Scanners and character recognition software can convert manuals and catalogs into easily portable text files.

If you are like most salespeople, you didn’t take typing in school, so your typing is “adequate” (meaning you can find keys on the keyboard).

Did you know your computer could be doing some of your typing at 500 words per minute?

More and more computer users have a scanner. Most have figured out how to get a picture into a document. If you don’t have a scanner, they cost less than $50 on sale at your local office supplies store.

But I’m always surprised how few people know that they can use their scanner to convert documents into text. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software does that quickly and relatively easily. OCR software takes images and converts it to text. OCR software has been around for 30 years. During that time, OCR software has gotten more accurate and less expensive.

Couple this simple OCR capability with Google Desktop Search and you have a knowledge management system for less than $100. Scan all the correspondence you get, OCR it and find it quickly using Google Desktop Search. And the text version of a document is many times more compact than the scanned image. Add all the catalogs and technical manuals you might need and you will have a powerful capability for answering customer questions. If you travel with a notebook, try taking a Plustek OpticSlim M12 portable sheet-fed scanner (about $125). You can use your downtime in hotels to scan your paper into your knowledge base.

When your OCR needs exceed the software bundled with your scanner, it’s time to upgrade to more powerful OCR software. ABBYY Finereader 9.0 Corporate Edition is a great choice. It offers more accurate OCR, especially for low-resolution documents (e.g., fax documents you might receive). It can even OCR a picture you take with a digital camera. It also gives you more control over the OCR process. Scanning a show directory, I was able to set up three columns instead of having the OCR program mix data from the columns, trying to fit it to a single page.

Another really powerful feature is Finereader’s ability to automatically OCR documents stored in a common folder. Set up sharing on a desktop folder, or a server if you have it, and you can schedule Finereader to OCR any image in that folder late at night when nothing else is going on. Couple Finereader with an all-in-one unit like a Brother MFC-420cn or MFC-5440cn (under $100 when on sale), which can scan documents directly to a network folder, and you have a very efficient system for getting documents into your knowledge base.

You can get a scanner and OCR for less than $100. Even an upgraded scanner and Finereader can cost less than $500. OCR can turn those paper documents into editable (or searchable) text.