Without question, technology has changed so many aspects of our daily lives and interactions with others, including - to a large degree - how we research, shop for and purchase products and services. And those changes have, in turn, influenced how businesses present and offer those products and services. That adaptation often inevitably leads to the incorporation of new technologies to help streamline day-to-day business operations and redundant tasks.
While embracing continued technological advances can certainly be of great benefit to small business owners’ growth rates and profit margins, they can be difficult to navigate and often require additional maintenance and oversight. We asked four local IT-savvy business leaders to weigh in on how to balance the benefits and challenges of technology-powered business.
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In a world increasingly marked by everyday technology use, how can businesses keep pace and stand out from the competition?
BRIAN QUINN: The key is choosing a consultant who stays abreast of all emerging technologies. A full-service IT consulting company can guide your organization to the best solutions to avoid unnecessary loss of productivity and capital expense, and test these solutions before attempting a full-scale implementation. Up-to-date hardware and software gives an organization a significant edge over competitors. As the saying goes, “The early bird catches the worm!”
Many small- and medium-sized businesses are integrating newer technologies as they become more affordable. RFID [radio-frequency identification] labels are replacing bar coding to accelerate shipping and receiving, for example, and businesses can now reach millions of potential customers by offering their own smartphone app.
Online marketing professionals can help shape the look and feel of your company and its offerings. Often, they can get the sales process started by generating excitement about your product and its benefits and opening up online sales.
I think the main thing is to be adaptable and prove yourself as a consultant. When we try to present products and services in a cookie-cutter fashion, we often lose sight of the needs and desires of those we are trying to serve.
Molding our approach by first finding out the intricacies of a prospect’s workplace allows us to identify antiquated areas within workflows and provide a plan of compliancy and growth for that client. Shoppers looking for a commodity have already bought from Amazon, so we must offer what Amazon can’t - invaluable advice and mentorship well beyond the sale.
I think it’s important to get creative and brainstorm with your team about touchpoints with your clients and ways to streamline communication, enhance your image or add value by incorporating technology.
For example, we had a client who sold $250,000 machinery to his customers but was showing up to presentations with a laptop that should have been retired five years prior. It was bulky, heavy, slow and outdated. I asked him, What image does that outdated laptop send to your clients?
We then discussed why - since he was striving to display how technologically advanced his own machinery was - it would make more sense to have something newer, faster and more cutting-edge.
Presentation matters; significantly lagging behind is self-defeating. Our client agreed. Computer Warriors set up multiple touch screens, a computer, and custom-built presentation software in a mobile facility his firm recently purchased for road shows. He took this lesson to heart, and even redesigned and modernized his website after our conversation.
Ironically, my own company lagged technologically in one area. We recently made a change in our retail stores to collect signatures electronically versus having customers sign printed copies of our intake forms.
Business owners and employees should always be reading and learning, and shouldn’t become satisfied with the status quo. Technology is constantly shifting, so it is important to keep an open mind about trends and ideas and be willing to look inward to areas of improvement.
In the property management industry, more than 90 percent of customers search online first for their next rental home, and more than 60 percent are using mobile.
In such a technologically driven industry, we have been able to separate ourselves from the competition. We can process the daily operations of more than 1,500 properties quickly and efficiently with a 97 percent occupancy rate.
With thousands of prospects searching for rental homes, we had to find a way to handle applications, schedule appointments and respond to requests, among many other things, with a very quick turnaround.
We are already considering new systems for the coming year due to the continual demands from homeowners and tenants to provide them with quick and effective service.
How has technology changed your business, and to what extent should it play a role in daily decisions and long-term planning?
Technology has allowed us to leverage our team to do far more with fewer resources. It has been critical for us to make necessary investments in infrastructure - internet circuits, network, computers, servers, etc. - so our team can provide services reliably to our clients.
All of this comes with expense. It is imperative to plan out what you will need in the next few years, especially since phone systems and internet circuits often require three- or five-year contracts.
The challenging changes in technology, especially for us as an IT company, require continual updating and investment in our people. Technologies that were prevalent three years ago are now obsolete. Whatever the risks, we
must embrace the rapid advances in technology.
