Free Tools Friday 3

Once upon a time, before I was the free-wheeling business technology crusader that I am now, I worked for a small business with about a 40 user network.  The dictator owner of that company was a real character.  A somewhat odious character.  Anyway, I remember something he told me once that has always stuck with me.  It’s a very simple formula of what all businesses have to do to be successful. 

  1. Get the work.
  2. Do the work.
  3. Collect for the work.

Obviously, if the business fails in any of these areas, the business will fail entirely. For some reason the crude simplicity made an impact on me and I think of it often as I talk to businesses about their technology needs.  To follow this theme, I’ve chose three great free tools to accomplish these basic functions of a business. 

    ZohoCRM – This is but one of the tools in the Zoho lineup, all of which seem pretty solid.  I especially like the free version of this CRM products as it allows 3 users and has a ton of great features.  In addition to the “CRM basics” like account, contact and lead tracking, you get cool things like case management and nifty dashboards like this:

    zoho

    It’s very easy to sign up, less than a minute I’d say, and is fairly self-explanatory.  If you’ve used other CRM tools in the past, you should have no problems at all.  If you want some more features like sales forecasting and built-in email marketing, you can upgrade at any time to the Pro version for 12/month per user.  You can also downgrade at any time, which I thought was interesting.

    EasyProjects.net – This is a pretty nice package for managing projects, consulting time, and activities.  It takes a bit longer to get started than ZohoCRM, but it wasn’t too bad.  It has a very cool Interactive Gantt Chart done in Silverlight that I liked a lot, as well as reports, dashboards and pretty nice search.  The free version only comes with a single user license, but you can have an unlimited number of customers login and collaborate with you on your projects.  There are a couple of times when I thought the site itself was a little clumsy, but there are a ton of great features.  When you’re ready for more users, you can get 5 for $75/month.

    easyprojects

    Office Accounting Express 2009 – I never set out to pimp Microsoft products with this blog and frankly, I am shocked at how many of their free products are good enough for me to recommend.  (I know that people will call me a fan boy regardless.  ::sigh::)  This is a solid product though.  Obviously they have stolen heavily from Quickbooks to make the familiar interface, but you can customize most of the screens, which I think is handy.

    msaccounting

    You can’t manage inventory with this version, but you can do all sorts of other neat stuff like take PayPal payments directly within the software.  Also, you can set up a quick and easy E-Commerce site from the “Online Sales” menu.  You can even set this up to have multiple users accessing your company info.  You can’t beat the price for all of this accounting goodness!

    It’s Report Card Time

    How do you know if your IT provider is doing a good job?  How do they stack up against someone else you might partner with?  Here are some ways you can figure it out. 

    **Check back in with me and I’ll post a spreadsheet with all of this nicely laid out for you.

    (BTW:  If you’re an IT provider, you may be tempted to just move on.  Clearly there is a TON of material on YouTube that needs your attention.  Perhaps, though you might want to run through these test and ask yourself, “How do I rate?  What level of service am I providing?”  Just a thought…)

    The Metrics

    I’m a big believer in gathering data and measuring performance.  Here’s a list of important things to be measuring if you’re using outsourced IT.  (Honestly, these are some of the same things I measure for our internal IT staff also…)

    • Response time – How long from the time of notification of a problem until it BEGINS to be addressed? 
    • Resolution time – How long from the time of notification until the problem is resolved?
    • Incidents per Month – How many times did you have to call?
    • Unresolved Issues – How many things are left outstanding at a time?
    • Incident Cost – How much did you pay each time?
    • Issue Recurrence – How many times did the SAME issue come up?
      Think about how your guys stack up.  Do they give you any kind of usage data about how your partnership is going?  Could you easily get the averages for the above?  If not, why not?

    The Relationship

    This is the more touchy-feely part of things.  It looks to find out how you overall feel about working with your technology partners.  There are some critical indications here that may even outweigh the metrics we discussed earlier.

