The Ultimate Business Owner's Guide to Information Technology
The Ultimate Business Owner’s Guide to Information Technology explores the role of IT in improving business processes and outcomes. By selecting the right products and services, implementing them properly, and using them in conjunction with one another, you stand to gain superior efficiency, capacity, speed, scalability, and accuracy, all of which tie into your bottom line.
The manifold business advantages of IT include increased sales, better customer service and improved customer relationships, increased efficiency and diversity, reduced costs, and higher quality products. Any or all of these improvements may be available to you, but perhaps the most important one is agility. Agility means your business's ability to adapt, change, and reach to today's rapidly evolving marketplace. Events and news can alter the context of your decisions at the speed of information, and the more flexibly you can position yourself to face change, the better off you will be.
The upside to well-placed IT is high, but business owners and managers often find it difficult to take advantage of it because the huge array of available technologies and vendors presents a significant barrier to finding and using the best choices. This guide aims to remedy that by examining major technology solutions in IT, and helping you learn how they work and how to use them.
Specifically, it starts by examining cloud computing, which entails significant storage and computing power upgrades. It goes on to explore virtualization, a concept different from cloud computing, that promotes remote work and has numerous other benefits. Chapter 3 deals with network and data security, a pressing need in today's world of potential hacks and breaches. Chapter 4 examines business continuity and disaster recovery planning, both of which aim to reduce risks and the ultimate cost of catastrophes. The following chapter explains contemporary communications tools, and how they can accelerate collaboration in business at reduced cost and with more features than traditional methods. Chapter 6 tackles business intelligence and analytics, and illustrates how to unlock the power of data. The following chapter examines marketing automation and CRM, and how they together can boost efficient sales and marketing. Chapter 8 delves into selecting the right hardware and software for your business, while the final chapter considers the possibility of outsourcing your IT services, and balancing on-site reaction speed with cost reduction.
The objective of this guide is to empower you, the owner of a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) to learn about IT, engage with it in detail, and eventually decide on whether and what kind of IT you want to invest in. Its ultimate goal is always to improve your ROI.
Chapter 1: Cloud Computing for Business
Cloud computing refers to the storage and processing of data on remote, rather than local, servers and networks. Most people access cloud-based software, storage and infrastructure via the Internet, many large companies operate their own private clouds to achieve a similar result. The cloud computing model has become popular because it allows businesses to convert their unpredictable IT costs to a predictable monthly line item, and shrink the size and cost of their IT payroll.
Cloud-based resources also help companies stay productive while exploiting cutting-edge employment trends. In the past, remote access to a company network was burdened with security risks and required the employment of expensive IT managers. Now, cloud service providers use economies of scale to supply users with state-of-the-art security while remotely accessing services, software and infrastructure. As a result, businesses can seamlessly integrate distributed teams, telecommuters and mobile employees into their workflows.
Categories of Cloud Services
Services provisioned from the cloud can take one of three general forms:
- 1. Software as a service (SaaS) gives people access to software applications that run either via a web browser or a mobile app. With SaaS, businesses can focus on productivity while trusting their service provider to establish a secure environment. Also, with SaaS, the software developer manages bug fixes and software updates. As a result, your company can utilize intricate software applications with a minimal amount of IT expertise. Web-based email services and online storage apps are just a couple of examples of the many SaaS apps that are available through the cloud.
- 2. Platform hosting services give businesses access to the environment and tools needed to develop and deploy a web-based application, without having to install similar local resources. In many cases, Platform as a Service (PaaS) providers also offer programming languages, libraries and other development tools. As a result of the cloud, applications can create powerful applications and then seamlessly scale to meet user demand.
- 3. Infrastructure services from the cloud (IaaS) give you access to configurable low-level computing resources including processing power, memory and storage. IaaS services also give users access to configurable network resources. Unlike PaaS hosts, IaaS hosts provide very few tools for software development. IaaS customers control everything with regards to their IaaS machines, including the operating system.
Knowing about PaaS and IaaS might help your business in the future, even if your business now seems suited only for SaaS.
Cloud Deployment Models
Business can access cloud-based resources in one or more various ways. Each model offers different benefits to customers.
- The Public cloud supplies consumers with publicly available applications and services via the Internet. In the public cloud, the service provider supplies the application, data storage to users who log into their app using a web browser or mobile application. The public cloud model allows everyone to share the benefits of cloud computing, including affordable monthly subscriptions and access from practically any Internet connection.
- Private cloud models are used by companies who insist on controlling all their data and software, but demand the flexibility of the cloud. Superior security and rigorous access controls characterize private clouds, but such benefits come at a high cost. Businesses operating a private cloud must purchase and maintain expensive IT assets to host their applications. Also, a substantial IT staff is needed to maintain private clouds.
- Businesses can use the hybrid cloud model to unite various applications and assets. Although hybrid clouds have distinct public and private segments, they utilize specialized technology to ensure the portability of their applications. Some companies prefer the hybrid model because they can use the less-expensive public cloud to host applications and data that have less sensitivity than mission-critical applications, which remain in the private cloud.
- Community cloud. Several organizations or groups of consumers can share cloud resources as part of a community cloud. Usually, members of a community cloud share some common characteristics such as interests or jurisdictions. A third party can manage the cloud-based resources on behalf of the community, or members can do that job. Also, a community cloud can be public, private or hybrid.
Regardless of the model used, the cloud allows you to us off-premises IT resources to power your business. As a result, you can enjoy all its benefits.
Advantages of Cloud Computing
In the past, large corporations with ample IT assets were able to dominate their market, shutting out smaller firms and startups. Now, practically any business can access sufficient resources through the cloud to organize and execute a world-class business model. Learn how the advantages of the cloud can positively affect your businesses.
Moving to the cloud will free the space and electricity formerly used to operate your in-house IT infrastructure. Also, knowing that most cloud-based applications run via a web browser, you will no longer face the periodic upgrade costs needed to keep your employees productive at their desktop workstations. Finally, your support costs will decrease as your team depends on your cloud providers for software training and support.
Thanks to the cloud, your business no longer needs to worry about having sufficient reserve capacity to meet demand. Cloud-based services will scale with your business as you add or remove users and features. You can often add the resources you need from your application control panel and then remove them when they are no longer needed.
Cloud service providers service many customers, so they can use economies of scale to make state-of-the-art IT security practical and affordable. Cloud providers provide secure connections between your users and their systems, stopping hackers in their tracks. Also, built-in tools in your application control panel help you easily assign user-lever permissions and require strong passwords. Cloud providers also run daily off-site backups, so your data stays safe from environmental hazards and theft.
Your cloud applications provide a central platform from which you can operate your company. Because all your data is stored in the cloud in real time, multiple team members can simultaneously access and edit documents, serve customers and plan projects, often from a simple online interface. By eliminating cumbersome document sharing and editing via email attachments, your company will work faster and smarter, while improving accuracy
Traditional employment is quickly becoming obsolete as more people work from home or on the road. Universal accessibility makes cloud computing the perfect technology for unifying modern and hybrid labor forces. Most apps work through a web browser on desktop and laptop computers, and mobile apps from your cloud providers run on smartphones and tablets. As a result, everyone on your team can work whenever they need to, regardless of their location, just as if they were at company headquarters.
Crashed hard drives, viruses, and other disasters have long set the stage for data loss, as in-house backup systems often fall short. Even when you have a recent backup, restoring it can take a long time. Cloud providers have redundant systems in place, so when they experience a hard drive crash or server failure, your application can be up and running in a matter of seconds.
The above advantages of cloud computing help make your business more efficient. With the cloud, you no longer have to worry about having up-to-date software or enough user licenses to get through the day. Also, system failures have become a past phenomenon. Cloud computing allows you and your team to focus on operating and managing your business using state-of-the-art IT applications and tools. Within a short period, after switching to the cloud, you will probably realize that your staff gets more done in less time, resulting in increased profits.
Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
Despite the fantastic advantages cloud computing offers your business, you should not make your transition to the cloud before you understand the disadvantages of cloud computing.
Many cloud-based applications require an Internet connection. When your Internet goes out at your facility, no one can access or save any business data until service is restored. Mobile and remote workers have a similar dependence on a constantly available Internet connection. Cloud service providers can have connectivity issues and system problems as well, causing unanticipated downtime, even when a service level agreement is in place.