Technology has also allowed us to communicate effectively across physical distances and keep everyone on the same page. We hold weekly team meetings by video conference between teams in different locations. We shifted to this system about a year ago, instead of trying to recreate multiple weekly meetings. This has saved us a minimum of one hour per week multiplied by six employees, and allowed communication and policy to be much more consistent.
Having technology systems in place, such as accounting and CRMs [Customer Relationship Management software] that allow monthly, weekly, daily and even real-time reporting is critical for the smaller daily decisions. Being a results-driven organization, it is important to measure the team, set goals and meet and exceed those goals. This would be nearly impossible - or at a minimum very time-consuming and expensive - to do without proper technology software systems in place.
By streamlining our systems with advanced technology, we have been able to manage a larger amount of properties while still providing a high level of service to our clients.
It was essential that we had systems in place that improved our efficiency. We have to provide information to homeowners regarding applications, showings and maintenance on their properties. We always consider our projected growth when vetting new systems for day-to-day operations. Since technology is forever changing, it’s important to continually look long-term when seeking out the latest technological advances.
Technology is the heart and soul of Hooks Systems. We constantly monitor our clients’ business growth and evolution to be certain we are recommending technologies that make sense and fit into clients’ budgets.
All the advantages of new technologies come with a requirement that they be properly maintained, certified and used on networks that employ best practices. Over the past 20 years, Hooks Systems has been in a constant evolution to keep our knowledge base and employee skill sets ahead of emerging technologies. At the same time, we need to ensure our clients with older legacy systems can continue to receive the same quick resolution to any of their issues.
The in-house technology at Hooks Systems has also evolved, allowing us to remotely manage our family of clients in real time. This allows our help desk team to quickly resolve any problems experienced by the end-user and get them back to work. Our clients also benefit by having their networks monitored 24/7 - power, backups, internet, intrusion attempts, server functions, etc.
We used to have long paper-intensive sales packets that took several hours to decipher and process. Through innovative scanning technologies, we are now able to scan files directly into sub-folders within our system straight from our copiers. We also can edit files through software that allows for on-the-go edits of pertinent information, so business doesn’t have to stop when we leave the office.
When you decide to implement changes and modernize your workplace, it can eliminate the 30 minutes or more you used to spend manually entering data or organizing files. That time can now be spent on tasks that better serve your business’ bottom line. Regarding long-term planning, it is very important to weigh both the upfront costs of new technology options and the “soft” costs they can help eliminate.
Working with a vendor that understands the importance of your time and looks for opportunities to increase your productivity is a way to mine the field for new and interactive ways to integrate technology within your workplace.
How does technology integration impact a business’ productivity and revenue?
By becoming more streamlined, we can handle a larger amount of information each day without losing attention to detail. We understand the need for as many details as possible to assist us with decisions regarding business growth, productivity and customer service. We can also significantly increase the amount of calls and emails we answer.
Technology is a tool to streamline processes, automate mundane tasks and routines, and enhance communication. We offer managed IT services to our clients and monitor backups, anti-virus software, servers, hard drives and much more. We are leveraging state-of-the-art technology to monitor these services and deliver superior customer service. However, we can’t just let the software and the machines take over. Having human oversight and review is critical to ensure things go smoothly and perform as they should.
I’d advise looking at how technology can automate processes in your business and help your team monitor transactions. Within our ticketing system, we have text alerts that notify everyone on our team - myself included - when we haven’t responded to a client’s request within 30 minutes of receiving it. This wouldn’t have been possible without incredibly precise technology that provides us with key insights and business optics, thereby increasing our level of customer satisfaction and ability to effectively manage our team.
A good way to imagine it is to look at how you currently do business, then “replace” your computer and scanner with a typewriter and fax machine. Would you be able to work at the same rate and efficiency as you currently do? Of course not.
Early adapters to innovative solutions and products are usually successful because they can do things in a simpler and more efficient fashion, while their competitors are stuck listening to a dial tone.
While the way you do things may get the job done, like the typewriter used to, wouldn’t you want to know if there was a computer you could use? When you are introduced to new advances - such as incorporating new automated bill-back features to clients, implementing barcode scanning into your document management system or the automatic routing of patient files to their designated “chart” - they will save you time on mundane tasks and allow you to spend more time meeting with clients.
