Ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer choice at Tim's, Starbucks and other coffee houses? Do you long for the days when coffee was black, regular or double-double?
That's how many entrepreneurs feel when they consider the range of technology available to help their business grow. The good news is that IT vendors see small and medium-sized business as a hot growth market, so they are turning out more and better-focussed solutions. The bad news? Such choice requires you to invest more time and effort in finding the right product to grow with your business amid an ever-swelling wave of new technology.
"It really is a jungle out there," says John Ostrander, a vice-president with IBM Global Services responsible for small and medium-sized business in Canada. "There's a lot of tendency to upsell," he acknowledges. "You need to keep it simple and make sure you retain control of the process." Here are seven ways to do just that.
- Know what you want to accomplish. "If you really understand your customer base and your objectives, you are best able to make a technology choice," says Augustin Manchon, a Toronto-based marketing sciences specialist with technology consultants Accenture Canada. "If you place yourself in the hands of the vendors, you'll end up buying what they're selling."
- Be proactive. Given their time and resource challenges, most growing businesses are reactive consumers of technology. "They buy on pain," says analyst Michael Hyjek of IDC Canada, a Toronto-based technology research firm. Naturally, that reduces their ability to strategically plan their technology needs, or survey the market properly. "A proactive buyer versus a reactive buyer is always better equipped to get the best deal and manage things more effectively," notes Hyjek.How can you manage technology in a pain-driven world? Your senior executives should meet regularly with your IT staff to identify problems and potential solutions. Both groups should also crack down on "rogue" middle managers who purchase departmental technology solutions that may not be compatible with company-wide plans. "You've got to take a centralized view of what the IT goals are," says Hyjek, "and prioritize based on what is best for the company."
- Don't go it alone. Even your best tech staff will go crazy following all the industry's product announcements. Make sure your firm forges strong alliances with the specialists in your area: resellers, service providers, systems integrators. Find people you can understand and trust, and maintain an ongoing dialogue about your needs and the potential of the newest technology.If you lack the resources to maintain your own technology operations, consider contracting out to an ASP (application service provider) or hosting service. You will pay recurring fees to access your services, but you will no longer be on the hook for maintaining or upgrading the system.
- Make sure the solution can grow with you. Today's technology is more modular and flexible, but companies' needs do change as they grow. Make sure your plan includes both current requirements and projected needs: what do you need to do now, and how much can you put off? Ask about the costs of adding more "seats" or additional functionality. And consider the impact of other initiatives in your business, whether it's a shift to wireless communication, marketing to new customer segments or partnering with other organizations.
- Focus on ease of use. Every new technology faces its greatest test when people sit down to use it, so choose products that users can understand quickly and master easily. "How easy will it be for the ultimate end-user to use this thing?" asks telecom consultant Henry Dortmans of Angus Dortmans Associates Inc. in Toronto. "If the product isn't intuitive, people won't get it."
- Get references. Your technology buy is a major investment. Before buying any product or signing with a reseller, investigate its track record with other customers. Do the providers promise more than they deliver? Were there any nasty surprises with this software? Implementation problems? How responsive is technical support? Whose fault is it when things go wrong?Look for references whose needs are similar to yours. Before selecting a customer relationship management system, Toronto software developer Geosoft Inc. checked out a supplier by calling one of its own direct competitors.
- Manage the transition aggressively. Get employee buy-in by including diverse parts of your organization in the technology-planning process. Let people know they are expected to master the new system quickly — but invest in training to help them get the most out of it. "Change the people if they cannot adjust," warns one Ontario growth entrepreneur. "The longer it takes to switch the culture, the worse it is and the more expensive it is."