Effective Use of Technology

Overview

Technology seems to be moving at the speed of light these days. What's new today often seems to be replaced by something even newer and better tomorrow. Just keeping up with this mind-boggling pace of change can be a challenge for even the most knowledgeable entrepreneur. However, at the same time, technological advances have opened up new opportunities for small businesses. By using technology effectively, it's possible to do more with less resources and compete in a larger playing field. Businesses that shy away from technology find themselves at a disadvantage. Businesses that view technology as a valuable tool to be used and managed find themselves with better chances of succeeding.

This article is designed to help you use technology more effectively. It begins by explaining how to assess your firm's current and future technology needs. Then, it suggests ways to use technology for marketing advantage. It also discusses the ways software can help you run your business more efficiently. When you're finished with this article, you should be able to develop a technology plan for your business that embraces technological change in the most cost-effective manner while opening new opportunities to grow your business.

Outline:

  1. Assessing Technology Needs
  2. Conducting Needs Assessment
  3. Marketing Advantage
  4. Software to the Rescue
  5. Resources

I. Assessing Technology Needs
Technology can best be used to support and enhance your staff's effectiveness. Freeing staff time and extending staff availability are two exemplary reasons for integrating technology within an organizational structure. The assessment process must contain a methodology for the creation, implementation and eventual planned use of the technology. Purchasing technology for technology's sake is an obstacle to overcome in the integration process.

Assessing your current and future needs to develop a clear purpose for the technology you purchase is one way to avoid this obstacle. The phases of assessment are similar to the strategic planning process that businesses use effectively:

  1. Research Existing and Future Conditions
  2. Establish General Direction - Vision
  3. Conduct a Needs Assessment


To begin with, research what technologies are currently available and are successfully being used by other firms in both your industry and others. The second part of this process is to remain on top of emerging technologies that may be useful to your operation in the future. There are many sources of information for this research. Read industry trade and general business magazines with an eye for current and existing technologies that have worked for other firms. The Internet is also an excellent place to look for information on new and emerging technologies. Trade shows, both industry specific and general, are another source of information. Again, don't just look at other businesses in your industry. Branch out and consider the technologies that are being used in other industries as well. When you find a technology that seems like it might have relevance for your business, save it in a file for future reference.

Next, establish a general direction, or vision, for your technology strategy. The information you've found about how other businesses have incorporated technology can be a good starting point. Your technology vision should look describe how technologies, both existing and future, will be used to enhance your marketing, operations, production, financial, and human resources.

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II. Conducting Needs Assessment

Conducting an in-depth analysis of your technology needs is part of a larger program evaluation effort. Historically, implementing technology for technology's sake without regard for how the technology will be used has failed. The lesson learned from past technology implementation efforts is that a technology needs assessment is more effective when the analysis is based on business goals and available resources. Available resources includes not only existing hardware and software, but also the capacity to acquire funds for infrastructure building to provide on-going professional development programs for those that will be using the new technology. A needs assessment may occur at various levels of the organizational structure. A decision should be made, based on goals and resources, as to the extent to which technology will be infused into the daily operations of the business.

Once it has been determined what technologies will best suit your business, you will need to contact a systems integrator. These vendors are generally authorized installers of manufacturers' products such as Lotus cc:Mail, or Microsoft BackOffice. A system integrator will come in and give you an estimate cost of implementing your technology plan. You should speak with several vendors that handle competing products. This will give you the broadest range of options and prices available for the integration of your plan.

Keep in mind that you will need a system that will grow with your business. Computers should be upgradable and not already obsolete when they are installed. They should also have networking capabilities. Printers should also be ready for use on your network and last several years. Look for a low cost per page for printing. Today's printers use less toner and produce a sharper picture. Remember that you will need to replace the toner frequently, and it's not cheap. Software should be upgradable allowing for growth. Buy network versions with multi-user licenses to allow for more users as your business grows.

Your vendor should be experienced in system integrations. Obtain references. They should also have adequate support staff if something should go wrong. There is nothing more frustrating than having a system go down and not being able to get it serviced. Take a hard look at service contracts for quicker services. Most vendors take care of customers with service contracts first, before dealing with those without them.

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III. Marketing Advantage

You should not be a slave to technology, but a master of it. Technology cannot make a sale for you. Instead it is best suited for customer interaction and information. As a technologically savvy business owner you should be aware that the real benefits of technology are controlled by the people using it — not by the hardware or software itself.

Effective technology users never skimp on equipment. They know the importance of a professional presentation. They also know that hardware and software doesn't last long before becoming obsolete and hurting the company. Finally, they realize that most software does more than they will ever need, so they learn only what is crucial and just familiarize themselves with the rest.

How does one figure out what is needed and what is unnecessary when it comes to technology? It's a valid concern that if you purchase something today, it will be obsolete in two months. The example we will give here will allow you to become more productive, more focused and more technically advanced than you were yesterday. The technology that we suggest will not become obsolete in the near future and it is technology that will grow with your company.

Question:

Do you travel often to service a few key clients?

