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Part 5 of 7 Managing IT Expenses - The Biggest Savings are in the Cloud

Although most business owners feel as if they’ve heard all they’ve ever wanted to know about “the cloud” and more in recent years, the fact remains that the majority aren’t realizing the cost savings they could be. They use the cloud every day, but don’t necessarily understand how it can help their bottom lines in such a profound way.

#5 The Biggest Savings are in the Cloud

There are really two things you have to know about cloud computing as a business owner. The first is that using cloud-based services eliminates the need for a lot of hardware you might have had to buy in the past. Purchasing things like servers for your business can put a huge dent in your budget, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars at a time. But once you embrace the cloud, you can stop buying them once and for all. Renting monthly packages saves you on those up-front costs, with the added benefit of freeing up space in your office or facility.

The second thing that’s important to note about cloud computing is that it lets you use software and equipment on a monthly subscription basis. This can bring clarity to your budget, and make cash flow management that much easier. As with a managed services agreement, cloud computing takes a lot of the guesswork out of your financial forecasting, turning IT costs from a question mark into a certainty.

Some business owners are still resistant to cloud services because they don’t understand them, or are used to doing things a certain way. But, this is one area where being open to change can really make a big difference on your profit-and-loss reports. When you take away many of your biggest hardware costs, moved to a monthly subscription model, and combine those benefits with increases in performance and security, it’s hard to find a reason not to switch.

Part 4 of 7 Managing IT Expenses - You Can Use IT Consultation to Improve Your Business Goals

As an SMB owner you have to know a bit of everything to set the proper goals for your business. It's  a smart move to leverage the knowledge of experts in their field to help set the right goals and a pathway to success.

#4 You Can Use IT Consultation to Improve Your Business Goals

Regular IT consultations shouldn’t focus solely on which expenses can be approved or denied. Instead, you want to have a regular face-to-face get together with someone who can help you find technology that fits in with your bigger business goals.

For example, you might be looking for ways to expand your marketing, to streamline customer service, or to add automated fulfillment and logistics. Knowing that these kinds of shifts are going to take place, your IT partner might be able to identify tools and technologies that can make implementing them faster or cheaper. Or, they might know of hardware and software you can use to make the transition easier.

We’ve reached the point where having the right technology isn’t just helpful to a business, it’s essential. No matter what your vision of the future looks like for your company, it’s very likely to require some sort of IT investment to make it happen. Things like sales, marketing, customer service, logistics, and even employee training or management can all be dependent on different technological tools. Without them, your business can’t keep up, much less get ahead.

It’s amazing, but business owners often miss out on easy and affordable solutions that save them tens of thousands of dollars per year, and sometimes per month, simply because they don’t know what’s available. If they were having regular IT consultations with an expert they could trust, they would at least get a sense of what their options are like. Instead, they fall behind their competitors, or miss out on profit opportunities, due to a lack of advice.

IT consultations cost you very little, and can pay off many dozens of times over through the years as you use technology to build a smarter, more efficient company. Why not get a bit of expert advice to make sure your business has what it needs to run smoothly?

Part 3 of 7 Managing IT Expenses - Taming Your IT Budget is Easier Than You Think

Expenses might the be the one thing that keeps you up at night.  In our next tip on managing IT expenses, we explain ways that will ease anxiety and improve your bottom line.

#3 Taming Your IT Budget is Easier Than You Think

One of the hardest things about cutting IT costs as a business owner is that you may not know which expenses or subscriptions you can safely reduce without harming your business in important ways. And, it’s probably difficult for you to accurately predict what you’re going to spend on technology in the future, since you don’t know where upgrades and improvements are needed.

This is an area where having ongoing relationship with the trusted IT vendor can make an enormous difference. When you have someone who knows how your business works, and what kind of technology you’re using, they can help you make smarter investments that are likely to pay off over time.

