Your small business is growing fast. Your technology needs are changing just as rapidly. But starting over with a totally new system isn’t an option – who can afford the downtime? IT consultant Josh Carroll says it’s like “needing to change a car tire, but not being able to afford to stop the car.”
A better solution is to replace components you’ve outgrown – such as software or a lower-end printer – and add them to the existing technology infrastructure. If you can do that without any hiccups, the integration has been “seamless.”
Josh Carroll, principal and COO of EndSight, a Berkeley, Calif., firm that manages other companies’ technology networks, recently got some firsthand experience with the challenge of seamless technology integration.
Two-year-old EndSight established its own in-bound call center in 2005 and staffed it with five employees. At first, calls trickled in from end users, but grew steadily, tripling in volume to 30-40 calls a day in the last year, Carroll says. Its employees and its phone system were “maxxed out,” mainly because the original phone system was never designed for call center use. The only option was to invest in new technology.
EndSight took a methodical approach to integrating its new phone technology – a five-step process that any small business owner can follow when integrating new hardware, software or specialized equipment:
1) Identify the problem
When EndSight saw its customer satisfaction, efficiency and employee satisfaction levels plummeting, management knew it was time to make a change.
But even if your company isn’t experiencing problems or bottlenecks, there may still be opportunities to improve overall efficiency and productivity.
Eric Hobbs, president of Cary, N.C.-based Technology Associates, Inc., suggests companies start by looking at “whatever they do repeatedly for customers.” Then seek out technology that can help the business do that work faster or better. “Inefficiency is expensive,” Carroll agrees.
2) Determine What You Need
Once you’ve zeroed in on processes needing improvement, the next step is finding the technology best-suited for the situation. In most cases, small business owners shouldn’t be making such choices themselves, although many still try to “cobble it together,” Hobbs says, maybe by asking for help from a colleague or neighbor.
Like Carroll, Hobbs strongly advocates hiring an information technology consultant to recommend equipment and a plan for the future.
Even EndSight, a company of IT specialists, hired a consultant for help in choosing the most appropriate equipment. Recognizing its lack of familiarity with phone systems, the firm decided to leave its integration to the experts.
One place to start looking for qualified IT vendors and consultants, Hobbs suggests, is Microsoft’s Small Business Center . He also advises sticking with name-brand hardware and software to avoid most major problems. “Ninety percent of a small business’s needs can be handled by off-the-shelf products, many of which are already seamlessly integrated,” he says – meaning, as Florin Pal of Business Communications Solutions puts it – that they’ll “play nice with other equipment.”
3) Develop a plan
After choosing your IT vendor or consultant, the next step is creating a plan for getting from where you are to where you want to be tech-wise. A timeline, equipment list and critical steps should be part of that plan, including how employees will be brought into the loop.
“One of the key things people overlook is their personnel,” says Pal, customer service manager at Business Communications Solutions of Irvine, Calif. While you may be ahead of the curve in your familiarity with different technologies, don’t assume your employees are right there with you. Some may actually be tech-averse. “Don’t jump too far ahead with the technology,” Pal says. “Take incremental steps and everyone can use the new features and benefit from them, rather than being frustrated.”
4) Install the Equipment
Likewise, “the fewer systems the better,” says David Koretz, CEO of BlueTie, of Rochester, N.Y. “Sixty percent of enterprise software sits on a shelf unused,” he says, reinforcing the importance of investing in software that will imrove your company’s performance. “Don’t implement technology for technology’s sake – do it to make more money,” Carroll adds.
Training should also be a part of your roll-out plan, as well as access to consultants for post support.
5) Keep It Maintained
“People forget about the maintenance,” says Pal, but keeping software and hardware up-to-date will assure that your technology and your business run smoothly – and continue to grow together.