The more tightly an organization integrates the ideal technology into its daily production, the more efficiently its “money machine” operates.
An experienced consulting group can help you analyze your precise business technology needs and integrate them with your workflow. We work with a wide spectrum of industries, healthcare organizations and local governments to provide best practice solutions for their many missions.
What is a common problem tech-powered businesses are currently facing?
The balance of searching for and incorporating new technology. With technology advancing so quickly, it can be difficult to keep up. How do you decide what will help you and your team grow?
Our team spends a great deal of time and resources probing our industry for innovation and best practices. This means our customers don’t have to worry about seeking out new advances in regard to document solutions and products, because we’ve already done this for them.
When you align yourself with a technology partner that looks out for your best interest, you benefit through time saved searching for technology that may already be out of your realm of understanding. Relying on a trusted technology partner can be the difference between money invested and time wasted.
Security. Many businesses do not even have a properly configured firewall and antivirus protection in place. The largest companies in the world are getting hacked daily. How likely is it that your organization will be hacked? It is almost a certainty if you have weak security.
If you do get hacked, a knowledgeable network security consultant can minimize your downtime and save your precious data. Hooks Systems offers deep-dive network security assessment and a variety of strategies to get you back to work quickly, with little to no data loss, should you have an intrusion. We help our clients develop disaster recovery and business continuity plans to make even the worst disaster survivable.
Keeping up with continually evolving technology to determine which is the most impactful for your business and customer needs can be challenging.
New technology has significantly changed our industry, with a shift in nearly every aspect of our business. Most of our rental processes are now online, including leasing applications, appointments, payments and even communication with homeowners and tenants.
We are always looking for ways to automate redundant tasks so our managers can spend more time with the clients.
Risk management. If you are exclusively using cloud-based systems, what do you do if your internet goes down? Do you have a fail-over in place, and does it switch over automatically? If you have your own server, do you know how long it takes to restore your server to dissimilar hardware in the event your server burns up? Or how long will it take to get the needed support if your network goes down internally or a critical computer crashes?
We speak with many businesses that rely heavily on technology that haven’t properly planned these things out. They wing it, hope for the best or simply ignore the problem. Or they make a fatal mistake - not encrypting their backup data - offsite, as well as onsite. When backups aren’t encrypted, many ransomware threats can take your data hostage, and your backups, too!
How important is big data, and how can business owners best utilize it?
We use market analysis in every aspect of our company. We can track how many people view our properties and call and visit our website, as well as feedback from reviews and surveys and the number of applications being processed.
Understanding our clients’ needs and keeping up with industry trends keeps our momentum up. Data technology is essential because we utilize it to assist with better decision-making for our company growth and better service to our clients.
Which local industries are more rapidly integrating technology into daily operations?
Across all the industries we serve - health care professionals, first responders, manufacturing and local governments - mobile devices have become commonplace. When combined with other new technologies, mobile devices add flexibility to an organization’s mission. They also add a layer of technology that must be managed, secured and monitored. Our mission at Hooks Systems is to support your mission through technological excellence.
It’s rare to find a business that is not utilizing technology in its daily operations, from the plumber who processes payments on the spot with his or her mobile device to your hairstylist who books appointments online.
Being prepared makes for a more successful business and can ensure repeat customers and clients. Just allowing our tenants to make payments online has added a significant value to their overall experience.
While advances can be seen in virtually every field, we have noticed significant progress within the health care industry, whether it be doctors using tablets for patient notes or online patient portals for prescriptions and health records.
Even with these new processes, there are still several other ways these workplaces can implement effective technology. We help health care providers utilize technology already in place to further create 24/7 reliability and redundancy solutions so downtime is avoided, honor HIPPA with compliance, and provide an intuitive medical claims process that enables a faster payment cycle and increases operating budgets overall.
When our clients have used these tactics, they have seen technology transform daily patient relations and staff productivity.
How important is an updated, user-friendly website to a business’ overall success?
