gives developers a lot of independence and flexibility in building custom-made smart features that can fit even very specific business logic.
How to share internal tools with external partners
Although internal tools are meant to be used, well, internally, there are cases where they become even more powerful when at least some of their subsets are shared with external partners: suppliers, resellers, franchisees, even some clients. This allows them, for example, to get access to real-time data about stock levels, sales dashboards, some user data. At the same time, there are parts of the internal tool that should be restricted, so that external partners don’t have access to all the company data. Forest Admin is the only internal tool solution that offers it natively: our roles and permissions system has been designed to share subsets of an internal tool hassle-free.
How to choose the right internal tool
Now that we've taken a look at the most popular types of internal tools you can get started with, let’s take a look at some other factors you should consider once you already know what kind of solution you want to use.
Will it also make sense in the long-term?
Realizing what you need internal tools for is only part of the equation: you should also be mindful of how adopting such a tool is going to fit into your business in the long run. Ask yourself these following questions:
- Does adopting this tool make sense for my current business goals and processes?
- Will it be able to scale with us as our business grows, and do the same for us later down the line?
- Does it cover all the use cases we’re planning for in the future?
- If it doesn’t support all the things I need, are my developers going to be able to easily customize it to our liking?
If the answer to those questions is yes, chances are, you’re looking at a tool that makes sense for your business needs. Bear in mind that low-code solutions often provide you with a better array of possibilities since they’re aimed at uses that are non-reliant on engineering support, as well as specialized ones that are. Check out our article on why low-code is the way to go for internal tools.
Does the pricing make sense for your business?
Let’s not beat around the bush: money is always going to be one of the decisive factors for getting started with a new tool. Whether you’re management who has to approve it, or you’re the end-user who has to convince management to do so, this is always going to be one of the pain points, so it should be something that you evaluate before you begin.
Just like in our previous point about scaling, we advise you to look at what you have right now, and where your business is headed. Try to look into tools that make sense financially for the size of your business, but also give you the opportunity to scale up in a non-obstructive way.
Many internal tools offer free trials of their products, which can be great to get started with, and see how much they can really do for you — after all, if they really do bring value to your business, you won’t mind paying for their features down the road so much.
Does it meet your security needs?
Since internal tools are, by definition, tools that interact with your internal processes, security is always a main pain point for them. There can be no doubt that without the proper security measures, your data privacy and protection can be at risk, exposing your and your clients’ data to a third party.
You should always take a look at the security features an internal tool offers, and evaluate whether they’re good enough for your business’ activities. Things that you should be looking for include:
- Data ownership retention (your data being invisible to the third party)
- Security certifications like GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, AICPA SOC2, ISO 27001
- Absolutely no tracking in or around the app
- Advanced features like two-factor authentication (2FA), IP whitelisting
- Security infrastructure support (DMZ, VPN, etc.)
Internal Tools: Summary
Although internal tools usually don’t get as much attention as the customer-facing apps, the consequences of neglecting them, like lower employee productivity and satisfaction, slower handling of customer tickets, or scaling difficulties are severe, and sooner or later, they will have a negative impact on the entire business. The good news, now there are more ways of getting custom-made and user-friendly internal tools without building and maintaining them in-house: from open-source templates to fully-functional third-party solutions.
If you’d like to give Forest Admin a try, sign up for free.
If you’ve reached the end of this article, it means you’re really into internal tools, high five! I’m sure you will also find these resources interesting:
- Five reasons why you should use low-code internal tool builders
- The state of Admin Panels in early-stage Fintech companies
Common myths about third-party internal tool solutions: