6 Cloud Solutions Your Small Business Needs Today

As a small business owner, your life is moving at break-neck speeds just to keep up. Wouldn’t you like to feel more organized and less stressed? It’s one deadline after another and they tend to creep up on you. Like the dreaded April 15 tax deadline, every year I say I’m going to prepare earlier and have everything ready ahead of time. Yet here I am, literally a week before the due date, when I sit down to prepare and in turn cause more stress to both my accountant and myself.

Large enterprise firms have adopted cloud technologies at a rapid pace and continue to see savings in both time and money as these products mature from a concept to a “must-have” to survive. However, the time is right for small businesses to reap these same rewards. If you are using a software company that doesn’t offer a cloud solution, you need to rethink doing business with them. The benefits are endless and have been written about over and over again, so I won’t go down that road. What I would like to do is help out the 23 million plus small businesses in the United States that represent over 54% of our economy.

I’ve put together a list of the top six solutions that will provide you with the largest return on your investment and in turn allow you to spread your software costs out monthly. I took into account costs, growth, reliability, integration and backups in determining what solutions are mature and truly the best of breed in their markets.

Email and Collaboration

Collaboration is the key to success in any small business as well as the ability to allow its workforce to be at any location. Office 365 is the most mature and secure cloud solution in this space. Just think, you can collaborate via document repositories utilizing SharePoint, email with Outlook and have instant meetings with Lync from any location as well as most mobile devices.

Here at StrataBlue, we make full use of these technologies daily with remote meetings and video conferencing. In fact, we are starting to adopt more document sharing via SharePoint instead of having emails flowing back and forth with large attachments and different versions. Trust me when I say this one cloud solution will help organize your team and facilitate a more efficient, collaborative work environment. Offerings are quite affordable starting at $4 per user per month up to $24 per user for a full Office 2013 version.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

To me, this seems like a no-brainer! You have a sales team that is largely remote and on the road most of the time, so why not provide them with a tool that helps them track, close and nurture their sales leads all while reporting this progress to management? There are many options for these tools at any budget. The obvious choice is Salesforce but it is also the largest animal in the kingdom. There are many open source options, such as SugarCRM, which allow for truly customizing it to your liking and making it look and feel like your own personal CRM solution.

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Please be aware: these products are not for the faint of heart and can seem daunting to tackle. It will take proper planning with your sales and marketing teams along with a solid knowledge of database software to implement it correctly. Most small business accounting software also has modules for customer relationship management as well. These solutions tend to be more expensive than other options, however, they also provide the largest return because they help nurture leads and close sales. A typical monthly cost per user is around $25-$50.

Small Business Accounting Software

Do you use QuickBooks or Sage? Did you know there are online or cloud versions available?

Most business owners don’t realize it or haven’t thought about moving it to the cloud. The benefits are numerous , including the ability to work remote, have redundancy, disaster recovery and integration with other solutions, especially the cloud solutions highlighted in this blog post. What if you could track sales relationships from your CRM using email and collaboration while pushing it into your accounting system for invoicing? That is truly automation at work and will make your life as a business owner (as well as your employees’ lives) easier.

Cloud Storage

Are you still saving files on a local server, or worse yet, your computer or laptop? Apparently you have never lost data or a drive, but it will happen one day and is a costly lesson. Why not use the tools that are available to avoid this?

Storage is (quite frankly) cheap! There are many solutions for small businesses that provide backup and restore, scalability, productivity, collaboration and security. If you use Office 365 as described above, did you know that OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) gives each user about 5GB of storage for personal use and to share with their team members? Another popular choice is Dropbox for Business, which is a very affordable solution. Each of these offer access from anywhere and user interfaces from any desktop, as well as most mobile devices in the app stores. If you are a bit skeptical and want to dip your toes in the water before jumping in, then try the free options that many tools offer, including Dropbox and OneDrive.

Electronic Forms and Signatures

If you are going to be digital then you need to add these tools to your repertoire. They will allow you to speed up any transaction with your clients as well as your business partners. DocuSign and Adobe provide fantastic cloud solutions that are easy to configure and get up and running. These are incredibly affordable, ranging between $11-$24 per month per user. We have personally observed the time to close a deal shrink by offering these solutions and the adoption rate has been very high.

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Project Management

If you manage large projects or even small ones in which you need tight collaboration, you absolutely need to look at a cloud solution. We are particular to Basecamp because it is open source and has a wide variety of plugins from billing and time tracking to integration with your CRM. I would say it is about the easiest of the solutions in the list to configure out of the box. You’ll be up and running in minutes. Your team and clients will love the professionalism and ability to collaborate on any project as well as track key milestones. There are literally hundreds of solutions online and range in cost from $5 per user per month up to $99 per user.