    On a scale of 1 to 5 rate the following of your IT provider (1 being strongly disagree 5 being strongly agree):

    1.  They are there when I need them.

    2.  They follow through on their commitments.

    3.  I always know where we are in the process.

    4.  If I had to change providers tomorrow, it would be fairly painless.

    5.  I am comfortable with our disaster recovery and security plans.

    6.  Our disaster recovery plan has been successfully tested.

    7.  They listen to and understand our business and our problems.

    8.  They proactively seek out technology to help us achieve the company’s goals.

    9.  They go the extra mile.

    10. Their services have improved over the time we have used them.

    Total up all of the scores, then multiply by 2.  If they rate lower than a high 70, what are you doing with them?  It’s time to make like Tina and drop your Ike like yesterday’s newspaper.  Seriously, if you can’t rate them higher than a C, what are they really bringing to your partnership.  How successful can your business be with C technology support? 

    Free Tools Friday

    I love free software.  It’s like Christmas morning every time someone tells me about a cool new web application or utility.  I adore the “best free apps” issues of PC Mag or Maximum PC.  There is a tremendous amount of value out there just waiting to be discovered.  In honor of this, I declare Free Tools Friday to be a permanent fixture here.  Enjoy!

    General/Business Tools:

    1. Quickbooks Online Basic from Intuit – Intuit?!  GIVE SOMETHING FOR FREE?  You must be mad!!  But it’s true.  See for yourself.  Go ahead take a look. (Right-click the link and click “Open in New Tab” – unless you’re using Internet Explorer 5 or something.  You’re not are you?  Using IE5, I mean…ok, take a deep breath, we’ll get through this together.  Go to www.getfirefox.com right now and click the giant green download button.  No, I MEAN RIGHT NOW!  GO!  Oh.  Sorry.  No, I wasn’t yelling.  I just got a little excited.  Ahem…)  Seriously, they are delivering some incredibly good software for free.  The free version is limited to managing 20 customers, which is really the only downside.  You can upgrade seamlessly to the other versions for a monthly fee, which have more features.  The thing I like best is that you don’t have to worry about installation or backups.  Sweet.
    2. AntiVir Personal from Avira – I have a confession to make.  I HATE antivirus software.  All of them.  I’m quite prejudiced that way.  I begrudge their use of my system resources that could otherwise be devoted to getting my trashy TV fix from Hulu or even good old-fashioned zombie killing in Left4Dead.  I hate that they try to think for me and block access to this file or move that file to quarantine.  Wow.  That was very therapeutic.  ANYWAY, if you must run antivirus software (don’t listen to me, you really must), then this is about the best free package I’ve seen.  It uses very little of your system’s capability and provides excellent protection.
    3. Office Live Small Business from Microsoft – You may think that Microsoft giving away office tools for free is even crazier that Quickbooks being free.  That’s what happens when you get the lead-pipe cruelty reputation of an evil empire.  In reality, they have a TON of apps (some good ones even) that you can download and run for free. This product is their version of Google Apps without the in-browser word processor, spreadsheet etc.  However, Google Apps will run you $50/user per year, so it’s a bit of a trade off.  I think Office Live is noteworthy because it (obviously) plays nice with the Microsoft Office suite: Word, Excel, Outlook.   Getting things set up is fairly simple and should be very familiar to Microsoft users. 

    If you have any favorite free apps, I’d love to hear about them!

    Basic Anatomy of Customer Service

    Primarily, I come at the world from a technology mindset.  Generally that is the hammer and I go about my life looking for nails to bash in.  I am quite a Neanderthal in that respect.  A chubby, hairless one…

    Over the course of my career, through a painful evolutionary process, I have come to realize that many times, technology is not the answer.  Sometimes the answer is in the people- sharper focus, better training, clearer priorities, for example. Sometimes the answer is in the process- improved efficiency, reduced waste, defined needs.  Slowly I have become more of a “thinking man” in this respect.

    So, as a man who professes to think, what does it mean to actually serve the customer?  Turns out, it has almost nothing to do with technology at all.  The way I see it almost all interactions should be variations on the following five stages:

    1. Listen

    2. Plan

    3. Execute

    4. Test

    5. Communicate

    I can hear some of my geeky brethren now:  “WHAT?!  There’s nothing about servers or MSPs or Twitter even listed in that!  How could it possibly be right.”  Allow me to break it down.

    1. Listen

    A much used quote is relevant here.

    ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

    ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

    ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

    ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

    If you don’t know what problem you’re solving, it doesn’t really mater what you do next.  The only way you can find that out is…say it with me now…to LISTEN!