You have several key clients on the coast (pick a coast), and you travel frequently to service the accounts personally and to meet with them face-to-face and give them the high level of personal service that they expect and that you are known for. Travel costs are straining your budget, since most of the time you can not plan too far ahead for the trip so you pay extra for the short notice ticket purchase. The solution: video conferencing.

Video conferencing used to mean you would have to shell out thousands of dollars for a giant satellite dish on your roof, a room full of equipment and complementary equipment on the other end, or whomever you needed to video conference with. Today, however, it's as simple as setting up a little camera at your desktop computer or in your conference room (C-U-C-ME). With a camera at the other end, voila, you have instant video conferencing. The cost would run about $300 per station that will be set up with a camera plus the online access fee from your local ISP. Certainly a lot less expensive than airline tickets and you don't need to get on anything called "the red-eye" again.

You and your client will see each other via the PC just as if you were having a face-to-face conversation. Keep in mind that the faster the connection to the Internet you have -- 56K, ISDN, Cable, T1 -- the better image quality you will have and the image will stream smoother. Be sure to factor in that additional cost if you need to upgrade your Internet connection. Still, at less than $200 a month for ISDN, you are saving time and money.

Question:

Do your customers need around-the-clock help or information about your product or service?

As more and more customers demand around-the-clock service, the easiest way to accomplish this request is with a Web site. Once your Web site is up and running you can have an extensive list of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) available that could help take the pressure off of your customer service staff. The site is available to customers and potential customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just think of the cost if you had to have a live person in customer service for that period of time. It may eventually allow you to reduce your customer service staff as additional items are added to the site. As you build your site, you may want to consider adding detailed product information such as pictures, price and availability. If you really want to become net-savvy, you would build e-commerce into the site and allow customers to order products directly from the Web site 24/7. More and more companies are embracing e-commerce and more and more customers are expecting it.

Question:

Do potential customers want to see promotional materials from your company before they agree to meet with you? Or while they are meeting with you?

Your sales team goes through a lot of expensive four-color brochures and marketing materials while soliciting potential clients. One way to reduce this expense and provide immediate access to your marketing information is to have your sales presentation on your Web site. Have a professional Internet design firm create your sales presentation with colorful, interactive pages with multimedia sound, movie and video clips and all pertinent company information. You could also do a QuickTime video from the president, thanking them for their interest in your products.

Access to your Web site in this manner allows your sales team to show your potential client that your company can mix it up with the larger corporations and make a meaningful and professional presentation. You could also have your company financial information available, if your client needs to check that also.

Question:

Do you have multiple sales reps or an off-site sales team representing various geographic regions?

An intranet would be a key element in getting information out to your sales team. An intranet is an expanded network that users navigate using Web browsers. In other words, sales reps could log onto the intranet and get the latest quarterly financial report, the latest sales figures for their territory, sales contracts and other documents that could be printed out, new customer prospect lists. The options are only limited by what you want to have available on the intranet. This saves you on overnight delivery of sales documents since they are on the intranet, and the need to fly your reps in for constant updates because they are on the intranet. The trickiest part to developing an intranet is building the database. If you do not have a professional IT staff, then this project should get outsourced.

Question:

Are you planning on launching new products or services or upgrading existing products in the near future?

You have just launched a new service that you believe would benefit your customers greatly. How do you get the word out? Direct mail? Who reads that these days? There are two low-cost options you can use to get the word out. One, would be to use fax broadcast. That is where you have a list of contacts, either customers or prospects, and their fax numbers. You create a document, generally one page, that will be faxed to the recipient. This document has to be tight and to the point. You need to get your message across on a black & white faxed document. It is a challenge, but it generally ends up on the desk of the recipient, as opposed to the trash.

Second, email notification. You can build a list of email contacts in a couple of ways. Have everyone who enters your site register so that you can capture their email address and other pertinent information and build an email database. Or have everyone who visits the site subscribe to a monthly newsletter and other updates from your Web site. Once you have the email list, you can sign up with a listserv, which is responsible for sending out email announcements. Note that this is technically not considered spam — although some may argue that it is — since you asked the recipients to give you their email addresses. Once the list is posted with the service, your message is delivered at the time you designate.

There is an endless list of ways that you can effectively use technology to boost your company's marketing skills and professional image.

1. Use fax or email to send marketing messages to existing customers. Your customer list should include customer fax and/or email addresses. Use these items to create mailing lists to send either by broadcast fax or bulk email. To be safe, when you gather customer information, ask clients if they are interested in receiving new product information or news from the company via email.

2. Analyze your competitors' Web sites. The easiest form of competitive intelligence is to go to your competitors' Web sites and see what's cooking. Here you can usually get product and pricing information, sales office locations, news, press releases and company financials if they are a public company. This information is extremely useful when you want to know the basic health of your competition. How often do they update their site? If they are constantly updating their site then they have the resources to be competitive.  Where are their sales offices located? Are they going head-to-head with you in your territory? Are they announcing new office locations in your area? Is any financial information on the Web site? There is no better way to judge the strength of your competitor than by dissecting their financial statements. You don't need to be an accounting whiz to judge the overall health of your competitors' financials. You can do a few quick tests using ratios. How quickly do they turn over their inventory? Are they spending more than you are on research and development? How about building expenses? Does it look like they are building a new facility?