Cloud providers often supply higher levels of security than you could achieve with an in-house IT department. Still, you depend on your service provider to stay aware of all emerging security threats. Even with the best security protocols in place, hackers might still penetrate your service provider and thereby compromise your company and customer data. If security becomes a major concern for your firm, consider implementing a private cloud. Still, you must realize, that cyber attacks can happen, even in the most secure environments.
Making the Change
Changing technologies will require a certain amount of training for your entire staff. You will also need to create procedures for troubleshooting and resolving system and software issues. Some of your employees might need some time to get adjusted, resulting in a temporary reduction in productivity.
Cloud technology will only help your company if it solves existing problems or improves the quality and flow of work. After careful evaluation, you might discover that your existing in-house IT systems already meet your needs, so avoid adopting the cloud just to be trendy. If you discover that the cloud can improve your business, however, you will have thousands of services and applications available to choose from.
Before embracing the cloud, shop for the applications, platforms and infrastructure that best fit the needs of your business. After selecting several possible services, use available free trial periods to see how well each one works in your environment. If changing all your systems at once seems overwhelming, try making incremental changes by replacing one local application at a time with a cloud-based solution. You can also work with a cloud partner who can help you find the perfect solution for your firm.
Chapter 2: Virtualization
In the 21st century, information technology, or IT, is an essential part of any business's footprint in the marketplace. There are many IT solutions at your disposal that could help your business achieve better ROI and higher efficiency. One of them is virtualization.
There are many different definitions of virtualization but, broadly speaking, it involves taking something physical and turning it into something virtual. It signifies moving physical systems into a virtual environment.
Virtualization is part of conversions of physical objects into fewer numbers. Such conversions are a crucial part of the overall streamlining of procedures necessary to build cost-effectiveness. For example, if a company has six servers to run its electronic communications, it can ditch five of them and replace the sixth with a higher-powered option that is more efficient, less expensive to run, and more reliable than its predecessors. This process is called hardware virtualization.
What are the Other Types of Virtualization?
There are, at a basic level, four others aside from the aforementioned hardware virtualization:
- Desktop virtualization
- Application virtualization
- Storage virtualization
Each of these follows the same basic concept of "take lots of separate entities and consolidate them as much as possible," yet each has its own idiosyncrasies.
Using this process, users are no longer tied to their own computers. They can log into any computer and access their files, projects, and preferences by logging in. The users are completely free to be at any location, and are not tied to either their desk, or even the office anymore.
After hardware virtualization, application virtualization involves not only taking all the programs that used to be on the company’s multiple servers and putting them in one place but also allowing employees access to the system from computers outside the company's network. It's very useful for people who telecommute or travel as part of their jobs.
The biggest benefit of application virtualization, however, is legacy hardware. When you have applications that businesses need to run, but they are tied to hardware that is more than 10 or 20 years old, the only way to make them work (and continue working without relying on that old hardware) or secure them, is via application virtualization.
This type of virtualization also lowers costs since you do not have to keep buying hardware in order to expand. It is much cheaper to spin up new application instances than reinstalling entire system on some other hardware.
This method takes the contents of dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of individual hard drives within a company's network and pools them together in a central location. It not only speeds up network performance but also offers unparalleled reliability and easy data retrieval in the event of a network disaster.
Cloud or Virtualization?
Is there a difference? In short, yes, there is a difference. Virtualization doesn't remove physical assets from the equation entirely. Basically, it centralizes all of the hardware in a single location and provides virtual support to the rest of the company's infrastructure.
Cloud computing removes the physical assets entirely and operates completely virtually. Its advantage is that it boosts productivity and reduces costs even more than virtualization. Its downside is that it is more prone to security threats than networks using virtualization.
Simply put, virtualization is a better solution than a regular, traditional setup. However, cloud is an even better option that you should employ once your company is ready for it.
What are the Real Benefits of Virtualization?
Yes, virtualization "reduces costs" and "boosts productivity," but what are the actual benefits? First, there is server efficiency. Aside from the obvious benefit of "you don't need to buy as many servers," there are the benefits of:
- Lower energy expenditures
- Greener operation
- Faster processing times
- Easier, cheaper and faster maintenance
- Better and faster disaster recovery
Fewer servers means fewer kilowatt-hours are required to run them. Because less energy is used, both in operating the servers and in running the cooling equipment needed to keep them from overheating, the company's carbon footprint is correspondingly reduced. Productivity increases because of the faster processing times. Workers can complete more jobs per hour than before.
Additionally, virtualized systems are built much more resilient, and companies can recover from catastrophic system failures and other disasters more easily because hardware is completely talked out of the equation. No more hardware problems or failures. Everything is software. While you will still have multiple servers (and combing through them can be time consuming), you are looking at one central location, and that does make the whole recovery process faster.
Consolidating hardware makes it easier to craft policies and procedures for the business that relies on the server. It's also easier to design software to run one machine than it is to try to make "square pegs" of code fit into "round holes" of differing hardware.
Security is no longer a hassle of, "Which machine needs that particular inefficient code to protect itself, again?" You only need one set of protocols instead of many. Do you remember "desktop virtualization?" It's a breeze to implement that, too, when there's only one server to worry about instead of a slew of them.
This Sounds Great—What's the Catch?
Nothing is ever as good as it seems. As helpful as virtualization is in all its forms, licensing can present a distinct set of problems. For example, when you consolidate, say, 500 employees' desktop systems, there are bound to be many groups of people within that 500 that use many different programs to be able to do their jobs.
Software licenses tend to apply only to the machines upon which they are used. If you try to begin desktop virtualization, many of those 500 employees may not be able to access the programs they need to do their jobs unless you spend the money on extra licenses. Worse, some of the necessary licenses may no longer be available if the programs are out-of-date or grandfathered. Worst of all, neither the consumer side of the equation nor the software licensing side have decided what to do or how to proceed when it comes to this Gordian Knot of licenses. It will be the biggest stumbling block to the implementation of virtualization in your business.
If you can extricate yourself from the licensing quagmire, virtualization will be a boon to your business in almost any situation. There are, however, businesses for which virtualization would be either redundant or unnecessary, including:
- Businesses with fewer than 20 employees
- Businesses that don't rely on technology
- Businesses without the necessary capital to proceed
If your business doesn't fall into one or more of the preceding three categories, then virtualization is bound to help it be better than ever.
Chapter 3: Network Security and Data Protection
Businesses that run exclusively online have the most to lose with data breaches and cyber attacks. Cyber criminals are becoming more sophisticated as more and more businesses increasingly conduct most of their business online. Companies in the US alone stand to lose more than $25 million dollars due to cyber crimes.
Businesses need to be proactive in securing their customers’ data from would be hackers and identity thieves. Malicious code and Denial of Service cyber attacks are the most common cyber attacks. It is important to understand that all businesses that are connected in any way, shape or form to the Internet are vulnerable to these cyber attacks.
There are many ways that cyber thieves can attack a vulnerable network. They can:
- Attack from within the network. This can be a seemingly harmless disclosure of sensitive information through an unsecured website, email, letter or fax. It could also be an intentional leak.
- Attack from outside through an open or insecure port, a “dirty” attachment or a broken URL. Hackers have become more creative in imbedding malicious code into seemingly safe websites.
- Steal payment and personal information through POS terminals and ATMs.
- Pick up sensitive information from paper documents. (This doesn’t happen too often, but it is still an issue.)
- Steal mobile devices, computers and servers with sensitive information.
Common Security Threats
Understanding what security threats are out there is only part of what a business needs to do to be proactive in eliminating the threats. Regulations in the healthcare and the financial industry require organizations to enact cyber security procedures to ensure that customers’ personal information remains secure. All businesses are required to tighten their network security and be proactive in securing customer data.
What are the most common security threats you will face in your business? In 2016, the most common security threat is Ransomware. Ransomware is when the hackers hold your company’s information or certain devices for ransom. This vicious attack is usually orchestrated through a malicious code. Malware is the second most common security threat and can affect a whole company network through an insecure port, email attachment or suspicious url.
Denial of Service attacks are usually associated with Ransomware, but can also be triggered by viruses and Trojan horses. Trojan horses are malicious computer programs designed to steal information through deceptive means. Spyware, worms and other nasty computer viruses round out the most common security threats your business can face.
