International Game Technology: Winning At The Talent Recruitment Game

Smarter workforceWhether a business is large or small, identifying, qualifying and hiring the right employees is critical to innovation and growth. But, as the recession wanes and the economy picks up, more companies are hiring, and competitionespecially for top talentis intensifying. This makes it more difficult for many companies to find the talent they need to thrive.

At the same time, options to help identify and hire candidates are expanding. For instance, employee referrals, advocacy programs, social media and mobile apps are becoming more important recruitment tools, while the role of external recruiting vendors is diminishing. While these new recruitment channels can help companies access a broader applicant pool, it’s not easy to use, integrate and optimize across them.

As a result, many businesses are reassessing and refreshing their existing recruiting practices and solutions. They are looking for knowledge and tools to give them the agility they need to compete more successfully throughout the recruitment process. .

In this three-part series, sponsored by IBM Smarter Workforce, I look at how companies are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) and assessment solutions to better address these issues, and new developments in this area that promise to provide further enhancements.

International Game Technology: Fueling Growth With Talent

HomepageHeroBanner_JurassicParkHeadquartered in Las Vegas, 34-year old International Game Technology (IGT) is the leading manufacturer of gaming machines. From Las Vegas to Monte Carlo, from Wheel of Fortune to James Cameron’s AVATAR, chances are you’ve played a video slots game on an IGT machine.

While IGT has been the long-time market leader, it does not rest on its laurels. In 2011, the company introduced IGT Cloud, an industry-first which lets casino operators dynamically deploy game content across multiple properties to optimize floor efficiencies, and also offer a seamless gaming experience across land-based, mobile and online devices. In 2012 IGT acquired Double Down Interactive LLC, a social gaming company and developer of DoubleDown Casino on Facebook, to fuel IGT’s expansion through new media. In 2013, IGT partnered with Casino Del Sol in Arizona to hold the AZ, to hold the Game King Championship, the first cross-platform video poker tournamentand the largest in the world, with more than 360,000 players.

To sustain this pace of growth and innovation, IGT must be able to identify and attract top talent.

Keeping Up With IGT Talent Requirements

Talent management solutions are still relatively new. Up until 2000, IGT had—like most companiesrelied on newspaper ads and human resources business partners for candidate recruitment. People would stop in to drop off hard copy applications, and everything was stored in physical file cabinets.

In 2000, IGT started using BrassRing’s cloud-based applicant tracking system. While the solution worked well, as the company grew, they needed more capabilities in the talent management area. When Laura Callender joined IGT six years ago as HRIS Staff Analyst, her job was to refresh and revamp talent management systems at the company to ensure IGT would be able to attract and retain top talent.

IGT’s first priority was to revamp the BrassRing ATS (which is now part of the IBM Kenexa Talent Suite) to keep pace with the company’s expanding global operations and hiring requirements. According to Callender, “It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day, and neglect new features. But it’s important to keep re-evaluating business needs and figure out what will really help improve the process.”

Callender took a fresh look at things, and extended the system to support IGT’s growing geographical footprint, and provide Chinese and Spanish language capabilities. She also added other capabilities, such as mobile functionality. “So many things that are cutting edge, like enabling mobile job applicants…five years ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of job hunting and applying on a mobile phone. But now applicants might be at the dentist’s office and want to apply. We need to enable these new capabilities that will make a difference to our business,” says Callender.

Community and Support Are Key to Success

men with puzzle piecesIGT has found IBM’s “Kenexans” and the community of Smarter Workforce users invaluable in helping her figure out what changes will provide the most value to IGT. “IBM’s Kenexans help us stay ahead of these trends…they focus on helping us improve the way we do things and help us figure out what options will give us the biggest bang for the buck. Should we turn features on or off? What should we do differently? And how can we make things seamless for our users? So many things are cool, but what will we get the most value from?” observes Callender.

IBM’s Smarter Workforce Global Support Center helps IGT prioritize enhancements via an annual review. As important, IGT can call on their services as needed, not only for break/fix issues, but for new project tickets, and to get the “hand-holding” required to implement new functionality. “We’re in the middle in terms of what we need to implement, and they are there when we need them to help with the next step. It’s a closer degree of support than we get from other vendors,” notes Callender. “Out of all the vendors, in terms of support, I would choose IBM Kenexa any day.”

Callender is very active in user groups as well, which helps her learn from what others are doing, and what’s worked and what hasn’t for them. She’s attended six global conferences, and participated in user groups at all of them. As Callender puts it, “The user groups have really grown, from 30 to 40 attendees to over 100 at the last one. We don’t have an army of HR and IT people, but I can talk to users that do, like Pepsico, Time Warner and Disney, that we can really learn from. At the same time, there are companies smaller than uswith just 100 or 200 employeesthat we can help. It’s a really good way to exchange knowledge.”

The user groups also help facilitate conversations between the IBM Kenexa team and users. “We talk, and they listen. We sit in a roundtable, it’s very interactive, with experts and R&D engineers at each table to discuss topics such as referrals, triggers, etc. It’s very helpful and they act on our input.”

Getting Results

Since IBM Kenexa BrassRing is cloud based, upgrades are “very easy,” says Callender. “IBM rolls them out and turns them on. Some things you have a choice to upgrade or not. But they never break anything with an upgrade, which has happened with some of the other cloud solutions we use.”

Today, IGT hiring managers, external recruiters and applicants are all using the system. Last year, IGT used BrassRing to hire about 600 employees for mostly technical positions, with an average of about 50 applicants for each position. IGT has integrated BrassRing ATS with its SAP ERP system, so that when someone is hired, they are automatically moved from BrassRing to SAP. “Instead of having a person digging through emails to find candidates, ATS can do this for us much faster and more effectively with Boolean searches, and tagging,” states Callender.

IBM Kenexa’s BrassRing ATS also helps IGT answer important questions that impact recruitment strategy, such as:

  • What is the tipping point for the number of applicants for a certain position?
  • How can we do a fill requisitions more quickly?
  • What’s the best way to deal with counteroffers, or higher rejection rates?
  • How can we recruit people that aren’t currently looking for a job?

“We get our money’s worth from BrassRing ATS. We don’t have a formal measurement system, but we know we are saving a lot of time, which saves us money. There is no way we could function without it.” In addition, BrassRing pricing is based on the number of requisitions and applicants, so “what we pay for it aligns with our actual use, which we appreciate,” explains Callender.

