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Secrets of a Mobile Office Team HALO operates on the move. The key to success? Make the most of technology, but keep it simple.

By Mark A.R. Mitchell

HALO Business Advisors--aka Team HALO--is an organization whose principals travel around the United States teaching hospitality-based businesses how to find success, with a special focus on new media and social media tools. Marianna Hayes and her husband, Andy Chapman, may be working with clients in Michigan one day and holding a seminar in Arkansas the next. While they're on the road, other members of Team HALO are providing support from locations around the country.

The business
For more than 10 years, Team HALO has been assisting restaurants, hotels and main street business districts while teaching them how to target, engage, convert and retain customers. While many local businesses have a sense of how they should promote their activities to local customers, Team HALO helps them think beyond local and "business as usual." "I'm not always in the place where I live," says Hayes, the founder of Team HALO. "I am always moving, yet wherever I am I want to know where the locally owned businesses are. I want to encourage people to shop the local businesses, even when they're not in a place they're familiar with."

To that end, Team HALO teaches local businesses how to reach out and make themselves known. "We have a deep knowledge of the most mainstream social media tools," Hayes says, "including blogs and blogging communities, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Flickr." Team HALO also does a lot of work with Yelp, Urbanspoon, Google Local, Yahoo! Local and other ratings and review sites to help clients promote their products and services.

The role of mobile workers
Team HALO runs a virtual office. There is no central physical location from which the entire team works. Hayes and Chapman call Clinton, Miss., home, but they are usually on the road consulting with clients. Other team members, including web and graphic designers, work from their homes in different locations around the U.S.

"We lean heavily on our laptops and cell phones," says Hayes. "We use BlackBerry devices right now, and we have the full capabilities of our phones turned on--including data, text and internet connectivity. We use Bluetooth to connect our laptops to our cell phones to connect to the internet, so we're never dependent on a Wi-Fi signal, and we can access the internet from anywhere we are."

The challenges
Staying in touch with team members, collaborating on projects remotely and making themselves available to clients when they're constantly moving are challenges that Team HALO employees have had to manage. But manage they do, and quite well.

"We use Google Chat internally and with many of our clients," says Hayes, "as well as e-mail, text messaging, Skype, etc. We are all Google Wave members and we are watching how that tool might evolve to be a useful collaboration tool in the future. We also use a secure web-based database that we developed for our use to store and track access to private client information securely while allowing all team members to access it as needed."

Additionally, Team HALO uses an application from www.37signals.com called Basecamp, which provides a central, web-based project management system that has proven to be as effective as any central conference room might be for a nonmobile business. "Basecamp can get RSS feeds to me about project updates," says Hayes. "I can get an e-mail update every time something changes on a project. I can even get a daily digest of changes if it's a slow project and I don't need to see every change in real time. It's a very versatile application and it's easy for me to stay on top of projects no matter where I am."

The key to making the mobile office work
"For us, the key to making the mobile office work lies in knowing what tools are available to us and how best to use those tools to help us do what we do," says Hayes. "We don't need to get carried away with technology. In fact, given the volume of information that's out there, we need our lives to be as simple as possible. That means we need to know what's available and evaluate technologies as they come up to determine whether they're going to help us work more efficiently."

Curiously, one of the messaging and collaboration tools that Hayes does not use any longer is voice mail. "I changed my outgoing voice-mail message several months ago to tell people not to leave voice here but to send e-mail or a text message to me instead. That gets messages to me faster and I can respond faster.

"Are there more interruptions now? Definitely. And we've opened ourselves up to that by making ourselves this accessible. When I have to write, though, I have to turn off the chat application and the phone. I have to know how to put myself in an environment where I can concentrate. I'll just post a status update on Facebook saying that I'm heading out for the afternoon to write and I'm going to be unplugged. As long as our clients know what we're up to, they're OK with it. I don't think I've ever gotten a complaint about not being available. Mostly what I hear back is 'Looking forward to your next article' or 'How did it go?'"

© 2010 Business on Main

Mark A.R. Mitchell is an avid technology buff and reporter covering small-business products and the Consumer Electronics Show. He holds a master's degree in English literature from Harvard and has worked with leading technology companies and research universities.

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