6
Sep 16

To Cloud or Not to Cloud...

Cloud SeriesIs that the question? Not really. First of all, unless you live in a cave (and a pretty remote one at that) you started using the cloud a long time ago. You use it every time you send or receive an email or look something up on the Web. You may be using it to stream movies, TED talks, cat videos and bicycle stunts. It’s where you go to participate in multiplayer games, to update social media and to access services like Dropbox or Salesforce. In fact, if your link to the cloud went down, you’d likely be limited to what’s on your desktop, laptop or tablet, and maybe what’s on the servers down the hall. You’d have to do a whole lot more phoning, snail mailing and walking to your colleague’s desk, and you’d be functioning more or less the way primitives did back in the 1980s. In other words, you already rely heavily on the cloud. We all do.

The real questions are more like these:

  • Do you want to trust some or all of what’s on those servers down the hall to strangers you’ll probably never meet?
  • Do you want to change the way you handle data and access to the rest of the world within your facility?
  • Do you want to change the way your employees and/or your customers interact with your organization?
  • Do you know where your data goes when you entrust it to the cloud, and does location really matter?
  • Do you know how much control you are really giving up when you put things in the cloud?
  • Do you know whether the cloud is safe and how important that safety is in your applications?
  • Do you want to move “cloudward” incrementally or go the whole nine yards all at once?
  • Do you know how much speed, access, and privacy you are willing to pay for?

First of all, let’s review (since you’re probably heard it before) the theoretical advantages of the cloud. I say “theoretical” for two reasons. First, there’s a lot of nuance—and let’s face it, a certain amount of hype—regarding the cloud, and second because some of those advantages come at a price.

Everything You Ever Wanted

On the plus side, the cloud gives you access, and plenty of it, to anything you’re willing to entrust to it. Within the bounds of security, anything you want to make available can be accessed from work, from home, on the road or at the airport. And if you so choose, all that accessibility won’t be limited to your employees. You can provide access, as appropriate, to your customers and your vendors as well.

Another plus: You can free the folks who work all hours to keep up with “the hungry beast in the data center” to do some long-term planning and turn IT into a profit center. You can trim the size of that power-hungry, air-conditioned data center and put the real estate to other use. And in the cloud you can pay as you go instead of laying out large amounts of capital to equip the data center and having to do it all again in a few years when everything within has become obsolete.

You can add storage or processing capacity on the spot when the customer care team has a need for a new application or when engineering is working on a project. No ordering, no waiting, no installing, no capital outlay; and when your needs change you can just let it go and stop paying (assuming you make the right arrangements with your service provider). And it is the service provider who stays late and works weekends to install the patches and updates, who configures redundant systems and backs up the data to make sure it’s available when you want it and who replaces the equipment when necessary. In short, you can outsource the tactical activity while keeping the strategic work in-house.

On the Other hand...

As I sat down to write this, the radio was broadcasting news of a break-in to the IRS database that netted the hackers sensitive data on 100,000 tax filers , followed shortly thereafter by a break-in that got personal info on 4,000,000 government employees. The story didn't say whether the data was stored in the cloud or in-house, but the attackers certainly came in via the cloud. Public sector or private, security is an issue, and the more valuable the data is to you, the more trouble it’s worth for the sneaky folks in the black hats. The good news is that cloud service providers are highly incentivized to protect your data—no one builds their business by getting hacked—but it’s ultimately your responsibility to ascertain whether your service provider is providing the security you need and to recognize that the security you need varies by application.

Things like HIPAA- or SOX-regulated data or your corporate piggy bank may require all the security money can buy, while the summer schedule for your softball team may be less critical. Cloud service providers will often have better, more up-to-date security than an individual corporate client can provide for the in-house data center, and you can mix-and-match cloud services to provide what you need where you need it. How you use the cloud depends on your needs. Strategic decisions regarding what applications and data to move to the cloud, which type or types of cloud implementation to use, and which services to use—Unified Communications, Wifi, Backup, Disaster Recovery, etc.—vary from company to company.

Take a Closer Look

We’ll discuss the details in future posts, but there are basically two kinds of things to look at when choosing a cloud provider. One is the everyday stuff, the levels of service, the security, the flexibility, and the cost. The other, less obvious issues to consider are the “what ifs.” These are the things that probably won’t happen—that you hope won’t happen—but that you should think about the same way you think about fire insurance for your home. These are questions like “What happens if I choose to take my data elsewhere?” Who owns the data and how easy is it, both legally and technically, to move? What happens if my provider goes out of business, is acquired, or faces a major disaster? And what will they do to protect my data if they are presented with a subpoena?”

