Sometimes, keeping up with technological change can seem all too much. What you really want to know is what it can do for your business. In putting together this special feature, our aim was to help you understand key technologies so you don't get left behind. We invited four experts - some who sell the products or services they've written about, some who write about them for a living - to choose a particular technology and pitch the case for how it can help a small business.
Click below to read each column:
Save money with managed IT services
Offloading your IT problems to someone else is a way to save money and focus on your business, explains Dave Stevens from Brennan IT.
For businesses looking to make or save money, there’s no shortage of technologies ready to help.
Just as important as the technologies themselves however, is how they’re delivered.
And if your business wants to get a handle on costs while keeping its IT team small (perhaps having none at all) one of the most effective mechanisms available is managed services.
What are managed services?
Managed services allow you to ‘offload’ specific IT systems or functions to a service provider, who then becomes responsible for implementing, managing and monitoring those systems on your behalf.
It’s a popular approach, and from network management to telephony systems to entire infrastructures, the number of technologies available as managed services continues to grow.
How much can you save?
For small businesses, the biggest benefits of managed services are lower costs, higher reliability and better business focus.
These stem from the fact that, wherever managed services are used, you don’t have to hire IT staff. This eliminates not only wage costs but training expenses and also what might be called ‘entertainment costs’ – the tendency internal staff have to invest in new technologies in order to expand their own experience, whether or not it’s right for the business.
Of course, exact cost savings will vary
As a rough guide, a typical 100-seat business is likely to find that the cost of a managed service and that of an internally provisioned solution is comparable (though they’re still likely to save on indirect costs, including management overheads).
For those with less than 100 staff however, the savings are far greater. Assuming that your business employs two full-time technology heads on typical salaries, you’ll save in the order of 50 per cent.
The most popular use of managed services is server management, deployed by businesses that can’t justify hiring experts in everything from Microsoft Exchange to SQL.
Second is network management – from firewall and intrusion detection, to WAN performance and virus and spam protections. These require skill sets that are becoming more and more specialised, meaning that a managed services approach is a very efficient way to access the necessary expertise.
Third is help desk services and first-level support (usually bundled with server management). Solving user problems can be hard work. The attraction of managed support services is the high rate of ‘first call fix’ that can flow from having high-quality support staff on the end of the line.
Who does it suit?
One of the most important benefits of managed services is that they allow your business to concentrate on exactly that – your business.
In this sense, managed services will suit any organisation that feels its time is better focused on its own services and customers, rather than managing IT systems.
Managed services will be a particularly good fit, however, for professional and financial services firms and retailers, as well as businesses that are heavily reliant on IT and have mature business models.
One company we work with that has successfully made the switch to managed services is Enstruct Structural & Civil Engineers. Enstruct decided to move away from internally managed systems in order to focus solely on their business, which was fast expanding. The company now has a single point of responsibility for all their systems, and says that, with new desktops provisioned in a single day, they are confident in their ability to grow.
Another business making use of managed services is industrial battery supplier Enersys. With 30 staff and offices in Sydney and Melbourne, Enersys use us to manage their servers, network and support. General Manager Debbie Vivian points to system reliability as one of the biggest benefits, as well as the expert advice Enersys receives.
It’s important to realise, however, that managed services aren’t necessarily a cure-all for IT services.
The biggest danger is choosing the wrong provider. Managed services are usually delivered on a 2 or 3 year contract. Partner with the wrong people and it’s guaranteed to feel like 10.
If you’re going to use a managed service be sure to select a partner with the same ethos about priority and urgency as your business. That’s as much about work ethic as it is choosing someone to whom your business will matter.
Secondly, don’t think of managed services as a ‘set and forget’ solution. While a managed service will be orders of magnitude easier than deploying your own systems, it’s still important to devote some resources to it.
At minimum, have a monthly meeting to provide feedback and seek solutions where issues arise. So much of the business value of technology stems from using it strategically, and it’s important to draw upon your provider’s expertise in this regard. Focus on business goals, rather than specific technologies.
When managing a managed service:
- Examine the details of your agreement. Make sure that it’s comprehensive and meets your business goals. Remember that you can negotiate.
- Examine your Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Your SLA will describe how well your managed service is expected to perform. Ensure that yours is strict, preferably with meaningful penalties.
- Make sure that you receive detailed reporting. Managed services should be accompanied by as much reporting as possible – everything from uptime to usage.
A bright future
At the moment, the popularity of managed services is growing quickly. I’d estimate that around 50 per cent of mid-sized businesses in Australia use managed services for their server and help desk needs.
For smaller businesses, adoption has been even higher – up to 70 per cent.
In the end, delivering reliable IT services is not rocket science. What it does require is discipline, process and the right tools. For those who can find a suitable provider, rapid deployment, predictable budgeting and lower costs are all strong incentives to pursue managed options.
