How to Choose the Right Software for Your Business

As the Internet and mobile technology expand into more areas of our business, there need to be systems in place- both on a personal and professional level- to ensure that these changes are actually bringing us the benefits they promised.

Small Businesses Are Slowly Integrating New Technologies

Over the past 15 years, there has been an increasing pull among small business in particular to adapt emerging technologies. Along the way, there have been many enticing “assurances” that all of these digital tools will enhance the way they do business.

For example, according to a recent study from SAP SE, the small and medium-sized companies that have integrated digital technology into their operations tend to experience faster growth than the companies that do not.

But, many of the nation’s small businesses are still dragging their feet when it comes to adopting some pretty essential new technologies. According to a recent State of Small Business Report, by Wasp Barcode:

  • 48% of small businesses either do not track their inventory with a digital tool or use a manual process
  • 55% of small businesses do not track assets digitally or use a manual process.
  • While 62% of larger small businesses (101-499 employees) use or plan to use Web-based or subscription-based software, only 36% of smaller businesses (5-10 employees) do.
  • Just 43% of small businesses prefer to purchase software directly from the manufacturer; most prefer to purchase it through online or brick and mortar retailers.

These numbers reveal a big gap between where many small businesses are now versus where they will likely need to be in the next 5 to 10 years technology-wise in order to stay competitive.

But, as more and more of the nation’s smallest businesses jump on board the digital bandwagon, success will be affected by how systematically this technology is integrated into their operations.

How to On-Board New Technology in Your Small Business… The Right Way

Whether you are buying a new accounting tool, setting up a point-of-sale system, or incorporating a whole project management suite, bringing new technology into your business should be a process that takes into consideration the needs and preferences of all the key players in your business. This includes your employees, your customers, and your business’ leadership. If you fail to consider the needs of any of these groups, then you could end up choosing the wrong solution.

How do you bring it all together? Here are a few things to consider for each of the three main groups mentioned above:

Employees. Since your employees will be the ones most using the new technology, you should really start here. Deciding which technology to bring in will depend on a few factors, namely:

  • How many employees will be using the platform or device?
  • Where will technology be used: in an office, on the road, in-person client meetings?
  • What other platforms and devices are your employees currently using? Does the new technology need to be compatible with it?
  • What kind of technical support do you need? Do you have on-site IT help? If not, then how savvy are your employees with the new technology?

Customers. While your customers may not directly interact with the platforms you are considering, their habits and needs may affect the types of platforms that would be most appropriate. There are a few factors to consider, including:

  • Do you offer your customers a personalized experience? If you need to save a lot of personal data, then how sensitive is this data? Information, such as addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers, will need to be stored in a way that offers some protection against hackers.
  • Will the product affect the user experience in any way?

Leadership. Last, but not least, you need to consider how the technology you choose will fit into the big picture of the business. In other words, how will it help the company’s leadership to reach both short-term and long-term goals.

  • Do you need technology that can be easily learned and used?
  • How much can your company afford to pay for this technology- both now and in the near future?
  • Finally, what are your growth projections over the next 5 to 10 years? Do you need a solution that will scale with your business?

Once you are in touch with the needs of all the major groups within your business, you then need to narrow down your options by focusing on the following criteria:

The nexus between price and features. In short, you need to determine what you can reasonably afford to lay down for this new platform. But, this budget should be made after you have thought about what features you will need- both now and over the next few years.

Where, when, and by whom. Many platforms come with restrictions on the number of users or the types of devices that can be used. Make sure you are clear about your needs before you invest in a new technology.

Integration and collaboration. Finally, you need to take a look at the platform from a big picture perspective. Will it integrate with existing technology, as mentioned above? Plus, will it enable collaboration among various teams, customers, and business partners? While this may not seem so important now. It could be if your business is on the verge of a major growth spurt.

In short, by being clear about your business’ needs- both now and in the future- you will stand a better chance of choosing the technologies that can bring some real returns.

Small Business Owners Still Struggling with New Technologies and Platforms

A new survey released last month from Brother International Corporation and SCORE shows that when it comes to new technologies, small business owners are still ambivalent.

tablet-pcAccording to the Brother Small Business Survey 2014, 72% of small business respondents claimed that new technologies will offer a bigger return on investment than taking on new employees in 2014. But, while the survey seems to indicate that small business owners believe that the use of new technologies will help to both increase efficiency and keep them competitive, they are still having difficulty keeping up with the latest and greatest technological innovations. A total of 63% of small business owners say they feel overwhelmed by business technology choices.

Moreover, about 50% responded that they are concerned that investing in technology too quickly will negatively affect their return on investment, while the other half worry that they will lose their competitive edge if they don’t adopt new technology early enough.

All that being said, technology-tool related investments are still the top priority for many small business owners in 2014. Based on the survey, about 40% listed smartphones and tablets the most important tools for running their businesses. Many also consider customer relationship management programs (32%), social technologies (21%), and cloud services (15%) to be essential.

According to John Wandishin, Brother Vice President of Marketing, “Our survey shows that while small business owners understand the value of new technologies, they are still a bit overwhelmed and struggle with choosing the right time to adopt them to have the greatest impact on their business.”

A bit of a post script…

From what I’ve seen, the results of this survey are a pretty accurate reflection of where the majority of small business owners are finding themselves regarding technology. What’s interesting, however, is that among those who do adapt new technology and platforms into their operations, the vast majority are still not seeing an adequate return on investment. Some of this may be due to unwarranted hype, while a part of it may be due to the incorrect application of these new technologies within the business.

