Thursday, 27 October 2011

"I just need access to anything, anywhere, at any time!"

Someone said this to me at an event the other day, in an exasperated tone as they went on to tell me all the times they'd been visiting a client and had forgotten to put that important document from their office on their laptop, had tried unsuccessfully to access their project management tools from home and had spent ages trying to work out which of a string of emails back and forth actually held the final version of a proposal.

Apart from computers breaking down and just not working (and there are IT support companies for that!), this seems to be the biggest issue people have with IT - just being able to get at everything easily all the time. The good news is that there are lots of tools available either for free or at a very reasonable price which can sort all this out for you. The better news as that you don't need the technical skills of Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to set them up.

The best news of all, though, is that Nuvola is running workshops this December to help you understand what tools are available, which are right for you, and most importantly to actually set them up. Interested? More details and booking information is at

Why be information conscious?

When I talk about an information conscious business, I'm talking about a business that has control over its information, giving not just its directors the information to control the business, but also the staff the opportunity to make the business better.

In my book, I use the following fictitious example of access to customer data to illustrate this:

Imagine you run a carpentry business, specialising in custom-built fitted furniture for the home. A year ago, you did a project for Mr Jones. He was very pleased with your service and referred you to a lot of his friends and contacts. Now, he's started working from home and wants his office fitted out, and calls your company. You've recently hired a new assistant (let's call him Jimmy), who's never heard of Mr Jones. Jimmy takes the call. What does Jimmy say?

A. “Mr Jones, OK, have we done any work for you before? Ah, OK, I see. An office in a similar style you say? So what was it we did in your bedroom? Right, I'll need to talk to the boss about that, can I call you back this afternoon?”
B. “Mr Jones, let me pull up your file... Yes, so we built a full length set of units in beech wasn't it? That's right I'm new, I've only been here a couple of months. Looks great from the photos, how are you finding it? That's great news. By the way thanks for the referrals, looks like we've done work for half your street! So, your office. I see we have some measurements here for your other rooms that the guys took because you said you might want a few things doing in future, is it the one on the ground floor that's about three metres square? Great, let me take some more details about what you want... OK, well obviously I'll need to get the boss to give you a call to finalise things and cost the job up, are you free this afternoon? I'll put a to-do in his diary then. Just looking at the schedule as well – we've got an opening in a couple of weeks time that we might be able to fit you into, shall I pencil you in, subject to agreement of course? Great, thanks, is there anything else I can help you with?”

Scenario A is a classic example of a business having information scattered all over the place that it can't pull together to present a slick experience to the client, and to aid Jimmy, who through lack of information is unable to be of any real assistance. I think you'll agree that it probably won't leave Mr Jones feeling very special or particularly enthusiastic about your business. When you call him back that afternoon you'll probably make the sale, but he'll go away and tell people: “Those guys who did my bedroom, they do a great job but they're a bit disorganised and that new lad they've got in the office is useless”.

Scenario B shows a business that is information conscious. Jimmy has never heard of Mr Jones, but a quick check of the records tells him that this is a valuable customer and to treat him accordingly. Jimmy's able to utilise some information that you thought to collect last time you were there, to get a really good description of what Mr Jones wants. Because of this, you're now able to call the customer with a rough price in your head – and the call will be a lot quicker and more pleasant. The fact that Jimmy's able to pencil in the work helps close the sale and is also great for the customer, who will now tell his friends: “I called those guys who did my bedroom to have a look at my home office – they're growing, they've got a really bright lad in the office there now and they're a really slick operation.”

So the question is, which way would you rather be described? Which way would your staff rather be described?

Getting businesses from scenario A to scenario B is exactly what Nuvola is about.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Salesforce wants to be Facebook

I was at a client yesterday who happens to use as their CRM software, when I heard one of the sales team who had just returned from maternity leave exclaim 'Salesforce wants to be Facebook!'. This was followed by grumbles of agreement from her colleagues.
She was referring to the fact that the pioneer of Cloud software now invites you to connect with other users and to share things, in the same way as Facebook, LinkedIn et al do.
It got me thinking that this is an interesting trend where everyone and everything wants to copy the social networking model. Indeed, it's a tribute to the success of these sites when something as 90s as a CRM system (albeit one that came along in the 2000s and shook up the established players) is copying their features.
So is this just a large dose of 'me too' from Salesforce, or do these social features really add something? The additions are certainly treated with a healthy dose of cynicism by their users (a quick and highly unscientific straw poll of friends who use Salesforce drew similar sighs of derision).
Yet, one of the biggest problems with implementing CRM systems has always been getting salespeople to enter data into them, which can then be shared with others in the business to positive effect. I would argue that since social networking is now one of the main ways in which people are used to sharing stuff, applying the same principles should make it easier to share business information with colleagues.
It all sounds great in theory, but will it really work in practice? Well, there are already (and have been for a while) project collaboration tools (e.g. Huddle, Basecamp) that look not a million miles from social networking. And the trend in database back ends at the moment is towards less structured, flexible designs which can store information in different formats, and lend themselves more to the data streams of social networking than traditional records and child records.
So I wouldn't be hugely surprised if the next big enterprise software product looks more like LinkedIn than it does SAP. But what's more likely is that other CRM and project management products will integrate themselves much more with social networking tools and the lines between them all will become increasingly blurred