Many businesses have realised that they receive better value (and often better solutions) by making the switch.
Dave Stevens is managing director of managed IT services business,Brennan IT. Brennan IT was ranked #1 in Australia in 2012 as one of the world’s leading managed services providers by MSPmentor. They have offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Newcastle.
The "secret" to protecting your data from a disaster
What is the daily cost to your business if your server or network went down? Jamie Warner from eNerds identifies a big money saver.
As the CEO of eNerds, a Sydney based outsourced IT Support company, I’m always staggered at the lack of understanding about how to effectively plan for technology disasters. It demonstrates that most small businesses either don't understand the enormous cost and stress associated with technology downtime or they put it in the insurance bucket as something that rarely happens.
Well technology downtime does happen, as some readers effected by the recent Brisbane floods may attest, and there is a real cost to business which can be avoided.
Saving you money and peace of mind
To demystify the concept of a DRP (Disaster Recovery Plan) and a BCP (Business Continuity Plan), I would like to share a secret for technology disaster preparedness to save you money and most importantly give you peace of mind.
DRP and BCP are terms used by mid to enterprise businesses to define the set of procedures and processes the business will take in the event of disaster. So if anyone ever asks what your DR plan is, it's basically your strategy to get your business up and running if you experience downtime caused by; data corruption, system failure, fire, flood, theft etc.
Dos and Don’ts
So what do most small businesses do in relation to planning for a technology disaster?
Some employ the trade mark Aussie approach of 'she'll be right mate' which, whilst positive in outlook, is probably not conducive to a positive outcome.
The next popular strategy is to implement a backup solution. There are many alternatives suiting all budgets but indeed some are more reliable and effective than others.
Firstly, many small businesses backup to a USB portable hard drive or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. This approach is very entry level and does give a level of backup, but without a reliable software system to manage the process it isn't going to deliver true peace of mind. Also, backing up to disk is fine if you have an appliance like a NAS with multiple drives using RAID redundancy, but if it’s an external USB drive it is worrying. The most common IT components to fail are those with moving parts such as Hard Drives and Power Supplies, so can you honestly put all your eggs in ‘a one drive’ basket?
Secondly, one of the most popular methods for backup is a Tape Drive which uses large cassette tapes. Now this sounds like old technology, however, there are many reasons for its popularity. The tapes themselves are more reliable than hard drives since they have less moving parts. They are also more affordable and significantly more portable for off-site backup and archiving. Tape drives can also store a large amount of data per tape with the new LTO5 technology holding up to 1.5 terabytes of uncompressed data.
The biggest benefit is that they work in conjunction with popular backup software such as Symantec Backup Exec. This means backup procedures are scheduled, monitored and can be managed easily to ensure your data is safe.
You can have backup data retention schedules which go back one month or years with more tapes. However, Tape Drives can be expensive ranging from $2500.00 – $5000.00, but are a great investment.
Finally, on-line data backup & the ‘cloud’ are becoming more popular with small businesses. You can find a provider to backup your data over the Internet or you can use services such as DropBox or Box.com. Alternatively, you can take your business to the Cloud using Google, Office365 or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). PaaS delivers your Cloud solution via CITRIX and enables you to have your data, email and unique applications hosted.
The big time and money saver
However, none of these are the secret you should know about!
The secret is one of the most revolutionary products for disaster preparedness, it gives you faster recovery times from data loss & system failure and is something that most small businesses, not using the cloud, should be using.
So what is the secret?
Disaster recovery (DR) imaging software!
DR Imaging is the next evolution in data backup and systems redundancy and the most popular products are ShadowProtect by StorageCraft and Symantec System Recovery.
DR Imaging takes a full snap shot, (data, systems & applications – everything!), of your Server, PC or Laptop and then updates the ‘image’ incrementally to an external storage device right down to 15 minute intervals. This means that you have a 15 minute window to retrieve lost or deleted files. Remember, with Tape Drives or USB Drives they run nightly, so the window of losing data is quite large.
The amazing thing about DR Software is how much time and therefore money you save when disaster strikes.
If your Server fails, DR Imaging enables you to ‘mount’ the image to another Server, Desktop or Laptop and get your business operational within minutes or hours. If you only backup data, this may be safe, but how do you quickly re-load your Server, the applications, the users and get back to where you were before? DR Imaging is fast and it’s not just about data, you can restore corrupted hard drive partitions and even virtual servers with ease.
The best part is that the software is affordable at around $1000; however, you should also use a NAS with multiple redundant hard drives as the DR image repository.
To summarise, when you choose a backup solution for your business, DR Imaging should be the first solution picked every time. You could then combine it with a Tape Drive as an additional off-site backup solution.
So now you know the ‘imaging’ secret, have a think about the cost of downtime for your business and ask yourself, or your IT provider, whether you currently have the right backup solution to provide technology peace of mind.