Contrary to what your favorite salesperson might tell you, it’s not always wise to go with the bigger, faster, or newer model of anything. In fact, doing so can often lead to headaches – when you buy a brand-new piece of technology, you’re often paying the highest price for something that hasn’t been extensively tested or proven. You might be much better off sticking with what you have, or waiting until prices come down (and updates are released) before making the change.

That’s just one simple example, but the point to draw from this is that you can lower the amount of money you spend on technology, or at least stop the figures from climbing endlessly, if you know what to look for. The trick is having someone with knowledge of your business and some expertise with the kinds of hardware and software you need to keep your business running.

The most cost-effective way to get that expertise is by working with a trusted IT partner who will consult with you regularly to ensure you’re making decisions that move you towards your most important goals while factoring in the financial costs.

Part 2 of 7 Managing IT Expenses - You Shouldn’t Pay Hourly For IT Assistance

Information Technology is something your business must have to operate. Issues can be unpredictable. Managing IT expenses will make a big difference to your company bottom line and your sanity.  Here is the second part of seven of things every business owner needs to know about managing IT expenses.

#2 You Shouldn’t Pay Hourly For IT Assistance

For a long time, IT companies worked much in the same way as plumbers do: by answering the phone when a client had a problem and charging on an hourly basis to fix it. And of course, there are still a number of firms who work this way, along with business owners relying them.

But as technology has become more complex, and more integral to business, this model has become outdated. In fact, it tends to work against your best interests in a couple of important ways. First, it makes your IT team reactive, because they are only working with you when something has gone wrong. And, it can make your technology budget unpredictable, since you never know when those IT hours are going to be needed, or how many of them it’s going to take to correct things in the middle of a crisis.

Imagine for a moment that you’re facing a situation where you can’t open any customer files, your payroll systems are working, or your website has gone down. By putting in an emergency support request with an hourly IT firm, you’re essentially getting hit twice. In that moment your business has stopped making money and you’re likely to be paying the highest possible rate for IT care at the same time.

A better way to manage your IT care, and costs, is through a managed services model. Under this type of program, you pay a monthly fee to have your technology team keep all your systems up-and-running. Because they aren’t waiting for you to call, they can work proactively to solve problems before they become noticeable. And if there is an unforeseen issue, you can rest easy knowing that they’re already familiar with your technology and will solve the problem without incurring any extra costs to your company.

Paying for hourly IT service might be less expensive in any given week or month, but over the long run it’s bound to take a bigger bite out of your bottom line at the worst possible moment.

Part 1 of 7 Managing IT Expenses - You Can Make Your IT Team Bigger by Going Smaller

Many of the business owners we meet with have a love/hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, their companies are dependent on computers, phones, tablets, and software. But on the other, technology seems like a part of their budget that, while necessary, seems to constantly be growing even though they never understand why.

Even worse, many businesses face a situation where they are paying more and more for IT equipment and expertise, but getting little in return. Perhaps they are being forced to buy new hardware they’d rather not invest in, or are feeling persuaded into investments that are difficult to make sense of… much less pay for.

Each of these can be frustrating. And, they’re in direct contrast to the way the most successful business owners look at things like hardware and software. Technology should be a source of strength and innovation within your business – a way to save time, cut costs, and reach more buyers efficiently. If it feels like a drag on your bottom line, then you probably aren’t getting the advice you need.

To show why, and how a little bit of knowledge can make such an enormous difference in your profitability, we share the first thing every business owner absolutely needs to know about managing IT expenses.

#1 You Can Make Your IT Team Bigger by Going Smaller

In a lot of companies, the biggest technology expense isn’t the hardware, software, or networks required to keep things running; it’s the people who are charged with installing and overseeing all of those different elements. But if your IT personnel budget keep swelling in size, there is something you should know: you can often get a lot more, in terms of performance, by going smaller.

In other words, you might be able to get by with fewer on-staff IT employees, or even none of them at all. And contrary to what you might worry, your technology won’t fall apart. In fact, you might actually see things get better.

To understand why, you simply have to understand that outsourcing your IT is almost always a more efficient option than hiring a big in-house staff. For one thing, a separate vendor can scale your service package up or down as needed. That means you can cut costs in the blink of an eye without having to lay off employees. If things are going well, you can increase your IT coverage without having to conduct interviews, train staff, or worry about taking on another long-term salary.