Whatever the case, technology is a tool, not a magical sales pill. How helpful or effective new technologies really are in helping small businesses stay relevant, competitive, and productive depends primarily in how it is used within the business. So take the results of the above survey with a grain of salt and make the effort to get a grip on the real needs of your business in terms of technology and beyond.

Must Have Tech for Small Business

The importance of having the right tech tools on hand is undeniable for small business owners. If you’re not up-to-date and using all of the available channels and options available to you, you’ll eventually be left behind. Think about it this way: using tech ultimately makes your business seem bigger, giving customers greater confidence in your brand and your products.

“Small businesses can do BIG things using low-cost technology and readily available expertise,” says Ramon Ray, Journalist and Editor at Smallbiztechnology.com.

So what types of technology will launch your business? It goes without saying that you should already be setup with internet, a computer and a smartphone device, but we’ve got a few more suggestions, from the basics like a website and social media to more advanced tools like mobile hotspots and cloud storage.

Website
If you’re brick-and-mortar small business, having a website gives you the chance to brand yourself to a much wider audience. If you’re an online retailer, a website is obvious. There are plenty of easy-to-use website builders that offer e-commerce and other fun bobbles, including blogging tools, which, with constant content, will allow for search engine web crawlers to find and share your brand with the world. Also, don’t forget to make sure your site is mobile-friendly, or Google won’t give you the attention you want.

 

Social Media
The small business customer service game is played out largely on social media these days, making your business’s presence on Twitter and Facebook more important than ever. Having accounts on Vine, Instagram, and Pinterest give you an even greater edge with their visual branding possibilities. A constant social presence gives you the opportunity to get to know your customers, share brand activities, and offer new and exciting ways for customers to connect. Don’t forget to claim your business on Yelp, too!

 

CrazyEgg
A bit of a more advanced tech tool for small business owners, CrazyEgg is the king of heat mapping, which helps you figure out the ins and outs of how customers are experiencing your website. You might think aspects of your website are winning out, but through heat mapping you’ll probably discover that your customers are more attracted to certain links and images than other calls-to-action. CrazyEgg will give you the advantage in understanding your customers and being able to better cater to their behaviors and needs.

 

Social
Having a social media plan is a great, but knowing how to analyze and understand what’s happening on social is even better. Hootsuite and SproutSocial are amazing tech tools that allow you to create reports about your interactions, your posts, and your users. Curious about your demographics? Where those Twitter followers are coming from? Maybe you want to know the best time of day to post. SproutSocial gives you the upperhand on all of these things, even allowing you to create competitor reports so you know how you’re social plan is competing.

 

Mobile Hotspot
No matter where you are, as a small business owner you should always be able to access your company’s files, inventory, emails, and anything else you need to feel connected. Enter the mobile hotspot. The “hotspot” — a small device that plugs into your computer — essentially is a mobile wireless router that allows you to access the internet no matter where you go. Whether you’re at the airport heading to an investor meeting or sitting in a coffee shop, a mobile hotspot keeps you connected.

 

Cloud Storage
If you’ve got a mobile hotspot available, then setting up a cloud network will make your life all the more easy. Using cloud storage through DropBox or Google Drive gives you access to all of your important files no matter where you are. No need for large servers back at home or having to rely on someone to send you something at the last minute because you don’t have the files on your computer — with cloud storage, you have secure, convenient access to everything.

 

Of course there are hundreds of other amazing tech tools available to small business owners, ranging from point-of-sale systems to smartphone apps that will keep your operations running smoothly. However, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or newbie to the small business tech game, we recommend thinking macro until you’re comfortable and then getting down to the nitty gritty micro tech tools. Think big, and your customers will, too.

Why Twitter Will Have the Last Tweet

I want to end off this series of Twitter posts by breaking away a little from the business theme of this blog and take a brief philosophical-type tangent…

The Internet and the technology that both supports and relies on it has been changing quite rapidly over the past couple of decades, and throughout its insurgence many websites have risen and fallen. Remember Lycos and Friendster?

But Twitter is poised to buck that trend. Many users and numerous technology and business experts attribute Twitter’s current success to the fact that it is a versatile networking and information-sharing platform. However, Twitter’s longevity will stem specifically from its role as a business and organizational tool because in this capacity Twitter’s communication model promotes a culture of giving. Twitter asks the question: what do you have to offer to your community? And it does so in a way that is more open and dynamic then the other popular social networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

The Internet has traditionally been seen as the medium that levels the playing field where those people and groups who may be “limited” in “real life” can suddenly rise to the top and make contributions where they would have never been able to before. One just needs to consider the success and proliferation of user-generated media such as blogs, Wikipedia, and YouTube as well as the open source movement and the increased reliance among businesses on crowd sourcing.

Though all this openness may open the door to a whole slew of fraudulent practices, Twitter is not just about self promotion, automatic responses, or greedy self-fulfillment (though it does still happen throughout the site). In fact far from it.

Overall, the ones who succeed on Twitter (i.e. grow and maintain a community of loyal and active followers) especially when it comes to business are generally those people and groups who are real, considerate, and “real”-ly consistent. Many people tell newbies to look for opportunities to listen before tweeting, to offer useful help, stay away from automatic responses and spammy self-promotion and in short be themselves.

Twitter will last because its culture is bringing some light and positivity into the online social order. Something we should perhaps take note of at a time when so much corporate greed, political bickering, and corruption is being brazenly flaunted in the face of the “every man.” Maybe those who are spreading the “Twitter love” can influence the world at large.