The end of the year is an excellent time for small businesses to look both backward and forward. In looking back, take stock of how your business changed over the past year. Did you meet your goals? If not, why? Did your business grow? Has your market changed?
When looking forward, now's a good time to set your goals and objectives for the coming year. Decide exactly how you want your business to evolve next year. Do you want to enter new markets? Target new types of customers? Respond to new competitive pressures?
Once you've set your business's goals and objectives, the next step is to map them to the technologies that can best help you meet them. In this month's column, we'll look at four network-based technologies that can help small businesses achieve their goals, whether it's increasing productivity, improving customer satisfaction or reducing costs.
Video conferencing provides real-time, face-to-face communications with partners, clients, contractors and employees over a broadband network. With a video camera at either end and a robust network in between, you can see as well as hear others during a conference call.
Video conferencing promotes greater communication--and thus, understanding--in several key ways. For one thing, you can see the nonverbal signals you'd otherwise miss in a traditional phone call. A video conference also allows you to present far more information than during a phone call. For instance, you could demonstrate a new product as you explain its benefits to others on the call--a much better way to convey that information than standard conference calls allow.
Video conferencing can also save you time and money by eliminating or reducing the need for you and your employees to travel. And your employees can take advantage of training courses via video conferencing that they might not otherwise be able to attend.
Until recently, video conferencing was really only available to large businesses, which had the necessary financial resources as well as dedicated video conferencing rooms. But today, video conferencing is financially within reach of smaller businesses. You can opt for basic video conferencing solutions, such as those offered by free or inexpensive plug-ins for the Skype voice over IP service. Managed video conferencing services over a converged IP network is another affordable option.
Many workers today frequently travel between offices or job sites. They need to be mobile--and so does the information they require to do their jobs. Wireless and mobile technologies increase efficiency and productivity by extending the footprint of your office, delivering information and applications to your employees when and where they need it.
Extension mobility is among the newer developments in wireless and mobile technology. In essence, extension mobility lets you allocate work spaces to employees on an as-needed basis, which can significantly reduce the costs associated with permanent office accommodations. For instance, instead of assigning offices, cubicles and desks to individual employees, several different employees can share the same space on a rotating basis. Extension mobility also boosts productivity, as employees have full access to all their telephony features regardless of their location.
For extension mobility to be effective, you need the flexibility of an IP network. An employee can configure any IP phone on an IP network with their extension, along with all their individual phone and voice-mail settings. In effect, any IP phone becomes the employee's own while he or she is at that particular location. When they're done, they simply log off and the phone is available for the next mobile employee. This reduces both the cost and complexity of moving employees around as well as enables mobile workers to be productive regardless of where they physically are.
Customer Relationship Management
Since last month's column, "Tech Solutions That Keep Customers Satisfied," focused on CRM software, I'll just touch on it briefly here.
In essence, CRM technology helps improve customer satisfaction by enabling a business to better understand its customers, their habits and their needs. CRM software is particularly useful when connected, via software plug-ins, to a small business's IP telephony system. For instance, when a call comes in, an IP telephony software plug-in automatically links to your CRM system. A pop-up window of the customer contact record appears on your employee's IP phone screen, their computer screen or both. This gives the employee access to essential data about the customer who's calling before the employee even picks up the phone. CRM technology can help your business improve every transaction with its customers. That often leads to more satisfied customers, which, in turn, means improved sales and revenue.
Despite all the various means of communications at our disposal today--e-mail, fax, instant messaging, cell phones and such--you'd think it would be easy to get in touch with someone whenever necessary. Unfortunately, in our hectic business world, that's often not the case.
Unified messaging is a solution that streamlines business communications, enabling employees to send and retrieve their voice mail, e-mail and fax messages from one device--either their computer or an IP phone. In addition, it can notify you on any or all your devices (phone, cell phone or computer) whenever a message is received.
Unified messaging consolidates your various mailboxes (voice mail, e-mail and fax), giving you one single point of access for all your messages. With anytime, anywhere access to all your messages, you can be more productive, save time, and improve customer relations and satisfaction.
So what do you need to take advantage of these four innovative technologies?
- A single, intelligent IP network. Solutions such as video conferencing, extension mobility, CRM applications and unified messaging require the same foundation: a single, intelligent IP network capable of handling voice, video and data. Such networks are robust enough to handle today's applications, flexible enough to meet tomorrow's needs, and scalable enough to grow along with your company.
- Top-notch security. Security threats today are more widespread than ever. And they can spread quickly. The infamous Slammer virus infected 55 million hosts per second at its peak. A secure, easily adaptive network is especially important for smaller businesses that may not have the support of an in-house security resource.
- Proper planning. As always, discuss any technology plans with your trusted adviser before making an investment. A well-planned and executed technology investment gives your business a solid foundation for growth today, tomorrow and years to come.
Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.