At the same time, and outsourced IT team is going to be made up of many individuals with differing skills and backgrounds. So, no matter what the Challenger problem, they can find the right person to fix it. You would have to hire dozens of technology employees on your own – and keep them up-to-day with training and certifications – to get the same kind of specialized come around-the-clock coverage.

 If you’re in business for long enough, you’re eventually going to need someone with a unique set of IT skills. Why not share that expense with dozens of other business owners, and improve your coverage at the same time, by keeping your in-house team small and using an outside vendor?

How Fit Is Your Business Website?

Depending on how recently you’ve been to the doctor for a checkup, you may or may not have noticed that there are essentially two steps to figuring out how healthy you are: First, there is an interview and/or questionnaire, and then you usually get a series of short tests.

By studying the results, your physician can get a fairly accurate picture of what’s going on with your body and make appropriate recommendations.

Believe it or not, you can follow the very same process with your business website to keep it fit, active, and healthy for a long time to come. Given the amount of money you probably spent to get your web presence in the first place, doesn’t it make sense to ensure that it’s operating as it should be – both as a piece of software and as a marketing tool?

Here’s how you can think like a doctor and assess your website’s health and fitness:

Begin by Looking for First Impressions

Just as your visit to the physician begins with an interview, your inspection of your website should start with a quick look around. How is the layout? Are the visuals in good shape? Is information about your company and/or products up to date, and are all your links working?

More often than not, this quick “eyeball test” will tell you much of what you need to know. Perhaps your website is looking old, tired, and out of shape. That might be a sign you’re due for a redesign. Or, if something looks a little fishy, you might need to update your hosting software and check for viruses.

Either way, you shouldn’t skip this important step. Looking through your website at least once a week is a great way to cut off problems before they develop.

Continue by Going Deeper with Tests

Just as your doctor will draw a little bit of blood to make sure things are going well inside your body, it’s a good idea to dig deeply into your web analytics package now and then to figure out what’s going on beneath the layer of HTML on your website, too.

In the same way that vitamin deficiencies are easy to spot under a microscope, a quick scan of your most important traffic sources, content viewed, and bounce rates should tell you which parts of your site are “hot” and which ones aren’t working or converting as well as they could be.

The beauty of studying analytics is that you can sometimes get access to insights that wouldn’t have been otherwise obvious. That’s especially true if your website looks great but isn’t doing much to contribute to your bottom line. A few simple numbers and graphs might be able to show you exactly why.

A healthy website, like a healthy body, requires continual attention and maintenance. A fit and healthy website is something that helps your business grow and grow. A web presence that’s not fit, however, is a waste of time and money. Remember that and be sure to check its appearance and performance regularly.

The Easiest Way to Kill the Effectiveness of Sale Prices

Using discounts to attract customers, or at least boost sales in the short term, is probably one of the oldest tricks in any marketer’s book. It's such an easy and obvious tactic that anyone should be able to use it to boost revenue in a heartbeat… right?

That's mostly true, but there is a problem with the "sale pricing" system that a lot of companies are discovering in the digital age – namely, that if you have sales too often, customers will stop buying at times when you aren't having a sale. In other words, buyers quickly learn that there's no reason to pay full price if they know another discount is right around the corner.

You see this frequently when businesses start inventing holidays as an excuse to discount their prices, or when a certain "last-chance" offer comes around again and again. In those situations, there is no reason for a potential buyer to pay any attention. After all, even if they don't buy now, another discount or occasion is sure to be right around the corner. The last chances never seem to end.

How do you avoid this kind of problem in your own business? The easiest way is to simply schedule your sales and discounts well in advance, and to make sure that you aren't having more than a few a year. Additionally, you should ensure that when you make a "last-chance" offer to customers, it's really the genuine article.

Discounts might be good for boosting sales, but they can also kill your long-term profitability if you don't think carefully about when, how, and why you discount. Keep that in mind before your sale prices become permanent.