Perspective

Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, fueling the innovation required to grow and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world. Many cloud-based ATS solutions available, but as the IGT story illustrates, it’s not just the nuts and bolts of the software that matter. Being part of an active, engaged vendor support and user community can help you to:

  1. Map out a more effective strategy. Look for vendors and user communities that are collaborative, and can help you assess your requirements and how they are likely to evolve, and provide you with scalable solutions that you can deploy in an incremental manner.
  2. Get things right the first time. Your company benefits when the vendor facilitates knowledge sharing of best practices for things such as reporting considerations, workflow and underlying database structure that will take the most time and pain out of different processes. For instance, how do you set things up so applicants don’t need to fill out a new affirmative action form every time they apply for a new job, but can just edit information they’ve previously entered?
  3. Prioritize next steps. Your business is constantly evolving, and so is the hiring environment. But few organizations can do everything. Strategic prioritization is essential to figure out what new functionality will provide the most value.

The world of recruitment and talent management is changing quickly. This sets the stage for not only selecting the company and solution that best fits your immediate needs, but one that will provide a strong support experience to help you gain the best outcomes as your business and the recruitment landscape evolve.

This is the first post in a three-part blog series written by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM. The series examines talent management solutions and trends.

How The Cloud Can Help SMBs: A Conversation

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 12.27.13 PMLast week, I had the opportunity to be a panelist on IBM’s first virtual influencer event on Spreecast, (a great new platform that connects you with people through video conversation) about how the cloud can help small and medium businesses (SMBs) to build their businesses from the ground up, compete more effectively with big businesses, and grow.

Paul Gillin, veteran tech journalist and social media expert at Profitecture (@pgillin) moderated the panel, which included me, IBM General Manager, IBM Midmarket John Mason (@jcmason), and Subbu Balakrishnan, CTO and co-Founder of Good.co (@backslash0), a career platform built on SoftLayer that helps people find best-fit workplaces and jobs. 15-20 other SMB thought leaders also joined us via Spreecast’s chat function.

You can watch and listen here for the full conversation, but here are a few of the key perspectives I took away from this lively and interesting discussion:

  • All panelists agreed that the momentum for SMB adoption of cloud services is rising rapidly. SMBs increasingly see that by using cloud solutions, they can focus more of their resources and money on their core business, and leapfrog slower-moving competitors.
  • With the help of SoftLayer, Good.com went from idea to over 100,000 users in a year and a half using a credit card to pay for cloud infrastructure. According to Subbu, this is something the 15-20 employee company would not have been able to accomplish if they had to build out their own cloud infrastructure.
  • Many startups are forgoing on premises software entirely, opting to do as much as possible in the cloud. The cloud removes technology and capital barriers to get up and running. They can skip a whole generation of software to get their companies off the ground more quickly. The cloud is quickly becoming the preferred way for startups to go.
  • Once you’re up and running, the cloud gives you a flexible infrastructure to scale and grow the business.
  • The rate and pace of technology change continues to increase. The cloud not only provides SMBs with the benefits of infrastructure scale, but with access to the increasingly specialized technology skills and expertise that are necessary today.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the cloud. Public, private, hybrid, shared, or dedicated—each company will have different requirements for different solutions.
  • Business partners play a critical role in helping many SMBs take full advantage of cloud services by fully understanding the SMB’s business requirements. Skilled and trusted partners can translate SMB business requirements into the best-fit cloud solution so the SMB doesn’t have to parse through all of the cloud variants on their own.

Nine Signs Michael Dell Will Be the Comeback Kid

14111426889_67f83375a7_zA couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Dell’s annual analyst conference (DAAC), an event I’ve attended for many years. The big difference this year, of course, is that this is the first DAAC since Michael Dell took his now 30-year old company private several months ago.

As a longtime Dell watcher, I’ve been tracking Dell’s journey from hardware vendor to become an end-to-end IT solutions and services provider (see my 2011, 2012 and 2013 perspectives). The event persuaded me that Dell is well on its way to accomplishing its mission to reinvent itself and offer customers a differentiated, more cost-effective and easier-to-use IT experience.

Why? Because Michael Dell has not only unchained his company from Wall Street’s myopic quarterly demands, but because he is also building a powerful value proposition for customers that puts Dell on a solid comeback trail. Key evidence for Dell being on the right track include:

1. Customers increasingly view Dell as a key partner. Dell’s mission to engage in deeper conversations with customers of all sizes is paying off. At DAAC, customers used superlatives to describe how Dell is delivering more complete solutions, higher value, lower costs, and a better customer experience. For instance, Ted Colbert, Boeing CIO, discussed how the Dell relationship has expanded from day-to-day operations to some of the most strategic initiatives. He also described working with Dell as “purposeful,” in contrast to a more scatter shot approach of “just throwing hardware at us like some other vendors.” Exasol CEO Aaron Auld talked about how Dell “provided them with the support they needed to win new business and grow,” and Jenkon Director of Information Systems, Steve Shinsel described Dell’s end-to-end solutions support as “phenomenal.” Yes, I know vendors handpick customers to attend these events, but in addition to the unprecedented level of enthusiasm I heard from these customers, Dell’s aggregate NPS (Net Promoter Score) of 52 and 90% customer retention are best in class.

2. Business is growing. Since going private, Dell says it has added 18,000 new customers to its ranks and is seeing steady growth in it’s software and services businesses, among others. In fact, the company’s PC business has enjoyed five consecutive quarters of market share growth. I think customers were naturally anxious as they waited to see how things would play out, but are now giving Dell a vote of confidence with their wallets. Furthermore, the company appears to be headed toward profitable growth, according to CFO Tom Sweet, who told us the company paid down $1 billion of debt in the first quarter of this year. Dell’s goal is to get back to “investment grade” status within the next four years.

 Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 4.54.52 PM3. Entrepreneurial DNA runs deep and can now fully surface. Check out Michael Dell’s twitter handle! He knows what it takes to build a company from scratch, and being self-employed suits him. Freed up from Wall Street constraints, Dell can again operate in both a more strategic and agile fashion, and infuse employees with the entrepreneurial spirit as well. Dell’s high-level strategy remains the same to bring complete IT solutions to customers, be accessible and listen to what customer want. But the company can now more easily place some new bets to fulfill this mission. For example, Dell is investing to become a value-added cloud broker, positioning itself as an advisor to customers, rather than an OEM. In a very cloudy world, Dell’s Switzerland approach should be attractive to many customers. Furthermore, Dell has upped itsR&D spending from 1.6% of revenue to 2.1%. Last but not least, its hard to think of a more socially savvy tech CEOlistening ears are on!


14296498661_36be143384_z4. Execs and employees are all in.
 Other than customers, employees are any company’s best advocates. But, when there’s a lot of uncertainty in corporations, employees usually look for the nearest exit. But Dell is an exception. Despite a long, drawn out, uncertain and contentious (aka Carl Icahn) privatization process, Dell retained many of its top execs, such as Karen Quintos Senior VP and CMO; Jeff Clark Vice Chairman, Operations and President, Client Solutions; and Tom Sweet, Senior VP and CFO. Dell also attracted the fresh talent required for its transformation, including Andi Karaboutis, CIO; John Swainson, President, Software; Suresh C. Vaswani, President, Services. Renewed energy, excitement and loyalty were palpable in my conversations with employees too: when I asked how and why they stayed the course, they said they believed in Michael Dell’s vision—and several told me they bleed “Dell blue.”