These products are very mature, secure and provide integration hooks in the form of custom modules and Application Program Interfaces (API’s) that allow them to integrate with each other. Many companies are running fast to deploy these integrations as well as creating a reporting tool called Business Analytics. Business Analytics can help pull all of this important information together to provide you (the business owner) with a smart dashboard of what your business looks like inside and out today, tomorrow and next month.

Did I forget any tools that you find useful in the cloud? StrataBlue is proud to offer all of these solutions along with assistance in integrating them with one another and with your existing applications. Contact us today to get started!

Bridging the SMM and CRM Gap

Every day, 24/7 and 365 days a year, consumers voice their opinions about your brand. They review your product and/or service either explicitly via sites like Yelp or share information in comment feeds, updates, posts and tweets.

If they are looking for product support or answers to your technical capabilities, they also may comment directly on your social pages. These customers are not the only ones evaluating your company based on your response – their friends and subscribers are also developing a relationship and can see the public interactions as well.

In today’s increasing social world, social media management (SMM) encompasses more than single-source authoring or in-depth analytics. At the root of SMM is the aggregation of all social aspects to create prospects and support customers through an informal line of communication. Today, consumers opt for reaching out on social media rather than through a “Contact Us” form or 1-800 number, as these methods take too long and users are never really sure if someone has received their information. Social media, conversely, provides an additional, direct platform for connecting customers with enterprises, bridging a gap between social media and customer relationship management (CRM).

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World of SMM

In the world of SMM, there are a few core features that are necessary for businesses of all sorts and sizes when looking to merge with their CRM efforts. Let’s break down the importance of monitoring, analytics, and publishing.

Monitor: When consumers update, post or comment about your product/brand on their social networks, you want to know about it, right? After all, social media is a ripe stomping ground for unfiltered, honest and candid opinions.  Monitoring the social web enables you to discover these posts that may not be outwardly directed to your company networks or representatives.

For example, say Todd, a marketing professional for one of your high-profile clients, tweets that he is having trouble contacting your brand’s customer support. His tweet does not include your company’s Twitter handle but he has hashtagged the name of the product and your company. Your SMM platform should then be able to pick up on these hashtags because you identified these keywords as phrases of interest.

Ideally, you take this information and pass it along to one of your account managers and/or CRM specialists. This is an issue that might have been overlooked or bypassed had it not been picked up through your SMM tool.  The best of breed tools integrate with your CRM platforms, which allows you to take this particular social mention and directly assign it to the appropriate CRM representative.  This type of integration helps keep track of the entire process, ensuring that Todd’s issue is in the right hands and ultimately resolved.

Analyze: As you invest your time and marketing dollars on developing and rolling out a social media strategy, it’s important to look at the numbers to ensure your efforts are successful.  Taking a look at the analytics gives you that answer.

With over one billion people using the platform, a Facebook page can serve as a great channel of communication between your business and prospects. SMM platforms provide analytics to explain which of your posts were most popular by likes, comments and shares. For example, your customers may respond better to images versus text or video. You can use this information to analyze your social media marketing strategy and tailor your posts. When a user likes, comments or shares one of your posts, you amplify your reach by sharing this information with your users’ friends, followers and subscribers.

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If you’ve invested in a marketing campaign, then you’ve poured resources, manpower, time and effort hoping the campaign will result in some quantifiable success. But how do you track its progress? How do you measure whether or not you’re on track? Well, most SMM platforms can track the frequency of posts around a keyword or brand page, the sentiment of these posts, and who the major influencers are. Your platform should also be able to track the number of clicks a post receives. Use this information to measure your campaign progress and make the appropriate adjustments.

As your audience continues to reach out and engage on social networks, make sure your social team is on the look out for particular posts or users who may need to be patched through to support or sales. Perhaps a user has been engaging with your content more than any others – is it time to send him over to your CRM system for proper relationship building?

Publish: Gone are the days of logging-in and logging-out of individual social media accounts to publish to your company pages. A marketing suite is an SMM staple. You should be able to publish to most, if not all, social media networks through a single platform simultaneously. When picking out a marketing suite, look for features such as media integration, post scheduling and a link-shortener tool. Additionally, there should be a review/approval process built into SMM permissions. This is to prevent un-reviewed posts from making it out of your office. Use data from your analytics to target posts to your different customer demographics.