Spam is not considered a security threat but is still an avenue that has been used to spread malicious viruses and steal personal information.
Keys to Protecting Your Data
Performing a security risk assessment to find out your current vulnerabilities is an important first step to implement when starting a new project or changing security perimeters online. You need to look at both your physical assets and your non-physical assets to determine how secure your network truly is. In your security risk assessment you should:
- Make a list of your current physical assets-servers, mobile devices and other equipment. You should have a basic understanding of where your data is stored in paper and electronic format.
- Have a business continuity/disaster plan in place. This means you should at the very least have an alternate database or information portal to deposit your data in case of emergency.
- Provide employee training on network security measures that they can take to protect sensitive data.
- Install firewalls and plug open ports. Check firewalls regularly for leaks.
- Pull out hard drives, wipe out information off servers and destroy USB flash drives that you are planning to get rid of and recycle.
- Make sure you know who has access to information and that restrictions are still in place for those who have been denied access.
- Update and perform background checks on employees who have been granted access to sensitive information.
- Understand the risks of Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) and how that can impact your company’s risk factors.
- Have policies in place to restrict access to physical assets including locks and other in-house security measures.
- Provide incentives for good online behavior of your employees and penalties for inappropriate online behavior.
Avenues and Alternatives for Network Security
Data breaches happen. The fact of the matter is that no one is immune to cyber attacks. With over 2,260 confirmed data breaches in 2016, both large and small businesses stand to lose millions. You need to be proactive to protect your network because it makes economic sense.
So what are your avenues to secure your network? Your network is constantly changing. No one can monitor his or her computer networks 24/7 or 365 days a year. The components of a good network security system require a three-prong approach. Your physical assets are your first line of defense. Your second and equally important line of defense is the non-physical assets such as your communication network. The third line of defense is your users and employees.
Using this three-prong approach to network security you can provide adequate data protection. Since every business is different you can also create alternatives for network security that accurately protect your data while successfully running your business online.
Avenues for Network Security
Large corporations often opt to provide in-house IT support services. These IT services include network monitoring, router security and fixes, and secure web hosting. Most large businesses have separate Internet and Intranet networks. It is important to note that any business that collects sensitive information online needs to invest in a router that has a separate sub network that is isolated from the public Internet.
Many mid-sized and smaller corporations invest in remote and cloud-based IT support systems. The advantage of these IT support systems is that they provide 24/7 monitoring, network alerts and remote data storage services. The big drawbacks of remote and cloud-based IT support systems are the risks associated with maintaining connectivity and security.
Alternatives for Network Security
The old premise that traditional IT security is better than the newer cloud-based IT security has been put to rest. There are alternatives for network security besides the traditional network that requires physical assets. Cloud-based IT networks are flexible enough to ensure that your sensitive data is protected.
With both the traditional and the cloud-based IT network, firewalls provide the needed protection from malicious code, denial of service, malware and other cyber attacks. Cloud-based firewalls can handle the content filtering and manage the data in a scalable and unlimited fashion.
Cloud-based IT networks also allow the creation of a separate network for sensitive data in a private cloud that restricts accessibility to certain users.
Traditional IT Network Security
The traditional approach to network security is to focus on your physical assets first. The physical assets are your router and any of the devices that are attached to it. It is important that you understand the capabilities of the router before you install it on the network.
Your router should:
- Connect securely to the network via a firewall
- Be password protected. Use strong passwords
- Use a DMZ network to connect servers. A demilitarized zone network provides a block for internal network segments that could be compromised with a publicly owned server.
- Use WPA2 encryption on the wireless access points
Once you have installed and tested your physical assets, you need to address your non-physical assets. These non-physical assets include software and applications that run your network. You should test out all your applications before going “live” with them.
The best defense with a traditional IT configuration is to install a trusted anti-virus program that will scan e-mails, desktops and servers for malware, viruses and Trojan horse programs. Your applications should also be scanned for malicious code.
Spam filtering is easy to implement with any e-mail server. Spam filtering however will not block all Spam messages so employees need to be aware of suspicious emails at all times.
Applications and operating systems change frequently as new updates become available. You need to stay on top of these changes. There are software testing tools available to test out applications.
You should consider getting rid of outdated applications and software to free up your network and tighten up security.
Backing up data regularly from your network servers both internally and externally makes good business sense and helps you maintain access to your archives.
Users and Employees
The most important aspect of maintaining network security in both a traditional and cloud-based network is the users and employees. It is through the unintentional and deliberate acts of employees that most data breaches happen. Educating employees on security protocols can help eliminate some of the leaks but not all of them.
Your security policy should include the following:
- Acceptable practices for using company e-mails and other applications
- Emphasis on strong passwords and maintaining their secrecy
- Provide authentication procedures for all devices and the network
- Policy for use of BYOD at work
- Limits for use of company data and how to report an incident
- Active measures taken to protect data and maintain security.
It is good to remember that a well-informed employee is less likely to cause a security leak than one who is ill trained in security protocols. There are some things you can proactively do to protect your data from hackers within your organization. One of the most effective measures is a thorough background check before allowing the employee access to important information.
Hackers that are outside the network can create just as much havoc as hackers that are within the network. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide an added layer of security to highly sensitive information. The reasoning behind having a VPN is that users can connect to a private encrypted network utilizing public wires.
Intrusion detection systems (IDS) provide users with the ability to detect security threats within the network. Intrusion prevention systems (IPS) monitor suspicious activity within the network and attempt to block the activity. Not all malicious activity can be blocked as new ways of breaching the network are developed daily.
The Importance of Network Security
Computer network security can’t be taken lightly. Businesses that ignore their network security stand to lose their reputation and customer confidence. Customers, especially in the healthcare and financial sectors, have come to expect their personal data will be safe from hackers and identity thieves.
Network security compasses the physical and non-physical assets of your organization. You can’t neglect one of these aspects and expect that your data will be secure. It is important that you physically check your devices and other equipment for potential leaks. Large corporations have IT departments that regularly check their servers and routers for performance issues.
Combining the abilities of routers that have a DMZ network with a strong firewall can help you thwart potential security leaks that could ruin your computer systems. You should however not depend solely on this combination.
Remote and cloud-based network monitoring systems are a good alternate and inexpensive solution for mid-sized and small companies. It is important to examine your web provider for quality control and security standards. Having a remote access point to “park” and secure your data is a smart investment for your business.
Your employees are a very important component to any network security plan. Educating employees on security protocol and rewarding them for best practices is a good way to ensure that your data will remain secure. This type of training can also pay dividends in employee satisfaction ratings and customer satisfaction ratings.
A well run and functioning network can help you improve your business exponentially by allowing your employees to play active roles in securing customer data. It can also help your customers by making them feel secure enough to do business with your organization. Non-functioning and ineffective networks can cause havoc to your business and to your customers.
Chapter 4: Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Planning
In this chapter, we will discuss the key terms related to business continuity planning and disaster recovery. After identifying and defining these key terms, we will outline the process of formulating a successful business continuity plan, and then discuss options for ensuring that you are using the best data storage solution for your business.
Though the two terms are often conflated due to their overlapping and interrelated nature, a “business continuity plan” (BCP) is different than a “disaster recovery” (DR) plan. Backup disaster recovery refers specifically to the retrieval of periodically archived company data either during or soon after a catastrophic event, such as a system breach or other critical failure.
Disasters come in a variety of forms. Some are man-made, such as cybersecurity threats (e.g., hackers, viruses, or malware). Other disasters are natural, such as floods, fires, hurricanes, or other severe weather. There is no “good time” for a disaster to strike, and often there is little warning, which means it’s vital to have a continuity plan in place ahead of time.
Your IT team should have the technical aspects of your disaster recovery plan already well-established and rehearsed. If they don’t, have them make it a priority. Disaster recovery is certainly a crucial element of any business continuity plan, and whether your business relies on in-house IT employees or an outsourced managed solution, disaster recovery is undoubtedly one of your IT staff’s primary responsibilities.
However, a full-fledged disaster recovery plan for your IT infrastructure alone is not enough to fully protect your business from the outcome of a disaster. While it is important to be able to restore data from a backup, data recovery is little more than transferring a large number of copied files from one location to another. This is great technology, no doubt, but it is hardly enough to safeguard the vitality of your business during an emergency.
