Techs you should try

Written by Paul Lima

You know new technologies are crucial to your company’s success. But which ones? Your best bets for helping you make your staff more mobile, cut costs and meet other business goals may not be products that hit the market just last week. More likely they’re proven and affordable technologies that haven’t been adopted as widely by entrepreneurs as they should be. If you’re seeking a real edge, you should add these five items to your technology shopping list.

VPN: Take your data with you

The plummeting cost of virtual private networks (VPNs) offers an appealing alternative to pricey dedicated data lines that connect multiple offices in a wide-area network. By piggybacking on the Net, while protecting confidentiality through data encryption, VPNs let remote employees with a high-speed connection access your full network as if they were in the office.

“Think of it as a secure tunnel through the public Internet through which data can travel,” says Steve Savage, president of AdvizeIT Consulting Services Inc. in Toronto. Salespeople can use a VPN to check inventory and process orders without returning to the office. And wireless-enabled executives can access e-mail and network files from wireless hot spots, such as in airports or hotel lobbies.

It costs only a few hundred dollars to install a VPN router for 10 to 20 users. If you’re accessing large files remotely, the connection can be slow. One solution is Microsoft’s Terminal Services tool, which displays a virtual representation of files rather than opening each one. But, it works only with VPNs operating on Microsoft’s Small Business Server platform.

VOIP: Dirt-cheap phone calls

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is finally delivering the long-promised convergence of voice and data on one communications network. Why should you care? Because digitizing phone calls and transmitting them over the public (read: cheap) Internet infrastructure rather than phone companies’ high-cost traditional networks slashes your telecom expenses. Although VoIP’s audio quality doesn’t quite equal that of traditional phone lines, the gap is closing fast as data networks become speedier and more reliable.

Implementing a VoIP system with 15 to 50 users might cost you $20,000 to $30,000, but the payoff will kick in right away. Often the biggest savings are on internal calls, because your staff can use VoIP between satellite offices to direct-dial each other using four-digit extensions. They can also connect to a company office in another city and make free local calls to clients or suppliers. And a mobile employee can use a VoIP-enabled notebook computer as a company phone, answering calls almost anywhere as if they were in the office.

INSTANT MESSAGING: collaborate like the teens do

If you have teenaged kids, you know about instant messaging. But IM isn’t just for Net-addicted high schoolers anymore-it’s going mainstream, and business is beginning to take advantage. Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm, calls IM “the sleeping giant of the Internet” and predicts it will soon overtake e-mail as the main online communications tool.

IM differs from e-mail in two ways. First, as the name implies, instant messages are sent and received almost immediately, provided the correspondents are logged into their IM system; there’s no waiting for anyone to download their e-mails. Second, you don’t need to “open” a message to read it; rather, it pops directly onto your computer screen.

IM can boost productivity by helping staff in various locations collaborate, says Joanne Clerk, Lotus brand leader at Markham, Ont.-based IBM Canada Ltd. Because an instant message is more intrusive than e-mail and can’t be screened by call display, it’s likelier to be noticed and replied to quickly. Clerk has even used IM to let people know she has sent an important e-mail: “Ironic, I know, but IM is a way to ask someone to keep an eye out for a particular message.”

It’s easy to install IM. If you already have Lotus Notes, for instance, you can use the accompanying Lotus IM and Web Conferencing application. Or you can use free software such as ICQ, AOL IM or MSN Messenger. You may fear that IM will prove distracting. Clerk recommends firms implement IM protocols to ensure it enhances communications and productivity.

VIRTUAL FAXING: Fuss-free faxes

E-mail hasn’t killed the fax, but it might kill the fax machine. Faxes remain widely used, especially for documents requiring signatures. Virtual-fax technology, which uses e-mail rather than fax machines to transmit, is not only cheaper but protects privacy and offers mobile access.

You have a choice of dozens of virtual fax providers, whom you can find by searching online for “online fax” or “virtual fax provider.” To send a document to a fax machine, you e-mail it with the fax number to your provider, who handles the rest. (Some have you send it via their website.) Receiving a fax is more turnkey: senders simply fax their documents to a number your provider assigns you. It converts incoming faxes into digital files and sends them to your e-mail address. The only catch is you’ll need a scanner to digitize paper documents you want to fax. That’s a bit of a pain, but you save the cost of a fax machine, phone line and paper. And virtual faxing is cheap. Protus IP Solutions Inc. of Ottawa, a leading provider, charges $10 per month for 200 inbound and outbound pages.

There are two other nice little extras. Virtual faxes enhance privacy, because incoming messages aren’t spit out of a machine where passersby can read them. And they give mobile executives access to faxes anywhere they can receive e-mail.

CRM: Cozy up to customers

The rule of thumb is that it costs five times as much to acquire a new customer as to generate repeat business from an existing customer. So customer relationship management software (CRM), which helps you sell more to current customers and follow up systematically with prospects, should be a no-brainer.

Yet, due to widely reported CRM flops a few years ago, many entrepreneurial businesses consider it costly, complex and only suited to large firms, says Krista Kuehnbaum, CRM product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont. But a new breed of browser-based applications make CRM affordable and easy to install for SMEs.

CRM systems are more than contact managers. They can also track all your interactions with individual customers, from the details of a salesperson’s last conversation with a client to their complete purchasing history, and present this data in a usable format. Marketers can use this to plan or personalize promotions based on clients’ past purchases. Managers can forecast revenue based on where prospects are in their historical sales cycle. The data could even reveal that you’ve sold a lot of left-handed widgets in Vancouver-meaning it’s time to hire more LHW support staff there.

The main challenge with CRM is cultural, because it changes how your staff work. Salespeople must be sold on the benefits of entering data after each transaction (e.g., more sales equal higher commissions). Kuehnbaum suggests a CRM pilot project in one department before a full rollout. This will give employees time to build a relationship with the software as close as the one you’ll use it to build with your clients.

© 2005 Paul Lima

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