2 posts categorized "Slack"

05/02/2017

Collaborating in the Cloud Era

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Collaboration means different things to different people, but in the end we all need to work with others in some capacity or other. With more people equipped with faster bandwidth, built-in webcams and microphones, and mobile apps, the cloud is opening up all sorts of possibilities for working together to get things done - without having to be physically in the same location.

Cloud-based collaboration helps create a sense of shared responsibility. It levels the playing field for people to participate from a variety of settings and locations. It turns location-dependent work into location-independent work.

There are many cloud-based tools out there offering easy and low-cost collaboration options, yet many people are still hesitant to use them. They may feel resistant to learning new technology, or sense resistance from their team. They may not want to spend the money. In many cases we find people just don’t realize the capabilities of these tools, and how they can improve workflow and productivity and replace ineffective processes.  

How do we at NewPath Consulting collaborate with our customers? Which tools do we use, and why do we think the cloud is useful for better collaboration and fewer misunderstandings? We’ll answer those questions in this post.

Collaborative scheduling with Appointlet

Everyone gets frustrated with the back-and-forth of booking meetings. One person proposes a few times, then the other person replies with a few other times, and after a few more rounds of emails they agree on a time (with no guarantee that time actually gets onto either person’s calendar).

A cloud-based tool like Appointlet (Alex’s online calendar) eliminates the need for this back-and-forth. With Appointlet, you establish different types of appointments (30-minute initial consultation, 60-minute meeting, etc.) and set your available meeting hours (e.g., weekdays from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.) and other policies (e.g., insert a 15-minute gap between all scheduled meetings).

When someone visits your Appointlet calendar via your website or a link you send by email or instant message, they can select an appointment type and choose one of your open times. Then Appointlet syncs with your own Google or Office 365 calendar so you will never be double-booked.

Online schedulers create a unique sense of transparency. NewPath Consulting’s Alex Sirota notes, “By allowing others to transparently select their appointment from my available time slots on my calendar, based on my preferred scheduling policy, I am giving the most amount of options to my appointment partner - setting the stage for mutual respect as well as reducing the actual amount of overhead time to set a meeting.”

While it may seem like the person asking for the meeting has to do more work, they’ll have multiple options and are guaranteed a spot as long they can find a match. They have the power to not only schedule a meeting, but to cancel or reschedule - all without having to start a new email thread. Appointlet also ensures that both parties get the appointment in their calendars and receive email reminders.

Online appointment booking systems save time, and set equal responsibility. “I won’t book appointments by email anymore,” Alex says, “My appointment booking link is in my email signature, and I also offer it anytime a customer needs more help than I can give by email.”

The key for Alex was to change the tone when he invites someone to book a time. Instead of being a chore for the other person, it’s a way he can provide better service. “I tell them, ‘I’ve opened my calendar for you to select a time at your convenience,’ and they can also select how we’ll meet - phone, video conference, or face to face.”

Collaborative meetings with Zoom

As long as you have reliable internet access, a webcam, and a microphone, video conferencing can change the whole way you think about office space. At NewPath Consulting, we often use the cloud-based conferencing tool Zoom as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to in-person meetings. This eliminates multiple expenses, including the time and energy to get to a location, fuel costs, wear and tear on you and your mode of transport.

And while in-person meetings commonly don’t start on time, when the technology is in place, most web-based meetings start quickly with just the click of a mouse.  In fact, Zoom and Appointlet integrate beautifully, making it easy to set up web conferences and share the technical details with all parties involved, making it even faster and smoother to get started.

Zoom depends on a couple of important prerequisites. All participants need to have a reliable and speedy internet connection (at least 5 Mbit/s or faster for both uploading and downloading), and a decent quality microphone, camera and set of speakers. It’s also important for all callers to be in a relatively quiet environment because background noise from one person’s line can undermine the entire meeting.

Another benefit of Zoom is that you can patch into the meeting from any phone to a variety of local or toll-free dial-in numbers; you don’t need to participate via video or the web. You can also record meetings to the cloud and/or to your computer. Meetings then become a form of self-documenting, real-time, customized, just-in-time training (that can be accessed forever). We find that our customers really appreciate this high degree of customer service.

Collaborative project management with Google Docs

Lastly, let’s talk about collaborative project management. It used to be that I had my documents on my computer, and you had your documents on your computer, and we could maybe send each other drafts of documents and share via email or USB key.

First launched in April 2012, Google Drive allows users to store files in the cloud, synchronize files across devices, and share files. Now instead of on “my computer” or “your computer,” documents are on Google’s “virtual computer” - the cloud. Along with protecting your files from accidents, corruption, theft, or computer crashes, Google Drive also makes them much easier to share and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets or presentations.