    The customer doesn’t want to have to talk to their computer guy.  They can’t do their job and they have a boss to answer to, so they suck it up and make the call.  The LEAST you could do is actually listen to what they have to say.  I mean REALLY LISTEN.  I don’t just mean wait until they stop talking so that you can impart your great knowledge and wisdom to them.  They won’t use all the right words, of course, they may even say silly things like “the internet is down”.  (Really? The whole internet is down?  It’s the end of civilization as we know it!!)  The point is you must hear the customer first so that you will at a minimum know what they perceive the problem is.

    2. Plan

    This step can be as simple as hearing the problem, recognizing it and then fixing it.  Or it might be as complex as a multi-page write-up complete with diagrams and blueprints.  Whatever level is warranted, remember to keep the customer in the loop as to what your thoughts are and what your strategy will be to resolve the issue. 

    The other critical piece of this stage is to fix in your mind what the perceived problem was (see above) and plan to address it with the same seriousness and attention to detail that you gave to the actual problem.  If you do not properly handle their concerns (right or wrong), even if you beat up their actual problem and take its lunch money, they will be left with the feeling that you didn’t do a good enough job.

    3. Execute

    This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where you show your true mettle.  You can perform to your highest standards, paying attention to the smallest detail, following the plan and documenting what you do.  Or you can phone it in.  Ignore the details, leave the cables looking like a plate of spaghetti gone horribly wrong when you’re done.  Forget about the listening and planning you did in the first steps and let yourself get distracted by something that you weren’t even asked to look at.  Let the next guy document the thing.

    What happens at this point is the price of admission, the minimum.  If you can’t get this step right, you shouldn’t even be playing the game.

    4. Test

    How do you know that step 4 is done and that you should wrap it up with step 5?  You test the original problem.  You see how this all comes together?  If you didn’t identify the problem right at the beginning or didn’t solve the right problem when you were executing, how can the customer EVER be satisfied?  Simple, they can’t.

    You test the problem when you think it’s fixed, then have them test it and see if they agree.  If not, you have more work to do.  Why don’t they think it’s fixed?  Is there a perception problem?  This issue must be settled before moving on, or your customer will feel rushed and that you had “better things to do”.

    5. Communicate

    What more could there possibly be?  Aren’t we done yet?  Can’t we go hit the Denny’s for a Grand Slam?  Clearly not.  You must communicate several things to the customer.  Depending on the situation they could include:

    • Everything that you actually did
    • Anything they might expect to see or happen as a result of what you did
    • A detailed rundown of any further steps or actions that may need to happen
    • When those furthers steps will take place
    • Any helpful tips on preventing the issue in the future

    If the customer is left wondering about any of these things, you’ve lost an opportunity to set yourself apart.

     

    I’ve clothed all of this in techie garb (free vendor t-shirts and old jeans), but I think the general outline of it holds true for most customer service interchanges.  Think of a great experience you’ve had with some company.  (It took a few minutes didn’t it?)  Now run down the steps and see what they did or didn’t do.  Pretty close, eh?

    Now think of a really bad experience.  (Yeah, you had one right off, I know…)  Which of the steps did they neglect?  Maybe they ignored your real problem and just tried to fit you into one of their existing “support channels”.  Maybe they did something for you, but didn’t explain and then just went away, leaving unsure as to what to expect next.

    I think these things are widely applicable in almost any setting.  I’d love to hear what you think…

    An Open Letter to IT Service Providers and Small Business Owners

    Dear Friends,

    I speak as a man of two nations, bridging the great and abysmal chasm that separates two equally necessary groups that seemingly must ever exist apart.  I speak of the commonwealth of business with its drive for growth, success and profits.  I speak of the nation of technology with its love of innovation, problem-solving and shiny things.  They should be the greatest of friends and allies, but barriers in language and world-view conspire to keep them apart.

    I’m speaking to you Alan the field technician who is trying to fix that law firm’s Blackberry Email problems.  The lawyers who own that firm and the people who work there care as much about your convoluted explanations of the inner workings of DNS, BES, SMTP and POP as you do about oral hygiene.  (Seriously, brother, get some mouthwash or a mint or something.)