It’s not just important; it’s crucial! When people go online to do their research, they will make decisions based on a professional, user-friendly website. If they can’t find the information they are looking for quickly and efficiently, they will go elsewhere. The feedback we continually get from prospects and clients is they chose us because of our website.
Websites now give people their first impressions of a company. Ensuring your website is up-to-date and easy to use gives users an idea of what doing business with you will be like. If they easily can move through your web pages and find the information they need without getting bogged down by hefty verbiage and confusing concepts, they will most likely feel more confident in your company.
As confidence in your website grows among users, they will be more willing to interact and engage in material.
Ensuring you use calls to action so users know exactly what the next steps are to do business with you shows you have a plan for them. If you have a customer base that needs access to documents, customer portals are great ways to provide value to customers beyond the initial sale. When websites are clear and centered around the needs of customers, businesses and users alike will benefit.
What are some ways businesses operating partially or completely online can ensure good customer service through their websites?
Customer service expectations are defined by the customers, so ensuring you meet your customers where they are and provide value is key. The integral dynamic is to heavily promote the mode of communication that will provide customers with the quickest response rate and hopefully resolve any issues or questions they may have. This means that if you have staff ready to take customer calls, you should emphasize your phone number as the route to reach you.
The implementation of chat bots is increasingly popular, as it allows businesses to instantly connect with users while remaining on the website. If you have the staff and expertise to implement bots, then they can provide a valuable tool to reaching different types of users, since not everyone wants to pick up the phone and call in with a question.
A final key point to remember is to always retain your integrity and refuse to over-promise, but always seek to over-deliver when you interact with customers, both online and offline.
We put a lot of emphasis on customer service and are constantly gathering data through surveys, reviews and overall feedback from our clients. Based on the information we gather, we understand what the rental prospects and homeowners are looking for when they land on our website.
People from around the nation and the world search for management companies and properties online. Since an office visit isn’t always an option, we put as much information as possible on the website. This alleviates a tremendous amount of frustration for prospects during their search. As an added value, we want our clients to know we are available and easily accessible offline, as well.
How has technology changed the way consumers make purchasing decisions?
In many industries, technology has taken away the face-to-face relationship-building to help customers make those big decisions, such as purchasing a home or entrusting your investment to someone.
Consumers typically do a large amount of research before they ever reach out to the company to make their final purchasing decision. The challenge is to figure out how to quickly build rapport with consumers at the middle or end of their decision-making process to ensure they trust you to assist them in making a final decision.
Potential customers are no longer calling around for information regarding products and services. The first step they are taking is a Google search. This not only changes how they find you; it also changes how they interact with you. Users can now find reviews, bios, social media posts and even news articles regarding your company before they even have a meeting with you.
Today, meetings with perspective clients take on a whole new look. Instead of discussions of how many copies per minute, two-sided copying or reduction and enlargement features, we are now focusing on solutions and pain-points in today’s business climate. Technology has paved the way for us to partner with our customers by steering the narrative away from product specifications to the details of integrating solutions into our customers’ workflows.
What role does social media play in driving potential customers to your online or brick-and-mortar store?
Social media helps you build authority and trust with your audience. Social media and blog posts can give valuable insight into the kinds of practices you can implement for clients.
People want to get to know who they do business with before they actually do business with them. If you don’t have a footprint on social media, it will be hard to gain trust from potential clients because you are still seen as a risk.
If you can position a social media campaign around informing people of how you conduct business, what strategies are currently helping other businesses, and what you can do to help, you will position yourself as less of an unknown and be more likely to bring in clients to your organization.
Since a lot of customers live out of town and conduct their searches online, social media has become a major resource for companies that allows them to get in front of their clients.
Instead of knocking on our customers’ doors, we are able to visit them through their computers. We don’t need to send out available properties to random people anymore; we can use a focused approach with social media. We utilize analytics from sophisticated algorithms to target audiences that have been searching for rental homes in a specific area.
Social media, as opposed to the brick-and-mortar store, is a much more cost-effective way to reach our intended audience. With these methods we have been able to cut our costs without increasing costs for our clients.
At what point should you consider outsourcing your IT support needs?