Your Operations, Your Choices

If there were universal right answers, we’d publish them here, but there simply aren’t. Just as each of our cellphones is individualized to the owner’s needs, no two cloud implementations will look alike. Even two companies in the same business will have different applications, different budgets, and their own ways of interfacing with their customers. Your best bet is to take a close look at your needs and find a patient, trustworthy partner who can offer a variety of services, both on-premise and in the cloud, and can help you find what you need rather than what they have to sell.

22
Aug 16

Increase Productivity with Unified Communications

Unifed CommunicationsThere was a time when work typically meant going to an office, so it’s not surprising that traditional business phone systems were built around a single, static location. Depending on size, a facility could install a premise-based key system or PBX or could choose central office-based Centrex. Either of the on-site options typically involved a capital expenditure, took up space, anything from a closet to a room. It entailed maintenance, repair, and general "care and feeding” of the system, so the user either had to hire a telecom manager to handle moves, changes, and software updates or pay a contractor for support.

The Centrex alternative freed up capital and real estate but could still entail delay and “nickel-and-dime” charges for features, moves, adds, or changes. In-house systems had size limitations and could require costly, disruptive equipment swaps when those thresholds were reached. And as systems aged, components for repair or expansion would get harder to find and eventually disappear completely. And even if all those problems could be overcome, today’s businesses now function far away from the office—at home, in the car, or on the road—beyond the easy reach of those premise-based or CO-based systems.

Fortunately there is a modern alternative ideally suited to today’s business needs. A Unified Communications (UC) solution utilizes the vast reach of the Internet to provide feature-rich phone service wherever your business goes. Powerful office phones connect to cloud-based switching systems using IP (Internet Protocol), but the system can just as easily route calls to or from cellphones as easily as to a desk phone.

Conservative estimates show the per-employee time savings over traditional systems at about 30 minutes a day or 7800 minutes (16 work days) a year. At an average wage of $24.52 per hour, that works out to over $3000 per year per employee.

Voice over IP (VoIP) is suitable for any size operation and delivers telephony as a Unified Communications service. Because it requires no on-site switching equipment, there is no capital outlay. You don’t have to tie up office space to house the system. Because you don’t own the system, you don’t have to manage it, upgrade software, or pay for repairs. And upgrades are handled by the service provider.  This kind of resource shift can help realize greater efficiency within your team.

Besides being convenient, flexible, and cost-effective, hosted voice is extremely reliable, using redundant systems located in hardened sites. These systems are at least as well equipped and protected as traditional phone company central office systems and better equipped than most user sites to stay operational in a disaster situation. In fact, when disasters have completely shut down the offices of hosted voice customers, they’ve been able to move to remote facilities and continue operations uninterrupted, routing calls to cell phones or other offices.

Security is also a concern with a premise-based system as it is accessible to people that may want to do your business harm. One disgruntled employee can take down your entire system. With Unified Communications your service is safe and redundant. The Technology Resource Center of America found in a study that “45% of businesses have had a major communications disaster”. With hosted and managed Unified Communications solution you’ll have greater peace of mind.

Unified Communications solutions can deliver the same quality of service as traditional phone network with quality of service (QoS) guaranteed under contract with the provider. A UC solution also includes a higher quality voice experience with HD voice. Such a guarantee, of course, depends on the quality of Internet service to your facility, since “cut-rate” Internet connectivity can allow latency—millisecond delays in signal transmission—that are perfectly acceptable when sending data; voice, however, requires real-time connectivity. If voice and Internet connectivity are provided by different vendors, it may be difficult to assign responsibility if there are voice quality problems, so the easy way to ensure voice quality connectivity is to let a single vendor provide unified communication service including both voice and data connectivity.

In short, UC is rapidly displacing on premise and Centrex telephony systems, and for good reason. It frees up on-site real estate and eliminates up-front capital cost. It provides near-perfect reliability, even in the event of disaster and, with proper Internet connectivity, ensures voice quality equal to that of the best traditional systems or even better with HD voice. Unified Communication systems are massively scalable, eliminating barriers to growth, and they come complete with the day-to-day support that would normally require a full-, part-time, or contract telecom manager. Best of all, they improve employee productivity and allow for better customer engagement. UC provides capabilities that traditional systems can’t match, e.g., the ability to fully integrate mobile devices into the organization’s phone system, creating a system that fits the way we do business today. And UC is just the beginning. A vendor providing both cloud-based voice and data services can provide economies of scale, a single point of contact, and room to grow both in size and capabilities for truly individualized, unified communications.

13
Jul 15

How to maximize UC potential

Unified communications and digital phone systems have the obvious benefits of flexibility and collaboration, but how can you get the most out of those advantages? What does better collaboration mean for your company? You can maximize the potential for your UC services with a communications-enabled business process. A CEBP is when UC taps into the power of other cloud based services to boost business competitiveness and responsiveness. Here are some key elements and advantages to a CEBP.