A disaster recovery (DR) plan can be thought of as an important subsection of an overarching BCP. Alternatively, the two plans can be thought of as one hybrid plan known as the “business continuity disaster recovery” plan, or BCDR plan. Regardless, business continuity cannot be achieved through successful disaster recovery alone. After all, your business is much more than a collection of files and applications on a server, regardless of how important those files or applications may be. Your sales and marketing teams, manufacturing staff and equipment, etc., all need to be accounted for in the event of a disaster.
Office buildings and storage centers can be damaged or rendered inaccessible due to natural disasters such as fires, floods, tornadoes, etc. When disaster strikes, there is no more time to give instructions or discuss responsibilities. A plan must already be in place, distributed among staff, and ideally, well-rehearsed ahead of time. The sooner your business has a BCP in place, the sooner you can test it out and ensure that your business will be able to endure a disaster.
Creating and Testing a Business Continuity Plan
Full business continuity means being able to endure a disaster without compromising business operations or the future of your business, and that goes well beyond simply ensuring that you have up-to-date data backups in an off-site location. Disaster recovery is just one piece of a business continuity plan, and though it is an important piece, it is not as important as the human element.
Employees must be trained and informed about business continuity planning in order for it to work. In the case of a disaster, employees must know where to turn for instructions. A well-conceived business continuity plan will outline each employee’s responsibilities and help them implement whatever procedures are necessary to continue business operations.
Developing a business continuity plan may seem daunting at first, but there are plenty of ways to make the process easier. First, don’t be afraid to use tools. There are several online guides and templates that can be used to help you stay on track as you build your BCP, and using a pre-established format can be very helpful when building a plan from scratch.
Most outlines will inevitably center around answering five questions:
- What is the scope of the plan?
- Which are the most critical business areas?
- Which are the most critical business functions?
- Which dependencies exist between various business areas and functions?
- What is the maximum acceptable downtime for each critical function?
When each of these questions is answered, you are finally ready to formulate a plan for maintaining operations in case of disaster. The first question, regarding scope, will essentially define what is and what is not addressed within your plan. Scope is helpful for maintaining focus when building a plan, but also for informing your employees what information can be found within the plan should they go looking.
The next few questions are intended to help identify and evaluate each of your business’ most crucial areas and functions, as well as how those areas and functions work together. Once those relationships are clear, you will have an easier time prioritizing business areas and the functions they rely on. Prioritization should be based upon overall impact to the business. If a department supports a business-critical function or process, that department should be prioritized when allocating resources to bring departments back online.
Another way to prioritize is via a business impact analysis, or BIA.
A business impact analysis (or BIA) helps identify the impact of a sudden loss of business functions. A BIA helps you look at each piece of your organization, evaluate and determine which functions are the most important to maintaining business continuity.
To do this, consider each element of your business (sales, marketing, customer service, manufacturing, etc.) separately. What would happen if that department was unable to perform its job for a day? What about if they were unable to do their job for several days, or a week? Would they work from home, or find temporary office space? In either case, this process should be outline in the BCP.
Lastly, the question about downtime tells you how much time you can allow to restore each function to its normal operational state.
Once those questions are answered and you’ve decided which business functions to prioritize, take the time to plan and document what each of your employees needs to do, and when. The first hours immediately following an incident are the most crucial. Direct instructions should be detailed for each of the most important employees to ensure that each step of the BCP and disaster recovery plan is being taken care of. The rest of the staff should be clear on their responsibilities, too. Go over each individual plan with your staff, and have them practice their roles in periodic training exercises. The BCP plan should be tested as many as four times per year, and updated as necessary in accordance with staff turnover.
A good BCP may also involve building new tools to streamline your disaster recovery plan. For example, it can be helpful to build a location tracking list for your company’s most important supplies and equipment so that you can easily locate them during a disaster. This same checklist should also indicate where the BC/DR plan can be found, as well as which employees have the responsibility and authority to carry out disaster recovery plans. The key personnel should be clearly identified, and their responsibilities detailed so as to avoid any confusion or delay during times of emergency.
If you run into any sticking points when formulating your plan, look at similar firms in your industry, and contact your peers. There are plenty of case studies out there available for anyone who wants to educate themselves on disaster recovery, and plenty of horror stories to be shared amongst anyone who has already lived through a disaster recovery. By discussing previous disasters, you will be better equipped to avoid any pitfalls from the past, plus you might also pick up some tips that will help in the future.
Finally, come up with a plan for regular testing and updating of the business continuity plan. The plan will be no good if it is outdated, or if the employees don’t know how to execute it.
After evaluating each sub-division of your company, you should now have a good idea of which functions are business critical. At that point you may want to consider outsourcing certain elements of your business operations. Outsourcing comes with its own risks, but can help in many ways. Depending on the combination of storage that your business requires, and the type of data and/or applications that your business relies on, outsourcing can be a cost-effective way to improve efficiency.
Outsourcing can also add a layer of protection, by keeping critical data off-site, protected under a separate network. If you are in the process of building your BCP and you've realized you need to outsource some of your responsibilities, there are plenty of good options on the market. One logical area to outsource is data storage. There are many third-party solutions for backing up, protecting, and maintaining your file servers that will take the burden off your own in-house staff. Files, applications, configurations and settings can all be stored in a variety of ways (direct storage, network storage, private cloud, and more). Plus, the servers will be managed by a company that specializes in data storage, allowing your own employees more time to focus on internal projects.
Consult with an IT advisor or individual consultant if you need advice on which data storage solution is right for your company, or if you need help building a proper disaster recovery plan. Disaster recovery is a crucial element of restoring business operations, thus making it a vital step in achieving full business continuity.
Chapter 5: Business Communications and Collaboration Solutions
Businesses that emphasize communication encourage the free flow of information among employees, teams and departments at every level. Good communication also involves interactions with customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders, so that everyone has the necessary information for decision-making. In many cases, the quality of business communications determines the degree of success achieved by a firm.
Globalization has brought new challenges to the business world as companies grapple with establishing effective communication channels between offices located in various countries and regions that operate in dramatically different cultural, political and geographic environments. Other barriers, including language and time zones, further complicate communications making communication a higher priority now than ever before.
Suppliers, customers and other stakeholders from around the world need to receive the information they need to make efficient decisions. Also, managers sometimes have never personally seen the people who work on their teams and must, therefore, rely on technology to unify their efforts. As you address the challenges of business communication and collaboration, there are some basic tools that can help.
Mail and E-mail
The postal service continues to offer a potent tool for communications, including contracts, marketing, billing and customer service. What you place in the mail today reliably gets delivered to recipients within a few days, making it one of the most reliable means for communicating with customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Practically everyone has an email address, so your business can always communicate well via email. Regardless of whether you use email for marketing or to correspond with clients, vendors and employees, you can depend on the medium to quickly get your information to recipients who can view and respond to it.
Regardless of whether you own or manage a small company or a global corporation, a business telephone system provides a vital communication link between your business and the outside world. When you acquire a phone system, make sure it has voicemail capabilities so people can leave messages for your staff members who can promptly respond.
Cell Phones and Smartphones
Your business probably will develop a healthy dependence on mobile phones to increase the accessibility of your team members. Compare the business plans offered by the major carriers and choose the one that offers you the most features at the best price. Make sure you sign up for sufficient data to allow your employees and remote workers to use mobile apps to perform work-related tasks.
Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies have become a growing trend in the business world. Such a policy can help minimize the cost of mobile-phone service to your company and boost productivity by allowing your workers to use the devices with which they are most familiar to facilitate their work. Of course, BYOD brings with it an increased security challenge, so consult with your team and other advisers to choose the best way to implement mobile devices in your organization.
Video and Web Conferencing
Fast Internet connections make real-time communications secure, effective and affordable. Video conferencing can provide a vital link between various offices in your organization and bridge the gap between your corporate facilities and remote workers. The web conferencing tools can work alongside or independently from video conferencing to allow your team to share desktops and applications while collaborating on projects and tasks.
Telepresence solutions can expand on your video and web conferencing tools to provide channels for secure person-to-person communications and to broadcast corporate meetings and events to distributed audiences. Such technology can make your business more accessible and personable as you interact with stakeholders and build your brand.