    I’m also speaking to you Jerry the mortgage broker with 25 people in your office.  The broken down five year old computers that you bought at Wal-Mart are not going to help you grow your business and increase your profitability.  Nobody is saying you have to buy top of the line, but new equipment will make your people happier and more productive.

    We must do better at working together.  Technical people you MUST do a better job of communicating, documenting and following up with the business folks.  After hearing a users problem, you cannot tell her that “You’ll get used to it” just because your Google search didn’t give you a quick fix answer.  You can’t stop working on a problem and not let the user know what the next steps are.  You simply can’t attempt to baffle them with bull every time you don’t know the answer or don’t feel like working on their issue. NEVER.

    Business owners, you MUST be a little more patient with and give a little more credit to the technology folks.  When you are planning out your new software project, don’t call your provider the day before the rollout and tell them there are five or six more things you need it to do and not expect to affect the delivery date.  Don’t call an expert, listen to their advice and then tell them how you know better.  NEVER.

    We know we can’t live without each other.  We know that life would be far worse if we went our separate ways. 

    IT guys, wake up!  The business needs for us to SUPPORT them in getting to their goals as efficiently as possible.  They need our help to get the absolute most technology bang out of their hard earned bucks.

    Business people, know that technology people aren’t like other people.  They LOVE the tech for its own sake and sometimes forget that it has to make business sense.  Please help them in staying focused on what is important to you.  Most technology professionals are hard wired to want to help, like a St. Bernard.  Point them in the right direction and they will dig your problems out of the avalanche.

    I know that what I am asking is akin to getting Jerry to stop beating on Tom, like getting the Sharks to bury the hatchet with the Jets, or like getting Mac guys to admit they actually ARE PCs.  In spite of this, I remain hopeful that these two worlds can come together for the benefit of all.

     

    Dave Purdon,

    Student of Business and Life,

    Lover of Shiny Things

    Share Files with Remote Users

    I was at a local Chamber of Commerce event today where they had a Q&A session with a panel of IT folks from different areas of the industry.  I was just there as an observer, I was not part of the panel….(I know it’s shocking, but they didn’t ask…).  The question was posed to the group, How can I work and share information with employees and vendors in a purely virtual way, or can I only do that with servers and such?

    I thought, this is a great question.  Not only is it more common for small business to have distributed employees, it makes a lot of sense to want to minimize hardware/software needed to make that whole concept go.  In the current economic conditions, it REALLY makes sense to have people work from wherever they are rather than spending on the overhead of an office and all that entails.  I was really looking forward to hearing what the panel said to this, as I have been messing around with different collaboration methods, software packages and online services for a couple of years now.  I admit to being a little disappointed by the answer that was given. 

    I try not to be the guy who’s always negative or cutting on other people’s solutions or ideas.  I think there is far too much of that type of thing in my industry already, so I won’t go into the answer or why I was disappointed with it.  I’m a little disappointed with myself because I didn’t go right up to the gentleman afterward and share some of my experiences in that area with him.  (I didn’t think of that until I was driving back to the office.  I’m a little slow sometimes.)

    So!  I thought I’d rectify my faux pas by passing some options along here.

    1.  Microsoft Groove 2007 –  This was one of the first programs I worked with and I liked quite a few things about it.  It lets you create “Workspaces” and then invite other people who have Groove to join those workspaces.  You can create custom tools like discussion boards, photo galleries, and forms that can be used by anyone that you’ve invited.  It has built in chat, file sharing, and some other nifty tools.  The downside is that it requires one computer with Groove on it to be turned on and connected to the Internet pretty much all of the time.  For example, if you update a document on your laptop, that change will only update your co-worker’s Groove if they’re online at the time.  If you shutdown before they get the changes, they will be working on the old version.  It can be a pain to keep track of that kind of thing.  Also, Microsoft Office ain’t exactly cheap and everyone you work with would have to have a copy.

    2.  Google DocsI’ve talked about Google Docs before and I like a lot about it.  You can get yourself started very quickly without spending a dime and without installing anything on your computer.  You can create files that are very compatible with Microsoft Office (as well as other formats) and can share them with as many collaborators as you might need.  It has calendar and photos and RSS reader all for the low low price of…nothing.  Drawbacks are the need to be online at all times (a small one, granted) and you can’t share whole folders at a time.  Instead you have to do invites on a file by file basis.