Jamie Warner established eNerds in 2000 aged 22, to reinvent and improve the way IT services were being delivered to SMBs. His vision is to become the most well recognised brand in Australia for providing innovative IT services to SMBs. Under his leadership the company was listed in the BRW Fast 100 in 2008 & 2009 and the CRN Fast 50 in 2009-2011.
How the cloud can help make your business run better
The cloud trend is growing, but what can it do for you? Here are four practical examples of how the cloud has helped real companies, from Sholto Macpherson of BoxFreeIT.
Australian businesses are slowly turning to the cloud for software to run their businesses. It’s a trend still in its infancy but it’s growing. While Google and Microsoft refuse to reveal the number of Australian customers, the most popular cloud accounting vendor, Xero, saw Australian customers jump from 6,000 to 16,000 last year.
In a nutshell, the technology has the potential to save you money, save you spending time doing things like fiddling with servers, and could potentially save the amount of money you spend on having someone to run and maintain everything. It’s not something you need to be a high-tech company to benefit from either. Companies that can benefit include plumbers to freight companies and bookkeepers.
Example 1: Accounting firm
The cloud offers several ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency. One of the most rewarding projects is to replace a dedicated email server with a cloud platform such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps.
A 50-person accounting firm in Sydney replaced its email server with Google Apps and cut IT costs by 70%, according to IT company Cloud Adapt which performed the migration.
It cost $9,977 per user to run server-based Microsoft Exchange for three years, compared to $3,026 per user for Google Apps.
Google Apps costs US$50 per user per year for email, productivity suite, online forms, group lists, basic intranet and video hosting.
To understand the potential for saving money, a business must add up the cost of the infrastructure required to run an application in-house. This is much more than the cost of the server itself; there’s power and cooling, replacement hard drives, backup tapes and drives, extra rent in floor space for the server room.
The 50-person accounting firm spent over $5,000 on power, backups and an uninterruptible power supply on top of the $6,000 for the server and operating system.
Example 2: Plumber
Cloud computing is not just for office types. Tradies and field service businesses are also testing out applications to replace pen-and-paper invoicing and administration. Connect2Field and GeoOp are two cloud programs which automate the process of managing a team of workers in the field.
Connect2Field co-ordinates schedules for a team in a single calendar, sends each worker the location and contact details of each customer and records invoices. The program gives head office instant, real-time knowledge of the location of each worker, the amount of work invoiced for the day and helps plan where to send workers the following day.
There can be tangible savings. Sydney-based plumbing business JedPlumb saved $27,000 a year by cutting back on paperwork after switching to Connect2Field. Field workers previously handwrote individual job sheets for as many as 8 jobs each day. The plumber now uses Connect2Field to dispatch jobs to fieldworkers, create quotes and collect invoices. One of the advantages of the software is that the boss can know where field workers are and whether they’ve finished a job without having to constantly call them. Connect2Field costs $65 per administrative user a month and $10 per mobile user a month.
Example 3: Freight trucking
Often the cloud lifts productivity or improves customer satisfaction, both valuable to a business but harder to quantify in dollars. GeoOp, a competitor to Connect2Field, is also used to schedule mobile workers. A Victorian freight and distribution company with 15 trucks tested out GeoOp to reduce the number of incorrect deliveries which cost the company in time and mileage.
The family-run freight company received quotes of $60,000 for server-based software before finding GeoOp through the iTunes Apps Store. At a cost of several cents per job and several iPhones for drivers, the freight company reduced incorrect deliveries to virtually zero.
The base team used to constantly communicate on the phone with drivers to find out where they were which the drivers found frustrating. But without knowing the trucks’ location the business was operating with inaccurate information, leading to confusion among staff and customers.
GeoOp cost from 35 cents to 26 cents per job to run, depending on the volume of jobs per month.
Example 4: Bookkeeping
Another time saver is the ease with which you can share information among cloud programs. Job scheduling software like Connect2Field and GeoOp can send invoices and other data directly to cloud accounting software.
The two most popular cloud accounting programs in Australia, Xero and Saasu, automatically download bank transactions every day from the major banks and many smaller financial institutions. Accountants can log into businesses’ accounts and view their financial position in real time - there’s no need to send a large data file (as required by desktop accounting software) and then waiting for the accountant to update and send it back.
Accountants and bookkeepers have found that feeds from banks and other applications cuts down data entry by 30 percent or more.
One Queensland bookkeeper said she had also saved in travel time to clients’ offices because she could log onto their Xero account from anywhere she had an internet connection.
Xero cost $29 per month for a limited version for smaller businesses and $49 per month for unlimited invoices.
The other big benefit: save money on IT support
But the biggest cost to most businesses is not hardware or software but support. Cloud services can slash the amount businesses pay IT services companies to maintain, upgrade and support their IT systems.