Social Networking Sites
Social media continues to dominate the online landscape making it a natural place to build brand awareness and interact with your target market. By creating and managing profiles on popular social networks, you make your business more accessible to leads and prospects as well as customers. Although an effective social media strategy requires a well-defined plan and a long-term commitment, it can provide an essential and profitable communication channel for your business.
Online Chat Tools
Your business can also use online chat as a customer service channel. Visitors to your website, if you have chat services installed, can click a link to chat with one of your agents to get answers to questions or resolutions to service issues.
Your business will probably need access to either a fax machine or a fax service to allow the transmission of documents between your team and other stakeholders. The number of faxes sent and received by your business might vary depending on your industry. If you frequently communicate via fax you might need to invest in a fax server that allows your employees to send and receive faxes from their computer.
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
Modern business communication systems implement voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to streamline the processing of telephone calls and to unify all communication channels on data networks. VoIP simplifies the infrastructure in your office by eliminating the need for separate phone and data jacks at each workstation. Regardless of whether you use a physical handset or a computer equipped with telephony software, you can easily equip your team members with telephone access that they can log into and use at home, on the road or in the office.
Your business will benefit from the following advantages of VoIP technology:
- Saving Money
VoIP can reduce your telephone network charges by providing for direct connections between VoIP phones. Also, you can often use VoIP to enable features such as least-cost routing to reduce the cost to your business for long distance telephone calls. In many cases, VoIP can reduce the need for traditional telephone lines at your facility, resulting in additional cost savings.
- Advanced Features
The portable nature of VoIP enables you and your team members to log into your business phone system from practically anywhere that has internet access. Employees with VoIP access can be reached by the same telephone or extension number, regardless of where they have logged in. They also have access to all telephony features just as if they were working in your facility. VoIP systems also have features that can send voicemail notifications to email or provide access to multiple phone or extension numbers.
The flexibility of VoIP allows you to setup automated call distribution (ACD) groups using remote workers, often allowing your company to easily provide around-the-clock customer service while minimizing payroll costs. VoIP technology also provides a consistent experience for customers and co-workers, because your team members are always accessible at the same telephone number or extension. Workers can also enjoy the flexibility of VoIP that allows them to choose how to connect to the system. For example, they can use a dedicated VoIP handset, a computer, or a traditional phone equipped with a VoIP adapter.
Other functions, such as audio and video conferencing, add to the convenience and power of VoIP. Also, available computer applications can integrate VoIP with your contact management software to provide screen pops that provide your employees with caller information and history. Such functionality makes logging customer contacts easy. It also improves the speed and accuracy of call handling.
Cloud-based VoIP Services
In most business settings, you need to have a gateway located in your office that provides an interface between your data network, and the landline and mobile telephone grid. Cloud-based VoIP eliminates the need for an on-premises gateway by connecting to a remote gateway operated by a service provider. When you use cloud-based VoIP, you practically eliminate the need for telephone lines at your facility, because your calls go through lines maintained by your provider.
Aside from the cost savings gained by eliminating a local VoIP gateway and local phone lines, cloud-based VoIP improves the accessibility of telephony services to your team. Your mobile and remote workers no longer need to log their phones into your business network. Instead, they log via the Internet directly into your VoIP service provider. Such a configuration can improve the quality of voice and video calls while simplifying the login process.
Limitations of VoIP
VoIP telephony can place heavy demands on your data network. Even when you install network switches and routers that have Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities to prioritize VoIP data, you might need to buy additional bandwidth from your Internet service provider to accommodate your communication needs. Although you can often manage the quality of VoIP services within your company’s network, you will probably notice that the quality of service can fluctuate for your remote and mobile employees who often must log in through networks that lack QoS and sufficient bandwidth.
Unlike traditional landline telephones, most VoIP phones stop working if they lose power. Also, many networks stop working when routers and switches lose power, causing an added layer of possible service disruption. Furthermore, although technology has improved the security associated with VoIP communications, hackers might still find ways to hack into your system and monitor phone calls. You might need to maintain some traditional phone lines just to give you the ability to guarantee confidentiality for sensitive conversations.
Unified Communications (UC)
If your business uses multiple communication channels, your team members might unintentionally focus on one channel while neglecting another. For example, customer service agents might spend their time keeping up with incoming phone calls and forget to check their email inbox. Also, some agents might become pre-occupied with live chat sessions and allow incoming telephone calls to go unanswered. Although you can set up a separate customer service group to manage each of your channels, such an approach can lead to redundancy and underutilized human and technical resources. Unified communications (UC), made possible by VoIP, can change that.
UC systems pool all communication systems into a single queue, allowing agents to answer their incoming voice, email and chat calls in the order in which they are received. If you implement UC in your company, you can maintain a consistent response time to all customer contacts and ensure that no communications fall between organizational cracks.
A UC system further improves the efficiency of your operation because your employees use the same interface to acknowledge and respond to every available communication channel. As a result, workers spend less time switching computer applications and screens, and more time communicating.
VoIP vs. Unified Communications
Some people might become confused as they discuss terms such as VoIP and UC. You should recognize VoIP as the underlying technology that enables the transmission of voice calls and video conferencing over data networks. In other words, VoIP is one of the several communications channels available to your business. UC, on the other hand, is not a communications channel. Instead, UC is technology that unifies all your communications channels, including VoIP, under a single interface.
Considerations for Unified Communications
You should focus on building a dependable, high-quality VoIP infrastructure that your business can use to interact with stakeholders. As your business communication and collaboration strategy evolves, independently managing each of your communication channels might become challenging. If it does, you should consider implementing a UC solution.
Although UC can deliver a significant ROI as time passes, the technology usually requires a substantial investment, in addition to VoIP services and equipment, that can challenge small to mid-sized businesses. Also, some of your employees might resist the transition to new technology and a new workflow. Despite the obstacles, your firm might easily find the benefits of UC both worthwhile and profitable. These are:
- Advanced Telephony
Your existing staff can communicate faster and more efficiently than they can without it. Meanwhile, UC preserves the flexibility of VoIP and other channels for use by remote and mobile workers. UC also preserves the ability of employees to be accessible by the same telephone or extension number regardless of their location.
- Cheaper Calls
UC takes advantages of VoIP’s ability to reduce the cost of telephone calls while reducing the overall cost of communication for other available channels.
- Presence Technology
The UC interface displays the status of coworkers as well as their current preferred contact method, eliminating the guesswork involved when employees take breaks or go on vacation.
- Contact Management Integration
A UC system can automatically display the information your company has about every incoming contact, and provides an intuitive interface for creating or updating records based on the current call.
- Simplified Billing
You can choose a single provider to provide you with VoIP and other communication channels as well as UC services. As a result, you have a single point of contact for support, one line item for your budget and only one bill to pay.
- Greater Efficiency
Your decision to use a UC system allows your distributed workforce to work as a cohesive team to accomplish the mission of your company.
Now that you understand some of the available modern business communications and collaboration solutions, you can make decisions that will improve communication and collaboration in your business. Companies competing in diverse regions using traditional, remote and mobile workers face challenges when communicating with stakeholders including employees, suppliers and customers.
VoIP offers many advantages that can improve the quality and flexibility of communication in your organization while reducing its cost. In addition to VoIP, other channels such as traditional mail, email, fax, chat and instant messaging can make you and your staff more accessible for communication and collaboration.
After implementing the use of multiple communication channels, you might choose to invest in a unified communications system that streamlines the management of all your communication channels, and makes your staff more productive and profitable.
Chapter 6: Business Intelligence and Analytics
Business intelligence strategies use technology to discover and collect big data and then analyze it in ways that support decision-making and planning. Profiting from big data, however, has challenged the business world because its characteristics make it unsuitable for processing using conventional databases. Rather than ignoring the big data, your company can obtain business intelligence tools to extract meaningful information from it and analyze it in ways that improve your decision-making and planning processes. When properly managed, business intelligence can give your firm a vital competitive edge.
Business intelligence (BI) systems have captivated the attention of companies of every size for a long time, but new self-service tools have made the analysis of big data easier and more accessible than ever before. Regardless of whether you want to gain insights from social media chatter or analyze transcripts from customer service calls, BI tools can turn your big data into a valuable asset. In fact, you can harness all the data generated and collected by your organization to make decisions that improve internal processes and the customer experience.
