OPINION: Bottom line winners

27 Jul 2011

Jim Foster, client principal with BT, outlines the technologies and processes that offer quick wins in a challenging economy.

In the current environment, reducing operating costs will be top of the agenda for many businesses. This is good policy for any business whether in an economic downturn or not, but there comes a point where further cost cutting becomes counterproductive and actually limits potential growth or negatively impacts existing business.

From an IT perspective, several basic strategies and technologies can assist businesses and organisations in reducing costs and, at the same time, drive efficiency. A nice side effect of this process is to make the IT infrastructure fit for purpose and ready to support the organisation when the economic cycle turns again. Let’s look at some simple strategies:

Even in this storm, the cloud is your friend

After lots of column inches about the virtues of emerging cloud computing, there is now reality to the hype. Desktop application hosting and storage, real-time unified communications, and multimedia conferencing and contact centres can now be delivered to businesses without having all the hardware and in–house technical expertise associated with traditional on premise solutions. More flexible pricing means cloud-based services can be delivered at a fraction of the costs of traditional self-built systems.

Most cloud or Software as a service (SaaS)-based products are priced as op-ex rather than cap-ex so you pay only for what you use. There’s no in-house technical support required, meaning you’re free to focus on your business. Cloud-based services offer enhanced resilience as they are typically built with high availability, disaster recovery and multi-tenancy in mind from the ground up.

Communicate with your customers

This seems obvious doesn’t it? After all, if you’re not talking to them, your competitors are. But how are you communicating with them? A new generation of potential customers out there expect interaction via instant messaging, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Their mobile devices are contact/sales/marketing tools. In most cases this is either free or at very small cost.

The same is true of company websites. Many companies have a very basic site, no more than online catalogues, in a lot of cases. A competitor’s site that provides technical support via web chat, uses instant messaging to track orders, or even a face-to-face video/audio session with the sales/support/logistics team, is more likely to win the customer’s business. It’s all down to development of the site and connecting your business channels.

Even the plain old telephone can be improved. Call into a business that you’ve had some dealings with before; how nice would it be if their telephone system recognised your number and automatically routed you to the correct person or team? By making it easier for new and existing customers to do business with you, there is a bottom-line benefit. By using technology to improve the customer experience you make them “stickier” or less likely to look elsewhere for the products or services you offer.

Small improvements in interfaces to social media networks and contact centres will offer rapid return of investment via customer retention and sales growth. Web development is almost a commodity marketplace now with good quality work available for a relatively small investment.

Virtualisation – many into one does go

Virtualisation has really come of age recently, to the point where even multiple real-time and unified communications applications (such as voice and video call processing) can be virtualised onto single server-based platforms. Virtualisation suits all sizes of business, from SME right up to global corporations. Even entire data centres themselves can be virtualised through hosting of multiple applications, infrastructure and security offsite.

Virtualisation’s benefits also have a direct positive impact on the bottom line. Fewer physical servers have a smaller equipment footprint, so less accommodation is required. You get lower operating costs, easier management, and of course, lower electricity bills. Another benefit is increased resilience and the ability to recover from an individual application server failure instantly.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Examine closely what you have within your existing IT infrastructure. We come across many organisations with perfectly adequate systems and networks, but they are either under-utilising the infrastructure or have poor design or configuration affecting the business – a solvable problem that doesn’t need additional equipment spend.

There are times of course, where IT equipment has reached its natural lifespan or is out of support. It can become a real liability where support/spares are hard to come by. It’s well worth considering professional help in assessing the current state of your network. Any investment in this will reap rewards through increased efficiencies and re-engineered, fit for purpose, reliable IT.

Conferencing – bringing it all together

Conferencing provides a means for physically distant teams to collaborate, thereby reducing the need for in-person meetings and the expense of travel. Employees improve their work/life balance and the employer gets more productive time to spend on the business.

Voice conferencing has been around for years and now multimedia conferencing lets users collaborate live on documents and presentations. Web-based conferencing (such as Cisco web-ex) provides ‘any to any’ connectivity globally. When nothing but face-to-face communication will do, there are even conferencing solutions to match. Telepresence technology itself is not intrusive and it’s all about the experience. Where Cisco and BT deployed large networks of telepresence specifically to speed up decision making and reduce travel costs, initial deployment costs were recouped within months on travel savings alone.

Adopting one or all of the approaches outlined above can have a significant bottom line benefit for your organisation in the medium-to-long term. Now is an ideal opportunity to take stock and take fresh look at your business. See where you can effect real change for the better drive down costs.

Jim Foster is client principal with BT.