3. Hang out in chat rooms where your competition will be. A great source of information can be found in Internet chat rooms that relate to your business or products. If you go to the Netscape chat room on AOL or alt.comp.netscape, you will find participants discussing your products as well as your competitors'. Sometimes you may luck out and find the product manager for a competitor in the chat room giving up information you wouldn't be able to obtain elsewhere.

4. Unleash a personalized electronic publicity campaign. email everyone you know about your business and what you do. Send out press releases to the major outlets such as PRNewswire.com, Businesswire.com and other Internet outlets. This will get your company information out to the 60 million people who currently have access to the Internet. Create an electronic newsletter that you can send out to people who subscribe to it. Send it out weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. This is a great way to promote what is happening with your company and services, and you can also offer interesting information on your industry.

5. Host your own newsgroup, online forum or chat session. With today's technology, you can host your own newsgroup or set up an Internet Relay Channel that will allow users to chat with you in real time about your products and services. A newsgroup, similar to an electronic bulletin board, allows those interested to post a question or make a statement to the group. Everyone who has access can then respond to that question or statement, as they see fit.

6. Distribute interactive presentations on CD-ROM. By contracting with a company that specializes in creating interactive CDs that include your product or service catalog, you can make it fun and interesting for users to learn about your offerings. Keep in mind that graphics should be 3-D, and product photos should be actual digital shots and not an artist's rendering. Include features that allow users to move around freely throughout the presentation to the areas that they're most interested in.

7. Allow technology to do the work for you by setting up an auto-responder program via fax, email, or both. Such services allow customers to request product and service information by keying in a document number. The documents are then automatically sent to the customer. Information that works particularly well for auto-responders includes product information, directions to your offices, hours of operation, and any other standard requests that you normally receive.

8. Consider video conferencing for long-distance or international customers. This puts you face-to-face with those customers who can't readily visit your location. For international customers, it assures them that you have the technology and know-how to handle their international account. It's a great image booster.  

9. Use voice mail, call answering or digital assistants for your phone service. There are many products out there that can make a company with a single telephone line appear to be a major corporation. A product such as Wildfire, the digital assistant, answers calls, forwards calls and handles simple requests. Products such as On Hold and Work Easy can also improve your small business image. These systems allow you to establish multiple extensions, even though you may only have one department that handles everything.

10. Streamline your hiring process by posting classified advertisements on Web sites and electronic newsletters that complement your business. For example, if you own a wall-covering company, you will want to reach potential employees by posting ads on sites that deal with interior design. Better yet, if those sites have newsletters that go out to their customers, try to obtain advertising space there.

11. Maintain comprehensive and accurate customer databases. Use programs such as Maximizer, ACT! and GoldMine to track your customer and prospect customer database. These products allow you to keep detailed information on thousands of records from company name down to individual contacts, what they purchased, when and why. For prospects, you can track where you met them, what their interest level is, and when and how to contact them next. No business should be without one of these products.

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IV. Software to the Rescue

Do you find that you or your employees are wasting time searching for files? Do meetings in your conference room constantly overlap? Do the itineraries of your management team often conflict? If so, now is the time to learn to manage technology more efficiently to increase productivity and profits.

Create an office-wide file naming standard. The names that you choose for files should all follow a simple standard, such as client_filename_date_created.doc, to label computer files for easy access. This will allow system users to search for files by client name, file name or date.

Do you use shared folders and files over a network? If so, develop a standard protocol for the placement of the files on everyone's desktop. Have everyone on your staff organize desktop files into folders and subfolders on hard disks or a network server so others can find things in a snap. Sort by:

For sharing schedules, you can use group scheduling programs such as Manage Pro or Ecco Pro to browse employee itineraries for potential conflicts, reserve resources such as conference rooms, and announce meeting times through email.

Keep your software programs uniform throughout the company. Software suites operate more efficiently than individual applications from different vendors. For example, Microsoft Office lets you turn Word documents into PowerPoint presentations automatically and can link data from Excel and Access.

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V. Resources

Web Sites

Internet Publicity Services Inc.'s Resources page is a great place to go for self-promotion tips. The "Self Promotion Resources" and "Media Contacts and People Finders" links are especially helpful.

DM World library: This library contains how-to marketing articles. The direct marketing trade DM News has a site at http://www.dmnews.com.

For quick tips on how to - and how not to - market your products or services on the Web, visit net.acceptable.

Advertising Age interactive

MediaFinder Oxbridge Communications has an online version of directories containing more than 90,000 U.S. and international magazines and other publications.

GoldMine Software Company

Maximizer Software

ACT!

Work Easy

Books

Nicholas Negroponte, "Being Digital" (Knopf, 1995)

Brad Wieners, "Reality Check" (Hardwired Publications, 1996)

Michael Dertouzos, "What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives" (Harper Sun, 1997)

Gene Rochlin, "Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization"  (Princeton University Press, 1997)

David Shenk, "Data Smog" (Harper Sun, 1997)

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