One of the great trends that is very much in favour of small business is the explosion of cloud based, hosted or online services that are now available.
The types of services, tools or apps that I’m talking about are website builders, shopping carts, Customer Relationship Management systems, booking and appointment systems, customer contact service tools like click to chat, automated marketing engagement plans, email broadcast services, social media scheduling and monitoring services, SEO and marketing services, accounting services and packages. They range from core business operational type services to niche tasks. The list of such services just goes on and on.
Many of these services previously would only have been available to larger sized businesses with the budget to match. The major barrier has been a large enough budget that could support the infrastructure to host such services, implementation and expertise costs to bring it online, and purchasing the license/s plus the ongoing overhead of managing and troubleshooting as well as ad hoc upgrades/bug fixes. There would also be licensing costs involved.
The hosted subscription based model or cloud services has largely if not completely removed all of these initial entry level barriers for most business. Now small business can literally have the functionality that traditionally only big companies could afford.
It’s a game changer in my mind, allowing a small business owner to literally offer online services that will set them apart from their competitors. Now as the market starts to mature, it’s a great time for small businesses to start consider these options.
So for the business owner thinking about making the move to cloud based services, I’ve listed the benefits as well as things to watch out for.
No upfront investment in costly computer hardware and IT support to build the infrastructure internally.
Included in the subscription cost will be the hosting costs, 24/7 IT team to monitor and keep the service running smoothly.
No waiting on your web developer to get back to you or to charge you for the time. Generally there will be good 24/7 support to help you with any questions or problems as part of the service. After all it’s in their interest to be easy to deal with and offer good service. They will likely have answered your question before so will have either documentation, videos as well as email, phone or click to chat support so that you can talk with someone as well.
No need to have a conversation - ever - about about server updates or patches or upgrade incompatibility with your software etc.
No more web development expense of ‘upgrading’ to the next version or bringing your website into line with latest trends. If you’re with a good service provider they will have a strong ‘development road map’ and likely be periodically rolling out upgrades and improvements to their service. It’s in the service provider's interest to keep on top of trends - because otherwise they will lose your custom to a better company!
You don’t need technical know how to get up and running. Generally I’ve found the good companies will be there ready to support you with lots of documentation or training videos and phone, email or click to chat support. After all they’ve got lots of other customers who have asked the same question many times before.
Many offer free trial periods, and lower entry level costs that allow you scale up over time as your business grows without having to layout a lot of licensing and implementation costs with a web developer in the early days of your business.
Hosted based services generally have a large customer base that allows you get a 360 degree review of their capabilities and services (the benefit of living in our socially connected world!) If they’re not performing, you’ll be able to know about it by doing your research online.
You don’t have to worry about disaster recovery systems and security audits etc. All this is the responsibility of the service you are subscribing to and it’s in their interest to let you know how good their backup systems and redundancies are. The well known and successful companies have sophisticated performance monitoring to make sure your website/service is up and running 24/7. And when there is a problem, they have systems in place ready to respond immediately. No getting a call from your customer to let you know that you’re website is down.
Usually they’re very quick to get up and running. This means that you can have your website, with click to chat feature and bespoke forms ready to roll within literally minutes or hours. They also take care of all the testing and debugging.
A cloud based service is going to mostly be a lower cost to purchase than if you were doing an in-house installation because they are spreading the development costs around a large client base, so you the client benefit from low cost, high features.
Scalability and integration is core to their design. Being cloud based, a good provider will build in as much easy integration as possible as a way to guarantee a loyal customer base. Alternatively services like IFTTT and Zapier will likely help with integrations between apps and services.
It’s not difficult to pick up and move to another service if one service doesn’t fulfil your expectations.
Things to watch out for
Connectivity - you do need to make sure you have access to the internet to access these services. So you might need to think about backup access in case there is an internet outage in your area.
There will be some limitations to the services, so you may need to make compromises. To manage this risk, do your due diligence up front and know what you can and can’t achieve with the service and make up your mind before you make the leap whether these are acceptable compromises. Remember, sometimes a compromise is worth it because you are moving forward, and offering something that you haven’t had before. Alternatively consider the option of what would it cost to get a web developer to customise the service (if possible) or build it from scratch. This exercise alone quickly allows you to see whether you can live with the compromise. Remember the digital world moves so quickly, something that can’t be done today may not take long to come online. In fact a lot of these service providers are actively looking for feedback from their customers so that they can keep improving the service to keep in line with their customer needs. I’ve had this experience where the service provider has told me no to a feature, but within 6 months they’ve followed up with me and advised that they’d introduced the functionality that I was after.
Not all of these services are created equal! Check the quality and manage the risk by making sure that the tool or plugin is widely used. Search for disgruntled people that have had problems. Look at whether the issue was resolved quickly and if the person ultimately had the issue resolved. Look at the ratings and make sure that there are numerous, remember if there’s just a few then these might be planted by the company, so you need a ‘more is better’ approach.
Depending on the importance and amount of the subscription service, get in touch with a company that is already using it and check that the product is as it says it is. Also, take the time to test it when you install it. Pick a quiet time eg. early on a Sunday when traffic is on your website (don’t moan, your customers will thank you) and install and take it for a test drive. Look for any problems with any other parts of your website, test that everything else is still working as it should be.
Using cloud based solutions means that your data may not be owned or in your hands. Therefore you should take precautions to routinely save your data into your own keeping eg. contacts in your email or CRM system, copy of your website, copy/extract all of your orders/sales
Some businesses can’t use cloud services because of sensitive customer data eg in Australia, finance and healthcare must keep customer data in Australia. Many of these services will not be hosted in Australia.
If you’re using a few of these services then you won’t have one point of contact as you would have with your web developer but a few. Some people feel that this is worth something for the convenience of having it all managed for them, and this can be mitigated by engaging a company on a retainer or ad hoc basis or even getting a virtual assistant with the right skills to manage it on your behalf.
Thinking it’s time to get into the cloud?
If you think that this might be a viable solution for you I’ve a listed a few of the great cloud based services out there to give you a feel for the scope and breadth of what’s possible. Most of these have free trial periods so that you can take them for a test drive.
- Squarespace, Wix and Shopify - for websites and shopping cart
- Weebly - for website with a basic secure membership functionality
- Zendesk and Freshdesk for easy to install click to chat and customer service capability
- Capsule CRM for a easy customer management database that integrates and records interactions with Zendesk or Freshdesk
- Mailchimp for email that integrates with just about anything
- Zapier to see how many integration scripts they have ready to go
- Gettimely or Calendly for appointment bookings
- GetResponse, Ontraport or Activecampaign for automated marketing and landing pages
- OptinMonster and Sumome for email pop up collectors
- Asana for project management
- Zippy courses for online program and courses.
Do you think you are missing out on important opportunities for your business in the online space?
If you would like to explore working with a digital strategist to pull together a complete digital strategy with all the right tools in place to automate and make your business more efficient, book in for a free 20 minute Digital Discovery session to explore how digital might help with your business.