 

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Intersection of SMM and Customer Relations Management (CRM)

Now that you have a feel for what SMM is, let’s move to how it can manage your CRM workflow.

In the above Monitoring section, we covered why monitoring is important to CRM: social serves as an informal line of communication between customers and enterprises. When Todd says he is having trouble contacting your customer support, he is really saying, “I need help … now.” If you fail to reach out and address Todd’s concerns, chances are, he will not be a return-customer or give a positive review.

Word of mouth recommendations are the most trusted forms of advertisement so it’s especially important to keep positive relationships. SMM monitoring enables you to extract this information and assign it to a member of your team. Additionally, some platforms integrate with Zendesk so that you can create tickets and assign these to your customer support. Integrations with Zendesk and SugarCRM help to automate the CRM process. However, you will need an SMM platform to pick up on unsatisfied customers who express their concerns outside of your social pages (i.e. in personal comments and posts made available only to the customers’ friends and family).

So what about sales? Several SMM platforms integrate with Salesforce. This enables you to track the web activity and clicks generated from marketing. You can track clicks and impressions while also identifying trends generated by your social pages. An SMM platform will then take this information and integrate it into your analytics, helping you better understand what content and activities attracts the most prospects.

These are the core features of the SMM space and you have a variety of options to choose from. When looking into vendors, consider a tool that enables you to publish to multiple sources from one dashboard but that also includes monitoring and analytics across the social and general web. You will be able to access analytics across social media, measuring the sentiment and potential leads of individual posts. This information can be used to adjust your marketing strategy and maximize your social-generated sales pipeline.

However, if you lack the actual platform, how are you going to be able to know what your customers are saying? How best to support them? How to improve your CRM workflow? You won’t. So get out there, decide on an SMM platform that fits your needs and start your customers’ experiences.

 

Author bio: Trevor is on the Viralheat marketing team, where he spends the day perusing YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+, TechCrunch, Wired, and Mashable for the latest social and general tech news. Despite his published work in Wired and across the web, Trevor will not consider himself a real writer until he has published a novel and wakes up in the morning forgetting to remind himself that he is a writer.  You can reach him at trevor [at] Viralheat [dot] com.

 

CRM and the Cloud Platform – A Match Made in Heaven

The concept of “heaven” has been debated by countless philosophers throughout history and there are various theories on size, temperature and location. While there is some debate on the specifics, most people agree that heaven is where various personalities and types can co-exist in complete peace. Until now, that concept was a bit hard to swallow.

Heaven is a place on Earth? The story is an old one: sales and marketing often butt heads. Sales doesn’t see the point of marketing campaigns and blames marketing for lack of leads. Marketing blames the sales department for not properly implementing marketing strategies or driving the campaign in the correct direction. However, all this strife can be avoided with cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) software.

The CRM: Customer relationship management systems are nothing new. As far back as the 1980’s, database management systems were tracking customer behavior to send out personalized communication for better sales. This software continued to mature, but it didn’t really take a large step forward until companies like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics began to create CRM that integrated customer data with other software like Outlook. However, the best was yet to come.

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The Cloud: The cloud platform is quite powerful and Software as a Service (SaaS) has only shown the greater potential of working straight out of the cloud. Applications like Outlook and Office are available on the web as a scalable application that can be accessed anywhere. Since the products don’t technically exist on computers, there is no need to upgrade the software. Suddenly organizations aren’t investing fortunes on software. The cloud offers fast, cheap freedom to large organizations and SMBs as well.

The Connection: Cloud-based CRM has been available in some form since 2007, but recent improvements to cloud platforms have completely changed the game. Suddenly SaaS allows access to customer data 24/7 from virtually any mobile device. That means that CRM can be used by small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) as well as giant companies with smart phones. Smart Point of Sale (POS) systems allow every sale to be monitored and stored in the cloud. Social Media and Big Data work together so that customers’ personal data is more readily available, making customer touch-points that much easier to track. Now the sales department is receiving reliable leads and truly customized customer information. The marketing department can easily trace the success rate of their campaigns because of tracked sales and touch-point interactions.

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The Future: CRM is growing and it’s only going to get bigger. In 2012, CRM grew by 12.5%. Gartner predicts $36 billion will be spent on the industry by 2017. Companies have taken notice and they continue to expand into the market. In fact, IBM is spending $1.2 billion this year to expand its cloud network. Everyone is banking on cloud-based CRM. Can your organization really afford to ignore that?

The easy part is accepting the cloud-based CRM. Now comes the hard part—how do you find the right CRM software and begin to make all that data work for you? Well, that’s where we come in. If you want more information on cloud-based CRM, please contact us for more information.