5. Investment in a collaborative partnering model. Dell’s direct connection to customers provides Dell with many advantages, and will continue to be a key route to market for the company. But, Dell is investing in the channel to ensure it can sell to and service customers in today’s increasingly omni-channel world.  Dell has bridged what has sometimes been a gap in trust between it and the channel with a more collaborative partnering model. Dell is integrating regional channel and direct sales structures, paying Dell sales more for sales via the channel, and linking up regionally and locally with partners to pursue joint opportunities. Dell’s expanded portfolio also provides more partners with more headroom to grow with Dell. The results? Channel sales grew faster than direct sales in last quarter, and attach rates for channel sales are now within 3 to 4 points of the attach rates with Dell direct sales.

dell legacy of good6. Ethics, sustainability and diversity. In May, Dell was recognized as a 2014 World’s Most Ethical Company by the Ethisphere Institute, an independent center of research promoting best practices in corporate ethics and governance. Quoting the Institute, the EI award is given to companies “that continue to raise the bar on ethical leadership and corporate behavior.” Dell has also been recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability for many years, and recently upped its commitment when it announced its 2020 Legacy of Good Plan. Among the 21 corporate responsibility goals outlined in the plan, Dell has set 12 goals specific to environmental sustainability. Building on existing initiatives, these 12 environmental goals focus on three areas: reducing the environmental impact of company operations, driving social and environmental responsibility in the industry and supply chain, and promoting technology’s role in addressing environmental challenges. Finally, Dell’s executive team and workforce are diverse. Dell has also stepped up to help women entrepreneurs via Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN). Recent research from The Intelligence Group’s Cassandra Report indicates that among millennials, 59% say that a company’s ethics and practices are important factors in deciding what brands to buy. Pretty powerful stuff—and very tough to fake.

14113197698_5fef929bdb_z7. Stringing pearls instead of looking for one big rock. Dell has been investing strategically to acquire the IP and expertise it needs to package software and services in a more digestible way. While the theme at last year’s DAAC centered on the 12 acquisition Dell made, this year, the vendor spent more time discussing progress to integrate them and bring more complete solution value to customers. For instance, John Swainson discussed how, in the mobile management area, Dell combined Wsye, KACE and other assets for a single enterprise mobile management (EMM) solution to manage PCs, Macs and mobile devices. The vendor is looking to doing something similar in the cloud, giving customers a way to manage public, private, multi-cloud environments with open, scalable solutions. More recently, Dell acquired StatSoft, and intends to leverage this to reduce entry costs and barriers for customers in the analytics area. Just as important, Swainson emphasized that Dell will follow “the 80/20 rule,” to keep its software solutions as simple as possible to acquire and use.

14113201388_6075815e58_z8. The PC isn’t dead! There’s no question that the traditional PC market is declining, but Jeff Clarke took the stage to the tune of “we are not dead yet” from Monty Python’s movie Spamalot to deliver his “Top 10 reasons the PC is (not) dead” message. Good news for Dell, as PCs are the entry point for 70% of new customers. Of course, Dell also offers a growing array of other client devices—from Wyse thin clients to Chromebooks to tablets and laptops.

9. SMB growth and focus. Good segue from #8, as Dell’s fastest growing client business is the SMB market, which grew 28% in the last quarter. In my opinion, the “personal” in PC translates into Dell’s capability to expand SMB business into other solution areas. Furthermore, in an age of technology consumerization, consumer, prosumer and small business are inextricably linked. PCs provide Dell with a launch pad to expand SMB business into other areas. Dell’s direct model, which enables Dell to reach deep into SMBs, its continued focus on listening to customers, its new, collaborative partnering model and vision to sell more value at lower cost, should help keep Dell on this SMB growth trajectory.

In a nutshell, this isn’t your father’s Dell—or Wall Street’s Dell. It is Michael Dell’s Dell now, and it’s starting to benefit not only from being a private company, but also from the fact that as a private entity, it can more fully capitalize on the equally advantageous qualities summarized above.

 

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 2, Mobile Applications and Management

Recently, I was a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. The second of a four-part series, this post summarizes our discussion of “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.”

free multiple mobile devicesKalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. The next trend I’d like to discuss is mobile and mobile management and mobile app usage in the SMB market.

Laurie:Well, what we’ve seen with mobile is really fascinating.  I’ve never seen adoption in a technology area occur at such a fast and furious pace. It’s been just unbelievable since the iPhone was launched.

The iPhone changed everything because it personalized the devices, and spawned this whole app ecosystem, and it just made these phones that we all now carry around become critical in our personal lives and in our businesses. 

As a matter of fact, 67% of SMBs now view mobile solutions and services as critical to their businesses. That’s kind of unbelievable considering just a few years ago you probably had a dumb phone and you might have relied on it but nothing like we rely on our phones now. 

Kalynn: So what kind of mobile apps are SMBs using?

Laurie: Basic collaboration appscalendars, emails, messaging and contactsare already mainstream. About 83% of SMBs use them. 

Slide1SMBs are also adopting mobile apps for very business-specific functions. So, for things like order entry or inventory lookup, or to log time and attendance or enter payroll. Mobile is becoming part and parcel of how we conduct business.

Almost half of SMBs also either have or are planning to build a mobile-friendly website to engage customers using mobile devices. Sometimes you don’t even have to build it. If you have a WordPress site it’s automatically mobile friendly. 

Kalynn: Right, many themes now are mobile-enabled, and adjust depending on the size of the screen. 

Laurie: If you’re not doing this, you need to. It’s so frustrating to go to a site and have to keep adjusting the screen to read the text because it’s not mobile-friendly.

Some SMBs are also starting to deploy specific mobile apps to engage with their customers and prospects for appointment scheduling and payments, and things like that.

Kalynn: Do they develop their own proprietary mobile apps?

Laurie:Not necessarily. For instance, restaurants may use something like OpenTable. My hair salon uses a mobile app that lets me book and confirm and all that kind of stuff on my mobile device.

Some SMBs are also developing their own mobile apps or paying third parties to develop tailored apps for them.  Most of the backend applications that SMBs use have mobile app extensions, which are often available on Apple and Android app stores. If the right mobile app is available and can snap into your existing app, that can do the trick.

Kalynn: There’s absolutely no need to do customized right off the bat because so many apps are already out there that you can be a part of.

Don’t forget that in terms of making sure you’re getting found online, because  I’m always thinking in terms of SEO or Search Engine Optimization, a lot of these review sites like Yelp have mobile apps. People will go on them to check reviews about your business, more often than not from a mobile device. I’m not sure I remember the exact statistic but it was something 68% of people have their mobile phone within arm’s reach at all times. 