Another aspect of the cloud era is that we don’t have to wait until everything is perfect before we share our work with someone else. The whole point of Google Drive’s collaboration features is for people to create and edit documents together. One person can share even the most basic outline or title, and everyone else can jump right in to contribute and improve. There is a shared responsibility across all parties to make the document better, continuously refining and shaping the message until they all think it’s the best it can be.

Not everyone is comfortable with this approach but we’re experimenting with it more and more at NewPath Consulting because it is the future of collaboration. One of our business development documents has seen 13 major edits so far - and we expect at least another 13 before it’s finalized!

In Google Drive there are ways to enter edits as comments (you can tag one or more collaborators to call their attention to a comment), as suggested changes (must be approved by the original author), or by actually updating the current version of the document. Any collaborator can review the document’s revision history to see exactly who changed what and when.

Slack - the ultimate collaboration tool

Slack is a real-time messaging app that allows you to divide conversations into specific topics/projects, share files, message individuals directly, and much more. It’s accessible via Mac, Windows and Linux, with mobile apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Too many people live and die by their email, which becomes a never-ending and constantly changing to-do list. It’s difficult if not impossible to prioritize tasks, keep conversations straight, and effectively communicate with groups of people.

Slack takes project management out of email and is a way to structure organizational tasks into conversations. It’s the equivalent of Facebook for work - a ‘water cooler’ where people can move projects forward by making quick decisions in real time.

Alex of NewPath says, the answer is clear, “Slack is the first place I go to receive and send information related to customer service or internal NewPath projects. It's a prioritized communication channel for our staff. Email is what we use for communication with the outside world, for now. We’re looking at inviting customers into the Slack channel where our team is already discussing and executing their project.”

Separating discussions into distinct channels and projects is the key to being able to focus, no matter which tool you’re using. That way people aren’t wasting time managing messages that don’t pertain to them, and they can consciously tap into a specific discussion when it’s time to work on that project.

There are many integrations that can help bridge the gap for people who are attached to the tools they’ve gotten used to, and that make Slack even more productive and fun. In a sense one can stitch together a collection of cloud tools, all within Slack.

Though we’ve come to the end of this blog post, we’re still at the beginning of this brand new era of collaboration. We’re experimenting on your behalf. We’re working with new tools in new ways, testing them internally before bringing them to our customers to experiment with us. Then we can know how things really work and whether they truly make our work and our lives better.

04/05/2017

Software Overload? Integration Brings Relief

There are almost 4,000 cloud-based marketing services on the market today (UPDATE: As of May 2017, there are now over 5,000 martech services), many of which are free or cost only a few dollars a month. With such a low barrier to entry, many small and medium-sized business owners are tempted to keep adding more and more tools and services until they’re too overwhelmed to use any of them effectively.

NewPath's guiding principle is to choose the software services just right for your business size and maturity, rather than buying into a monolithic "do all" software platform. Our two primary evaluation criteria are quite simple: Can the core value of the tool be demonstrated in 30 minutes and does the underlying service vendor have outstanding support?

The trick is to get your software products to work together, integrating them to effectively talk to each other. You will get the best benefit when your tools work together to accomplish business requirements that each cannot accomplish on its own.  

For example, any online form has the ability to notify you that someone has filled it out, which generally happens via email. But imagine the possibilities within an integrated set of tools, e.g., as soon as a form is submitted, a business process is activated depending on the fields filled out, an automated response is sent to the website visitor, and a new account is created in your customer database. A specific employee is assigned to the account and receives follow-up reminders to stay in touch. This is all possible when cloud services are properly set up with your business’s model and requirements in mind.

Some SaaS (software as a service) products integrate better than others, with built-in functionality that business users can apply with a bit of time and effort, with no coding required or the need to reinvent the wheel.

NewPath Consulting has evaluated a wide range of SaaS products over the past four years for their effectiveness, ease of use and interoperability. In the infographic below, we’ve highlighted our favourites, and demonstrated how they correspond with five core capabilities of all businesses, outlined in the centre of the diagram:

NewPath Consulting SMB Martech Stack

  1. Business - business modeling and operational planning
  2. Market - understanding the customer and what motivates them to engage
  3. Design and usability - creating the necessary environment to deliver value to customers
  4. Implementation - understanding the fundamental capabilities of cloud-based tools and services
  5. Content marketing - combining capabilities 1 through 4 to find and retain customers and business partners in the digital realm

Each business must acquire these capabilities over time as they mature and grow. These capabilities are required to understand and validate your business objectives, your sales and marketing techniques, and which tools to use and when.

At NewPath we believe that as a business becomes more capable and experienced at these five core knowledge areas, they also become ready to transform into a digital workplace. 

For example, most businesses need an online presence (ie a website or mobile app) but not every business requires a formal customer relationship management (CRM) tool since many don’t employ large groups of outbound sales people. If you’re just starting out and don’t have many prospects or customers, then a shared cloud-based spreadsheet with some basic analytics can be as effective and has a lower cost and complexity than a CRM.