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Client portals and collaboration

I was recently sent a link to this article on the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accounts in England & Wales) website, about how accountants should be offering portals to their clients. The key point is that rather than emailing highly sensitive documents back and forth (which is not very secure), accountants should allow clients to download them from their web portal, and upload signed versions and other required documents.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I have used Dropbox in the past to share things with my accountant because I worry about using email for that sort of thing. But a portal would potentially offer a lot more functionality. This of course applies to any business which shares data with their clients, not just accountants.

In fact, this ties in rather nicely with some collaboration and project management software which we're trialling with a couple of customers at the moment, and plan to roll out as a full service offering this side of Christmas. The software in question is FengOffice, a powerful piece of open source software, which we'll be offering in conjunction with our UK-based specialist hosting partner, Dudobi. It'll run on servers in Dudobi's secure data centre so there are no data protection issues with the location of our customers' confidential business information, which can be a problem with cloud-based offerings.

The great thing about FengOffice is that while it acts as a great web-based collaborative workspace, it's also a lot more than that. It can be used as a CRM system, for tracking professional time, or just for capturing all information about a client or project in one place.

This is not yet a finalised offering, but I'm very interested in hearing from any businesses who like the idea and would like to test it out.

We are now a reseller for FengOffice and are able offer help in setting you up on their full hosted platform.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Cloud Phones!

Had a great meeting this morning with Andy Moore from Pink Connect, who provide a full range of telephony and broadband services to businesses, and it got me thinking about how phones can be run 'in the cloud' just as much as software can.

Traditionally, if you're a small business wanting to get a professional telephony solution, you'd probably invest in an expensive phone system and as many physical phone lines as you needed. The availability of Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology, combined with increasingly reliable broadband connections (in towns at least, have a chat to Andy if you're in a rural area with rubbish or non-existent broadband), now mean that you can get a very powerful hosted phone system at a very reasonable price.

The idea is familiar to anyone who's used Skype - your computer turns your voice into a stream of ones and zeroes which are sent across the internet and decoded by the software at the other end. The difference with a hosted phone system is that you have a proper phone on your desk (although computer-based 'softphones' are also an option), which connects over your broadband connection to the VoIP server 'in the cloud'. Your call is then routed via the normal phone network, and as far as you're concerned you just pick up the phone and dial as normal.

Apart from the cost, the great thing about this kind of cloud service is that it is very flexible: you can set up phones to ring in a certain order, forward to your mobile or to a different voicemail box depending on the time of day, and your voicemail can be sent to your email, from which it can even be pulled into your CRM system (where potentially the date and time of all calls could be logged under the contact). And if you move offices (or want to work from home), you just plug your phones into your network.

It's all a bit of an improvement on having to contact BT and wait a few days just to make a tiny change to your phone service....

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Book Launch - how to become information conscious

So, after several months in the making and a few last minute hitches sorting out the layout and finding a printer (I can highly recommend Imprint Digital), my book 'Through The Cloud' is now ready and can be purchased directly from us at

It is on the surface a book about cloud computing because I feel this is a paradigm that is transforming the way we use technology. It's actually much more than this though: I have shared my experience of implementing software in businesses of all sizes to create a step by step method for business owners to realise the benefits that the cloud can offer largely by themselves.

The major insight that I have taken from thirteen years in IT consulting is that technology projects which are seen as some sort of 'magic wand' to solve business problems on their own invariably fail to deliver to expectations; projects which are grounded in solving real, quantifiable business issues and improving information flow tend to be successful.

The flip side of this is that those businesses who understand the role that information plays in their business, and put in place systems and processes to make it flow properly and extract the management data they need tend to be more successful. These 'information conscious' organisations are scalable and get the best out of their staff by providing them with the information they need to do their job.

'Through The Cloud' is a step by step guide to becoming information conscious, getting the best from all the cloud technologies available and using that as a platform for business growth.