Laurie:It may be even higher. Also I think we’ve already passed the point where more searches are done on a mobile device than on a laptop or traditional PC or MAC.

Slide1So this makes mobile management critical because it’s a given that our reliance and use of mobile apps will continue to rise. SMBs must keep pace with the mobile explosion. You need to be able to manage not only the mobile devices in your company but also internal applications that your employees are using. 

With any mobile applications, security, management and provisioning are very important. If you’re not yet doing anything, in this area, the time has certainly come.

Kalynn: Right, you have to because employees are using so many devices and apps. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)  means that companies are less apt to supply people with devices. Everyone has a favorite and they have to all work together.  You really have to think about mobile policies and procedures  for mobile devices and various apps.

Laurie:Yes, fortunately there are a lot of vendors that have mobile management solutions now geared towards SMBs from vendors like AirWatch or MobileIron. And from vendors that you might already be doing business with like Dell or HP or IBM. A lot of them are cloud-based, so that makes them easier to deploy and use.  

Kalynn: Right, and I’m sure there are tons of consultants that work with these solutions and can help you figure it out too.

In the third of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light.” You can listen to the complete podcast here.

 

 

                       

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 1, Social Media Marketing and Technology As a Game Changer

Recently, I was a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. This, the first of a four-part series, summarizes our discussion of  “Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices” and “Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer.”

Kalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. I just want to let you know that the show you were on last year, discussing the 2013 SMB trends was the most downloaded interview that I have ever had on the podcast.

Laurie:Thanks, Kalynn and Happy New Year!

Kalynn: This is a perfect time of year for you to be on the show again because SMB Group recently published its 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends.  We won’t have time to go through all of them, and of course I’m more interested in the ones that are more relevant to marketing.

The first one I want to talk about is social media marketing. What you discovered might surprise a few people. Can you give some insight into that?

free social networkingLaurie: As you know, SMBs have been rapidly adopting social media as a marketing tool, whether building a presence on Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or some combination thereof. In fact, more than half of small businesses and two-thirds of medium businesses are using social media for marketing.

But, more SMBs are realizing that even though they don’t need to spend a lot of money to establish a social media presence, social has a voracious appetite for more and more content. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the content fresh because that’s what keeps people coming back. This is wearing on some businesses.

It’s also tough to keep up with changing social media preferences, for instance as millennials move from Facebook, for instance, to Snapchat or Instagram. So we predict that while social media marketing isn’t going away, it will stall a little as SMBs focus more on figuring out what really works and clicks with their target audiences.

Kalynn: Which makes a lot of sense. Google is a content monster; to get found you have to give it more and more content. But there has to be a happy balance between creating content and promoting your content. You need to promote your content more than once but you do have to find that balance.  All audiences will probably be different depending on what market you’re in, how often they’re willing to hear the message before they start to tune it out, and you do need fresh content.

Laurie: Absolutely, and at the end of the day it’s all about converting social connections that you’re making into customers and advocates. So the first step is to look at how you can repackage and reuse content in different ways to reach a wider audience.

I’ll give you an example. Today we’re talking about our 2014 top ten trends list. We initially published it in December and sent it to clients, prospects and press via email marketing, and got good traction with it.

As the new year started, we created individual tweets about each prediction, and that sparked more interest. Now I’m talking about it here on your show. It’s just not feasible for most of us to create fresh content every day, so it’s important to repackage it in different ways.

We also see more SMBs integrating social media marketing with their marketing and sales applications to get more insight into what’s going on, how what they’re doing is working and to make the information more actionable from a sales and marketing perspective.

free chess image 2Kalynn: Your very first prediction was another one I wanted to talk about: technology as a game changer for SMBs.

Laurie:That’s our overarching theme because of what we’ve been seeing since we started doing our surveys 5 years ago.

SMBs split into some clearly defined segments. One segment is what we call Progressive SMBs, who share a few characteristics. They’re much more likely to view technology as a business enabler; they invest more in technology; and they are also more likely to be growing revenue than other SMBs.

This gap has been widening and we predict it continue to do so. Trends such as generational shifts, the sharing economy and new technology fueled services that you may not even think about as technology solutions are accelerating this and reshaping what it means to be an SMB.

Kalynn: You talk about the generational shifts; I talk a lot about this with my primary audience, baby boomers, age 50 and over. There’s a drastic difference in communication styles between boomers and 20-somethings and millennials…people don’t retire early as often as they used to…that means there are many technologies and ways people are communicating. And also many ways that a business needs to be able to converse with customers and prospects, and it can be overwhelming.

Laurie: It can, and that relates to social media too. I think everyone should be spending at least some time with social media just to keep a pulse on what’s going on. It’s really important.

But we also see how Progressive SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on technology, cultural and demographic shifts to create new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Just think about the businesses that have started up in the last few years and have been replaced in the last few years. I think the last Blockbuster finally closed. Now we’ve got Roku and we can stream everything whether it’s from Netflix or Hulu or whatever.  There’s also a shift in talent acquisition and management…with more use of outsourced services or Elance for contractors or freelancers instead of hiring salaried employees.

Or, in rethinking office space. Shared office space and shared IT infrastructure services are really growing in popularity. These are all ways to think about your business in a different light. And most often technology provides the fuel that businesses need to really get ahead.

Kalynn: Right, and in case people are not aware, Elance and oDesk, who recently merged, are websites where you can virtually hire temporary staffing, either for projects, or on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.

They serve as middlemen, but protect you because they help with any disputes if things weren’t done well or not to your satisfaction. And they make it easier to track everything and for somebody not to get taken advantage of; either freelancer or the business owner.

Laurie: Yes, it’s basically a technology platform to help you manage the projects, execute the payments. The take care of all of the transaction stuff for you. People bid on the jobs, and you can see the ratings of each Elancer or oDesker, and you pick the bid you like.

At a higher level, we see that these more agile, Progressive SMBs taking advantage not just of technology per say but of solutions that are built on technology and also the sharing economy. Whether it’s shared workers, shared office space or shared IT infrastructure in the cloud or shared workers, you don’t have to own all your resources.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to.

Kalynn: Absolutely; there’s less headache often if you don’t own them.  And, you can adjust more quickly and scale up and scale down more quickly through projects, so it’s actually a really good thing.

In the second of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.” You can listen to the complete podcast here

SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends For 2014

Here are SMB Group’s Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2014! A more detailed description of each follows below.