The decision to outsource your technology should be part of any initial business plan to ensure you start your company on a solid technology foundation. For those already in business, working with an IT consultant can help you get to the next level efficiently and securely. Even if you decide to have your own in-house IT employee, you will benefit from the additional manpower, expertise and buying power of a full-service IT consulting and support company.
There are many factors to consider here. Often, companies have someone inhouse who has done a great job guiding the company but their primary job is not IT support, so any time, energy or effort spent on IT distracts them from their work. It is also probable that this individual, although skilled in IT, isn’t up-to-date on education and industry trends and lacks experience in problem-solving and, more importantly, knowledge of potential IT solutions that could be a game-changer for how you do business. Some of the biggest oversights we have seen are in IT risk management and security. Not enough attention is placed here, and there is a steep learning curve for knowing what solutions to implement to keep the network and systems safe.
Many IT companies, including ours, offer guarantees with their services that are, in essence, an insurance policy on your data. If you were to lose your most critical data today and not be able to recover it, what recourse do you have? Do you have an insurance policy to bring it back, provide you with loss of revenue or save you from financial pitfalls? When you partner with a company like Computer Warriors IT Support, you have that insurance in your back pocket, just in case.
Another thing to consider is when to switch. I did my own SEO and web marketing internally when we had a staff of five or six people. It was a lot of work, but I had more time than money, so I did it. Now that our marketing needs and staff have grown - the time it would take me to manage it and the level of complexity involved - wouldn’t be worth it. I have used the time I’ve saved to grow my business in other ways.
In terms of IT outsourcing, it’s the same. It makes sense to do it yourself when you are small enough, have the in-house knowledge and can handle it. But at some point, it can become too overwhelming and complicated, and the risk becomes too great to wing it.
What should business owners consider when deciding whether to move their IT systems to the cloud?
The short answer is, it depends. There are many things to consider before making this critical decision. I’ll do my best to help guide you through a thought process and a series of questions and criteria that may be useful in deciding which path to go down.
At Computer Warrior IT Support, we have a mix of in-house servers and cloud software solutions and have taken a hybrid approach. There are pros and cons and risks to consider in both routes. For example, if you are planning on using cloud-based solutions, you need a fast, reliable primary internet circuit and the ability to automatically fail-over to a secondary connection - preferably a wireless 4G connection - in case your line gets cut or your ISP has an outage. If your internet goes down with a cloud-based solution, you either need to go somewhere else to work, go home for the day or have a back-up plan. Speed issues and reliability need to be considered.
When going with a cloud-based solution, we have found, at times, that the web services are just too slow or are not available at all. For instance, we migrated to QuickBooks online because it integrated better with our new cloud-based retail POS system. This was a strategic decision to make our systems work together properly. However, at times, we can’t log in, pages take a long time to refresh, or QuickBooks simply tells us, “Sorry, this service is not available right now.” We didn’t have that issue when we hosted QuickBooks internally. For those servers, we could add more RAM and faster disk drives. Now, we are at the mercy of the cloud provider and how well they maintain their systems. But we have more flexibility in how we work, and the solution is more scalable than it would have been otherwise.
A big factor to consider when making this choice is control. Do you want to personally know where your critical data resides, if it is being backed up properly, and whether it can be upgraded and its speed increased? Do you want to deal with your internet going down at the least opportune time? Or would you prefer the simplicity of a solutions company hosting and managing it all for you, but not give you as much control?
It’s not an easy choice. Frequently, the decision is easier when you consider your business model. Do you have just one location or will you have multiple offices? Typically, as you grow in size and complexity, cloud-based solutions have more of an appeal with ease-of-use and availability, no matter where you are located. However, having a local server may still provide incredible value in terms of cost-savings, storage, local speed and availability. If you have any further questions about what is the right choice for your business, please don’t hesitate to give us a call!
There is a lot of hype surrounding the cloud. While it is a very useful tool for all businesses, it is often not a complete solution. In many cases, we recommend a hybrid approach to cloud computing. Email, databases, Quickbooks, secondary data backups and web-based applications make sense operating in the cloud. Primary backups for business continuity and ultimate disaster recovery often are more effective and affordable running locally alongside your cloud apps.