    3.  Live Mesh – This is the one I’ve been using most recently.  I use it more to keep my laptop and desktop with the most up-to-date versions of files than anything else, but you can certainly use it to work with others also.  Live Mesh is free, you get 5GB of storage and as far as I can tell you can work with as many people as you need to with it.  You do have to download and install a small software package, but it’s very painless.  Once you get it set up, you simply right click on any folder or file on your computer and click “Add to Live Mesh”.  The folder turns blue (mine do anyway) and away you go.  You can invite and manage members of the Mesh and unlike Groove, it doesn’t matter if anyone else is connected when you make changes because it will all sync to that 5 GB of storage that Microsoft was nice enough to give you.  So far I haven’t found any big drawbacks to this system and I use it everyday.

    So Mr. Unanswered Question, I hope this helps in your quest for remote collaboration and next time, I’ll try harder to get on that panel in the first place.

    That Voodoo That You Do So Well

    I read a great post the other day by Scott Hanselman entitled Painful Reminder: Focus on Core Competencies (and Back Stuff Up).  I’ve been thinking about it for a day or so now and I couldn’t agree more with what he says.  The two main points are Backup Your Stuff or Die and Do What You’re Good at and Let Folks Do What They’re Good at.

    In my opinion, both of these points are HIGHLY applicable to small businesses.  Back in the day, we technology consultants typically steered growing businesses to host their email in house and to have servers locally installed for file and printer sharing.  At the time, it was really the only option in most cases. 

    Business owners don’t start companies to worry about servers and email problems and such.  They start because they have an idea that they are passionate about (or will make them rich…).  The technology of today has finally caught up with this reality.  We can have other people worry about the details and get to work on the business. 

    So what the heck am I babbling on about, exactly?  An example, if you will:

    Every business needs email, right?  (the answer is yes.)  So you have some choices to make.  You can buy a server, software for the server, software to run on my desktops and laptops and then pay some technology company (or some guy that dresses funny who works out of his basement) to support all of the aforementioned.  (that’s the old way) OR you can pay a monthly fee to access virtually all of the same functionality through your browser, mobile phone, or in some cases connected software that runs on your laptop or desktop.  NO server hardware cost, NO server software cost, no funny dressed guy to pay.

    There are several options along this line.  (The buzzword being thrown around a lot is Software As A Service (SaaS) or more recently Cloud Computing.)  Salesforce.com (one of the first in this arena) will run all of your Customer Relationship stuff, Google Apps will let you do all kinds of cool Outlook-type things, and Microsoft Online Services has a full blown Office, Exchange and CRM software offering.

    All of these products are slick, fairly inexpensive and offer a TON of functionality that will let you keep your focus where it should be…growing your business.

    I’ll be going over these services in more details in the next little bit, so stay tuned!

    Times are Tough out There

     

    You can’t turn on the news without hearing it.  Unemployment up, spending down, cats and dogs living together…mass hysteria.  But seriously, things are definitely tougher out there for all kinds of business, not just the small ones.  The advantage that I see that small businesses have, much like those tricky prehistoric mammals, is the ability to quickly adapt to the climate.  Big business, like those overgrown lizards of prehistory, adapt slowly if at all.  (I was going to insert some jabs at a few of them here, but the list is too long to choose from.)  The point of all of this is to share some of the ways that I have seen small businesses SAVE MONEY.

    1.  Cut out Ma Bell completely.  There are many options out there that can save you some serious money AND give you more options.  Skype is a great VOIP service that’s free to call from PC to PC (great if you have distributed employees or close partners) and just 2.95/month for 10,000 minutes to US and Canada (it’s 30 bucks for a year of inbound calls with a subscription, though).  You can buy a pretty sweet handset for about a hundred bucks that makes it so you don’t even need a computer to use it.  Gizmo5, and even Google Talk are other ways that you can stay connected (although not as slick as Skype).  Not only can you call in and out with these services, you can also do Conference calls, call forwarding, and voicemail.

    2.  Free Financial Help.  Online financial services sites like Mint, GeoZeo, and Buxfer can help manage cash flow, notify you when balances are low and do budgeting and reporting for you.  The beauty of these services is that they’ll go get your transactions from your bank and attempt to classify them for you automatically.  It doesn’t always get them right, but it is very easy to correct and saves a ton of data entry.  You can even set them to send you an email or a text message with a summary of your status.