Combining traditional BI tactics with big data analytics has become a dominant trend because it frees firms from the limitations of structure. As a result, data in any format can contribute to the success of your business. You can improve your understanding of how BI works for you by learning about its following components:
Data for your BI can come from numerous internal and external sources. For example, your CRM, ERP and inventory systems store a wealth of information to which you have only limited access. Social media and website data in various formats along with the accessible reports from government and trade organizations can also contribute to your BI strategy.
h4>Extract, Transform, Load (ETL)
Your source data comes in numerous formats that make it difficult to process from a traditional perspective. The ETL component of BI systems locates useful data and converts it so that it can become part of your data warehouse. Integrity checks verify the success of the loading process to assure accuracy and consistency.
The useful pool of data available to your BI system is the repository called the data warehouse. This is the combined information store that provides the foundation for comprehensive data analysis.
Online Analytical Processing (OLAP)
The OLAP component of BI enables the manipulation of data based on user-supplied criteria. The function provides the framework used to extract meaning from your data warehouse and prepares it for rendering in a visual format. You can use OLAP to compare and analyze the data streams that can answer your questions.
Visual reports that include graphs and charts can make possible the rapid absorption and interpretation of data at a glance. The visualizations component of BI can help you visually spot trends and events in your data that otherwise would go undetected.
The BI dashboard supplies you with the tools used to interact with your BI system. The graphical interface also displays some of the most relevant and frequently accessed information to help you work fast and efficient. You can configure separate dashboards for the various users and roles in your organization so that every team member has easy access to the BI functions that are relevant to them.
Always remember that no BI tool is a one-size-fits-all solution. When possible, learn from the BI experience of businesses that are similar to yours to guide you as you evaluate available BI applications. Remember, however, that the tools your firm needs might vary depending on the nature of your business. Another factor that can affect your selection of BI software includes the amount of data you have.
Global corporations for example, will probably have many more data sources and data than a small locally owned business. If you try to use the same BI solution as a larger firm, you can spend too much money and become easily overwhelmed with its scope. Just remember that the basic concepts of BI remain constant in every environment, including analytics. Choose the BI solution that will make BI powerful and profitable for your company.
BI supplies structure and organization to your big data, and analytics is the use and application of BI. Using the right people and technology, you can find patterns in your data from which you and your team can extrapolate in order to find new insights. People are a vital element of analytics because they need to know how to ask relevant, meaningful questions and then use available technology to get relevant results.
How to Choose the Right BI Software
The first step of choosing the BI software that best fits your needs is determining whether you at all need BI. If you listen to the hype and chatter in the business world, you might believe that every company needs to implement BI. Truthfully, however, not every business needs BI, so making an investment in that technology might not result in a meaningful ROI. Create a well-defined plan that identifies what you want to achieve via BI to help you determine whether you should shop for BI software.
As you explore the various available BI products, the complexity of the market might discourage you. Hundreds of products now exist and new developers are bringing to market new solutions with new tools, features and capabilities. To simply your search, you should consider ease-of-use as a primary factor. After all, you and your team must understand how to use your BI software if it will add value to your company.
Other criteria for selecting a BI software package include its suitability to your business and BI strategy. To facilitate your search, consider creating separate lists with features that you must have, would prefer to have, and will never use. Afterward, you can focus on evaluating solutions that fit your budget and include the features you need. You should, however, remember the importance of finding a BI software supplier that can meet the unique needs of your business, and supply an affordable and practical pathway for future growth. Some of the best-known names in the BI business include Tableau, Spotfire and SAS. Those and other established brands have a large customer portfolio that you can use to guide your choices of BI software.
The importance of mobility in the modern business world suggests that you should choose BI software that also includes mobile tools. Again, you will need to evaluate the importance of mobile users to your mission and decide what BI features need to be accessible via smartphones, tablets and web browsers.
As you consider the cost of BI applications, make sure you pay attention to subscription vs outright purchase models, and the possibility of hidden fees that can unexpectedly increase the cost of your chosen solution. You should also learn how much vendor-provided training and support comes with your BI package.
As you put your BI resources to work for your firm, remember the importance of policy and training. Users of BI and analytics applications will either avoid them or improperly use them without first being educated regarding their use. You should also stipulate the use of standard procedures that naturally incorporate the collection of data into workflows and stipulate the goals of your BI strategy. You and your management team should provide top-down leadership that demonstrates the willing and effective use of BI tools and compliance with relevant policies.
Simplify the implementation of BI in your organization by ensuring that the relevant tools and procedures apply to every department. Doing so can help you avoid the challenges that come with the use of different procedures, systems, and software applications in the various parts of your company. By establishing a unified holistic view, your company can use a single standard for processing and analyzing data that will improve your chance for the successful use of BI.
To conclude, business intelligence and analytics can transform your company and give it new competitive advantages that can sustain it for many coming years. When you invest in BI software that fits your organization, you will get easy-to-use tools that will help you make decisions that improve the efficiency of your operation and create a fantastic customer experience. Remember, however, that the quality of your BI strategy and data sources can determine the degree of your success at least as much as your selection of a BI software package.
Other BI concerns include the elimination of redundant information and the elimination of obsolete data from your system. You can work with your staff and your BI vendor to standardize the processes used in your company to make sure that your company effectively and profitably uses all its BI resources.
Chapter 7: Marketing Automation and CRM Integration
Marketing automation is an important idea that encompasses both a range of software tools to help support your marketing efforts as well as the strategic ideas that will guide your use of that software. A complementary topic is customer relationship management, or CRM, a somewhat broader collection of tools and platforms that can deliver a bird's eye perspective on your marketing.
Integrating these two concepts together can be a powerful source of synergy that takes advantage of all available resources, especially your time. You'll be able to combine multiple streams of data into one central hub and carry out analytics that inform your entire sales and marketing process.
Marketing Automation 101
Marketing automation is the use of software and Web-based services to execute, manage and automate marketing tasks and processes. It replaces manual and repetitive marketing processes with purpose-built software and applications geared toward performance. Perhaps the most common example is automated emailing service. An automated mailer can send out emails to customers based on their actions, like leaving items in an online cart without checking out, or demographics, like their age, or other characteristics. You can create just about any kind of trigger and set up pre-written templates. It takes much of the work of email marketing out of your hands so you can focus on other things.
Marketing automation can incorporate any form of customer contact, not just emails. Social media and content marketing are also prime candidates for automation. One of the biggest trends in marketing recently has been to shift the focus away from making sales and towards building lasting relationships, and that's what marketing automation helps you accomplish. It's better to spend more effort cultivating each customer into a lasting fan who provides repeat business for a long time than to just try to maximize short-term one-time sales.
Your loyal customers will form the core of your revenue and will support you through social media and word of mouth. Automated marketing makes it easier to build those relationships by creating highly targeted and personalized outreach campaigns without all the time and attention you would need to devote to such a task if you were to do it manually. It's a major efficiency gain. The key lies in how personal it is and how well you can guide prospects through your sales funnel without direct involvement.
Top Benefits of Marketing Automation
In many ways the biggest upside to using a marketing automation platform (MAP) is that it lets you accomplish the same tasks you were going to do anyway, but faster and with less use of your precious time. Here's a rundown of exactly what implementing MAP can do for you.
First of all, you can reduce your labor costs. A MAP solution can do more with fewer staff members working on it. That means you can reduce the staff you hire or commit them to other tasks. This is especially useful for small businesses because it means you don't need to hire a marketing department the size of a big firm to stay competitive. That includes your own labor as well. You'll free yourself and your staff to work on less repetitive and more engaging tasks.
You'll boost your revenue because you will have better marketing and more conversions. Your expanded reach and improved ability to customize messaging will mean your messages get read more often and lead to more engagement. That comes from doing better at creating personalized experiences that suit the needs of each prospect. Personalization sets the foundation for a prolonged engagement and gives you a better chance at getting repeat business. As the saying goes, the best customers are the ones you already have. Good use of MAP puts your best foot forward with each potential buyer.
Customer Relationship Management
Customer relationship management, or CRM, is a suite of tools and processes that organize, track and manage prospects through the entire sales lifecycle. It is broader than automated marketing, but it can incorporate MAP as part of a larger toolkit.
