Trip the tech fantastic

Trip the tech fantastic

A multitude of services help keep smaller businesses in the technology dance-a-thon

Story by Robin Bruecker

Business communications have gone so far beyond the days of phone and fax, even email. Any business, whether it has one staff member, 100 or more, now also considers other communication vehicles such as Web sites, social media, instant messaging, QR Codes and more. Ideally, all of that office technology should be integrated, maintained and, when possible, mobile. It’s one more thing vying for the business owner’s time and attention, and it would be nice if it became a smoothly running, less intrusive operation. 

 

Answer the office phone anywhere

A Web-based communication platform can help create the “portable office” that’s valuable for business owners, particularly those who spend a lot of time out of the office in meetings or visiting clients. One such product is NsightWorks, offered by De Pere-based Nsight Telservices, which keeps business owners in touch with phone calls, emails and more when they’re out of the office.

“NsightWorks is a landline-based service that allows the end user to customize use and control how they communicate with the rest of the world,” explained Nancy Loberger, account specialist for Nsight Telservices. It can be tailored for individual communication needs and is a cinch to have installed.

This service integrates with the end user’s contacts in Outlook. A toolbar application called the NW assistant provides options such as a “sim ring” and NW Anywhere, in which clients can choose to have their other phones ring when their office phone is called – cell, home landline phone, hotel phone, etc. Whichever phone is answered, it will look like you’re using your office line.

“This can also be a cost savings if you have special call routing for long distance or international calls in place through your business,” added Loberger. And it’s obviously beneficial for productivity. “You always have the ability to communicate at your fingertips. No more worrying about missing a call, no matter where you are.”

NsightWorks clients control various aspects of their voicemail, such as greetings, directories, deleting and so on, through a Web portal. Voicemail messages can be forwarded to an email address as a .wav file and saved permanently. A combined mailbox is available, reducing the need to access multiple mailboxes. Visual voicemail will be added to the toolkit soon and will convert messages to text files.

Like voicemail, phones also can be administered through a Web portal.

“The NW Web portal is a useful way to make changes to your individual phone, or if you have an administrator that takes care of all the phones,” said Loberger. “You can easily set up ‘company rules’ or individual changes if you have a new employee.”

With a hosted service, those ever-necessary upgrades are handled by the provider and therefore one less headache for the business owner.

 

Pro Web design for less                                  

Not only is a business website a great communication tool, but it’s also one way to get all of your business information into one line on a business card or in an advertisement.

Paying a firm to design, launch and maintain a business website can be one of those things that gets crossed off or moved farther down the to-do list of a small business that needs to throw cash at other necessities. Yet a cheaper alternative such as the do-it-yourself website services offered online might not provide the customized, professional look or all of the functions a business owner would like. It may be worthwhile to contact local Web design firms and ask if there are special products and services that accommodate the needs and budgets of smaller businesses.

One firm that understands smaller businesses have the same needs as their larger counterparts but don’t have as big of a budget is Stellar Blue Web Design LLC in Menasha. Their brainchild is Web Pro, which packages the know-how of their team of programmers and designers into a software product made easy to use for business owners and removes the need to pay a firm hourly or per project. The Stellar Blue team also provides tech support.

“A new Web site, whether it’s your first or 50th, is a large undertaking,” said Jim Dobinski, managing director at Stellar Blue. “Web Pro is an effective solution for small businesses on a tight budget who still recognize the importance of a Web presence.

“Think of your website as another employee. It’s expected to generate sales, inform and retain clients. It represents your brand, services and quality. We need to hold our websites at a higher standard.”

Clients buy the software, which comes with a comprehensive manual and on-screen help, and pay a small set-up fee and thereafter a monthly administrative fee. After three hours of customized training, clients can get started on their website. The software follows the user-friendly “what you see is what you get” format in setting up photo galleries, feedback forms, blog posts, archive news and more. The monthly administrative fee means small businesses aren’t troubled with maintenance invoices or waiting on turnaround time.

Web Pro can be so easy to use that after the Stellar Blue team provided an initial hour and a half of training to a beta client when the software launched in spring 2010, recalled Stellar Blue Technical Director Dustin White, the once-apprehensive client group forged ahead and set up the pages and content of their new website without requiring additional training.