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Understanding and participating in internal processes
Some organizations, especially those in sale, might opt for setting up services that coordinate with key performance indicators. Software programmed with KPIs in mind can alert a supervisor if an employee has been on the phone with a customer longer than the predetermined time frame, for example. In the exact moment a KPI alert is triggered, a supervisor will know which employee is facing a workplace challenge and can step in to help.

Since supervisors receive this information in real-time, they can hop on the call with the agent and coach them through with applications that allow the supervisor to speak to the agent and lend advice without the customer on the line hearing anything. In this type of situation, a supervisor uses unified communications not just to collaborate with employees but to fix daily business practices that will ultimately boost competitiveness.

Additionally, the struggle one employee experiences could certainly be shared by others. Since this could be an issue for multiple people, it is best practice for a supervisor to review the specific policy and make corrections to adapt to employee needs. Updating internal processes is vital not just for having the workday flow smoothly but also for meeting customers' ever changing needs. That is the goal of a business after all.

Making effective changes
With every update, new information regarding what the processes entail and when they will be implemented needs to be communicated to employees in a clear and efficient manner. By tapping into the wealth of knowledge provided with real-time monitoring of internal processes, changes to company procedure will be more influential on the overall success of the business.

Those policies, though, are not effective until they are put in place. The quicker employees understand the new concepts, the faster an organization can gain competitiveness. Applications like video conferencing, instant messaging, conference calling and presence information, all of which are standard for UC solutions, help communicate information to employees more efficiently. Not only are these communications methods faster, but the variety of mediums of communication ensure that all learning styles and needs will be met.

13
Jul 15

Mobile engagement is essential for marketing

Smartphones have proven themselves to be powerful tools. These devices have gone from novel idea to essential everyday asset. In fact, people have come to rely on their smartphones so much that some researchers are prone to classifying them as addicted!

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This sounds a lot more extreme than it is. Mobile devices have come to replace so many things for an increasing number of people, so it only makes sense that users are constantly on them. Sure, there's a good amount of time probably spent on Facebook, but when people can use one machine to handle their personal finances, check their email, make plans with friends and research their favorite topics, it's natural that many users are frequently on their personal devices.

This is good news for businesses. Things like marketing and advertising are changing in significant ways. Companies have to be concerned with mobile engagement if they really want to make a splash with their consumer base. How to best go about this, however, will vary from enterprise to enterprise.

Building trust with customers
Smartphones and tablets are tools with incredible potential. Not only is access to information easier than ever, but mobile devices have a number of features that can be leveraged to improve a user's overall experience. According to InformationWeek contributor Jonathan Feldman, the key to successful engagement could be tapping into these extra features like GPS positioning and the camera.

"In summary, those who do not seek ongoing, permission-based connection are doomed to send out perky little missives that get swatted away before they're seen, in an endless robotic arms race between marketers and anti-clutter, attention-defending bots," Feldman wrote. "And lest you get smug that you're in IT and don't have to worry, let me assure you that you do."

This concern is thanks to the growing importance of IT in the enterprise as a whole. Tech workers have gone from being behind-the-scenes magicians to some of the most important thinkers in the company. Their work now helps drive organizations forward in many ways, including - but not limited to - marketing.

Should wearables be on your radar?
Any new technology is going to have its detractors, and wearables are no exception. Smartwatches, especially, have proven to generate a lot of hype and are expected to experience increasing adoption rates after the release of the Apple Watch. A lot of early predictions see the smartwatch mainly as a sort of notification center. It's not meant to replace a smartphone, but to further augment the experience of using one.

According to Content Marketing Institute contributor Erin Rodat-Savla, the secret is "glanceability." Short messages that don't require consumers to go through the hassle of getting their phone out - and fighting for attention amidst a sea of other notifications are the best way to go.

"To do justice to wearable tech, marketers will need to consider questions like: What information would our customers consider 'just in time' and when?" Rodat-Savla wrote. "What can our customers not do or not do easily because they're looking down at their phones instead of straight ahead?"

This new acceptance of notifications amongst smartphone-wielding customers as a necessary convenience represents some huge marketing potential. It is possible to collect information about a customer through their interactions with apps and websites. This data can then be turned around and used to prompt notifications on a smartwatch when products in line with their tastes and habits are available. Location-based notifications are also something that retailers are experimenting with. Shoppers can get a notification about a new sale or offer when they walk by a display. This is the kind of augmented and simplified experience that is helping to change the way that businesses market to consumers.

Mobility: The marketing mantra
Smartphones are powerful channels of engagement. Not only are people desiring immersive connections between the people they know, but they're also eager to interact with the businesses they love. Being able to instill constant brand awareness via an application or online portal that is always a glance away is a powerful way to keep valued consumers involved and to encourage further loyalty.

Customers are, in many ways, the most important part of any enterprise. Making them feel connected and enabled via their personal devices should be a priority for every marketing department out there.