1.     Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer
2.     Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds
3.     Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars
4.     Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices
5.     SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light
6.     SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy
7.     SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value
8.     The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight
9.     It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green
10.  Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up

2014 Top 10 SMB Technology Trends in Detail

  1. Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer. Technology continues to fuel changes in what, where, and how SMB (small and medium businesses, with 1 to 999 employees) work gets done. Back in 2011, SMB Group identified the “Progressive” SMB segment. Progressive SMBs invest more in technology-based solutions, view technology as a business enabler, and are much more likely to expect revenue growth than other SMBs. This gap continues to widen as we enter 2014, and is further fueled by generational shifts–including the rise of millennials in the workforce and older exiles from the corporate world. Progressive SMBs are blending technology and business savvy to reshape business models, carve out new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Their adoption of cloud, mobile, social and analytics will soar as they strive for both growth and agility. They will also increasingly turn to technology-fueled services—from Elance and oDesk for staffing, to shared office space and IT infrastructure services—in pursuit of these goals. As they forge ahead, they will not only continue to outpace peers, but reshape what it means to be an SMB.
  2. Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds. SMBs have bought into the cloud promise: a faster, easier, cheaper and less risky route to get the IT solutions they need to create and run their businesses. SMB Group research shows SMB use of cloud business and infrastructure applications poised to grow to from 33% to 44% over the coming year. However, some cloud vendors—threatened by Wall Street and high churn rates—have backtracked on their original faster, easier, cheaper cloud pledge. They have replaced monthly subscription pricing with annual contracts, tacked on added fees for all but the most basic support, and created pricing models that are almost as confusing as those of the traditional software behemoths they once berated. As SMBs push further into the cloud, they will favor vendors that stay true to the original cloud promise, and steer clear of dark clouds.
  3. Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars. SMBs have been adopting mobile solutions at a fast and furious pace. SMB Group research indicates 67% of SMBs now view mobile solutions and services as “critical” to their businesses. 83% have already deployed mobile apps to help improve employee productivity; 55% are using mobile apps for specific business functions, such as CRM or order entry. 49% of SMBs are building mobile-friendly websites, and/or deploying mobile apps to engage and transact with customers. However, mobile management has failed to keep pace with this explosion, and with SMBs’ increasing business reliance on mobile solutions. Concerns about security, manageability, provisioning and cost will make mobile management a top priority for more SMBs. They will be looking for easy-to-deploy, cost-effective mobile device and application management platforms and solutions to reduce management headaches and get more value from their mobile investments.
  4.  Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices.  Many SMBs now “get” that they need a social media presence. SMB Group research reveals that more than half of small businesses and more than two-thirds of medium businesses use social media for marketing purposes. Some have invested tremendous amounts of energy to create content to feed the voracious social media beast. But the ever-increasing pressure to create fresh content, keep up with changes in users’ social network preferences, and uncertainty about the return on social investments is taking its toll. In 2014, SMBs will focus more on what networks and content really click for their target audiences, and put more time into figuring out how to convert social connections into customers. Some will integrate social more tightly with sales, marketing and content management applications, and use analytics to develop more actionable social metrics. Marketing innovators will explore new opportunities, such as online mobile advertising powered by geolocation. Others will redirect some of their efforts back to marketing basics–including surveys, competitive analysis, email marketing and attending more conferences and events.
  5. SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light. SMB Group research shows that although checks and credit cards are still the top forms of payment SMBs accept, there’s no question that new payment methods are growing in use and importance. 27% of small businesses and 43% of medium businesses already equip employees with mobile payment processing solutions, and about one-quarter of SMBs intend to add this capability over the coming year. Meanwhile, mobile wallets and gift cards, PayPal and even Dwolla—a payment network that allows any business or person to send, request and accept money for very low fees—will continue to provide additional payment options for consumers. More SMBs will recognize that having the capability to accept and process a broader range of payment methods can help them attract more customers, gain new business, and even enter new markets. SMBs will also seek ways to cut time and errors out of payment processing with payment solutions that integrate with accounting and ERP, such as those offered by Intuit and Sage.
  6. SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy.  It’s been hard for many SMBs to relate to the “big data” story that most vendors have been pitching. SMB Group research reveals that only about 18% of small, and about 57% of medium businesses utilize business intelligence and analytics solutions. However, SMBs understand the value of getting the information they need, when they need it—especially as they try to compete with new, nimble born-on-the-Web startups that view data as the new business capital. In 2014, SMB-focused vendors will retool the big data story for the little guy, focusing less on zettabytes, speeds and feeds, and more on how their solutions enable and empower better insights and decision-making. Business solutions vendors will embed better and more accessible analytics and reporting tools within their solutions. Cloud-based, visualization and scenario-driven business intelligence and analytics solutions will also help SMBs take a more data-driven approach to running their businesses.
  7. SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value. While the cloud has made it easy for businesses to add a lot of new applications, integration has often been an afterthought. As a result, many SMBs are struggling to make sense of disconnected information silos, and IT is under pressure to integrate cloud-to-on-premises solutions, as well as cloud-to-cloud solutions. In 2013, integration moved up from the #4 to the #1 technology challenge for medium businesses. In 2014, we expect that integration will be a higher priority even among small businesses. After all, it doesn’t take too many disconnected applications to feel the pain of productivity drains, errors, and a lack of solid data to support decision-making. Fortunately, technology vendors of all stripes are emphasizing the importance of a unified, reliable data store as the foundation for solid analytics and reporting. Business solution vendors are increasingly offering SMBs pre-integrated suites, opening up their application programming interfaces (APIs), and creating marketplaces to make it easy to find integrated partner apps. This makes it easier for SMBs to start small, with just one or two applications, and then snap in added functionality as needed. Finally, vendors that specialize in integration solutions, such as Informatica, Scribe and Dell Boomi (just to name a few), are making their solutions more accessible to SMBs. Integration still isn’t sexy, but the improved productivity, time savings, error reduction and decision-making benefits that it enables are.
  8. The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight. Revenue growth, attracting new customers and increasing profitability are perennial goals for SMBs.  To help achieve these goals, they have been steadily moving ahead to automate and integrate sales, marketing and other customer-facing solutions. Although improving employee productivity has also been a top goal, SMB adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions has lagged behind other areas. Many SMBs continue to limp along with a patchwork of disconnected solutions and manual tracking to manage components such as time and attendance, payroll, scheduling, HR and benefits.  But with the Affordable Care Act set to take effect on January 1, 2015 for organizations with more than 50 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, that situation is about to change. Worried about uncertainty, costs and regulatory risks, SMBs will look for better solutions to calculate employee eligibility and benefits, and to develop proactive strategies to manage ACA compliance and costs. This will drive a significant uptick of interest in, and adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions.
  9. It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green. The push for greener IT solutions isn’t new, but in 2014, we’re moving into a perfect green storm. Due to a rash of hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme weather, the sustainability of Mother Earth is taking center stage. According to a recent Harris Poll, over 74% of American adults believe in the global warming theory, and over 73% of U.S. citizens approve of the Kyoto agreement requiring countries to limit carbon monoxide and greenhouse gas emissions. IT vendors are prepared to capitalize on this opportunity with new, energy-saving products. From Dell’s Dell PowerEdge VRTX applications and storage server, which runs on standard 100V-240V AC power and doesn’t require any specialized cooling, to IBM’s patent for a “green” button that helps cloud providers “greenify” their businesses and lets customers choose whether or not to tap clean energy to run offsite servers, it’s easier than ever for SMBs to be green and save green.
  10. Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up. SMB Group research shows that in-house IT still plays a key role in all phases of the technology solution decision-making process. But now, enabled by the cloud and the swipe of a credit card, business decision-makers are much more involved: in small businesses, 69% of owners/presidents help evaluate potential solutions, and 81% help make the final decision. In medium businesses, departmental and line-of-business executives are the most likely personnel to identify the need for new solutions. This is changing the influencer landscape. Business decision-makers aren’t as likely to turn to traditional technology guidance sources as IT decision-makers. And many of us—especially millennials—are growing skeptical of traditional media sources that increasingly push paid “native content” in the guise of news. So who will the new influencers be? Accountants and other professional advisors (for line-of-business or industry) that the SMBs have an established relationship with will become more powerful influencers. Digital word-of-mouth, references, trade associations and non-technical groups and organizations will play an increasingly important role in shaping technology purchase decisions among both business and IT professionals. Finally, technology vendors that provide unbiased education—and can clearly demonstrate how business benefits from their solutions—will have a decided advantage over those that don’t.