With cloud-based systems, software upgrades, maintenance, patching and security is the responsibility of the vendor. This removes a huge headache and cost for businesses and gives them much more time to run their own operations.
It’s not perfect
While Google Apps can replace email with little loss of functionality, Google’s online-only approach is less successful if you are writing and dealing with a lot of documents. Many companies still find it hard to move all their documents online for several reasons. Non-Microsoft Office documents such as those created in Photoshop or InDesign won’t open from Google Docs and must be downloaded to the desktop first.
Also Google Apps still isn’t 100% compatible with the latest format of Microsoft Office - .docx, .xlsx, .pptx. This means graphs may not display correctly in Excel, columns can appear out of alignment in Word, and animations, transitions and some fonts won’t work in PowerPoint slides.
Sholto Macpherson is editor of BoxFreeIT.com.au, a news website about cloud software for business. Sholto is a passionate advocate of cloud computing and its potential to transform business.
Increase your sales using CRM
It’s not a magic bullet, but CRM could give your small business a competitive edge over your rivals. Ian Whiting from Markinson Business Solutions explains how.
When it comes to building business relationships, few technologies are as powerful as Customer Relationship Management (CRM).
When CRMs are used effectively, businesses can dramatically improve their sales, market insight and customer interactions - the result of which can be a sharp rise in their bottom line.
Unfortunately, too many small businesses don’t make full use of their CRM platforms, instead using them as glorified contact management systems. That, or they expect them to be a magic bullet for under performance, and deploy them in the absence of proper strategic thought.
What it can do for you
CRM systems can deliver a range of benefits, including increased sales through deeper customer understanding, more efficient marketing through better targeting, and higher levels of market insight.
The good news about CRMs is that they’re more accessible than ever. With low start-up costs and growing feature sets, web-based platforms are now an excellent place for small businesses to start.
But to really make the most of what CRMs can achieve, it’s important for businesses to understand that CRM is not just a technology, but a business approach.
If they’re to increase customer loyalty and spending – and lift that all important bottom line – CRM systems must be used as part of a broader ethos of strategic business.
This means identifying the business outcomes you’re aiming for before you deploy a CRM (or revisiting them once you have).
As the face of your business, the key is to give your sales and service representatives whatever they need to put their best foot forward whenever they engage with a customer.
From purchase histories to service calls to account notes, they should be able to see a wealth of information about individual customers – letting them know exactly who they’re dealing with.
The biggest benefit of this is, of course, more profitable customer relationships (in every sense).
CRM systems help to forge these deeper relationships in a number of ways.
As mentioned, when armed with detailed and up-to-date information about particular customers and their various histories, sales staff can build relationships based on insight, not guesswork.
Secondly, the information that CRMs are able to track makes for better market intelligence, and campaigns that are more focused, targeted, and geared towards individual customers.
This means that when you approach a customer with a new product or proposal, you’re doing so with their needs in mind.
As a result, the job of doing business becomes a little easier. Customer satisfaction increases. And, because they’re able to achieve more, staff satisfaction lifts as well.
For businesses with limited resources, one useful application for CRMs is automation.
One consumables business we’ve worked with have used their CRM system to develop automated methods of keeping in touch with customers.
They chose this as a means of differentiating themselves in a market where consumers have a lot of choice, and it’s helped them to be more responsive while spreading their tentacles further.
They’ve also integrated their CRM directly with their website - something that’s given them a mass of information about spending and buying habits which they’re now leveraging to take advantage of emerging trends.
Another approach that some of the businesses we work with now use is to analyse and then replicate successful behaviours.
Some have examined their most successful sales, for example, to discover the amount of contact their businesses have with those customers, before setting that as a benchmark KPI across all their accounts.
“Rubbish in, rubbish out,” is a real danger when it comes to CRMs. If yours collects insufficient information or the wrong types of data, then you’ll see poor decision making and missed opportunities as a result.
To prevent this, again, make sure that you clearly define your aims before working backwards to develop your CRM, ensuring that it supports your strategy.
For small businesses, another pitfall to watch for is price. Web-based services do have the advantage of low start-up costs, but they quickly become expensive the larger you grow.
To avoid this, anticipate moving to a more traditional solution when it becomes more economically effective to do so, and make sure that any online solution has provisions in place for extracting your data in a useful format.
Whether your aim is to drive sales or increasing customer spending, a CRM system is a must. It’s not only sellers who are seeking their benefits. Customers too are demanding better, faster and more integrated experiences.
At the moment, new CRM features such as tablet and smartphone access and social media integration are changing what’s possible. And while some small businesses use CRM well, many do not. As a result, it’s a great opportunity for those who can do so to find a competitive edge.
Ian Whiting is CEO of CRM, ERP and POS experts Markinson Business Solutions. The company was established in 1986, and now has offices in several locations across Australasia and hundreds of businesses who rely on their solutions.