Marketing With Big Data

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could know exactly what your customers need before they start looking for it? That thought is now a reality with big data.

Big data is a large collection of your customers’ data (or potential customers) from both internal and external sources. This data includes digital sources such as social media, CRM and web behavior, but also includes traditional channels such as phone records, financial records and shopping habits. All of these things help you understand your customers in a unique way by analyzing their patterns and buying behaviors.

Think about big data like this. Imagine that you’re at a party and you see someone that you haven’t seen in awhile. Last time you talked, you told them about your new job promotion and that you just adopted a dog. When you run into them months later at a party, they ask you how your new job is going and inquire about your dog. This person remembered what you last spoke about and you two already have somewhat of a relationship. This concept should carry over into business, and businesses should have this same rapport with their customers.

Less than 10% of of marketers say they are currently using what data they have in a systematic way, while 71% of marketers say they plan to implement a big data analytics solution in the next two years. Why? Because you can give customers information before they even know they need it and engage with them in a personalized manner. Using big data, you’ll be able to give people the right kind of recommendations and a perfectly tailored message for where they are in the customer journey.

So how do you use big data for marketing? There are four steps to follow:

1. Listen. This step is where you monitor your customers’ social media, buying history, mobile activity and more. For example, let’s say you’re a restaurant that uses a POS system to put in orders, make reservations and take payments. Listen to the information you get from the POS system, including what your customers are ordering each night, how often they come in, what nights you sell the most wine, how much a customer is typically spending and so on. Every move your customer makes, you should be listening.

2. Gather and Analyze Data. Before you try to analyze your data, figure out what the problem is that you are trying to solve. What areas of your business need to be improved? Are you trying to predict customer behavior? Do you want to analyze your customers’ eating habits? Decide what you are trying to figure out before digging through the data. While you are bringing data together and analyzing it, understand the right message for each customer. Data analytics can be done with software tools that are commonly used for predictive analytics and data mining.

3. Assemble the Message. Now that you have analyzed your data, it’s time to transform it into a message to a target audience. Cut out all the information that you don’t need, because a lot of the data you collect won’t matter. When assembling the message, remember that you are using big data to to send a specific message to a specific group of people…this is not meant to be a message for broad demographics. This message should be used to create a meaningful interaction between the consumer and your business, so create different messages to target different audiences.

4. Deliver the Message. Once your message is targeted and put together, you have to get the message out to your target audience. Check to make sure that you have a responsive email design to deliver the correct message to someone on an iPhone versus an Android. Each message should be tailored correctly to the device being used; this is where customer segmentation comes into play. Delivering the message doesn’t only correspond to email, it can be used to help determine specials and coupons. For example, if you own a restaurant and notice that a large amount of your customers love IPA, you can “deliver the message” that you know what they want by creating an IPA special such as $3 pints of IPA on Thursdays. Whatever your message might be, you need to get it out to your target audience in the correct manner.

Use big data to stay one step ahead of your customers. Your business can start to make data-driven strategic decisions to understand your customers in a unique way and deliver a product/service that they need or want in a personalized way.

Customer Reviews Prove to be Critical for Business

You’ve advertised. You’ve wooed. You’ve closed. You’ve onboarded. You’ve launched. But your work with your client has only begun.

The statistics vary from study to study, but retaining a client is far less expensive than gaining a new client. Your business needs to work as hard to keep your existing clients as it does at earning new business. And when you keep your existing clients – the right way – you’ll earn new business.

A client relationship manager or account manager should be as empowered as your sales staff to make deals and retain business. And your CRM should be able to tell you which clients are happy and which clients need some finessing. One way to do this is to ask your clients – honestly and sincerely – in what areas you can improve and what things you do well.

Get customer reviews.

This sounds silly and simple, but it’s essential. 82% of new business is earned by word of mouth, but 66% do online research. Your web presence needs to include customer feedback and reviews. When customers provide feedback, you can identify areas of opportunity to strengthen your relationship, and identify strategies that are working well for your brand.

You need customer reviews.

Only 15% of consumers don’t use the internet to find a new local business. 76% of consumers read reviews when deciding to use a new local business. 58% of consumers report that online reviews affect their decision.

Customer reviews will grow your business.

When you ask your clients for feedback, you let them know that they’re important. When you address their concerns, you let them know you’re listening. When you share your reviews, you let potential clients know that you’re great.

Ask your clients how you’re doing, and don’t be afraid of the feedback. It’s a terrific opportunity.