    3.  Forget About Microsoft Office.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Excel and Outlook as much as the next guy, but the prices that you pay (between $200 and $600, depending on the version) to get it are outrageous.  Check out Google Docs, Google Calendar and Gmail.  They allow you to easily collaborate with others, you don’t have to install anything on your computer, and best of all, they’re free.  These tools probably aren’t a fit for everyone (browser crashing while you work is a pain), but you can get an awful lot of mileage out of them.

    Obviously I’m a big on using technology to increase efficiency, cut down on overhead and hopefully help the bottom line.  What are you doing to save money in these tumultuous times?

    Five Technology Musts When Starting a Business

    In today’s business landscape, there are things that you ignore at your peril. Technology is one of those things, like it or not, you must deal with at some level. In my experience, appropriate use of technology can save time and money, both of which are constantly in short supply when starting a business. Many will shy away because of the imagined costs, but there are some things that a small business can’t afford to do without—some of them are even free!

    1. A PC or Laptop with Enough Horsepower

    I have lost track of the number of times that a business owner has asked me, “Why does Quickbooks take so long to open on my computer?” or “Why is Word so slow?” Very often they are running the latest and greatest software from Intuit or Microsoft on what used to be the family PC which was purchased four or five years ago for the kids to do their homework on. That’s like putting a 300 pound jockey on a 10 year old race-horse. The horse may have been great in its day, but it wasn’t meant for that kind of abuse.

    Look at the system requirements of the software that you use the most. It will have a line that says something like Recommended RAM: 512 MB. A good rule of thumb is to double that amount and then look for a system that has at least that much memory. Depending on the type of work you do, you may have other requirements for your computer shopping, but that will get you started in your search. Laptop vs. Desktop? That’s easy….will you ever need to work on it anywhere other than your desk? If you answered yes, then you need a laptop. If not, then save the thousand dollar or so difference for some of the other items in this list.

    2. High-Speed Internet Access

    With email, online ordering, online banking becoming so indispensable, you really have to justify NOT having a fast connection for your business. In general, you’ll pay less than $50 per month for a very good connection, in some areas you’ll pay less than $30.

    3. Office Software

    Office productivity software has come a long way over the decades. Microsoft Office allows you to create everything from ads to invoices to financial statements. The price tag has evolved also. Ranging from $150 all the way up to $600, purchasing Office, in spite of all its great features, can put a serious dent in the budget.

    A couple of fairly solid alternatives exist, and they’re free! Google Docs is an online set of office tools including word processor and spreadsheet application. It’s fast, you don’t have to install anything to use it, and it is completely free. You don’t get nearly as many tools to work with as with Microsoft Word, but you can export to Word format and send them to clients, who will be none the wiser. OpenOffice.org is a free download which includes a word processor, spreadsheet application, presentation software (think PowerPoint), and even a database application. This software has been around the block a few times and has gotten better with each release. It’s definitely worth a look.

    4. Accounting Software

    It amazes me at how many business owners try to do without this essential tool. Intuit’s Quickbooks ($149 for Pro, $339 for Premier) is really the king of the hill in terms of ease of use and features. Sage Software’s Peachtree ($189 for Complete) is another contender, but many business people that I work with feel that it is more accountant-oriented and not as straightforward. Regardless of which way you go, get something! Your accountant will thank you.

    5. A Web Site

    Whether you’re a carpenter, a lawyer, or a restaurateur, you can’t escape the fact that the majority of potential customers will use the web to check you out before they give you a try. Your site needs to at least tell customers who you are, what you do and how to contact you. You can host a web site for as little as $4 per month. (Godaddy.com, 1and1.com) That just leaves the cost of having the site designed. It makes sense to have an actual designer do this for you, especially if you already have someone helping with things like your logo and letterhead. Alternatively, you can buy a simple template site for as little as $39. (www.templatesbox.com)

    Armed with these tools, you can now market to more people, produce professional quotes and brochures, track your receivables and payables, and speedily surf the Web looking for your dream car in between. You don’t need to break the bank for a start-up technology budget. The advantages in efficiency and competitiveness certainly justify the modest expense.