The major focus of CRM is data. By gathering and keeping detailed data on all your current and potential customers, you can build more complete models of how they behave and what attracts them to your brand. You'll need to track things like their history of engagement, whether, when, and what they purchased, if they ever contacted customer support, and so on.
The idea is that you create a database that tells the complete story of every customer, and helps you understand why they chose to engage with you and why others did not. CRM software helps centralize this data collection process by connecting various departments and modes of engagement like marketing, sales, support, and accounting that would otherwise have completely separate data storage.
The Biggest Benefits of CRM
The benefits of CRM are many. You will of course reap the benefits of synergy because you can spot any pain points in the sales funnel or any bottlenecks customers experience along their journey. You might not be able to spot those by examining each of these segments separately.
Next, you'll be able to craft better service for each customer because you know their complete history with your brand. You can also unite your company and encourage collaboration between different business units through this central data collection. Your staff may be able to spot problems or devise improvements when they can see what customers do before they come into contact with their unit and where they go afterward. For example, your sales team might notice that customers who first learn about your products via email are unaware of a particular feature. They can pass that along to your marketing staff, who can promote that feature in future emails.
Integrating CRM and Marketing Automation
The goals and the philosophy behind the two solutions we've explored here dovetail quite well. You can significantly increase your gains if you incorporate both automated marketing tools and CRM software into your overall strategy, as long as you deploy them in an intelligent way that makes use of both of their strengths.
The value of data alone is massive. Marketing automation, especially when it pertains to emails, works best when you feed it with lots of data showing what works and what doesn't. CRM can supply you with exactly that data. You'll be able to place a priority on the most effective forms of outreach or the biggest holes in your funnel when you have a comprehensive picture of what your engagement looks like.
That integration only works, however, when your CRM and marketing automation tools are truly in sync. That means they need to be able to share data bidirectionally. It does you no good if you can't pool together their data quickly and conveniently. In some cases, your choice of each type of software won't be compatible and you won't be able to gain from having both. In other cases, it will take considerable time and effort to get the data from each source into a compatible format. That extra effort can negate all the gains from using these tools in the first place.
To integrate CRM and your MAP, you have two main options. First, you can get both suites from the same vendor. If you do that, they are almost certain to play well together with little friction. That makes achieving synergy far easier. The downside is that you may need to compromise on the feature set of either your MAP or your CRM if the vendor doesn't build exactly what you need. The other road is to get them separately and work out how to port data yourself. Sometimes, two vendors will have mutually compatible tools out of the box and you don't need to do anything. Other times, you'll have to do some legwork to build a way for them to communicate. It's up to you to make sure this won't get in the way of actually using the two sets of tools.
The benefits to this integration are significant:
- Increased Revenues
You'll be able to supercharge your engagement with the higher quality of insight from CRM and marketing automation. Not only will you get better responses to emails and other outreach, but you will also be able to do a better job at turning leads into longtime relationships. That means larger and more frequent purchases.
- Better Marketing and Sales Alignment
With all that customer data in one place, you can draw insights that inform your company-wide strategy for sales, marketing, and service. A unified strategy can shape the customer's entire experience and maximize revenue gain over the length of their engagement.
- Simplified Data Management
You'll simplify your data upkeep task. It is increasingly necessary to track both sales and marketing data and mine it for information that can give you an edge. You might as well integrate both and reduce the workload of organizing the data. There's no point trying to manage two datasets instead of one.
- Improved Lead Handoff
It's very common for strategy to break down at the border of marketing and sales. This usually takes the form of sending leads to sales before they are ready to buy. Integration helps you unite marketing and sales to get them on the same page. That improves the quality of leads because marketing can cultivate them to the right point before the handoff to sales.
- Better Market Research for R&D
Customers are sometimes vocal about products or features they wish you had, but that information doesn't always escape the department that heard it. For example, service might notice that many customers ask why your product lacks a certain feature. Integration means you can observe this, build the feature, and crosstrain sales and marketing so they can use that feature as a draw to convince customers on the fence.
There are a lot of CRM and MAP solutions available. The best way to decide which one is right for you is to think about your specific goals and your medium to long-term plans. Do you want to hone an existing core product set or expand to new areas? Are you looking for a robust and powerful platform or ease of use? Many of these products have free trials and extensive customer support. Try a variety of choices before making a commitment. Then settle on not just which one has the best results during your trial, but the one that matches your sales and marketing philosophy best.
Chapter 8: Choosing the Right Hardware and Software for Your Business
There is a huge variety of business hardware and software solutions on the market nowadays because every business has a different set of needs and goals. There are, however, some crucial types of hardware and software that are common needs in the business world. To narrow down exactly what you should use, go through this step-by-step process for making the best choice. It's general enough to apply to any kind of hardware and software in any field.
Step 1: Understand Your Needs
It is surprisingly difficult to determine a final list of your business needs, because the list has a tendency to grow as you think of new applications. The key is to be concrete. Connect every feature to some specific aspect of your operations or to the competitive climate and make them present-oriented. It's tempting to be vague or to anticipate future needs, but stay focused in order to avoid overspending on things you might not wind up using as much as you expect.
It's a good idea to make two feature lists. One of them is a "must have" list and the other is a "nice to have" list. The "must have" list should be quite short and contain core features that will determine which choices make the cut in terms of considering them as final contenders. The "nice to have" list can be longer, and it is meant to help you choose between the options that have everything on the "must" list.
Step 2: Set a Budget
How much you spend on software and hardware is often more than the sticker price. You also need to take into account any costs of extras like a warranty or support. You may also need to invest in training, upkeep, maintenance, supporting software or hardware, and so on. For example, you might decide that you need some new workstations, but then you also need to expand your IT staff and upgrade your network architecture to support them, and you'll need licenses to the operating systems and other business software for them as well.
Step 3: Reduce the Options
Once you have a list of solutions that meet your needs, cut that list down to a solid three to four choices that will be your final choice set. You can do this by throwing out anything that exceeds your budget, for example, or that is missing a core feature.
If you still need to eliminate choices, look at things like reviews and stability. You want a vendor that has been around for a long time and projects to stay in business for the future so that you can be assured of ready access to support. It's much better to have a more basic feature set with a better assurance of ongoing support and better reviews than a new, flashy option without a history of good performance.
Step 4: Test Your Finalists
To get through your last selections, you'll want to try them out. Software is often easier to try because the vendor will advertise a free demo of some kind. If they don't, you may be able to get one by asking for it and explaining that you are interested in buying, but want to try before you buy.
Hardware can be harder to test, but try your best to get your hands on it before money changes hands. You might need to test offsite in a storefront or other location. Look to see how easy and clean the interface is and how close it is to assets you already use. The faster you and your employees can learn it, the faster it will start to pay off.
Step 5: Ask the Staff
Don't make unilateral decisions. Talk to the staff who will be using the new asset and ask them how they feel about your final choices. They might have concerns about how they work or suggestions about a feature that could alter your decision.
While they might not have the birds-eye view that you have, their perspective is valuable and they can often offer insight that you might not have on your own. They will also feel better about the decision if they are involved. It's possible that they would resent a decision that was made without any of their input.
Step 6: Make Your Final Choice
The last thing to do is settle on one final choice. By the end of the process you should have a good idea of which solution will be the best fit for you. If there are options like warranties and support service, then those are generally worth the money. The vendor is the service provider who knows how to support the product best, and without support you won't get full value from the asset. Security is also a major concern considering the recent wave of hack attacks targeting businesses and service vendors.
There are some core assets that most businesses will need. First of all, desktop computers. These need to be stable and reliable. They do not have to be the latest and greatest if there is an older model and OS that serves your needs. You should also consider the "Bring Your Own Device" or BYOD model. That allows employees to use their own desktops or laptops. Next, think about external hard drives. These can be a cheap storage solution that doesn't require getting involved with cloud technology. You can keep them separate from your workstations and local network so they'll be protected backups.
You will likely also need a network server so you can administrate email, network storage, and so on. There are several options for running your own server that range in cost, capacity, and complexity. With a network comes the need for one or more wireless routers. These have become fairly inexpensive, but shop around to ensure you have a robust and secure connection. You may want a printer as well. These can have extra features like networking, color, faxing, and so on, but don't pay for features you don't use.