MVP Hour II: Squashing Digital Bugs

Every programmer knows all too well the challenges of software bugs during the testing phase of an application.  It's a part of the life of a developer that remains constant, yet the methods used to remove bugs are not always constant.  That's where an expert like Microsoft MVP, Tom van Stiphout comes in with his vast knowledge of software and database programming to share little known tips on making life just a little bit easier.  

The second open forum webinar in our MVP Hour series, Tom covers techniques in Access and Excel using Visual Basic Tools that beginner and intermediate developers can use for software debugging.  

The presentation is published in a couple of videos that can be found on our YouTube channel. Over time, we will continue to add more videos and encourage sharing them to pass along Tom's advice.  

Anyone interested in joining our mailing list to be notified of our next MVP Hour, can sign up here.

Happy debugging!

The Problem With DIY Small Business Websites

A lot of us can remember having a relative – maybe a father, grandfather, or uncle – who liked to tinker around the house and fix broken faucets, mend light sockets, and otherwise keep things in shape. And reality television is full of men and women who have saved money and had a blast by doing their own renovations. Maybe that's why we run across so many business owners who decide to forgo the time and expense of hiring a professional web design firm and build their own websites, either from scratch or from a template.

That should be a great way to lower your bills and get more involved, shouldn’t it?

It certainly can be, but the sad fact is that most business owners – even the ones who are already fairly web savvy – don't have the expertise to give their site a professional feel. And of those that do, few have the time required to get the job done right.

These days, web design is less like home renovation and more like auto maintenance. Whereas just a couple of decades ago, just about anyone who had some free time and a little understanding could slide under a car, diagnose a problem, and make a quick repair, autos have gotten more complicated. Most have processors and self-monitoring systems that are as expensive as the basic components themselves, and messing with one could easily throw other systems out of whack.

Your company's website is similar. Set things up the wrong way, and you risk having site that doesn't load well on different types of browsers, can crash when you make content updates, can't be found (or is poorly rated) by search engines, and so on. Any of these problems is likely to end up costing you more – in terms of lost business, if not web development expenses – then they could ever hope to save you.

There's nothing wrong with popping the hood and getting your hands dirty a little once in a while; in fact, when it comes to online marketing, a business owner who was closely involved has an enormous advantage over someone who isn't. Think twice before deciding to build your own site, however – what seems like a fun and simple project could end up stalling your business before you can even turn the key.

Is Your Internet Marketing Campaign Like a Shotgun… or a Scalpel?

Going online, building a new small business website, or even just putting together an ambitious online marketing plan for the first time can all feel like opening a giant door to the world's customers. No matter what your limitations were before, you can now reach new buyers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, virtually anywhere on the globe.

In most cases, that's a really great thing.

And how could it not? Actually, opening the marketing floodgates can actually be a big hindrance to some smaller businesses because it can pull them away from their core focus. Here's the problem: no matter what you sell, there are probably dozens of other companies in the world that sell the same thing, or something similar… and the vast majority of them are online. So the people who buy from you now usually don't do so because they don't have any other choice, but because you offer something distinctly unique.

If you can find that unique quality, then you can take it and make it the core theme of your online marketing campaign. You can use it to explain why people are better off buying from you than they are for many of your competitors, and you can say clearly with conviction. But without any of those things, you're "just another vendor" trying to make a buck online. In that case, why should anyone choose you, when there might be someone closer, cheaper, or that they're more familiar with?

When it comes to marketing, online or off, you should think of your campaigns as scalpels, rather than shotguns. In other words, you shouldn't just be looking for "anyone with a few dollars to spend," as much as you should your perfect customer. If you can stick to that approach, and find these people gradually, then they'll reward you by buying again and again, not to mention sharing information about your business with their friends.

It's a very big world out there, filled with lots and lots of customers for what you sell. Just be sure to keep perspective and look for the ones that make the most sense – we can promise it will end up being better business for you, and a lot more fulfilling for them.