About SMB GROUP

SMB Group focuses exclusively on researching and analyzing the highly fragmented “SMB market”—which is comprised of many smaller, more discrete markets. Within the SMB market, SMB Group areas of focus include: Emerging Technologies, Cloud Computing, Managed Services, Business and Marketing Applications, Collaboration and Social Media Solutions, IT Infrastructure Management and Services and Green IT.

Big Data for the Little Guy

Originally published on November, 2013 on QBSBDC.com as the third of four blog posts in a series designed to help small businesses, and those that serve them, be successful.

Big data is a big buzzword–and for a good reason. We’ve already created 2.5 quintillion bytes of data – 90% in the last two years. 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. 160 million emails are sent every 60 seconds and 58 million tweets are sent each day.

Stock Market Background

Of course, most small businesses don’t need to understand and manage these boggling amounts of data. But small businesses do need to effectively find, measure and take action on the data that is important for running their businesses.

In other words, the “big” in Big Data is relative. If you’re having problems finding the data you need, when you need it, you have a big data problem! Lack of vision into what’s going on in the business can lead to missed opportunities and the inability to spot problems.

In the 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, the SMB Group found small business use of analytics is low, but early adopters gain big advantages. Key benefits cited in the study were better answers to critical business questions, deeper understanding of customers and market trends, and the ability to identify and capitalize on opportunities while avoiding risk, just to name a few.

“I am always looking to improve my business based on what is going on in the industry, and the Trends feature in QuickBooks Online helps me do that,” said Michael Brewington, president of Arion Systems, Inc. “I can get a better understanding of my accounts receivables and payables versus other companies. That makes my business more competitive.”

analytics stat from smb group

Top Tips for Getting Smart About Your Data

What options exist for small business owners who want big business analytics capabilities? The SMB Group recommends small business owners ask themselves three questions before getting started:

  1. What information do you need to understand and measure?
  2. Where is the data and how much do you need to analyze?
  3. Who needs to use the data?

In addition to understanding what needs to be measured, small businesses should assess capabilities required to make data actionable for users. For example, do you require a solution with an easy to use interface or customized reporting? Starting with a focus on making data actionable will help ensure you maximize effectiveness once the solution is in place.

Something Old, Something New

There’s a chance your current solutions already include some form of analytics. Look into how well these tools support your needs, and integrate new analytics solutions to add more horsepower.

For example, the Trends tool included with Intuit’s QuickBooks Online product displays average sales growth, cash flow, income and expenses of small businesses within a specific industry or location to allow small business owners to compare themselves to similar businesses and make informed decisions. Trends figures are compiled from anonymized data submitted by 1.3 million QuickBooks users.

“I’ve been using the Trends feature in QuickBooks Online to see how my Oracle PeopleSoft consulting firm’s expenses compare to others in the industry,” Mr. Brewington said. “I can easily recognize if I need to continue to increase my profit margins and reduce costs to stay competitive. Trends makes it easy to stay aware of what is going on in the industry.”

Once you identify your analytics needs and any gaps in coverage, you can determine if you can implement a do-it-yourself analytics program or whether you need external resources to get the reporting you need.

Blog written by Laurie McCabe, who brings more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry to her role as co-founder and partner at SMB Group. Laurie has built widespread recognition for her capabilities and insights in the small and medium business (SMB) market in several areas, including cloud computing, mobile solutions, business solutions, social networking and collaboration, and managed services.

Getting Results: How SMBs are Using Data and Insights to Get Ahead

In the first two posts in this series, Seeing the Light: How SMBs are Using Data and Insights to Get Ahead, I shared the motivations that prompted three SMBs to replace spreadsheets and intuition with a more sophisticated, analytics-driven approach to run their businesses.

In the second, I discussed the factors that decision-makers in these three companies viewed as make or break considerations in the analytics selection process.

In this third and final post, I look at how these SMBs are putting the SAS analytics solutions that they selected to work for their businesses, and the results that they’re getting.

An Early Warning System to Prevent Issues from Becoming Problems

EWS Control Chart Mock-upBGF Industries had millions of lab testing records, but lacked an effective way to extract insights from them to improve quality control. BGF wanted a system that could sort through this data, generate control charts, and proactively flag potential quality issues. The company also wanted a knowledge repository to make key findings readily available in case an issue came up again.

Working with SAS partner Lucid Analytics, BGF implemented SAS Enterprise BI for Midsize Businesses, giving BGF the “early warning system” it needs to constantly monitor production processes. “Every night this system pours through millions of lab testing records, generates control charts for each and every thing we test for, and creates a report that flags any charts where something may be out of control,” explains Bobby Hull, Corporate Quality Assurance Manager at BGF.

According to Hull,”The flexibility of the SAS solution is like Legos. You can take a little piece of this and stick it to that and get what you need.” This enabled Lucid Analytics to create a commentary field in the control charts for BGF to capture information about how to resolve quality issues. “Now we also have this guru repository so information can easily be passed on to different people,” adds Hull.

When it comes to return on investment (ROI), Hull puts it this way: “People were asking me about ROI when we started the project. I told them that I couldn’t quote them a dollar figure because how can you predict when you will avert a costly disaster? I couldn’t predict that negative, but I could tell them that the investment would pay them back because it would help us spot trends, improve quality in our products and better serve our customers–all of which it has done.” In addition, notes Hull, “It makes our auditor smile because the solution reflects our attitude toward quality and that helps enormously with ISO compliance.”