The productivity tools in the infographic above are indicated by their company logos, and are arranged in concentric circles according to the business objective(s) of each tool. These circles radiate from the core capabilities and also correlate to the size and maturity level of an organization. We believe that businesses of every size can benefit from assessing their core capabilities and having a well-curated technology “stack,” a combination of software services used by staff and customers to achieve various business objectives.

Tool set #1: Content and experience

The first objective every business is to develop a modern and interactive website on a capable content management platform. NewPath supports the easy-to-use yet fully extensible WordPress platform. WordPress is best in class for template-based sites, with extensibility via plugins and themes to handle any requirement you may need. Couple this with the easy yet powerful form builder Formstack to enable your prospects and customers to interact with you 24/7. The overall driving principle of this tool set is “Serving the customer.”

Tool set #2: Advertising and promotion

The tools NewPath recommends are AppSheet, Wild Apricot and Mad Mimi. AppSheet allows you to build mobile apps from spreadsheets, using your own data to deliver a branded experience to your customers. It's easy, free, and there is no coding involved. Wild Apricot is a cloud-based service that includes website management, membership renewals, email marketing and donations for membership-based organizations (nonprofits, clubs and associations). Mad Mimi is NewPath’s choice for email marketing. Read more about why Mad Mimi is still our choice after all these years. The overall driving principle of this tool set is “Attracting the customer.”

Currently, at NewPath we don’t recommend any online advertising ad platforms. We recognize this is a controversial position, yet content marketing simply provides a better return on investment for most SMBs over online ads. Here’s some proof based on our own experience with content marketing and spending on ads. Online ads can work, though, for certain product sectors, to boost an already well-known brand, or for local advertising of local services.

Tool set #3: Commerce and sales

For commerce and sales, NewPath recommends PayPal, WooCommerce and Stripe. Everyone’s heard of PayPal and the service remains easy to use for secure online payment processing. WooCommerce is a free WordPress plugin that allows you to set up an online store to sell directly from your website - why pay for an ecommerce platform when you can have more power for less cost? Stripe makes it even easier to do business online by offering recurring and one-time credit card payment processing. Stripe checks out the transaction, makes sure it is legitimate, and if all looks good, they send the money automatically over to your business bank account, without the need for a merchant account. The overall driving principle of this tool set is “Making it easy sell and buy services and products.”

Tool set #4: Social and relationships

Social media and the cultivation of relationships is an important step in the sales cycle. Some aspects can be automated and other parts must be handled directly, but in each scenario, business acumen and technology can help. At NewPath Consulting we use the following social and relationship management tools: 

  • Slack.com is our internal communications and collaboration tool, which we use as an alternative to inter-office emails so everyone remains on the same page and informed of internal projects and delivery of customer service.
  • Highrise is our customer and partner database that keeps us abreast of all interactions between our sales and marketing team and our prospects and customers, and allows us to schedule touchpoints and keep notes and to-dos in order. Highrise integrates seamlessly with your email inbox, important since after phone calls, email is the primary communication channel between staff and customers.
  • Zoom is our recommended service for video meetings, which can be recorded and scheduled ahead of time for up to 50 participants via phone and video.
  • Appointlet helps us automate the process of scheduling meetings between team members, prospective customers, and customers, eliminating the back and forth of trying to find a mutually available time in people’s busy schedules. 
  • Hootsuite lets us monitor social media and schedule new and popular content when the intended audience is most likely to be online.

The overall driving principle of this tool set is “Staying organized while keeping in touch with prospects and customers.”

Tool set #5: Data & Management

As an organization matures to the point where it needs to effectively manage a lot of data and personnel, NewPath uses and recommends these products to use analytical insights to drive business decisions:

  • The Business Model Canvas helps a business owner clarify and iterate a business model that may not be complete or functional.
  • Stitch Data, WebHooks, Zapier and SuperMetrics help integrate and automate data integration between various services.
  • FreshBooks is a cloud-based accounting tool that keeps track of invoices, expenses and taxes, and offers recurring billing. And your business will get paid faster when you can deliver invoices electronically and get paid electronically!
  • Google Analytics allows you to track website traffic, events and the return on investment of marketing efforts.
  • LastPass provides secure password management for all staff.
  • GoDaddy offers secure, reliable domain name management and managed WordPress hosting.
  • Safari Books online and Lynda.com provide ongoing business education for your staff and customers.
  • G Suite from Google allows for cloud storage and instant, collaborative editing of documents, illustrations and spreadsheets.

Do you have a mismatched collection of productivity tools that aren’t working together to help your business grow? Step back and look at the big picture of how your business is evolving, which core capabilities you have and which you need to build, and which set of services will help you reach your business goals.