When it comes to software, there are a few varieties. First of all, there is "off the shelf" software, which is a package that you buy as-is. If you need something customized, then you want a "bespoke" solution that is tailored to your needs, but bespoke often denotes higher cost.
There is also the "open source" route, which involves using (usually) free software developed by a community with source code available for all to see. This can offer great value but may come with quality or security concerns. One of the most popular software packages is Office 365, which contains all of Microsoft's powerful productivity tools like Word, Excel, Sharepoint, Exchange, Access, and more.
When it comes to selecting the right software and hardware, you need to think about the leadership, the employees, and your customers. Each group has an influence on the needed feature set and cost profile, and neglecting any group could lead to choosing assets that are missing important aspects or are too expensive.
You also have to balance your current needs, future needs, and cost. It is advisable that you consider asking for advice from IT and security specialists who can help guide your search.
Chapter 9: Outsourcing Your IT Services
In this chapter, we'll examine an important choice with a lot of ramifications for your business's workflow - the decision of whether to outsource IT or keep it in-house. There are good arguments for both and the goal of this chapter is to provide you with all the information you need to make the decision that works best for your company, not to advocate for one choice or the other. While IT outsourcing, like other forms of outsourcing, is primarily related to cost reduction and efficiency, there are other factors that affect whether you want to outsource.
The first consideration is indeed costs. By using outsourced employees, you avoid the cost burden that accompanies full-time hiring. That includes health insurance and other benefits, dedicated HR personnel, payroll taxes, retirement outlay, the time your managers have to spend on oversight, training, and so on. By using outsourced workers, you can shift all of those costs to the contracting firm. Instead, you'll pay hourly for the time of the workers. At first that seems more expensive, but in reality it simply makes the costs you have to pay more explicit. Hourly can often be less expensive because you can precisely control how much IT you want to pay for, which is more flexible than employing your own full-time workers.
Next, consider skills and training. With outsourced IT you have the control to choose firms and workers who are specifically trained in what you need, and if your needs change, you can quickly and easily find the right workers. That is more closely linked to your needs than depending on the workers you hire to have the right mix. You also do not need to invest in training the workers in new or different software. That's another source of cost savings as well as a savings in time. There can be a considerable lag if you have to train your own staff. If you outsource, the contractor can just find you a worker with the required skills as soon as you need them.
IT outsourcing also frees up your resources for other things. For example, taking out IT means you have one less thing to worry about in your day-to-day and strategic management. Running a small to medium sized enterprise is a delicate balancing act that pulls your attention in a dozen different directions at once. If you can simplify that array of complex choices to make, then you can better focus your energies on what remains. Outsourcing IT pulls a chunk of your company's needs off your daily plate of work.
The flexibility deserves its own discussion. There is more to flexibility than just choosing how many IT hours you need. You can also select exactly what kind of services you want to use. For example, you can temporarily use some workers to help you prep a disaster recovery process as needed. You can keep a 24/7 emergency support crew on tap to help you with anything that might come up. Some IT tasks are things you only need done occasionally, so there's no reason to employ someone to do them long-term. Others need constant attention, as is the case with support. Pick and choose the combination of services and hours that fits your internal tech needs.
IT outsourcing can help you keep up with new ideas and services that you might be interested in. The providers of outsourced IT will know what your industry needs and what new innovations might be useful to you. That research is something you don't have time to do, so their suggestions can be a helpful way to capitalize on new technology without having to spend time learning about it yourself. You will need to be careful that your provider is not trying to upsell you on something you do not need, but that is an easier problem to solve than trying to keep up with every new innovation.
What to Look For
When it comes to time to search for an IT services provider, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First of all, training. You need to vet the provider and the staff ahead of time to ensure that they really have the preparation to deliver the services you need. IT systems can vary a lot and a small difference in a service can make a big difference in how the IT staff deals with it. Make sure the workers are familiar with your setup.
Experience matters as well. If the workers are more experienced, then they will take less time to solve the problems that come up. That means you will pay less in billable hours. Better experience also means they can spot problems faster and address them sooner, anticipating concerns before they become serious. A more experienced support crew can minimize downtime and provide more warning and detail when downtime is required. The result is a more stable network and IT installation, and more convenient downtime.
Make sure they are open to cooperative work. While they are exterior workers, you want them to be fairly well integrated with your system and your needs. If they are distant and only operate on-call, they won't have the familiarity to address your problems quickly and efficiently. Better cooperation means faster solutions, taking your IT spending farther.
Building on that, the IT provider needs to be efficient with your time. They should address your concerns and problems quickly to minimize disruption. 24/7 support needs to be available at all times with full functionality in case of an emergency.
A major time-saver is easy remote access. If they can do everything remotely, you won't need to pay for travel and on-site work. Not all IT can be done remotely, but most of it can with the right tools and workers familiar with remote connections.
Integrating In-house IT with Outsourced IT
A new trend is to maintain a small internal IT staff and supplement with outsourced support. The outsourced provider can handle things like 24/7 emergency support and low-level routine maintenance tasks. The internal IT department concentrates on pro-growth high-level work. That way, you can allocate your highest quality resource, the in-house staff, to the most important tasks and leave the minutiae to outsourced workers. This is ideal if you want always-available support without burdening your own staff as well, because outsourced workers can rotate for 24/7 coverage.
If you want to try IT outsourcing based on what you've learned here, follow this workflow to ensure you find a good fit. First, draw up a list of every service you need and determine which ones you want to outsource. Set a budget for how much you are willing to spend on outsourcing IT to cap how much it can affect your operating expenses. Then you can begin your search for the right provider.
You should prioritize value, but also transparency and professionalism. It is not worth it to spend bottom dollar on core IT service that may be shoddy or unreliable. You also need to ensure your provider will be a speedy and clear communicator. The outsourcing relationship is a long-term one. A strong relationship of trust is perhaps the most important part of successful IT outsourcing. Be clear about how IT outsourcing fits into your IT strategy as a whole and how IT adds value for you and your vision. That will help you stay focused on what you need and how to get it.
The Ultimate Business Owner´s Guide to Information Technology has striven to present the complete picture for many different areas of IT you can use to improve your business. That includes both the pros and cons of choosing to spend time, money, and effort on any of the technologies it covers. Our goal was to give you all the information you need to make the best decision to ensure the growth of your business. Only you know fully what your needs are, but our objective was to arm you with the tools you need to succeed.
IT in business is not a fad. It's a decades-old element of doing business that is only growing in importance over time. Consider some contemporary trends and how they require IT solutions. Innovations in cloud storage have made the cloud cheap and accessible for many applications, from simple storage to security and analytics. The power and depth of those analytical tools have also grown, making more insight available to more companies at lower cost and with less required training. Automation tools can build on analytical insight to segment your market and deliver sharply-targeted marketing material to the right people at the right time with minimal human effort.
IT thus also allows you to harvest a new resource in the market: data. The tools and products available today, especially the ones related to marketing, can take advantage of data about your customers and their behavior to help your fine-tune your marketing campaigns, sales process, and even product design. By learning as much as you can about current and potential customers, you are better able to create and maintain lasting relationships with each buyer, encouraging repeat business and customer loyalty. Your ability to make decisions will improve because you will have vastly more insight.
As we are all aware, hacking groups worldwide are breaching corporate networks in search of valuable data to sell or use for fraud. That includes small businesses even though it's only the largest hacks that make the news. SMEs now need to invest in high-grade storage and security to protect themselves and their customers.
One of the most difficult to quantify advantages of IT is its ability to help you cope with rare, yet important events. These include disasters, continuity threats, and security breaches. The right IT preparation is crucial to ensuring your business can survive these occurrences, and yet it's difficult to test which services are best because the opportunity to test them is rare. This guide has described these events in detail and explained exactly how IT can help.
The story of today's IT is not just many different areas all becoming cheaper and more powerful, but that so many of them build on each other and reinforce each other. An SME can use the cloud to gather and store data, then apply cloud resources to analyze the results using CRM, which feeds into results that inform best practices in sales, marketing, support, and R&D.
Timely IT deployment can completely revolutionize your business model, add critical security and disaster preparedness, help you get the most out of staff hours, reduce waste, and identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies. This guide is a reference for the most important types of IT you need to understand to succeed in today's marketplace.