Delivering What Customers Want

Style: "Color tone - warm"Oberweis Dairy needed to better understand customer buying behavior across its three distribution channels--home delivery, ice cream and dairy stores, and distribution partners. It wanted to get its flagship home delivery service growing again, increase revenue per transaction, improve customer retention, and increase market penetration across all of its channels.

“Very complicated spreadsheets, macros and pivot tables weren’t providing the answers we needed,” according to Bruce Bedford, VP of Marketing. “Now, we understand customers’ buying behaviors like never before, and we can develop highly effective marketing campaigns across channels.”

In dairy stores, Oberweis has improved transaction-level profitability by 1.2% due to the analytical approach it can take with its menu boards. As Bedford explains, “Now we can now figure out the best configurations. What foods to put on the menu, what goes best with what. We can test ideas like, what if we feature sundaes in a waffle bowl? We can present and test different options, see what customers want. This also cuts down on the time it takes for customers to make their selections, and the time it takes for us to serve them.

In addition, customer retention for Oberweis’ home delivery service has soared by 36%–yielding over $640,000 of incremental revenue in just 6 months. “Our home delivery products are same price as in the store, but there’s a delivery fee,” Bedford notes. “We had been promoting free delivery by waiving our $2.99 weekly delivery fee for six months when customers signed up. But at the 6 month mark, we had a sharp drop in renewals. We figured it had to be tied to how we were structuring the promotion. We needed to decrease attrition, without lowering offer acceptance.”

Oberweis used SAS Business Analytics for Midsize Business to test and analyze different promotions, and learned that “when we offer new customers 99 cent delivery for one year, retention spikes up. Both promotions deliver $100 value to the customer, but the details significantly increased the retention rate, without reducing acceptance.’

The results have been so dramatic that Oberweis documented them in a paper that Bedford presented at the 2012 Midwest SAS User Group 2012 conference.

Improving Guest and Homeowner Experiences

Twiddy & Company Home ER004Twiddy & Co. balances the need to maximize revenue for its individual homeowners with the concurrent need to provide truly exceptional vacation experiences to its guests. But, a myriad of complex spreadsheets were no longer up to the job. For instance, Twiddy needed to create daily reports quickly and provide them to staff to scan so that they could efficiently address any cleaning or safety issues prior to or immediately after guests’ arrival. The company also wanted to provide vacation homeowners with the best possible value for needed property repairs and services. In addition, Twiddy wanted to optimize property bookings and pricing based on data instead of gut instinct.

Clark Twiddy, Director of Operations, recalls that when the company started to look for a solution, “It was a black hole. We didn’t know if we would need to spend $250 or $100,000 but we knew we needed better analysis and decision support. Candidly, we wouldn’t have spent $100,000, but we had to find a way innovate and improve. Our market here in North Carolina is very competitive with 14 smart companies in the same area. We joke that complacency is a great way for us to lose market share.”

According to Twiddy, SAS Business Analytics for Midsize Business and Pinnacle, a SAS partner, helped them do just that. “It used to take 3 or 4 people hours a day to get information together into reports that became obsolete the following morning. Now we can get a report in seconds and see, for example, the median day-to-day cost for a certain type of repair, and compare costs for the 1100 different service providers we contract with–saving homeowners real money. We even have vendors asking us how they’re doing on the SAS list and where they rank, so they can improve and get more business from us.”

Twiddy estimates the solution has also cut error rates by about 20% per year. “More timely, accurate reports make it less likely that we’ll send the wrong vendor to a home, or send a vendor to the wrong home, or that we’ll flat-out miss something that needs to be fixed. Our housekeeping scores have increased, and repeat guests have gone from 47% to almost 60%,” notes Twiddy.

Twiddy has also built a dynamic pricing model that he says “is an enormous help with building credibility and delivering results to homeowners. We’ve been able to deliver better bottom line results to homeowners, better vacation experiences to guests, smarter technology to staff, and sustain a high-end brand image in the mind of our customers.”

Perspective

If you’ve read all three of the posts in this series, you know that none of these companies just waved a magic wand and magically achieved successful outcomes from their analytics investments.

But, the good news is that none of these companies needed a magician–or an IT army–to help make this happen. Instead, they got there by:

  • Facing the fact that their businesses would need to employ a more sophisticated approach to gather, create and use information to make the decisions in order to move ahead.
  • Taking enough time upfront to assess what information they needed to make better decisions, what needs to happen to make this information actionable for the people who need to use it, and how you’ll measure outcomes.
  • Thoroughly evaluating internal capabilities, what they would need from an analytics solution and a solution provider, and getting the information they needed to select best-fit options for their companies.

So, mere mortal SMBs–take heart–and follow the guidance of these and other SMBs that are paving the way.

This is the final post in a three-part blog series by SMB Group sponsored by SAS that examines why and how SMBs are moving from spreadsheets and intuition to a data-driven approach to grow their businesses.

Seeing the Light: How SMBs Are Using Data and Insights to Get Ahead

At a time when information is proliferating at an unprecedented rate, companies that effectively gather, create and use information can gain dramatic market advantages over those that don’t.  SMB Group’s 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that SMBs that have deployed business intelligence and analytics solutions are 51% more likely than peers to expect revenues to rise. Likewise, in a survey from the MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS Institute, 67% of respondents report that their companies get a competitive advantage through analytics.

Most small and medium business (SMB) decision-makers understand this at a conceptual level. But let’s face itfew have in-house business analysts and data experts. Consequently, it can be daunting just to think about moving beyond spreadsheets to a more innovative analytics-driven approach.

A Tale of Three SMBs

But it doesn’t have to be. In this three-part series, I explore the journeys that three SAS customerswithout armies of IT peoplehave taken to get more accurate, timely, usable insights for their businesses. And note: not one is a venture-backed tech or digital media start-up from Silicon Valley! In fact, all three are from traditional industries, with a combined 146 years of history behind them:

  • BGF Industries is a leading manufacturer of 2,000 high-performance Kevlar, fiberglass, and carbon products used in industries such as aerospace, marine, filtration, automotive, and ballistics. BGF was the first weaver of fiberglass textiles in 1941 when it was part of Burlington Glass Fabrics, and became a subsidiary of the Porcher Groupe of Badinieres, France in 1988. Today, BGF employs 800 people at six facilities in three states. With over 35 patents for specialized finishes and processes, BGF’s mission is to deliver excellent products and exceptional customer experience.
  • Oberweis Dairy began in 1915, when Peter J. Oberweis had too much milk and started selling it to neighbors. The Oberweis family began delivering fresh milk to homes on horse-drawn carts in 1927. Now, Oberweis continues its “Simply the Best” tradition as a family owned and operated business in Aurora, IL. Oberweis has also significantly expanded its product line, and opened 47 retail stores where customers can buy milk and enjoy its ice cream. It still delivers milk in glass bottles, although today it uses trucks instead of horses.
  • Twiddy & Company manages a portfolio of individual, privately owned vacation homes on the Northern Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Family owned and operated, Twiddy & Company employs 110 people year round and almost 500 during peak vacation season. Although the vacation rental market has changed over the years, Twiddy’s mission has remained constant throughout its 35-year history: Offer the very best selection, service, and successful experiences to both homeowners and guests. 