Tag, you’re it

Since the advent of social media, smartphone apps and other tools that complement the traditional website, businesses have even more ways to promote their products and services, while consumers have faster and more mobile means to access them.

Take QR Codes, for example. These can be spotted just standing in line at the supermarket. A cardboard aisle display or magazine ad may feature a square that resembles abstract techno art and invites shoppers to photograph it with their smartphones and be taken to a video, website or audio clip right then and there.

“I think Andy Warhol would be proud of us for adopting these things,” joked Jeff Hayes, principal consultant and managing director at AlignTech Solutions LLC in Neenah.

As Hayes explained it, “Quick Response (QR) Codes are two-dimensional, machine-readable encodings (barcodes) that can contain a wealth of information” such as a URL to a website, details about an event, a geographical location to direct consumers to a business, contact information, and more.

“As a marketing tool, QR Codes offer companies the ability to provide much more information about a product, service or event than can reasonably be displayed in a small area like a magazine ad, a sign or a business card,” he said.

Microsoft has its own version of these barcodes called Tags. Free apps for reading QR Codes and Tags can be downloaded to consumers’ smartphones.

These advertising barcodes are also found on product packaging and direct-mail campaigns. Hayes noted the Wisconsin Department of Transportation may use QR Codes at gas pumps to give customers traffic and construction news. Real estate companies may use them to provide a link to property and agent information. Stores can provide product promotions and information.

On packaged foods, QR Codes can provide more details about when the product was made and expires. Consumers can use QR Codes on their pets’ collars in the event a pet becomes lost — the barcodes contain the owner’s contact information and could even list a pet’s favorite foods or allergies.

“If and when the majority of employees, vendors and customers have compatible smartphones, then highly specific messaging will be easier to ‘push’ to those target audiences,” said Hayes. “Note that we could achieve the same effect via mobile apps today without the use of QR Codes, but at some point QR Codes will become widely adopted.”

Other app-driven technologies include banking through one’s smartphone; EKGs, chemical analyses and other health care functions conducted through a health care professional’s smartphone or tablet; and online educational tools such as iFlash, Google Earth, and the new MIT Center for Mobile Learning. Hayes also suggested checking out Dropbox or similar cloud-based storage, although, he said, it isn’t safe to use with sensitive material yet unless the information is re-encrypted.

 

An office in the cloud

A cloud-based service from Microsoft called Office 365 can be of particular usefulness for small and mid-sized businesses, noted Tim Van Hammond, director of enterprise portal services for Skyline Technologies Inc., which has offices in Appleton and Green Bay. Skyline sets up Office 365 for its clients.

This platform features four components that can be used singly or bundled: email and calendaring, called Microsoft Exchange; SharePoint document sharing and processing via a password-protected portal; instant messaging and online meetings or webinars via Microsoft Lync; and Microsoft Office Professional Plus, which can be purchased as a monthly subscription which enables business owners to buy only the services they need. And it doesn’t matter if the business has no IT staff.

“Because these are cloud-based, much of the set up, configuration and maintenance are done by experts in the cloud and a small or mid-sized business only needs to use, or consume, those services,” explained Van Hammond. “You don’t need to have the technical experts to manage hardware or software; you only need to ensure you have a connection to the Internet.”

Security is also a top priority. Microsoft’s systems scan each client’s documents and messages for malware and spam around the clock, and all data is protected by systems that have met the standards of ISO 27001 and the EU Safe Harbor.

Design tools are included with Office 365, enabling clients to quickly create a website including their own domain name.

Additionally, the price of Office 365 can be adjusted to each client’s needs and number of computer work stations.

When it comes to decisions about information management, including office technology, Hayes recommends taking an in-depth look at all of the costs involved and comparing in-house and outsourced means.

“The single largest obstacle to smart cost reduction with improved productivity is the ownership and maintenance of computing infrastructure and associated software systems. Companies of all sizes – not simply small businesses – should initiate technology alignment studies to determine the real costs of in-house information assets such as servers.”

 

Robin Bruecker has 16 years of experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.