This post chronicles why these companies decided to bring more robust analytics capabilities into their organizations. In the second, I look at the key considerations that came into play in their search for a solution and how they decided which solution to use. The third post examines how analytics are helping their companies thrive and grow.

Triggers for Change

The vast majority of SMBs use spreadsheets and intuition for analysis and decision-making, even as spreadsheet errors proliferate, time is wasted, and trends are missed. So what drives some SMBs look for alternatives to “spreadsheet management”?

This quote from Albert Einstein sums it up nicely: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Faced with an “aha” moment that they could no longer ignore, each of the three companies we spoke with decided it was time for a change.

Creating a Competitive Edge with Better Owner and Guest Services

Wild Horse AerialIn 2009, Clark Twiddy, Director of Operations and son of founder Doug Twiddy, came home to the family business after serving in the Navy. He saw that Twiddy & Co. was “swamped in transactional data. We rent 900+ properties 25 times a year, with multiple and varied service transactions every week on each unit. We struggled to keep up with delivering great service to homeowners and guests.”

Twiddy must keep track of many variables. It needs to ensure each property is clean, safe and serviced properly for each visitor; optimize occupancy and rates for property owners; and negotiate better pricing from plumbers, carpet cleaners, electricians and other service providers.

As big, nationwide rivals entered the market, Twiddy recognized that “getting our information faster, more valuable, and easier for people who needed to act on it right away” was critical to the company’s future. “Keeping track of all the variables with Excel proved problematic. People sat behind desks and researched data for hours or days trying to find trends or just answer pretty simple questions.  For example, it was too easy to get blindsided because we didn’t spot a safety issue that should have been addressed.  The risks of unmanaged data became something we had to act upon.”

PrintStabilizing and Growing the Flagship Business

Survival of the home delivery business triggered a fresh look at alternatives at Oberweis Dairy, According to Bruce Bedford, VP of Marketing, “In 2010, we recognized that we had to stabilize and grow our flagship home delivery business, which accounts for about a third of revenues. We had to understand why customers would discontinue the service, and then take corrective marketing action to turn that around.”

At the time, Oberweis was using “very complicated” Excel spreadsheets, Visual Basic macros and pivot tables. “Although best efforts were made to figure out what was happening, it wasn’t cutting it,” explains Bedford.

Preventing Costly Process Errors

BGFCorporate QA Manager Bobby Hull and other managers at BGF had relied on individual, PC-based versions of SAS to monitor data and processes. As Hull noted, “That worked for a while, but we were growing so much, we had so much product diversity, the customer base and their demands were changing. We had to be quicker, better, faster, leaner and deliver higher quality.”

In the mid-2000s, a customer spotted a trend in a BGF product that Hull says, “We should have spotted ourselves. We had all of the information in our systems, we measured everything we could measure, but we had no good way to extract and use it.”

After investigating the issue, Hull notes that, “In hindsight, pulling the data out after the fact and looking at it, the trend was there…we should have spotted that. It was scary…these are technical fabrics going into complex, high-end industries and you can’t afford to drop the ball because it can get expensive really fast.”

As a result, BGF decided they needed “a serious way to dig into information quickly, easily and to surface it. We’d invested so much money to collect the information, but its dead money unless we do something with it.”

Perspective

Data is the new business capital. But just like financial capital, you have to invest wisely to reap value from it. As these three customer stories illuminate, making the investment to move beyond spreadsheets to an analytics-driven approach generates a very positive return on investment for the business.

Is it time for your business to make this investment? Think about what keeps you up at night. Can you put your finger on the pulse of information about operations, customers and processes–when, where and how you need it? Is your business out in front of customer trends, or playing catch up? Are you able to spot potential problems before they result in lost revenues and/or brand damage? How would you reimagine your business if you could take the pulse of key metrics more readily and easily? Thinking through the answers to these questions will help you answer this question and chart a more effective course to using data to make better business decisions and gain market advantages.

The next step is to assess internal capabilities, desired outcomes, and what you’ll need from a solution provider to reach your goals. In the second post in this series, I’ll discuss how BGF, Oberweis and Twiddy tackled this crucial phase.

This is the first of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by SAS that examines why and how SMBs are moving from spreadsheets and intuition to a data-driven approach to grow their businesses.

 

Charting Your Big Data Journey

Slide1In the first post in this series, I examined the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data and its relevance for SMBs. In the second, I discussed how three IBM business partners (FYI Solutions, LPA Systems, Inc. and Waypoint Consulting) are helping SMBs take a pragmatic approach to successfully apply analytics and big data solutions to solve business problems.

In this third and final post, I’ll talk about how to determine business readiness for big data solutions, and considerations to keep in mind as you help your business move ahead in this area.

Big Data Readiness

Today, even small companies are generating and accumulating staggering amounts of data. The question is, can you turn this data into reliable, accessible and actionable information that you can apply to solve business problems and make better decisions?

Many SMBs rely on Microsoft Excel to generate information and reports. If you’re in this category, you can get ahead simply by taking advantage of analytics tools built into the financials, HR, CRM and other core systems that you use. Taking it a bit further, combining Google Analytics data from your website with CRM data can offer you fresh insights about who’s coming to your website, from where, and what they’re doing when they get there.

But as business complexity grows, data and reports are spread across more databases, spreadsheets and applications, and stored on servers, personal computers, mobile devices and in the cloud grows as well. Using disparate data sources and tools to answer key questions such as “what products can I price at a premium” and “what are the best ways to increase repeat sales?” becomes difficult, time-consuming and burdened with inconsistencies.

“When customers approach us, the top reason is because they don’t trust their data and reports. Too time-consuming always comes up as well. They are also struggling to get an enterprise-wide view of their data,” according to Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions.

If you answer yes to the questions in Figure 1, your business probably needs to integrate key data sources into a central repository. As Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, Waypoint Consulting puts it, “You need to pull data from the cloud and on-premise applications into an integrated, rationalized data store. You can do this on your own systems, or you can do it in the cloud in a subscription model.”

Figure 1: Big Data Readiness–Key Questions to Ask

Slide1With a core foundation of common, trustworthy and accessible data in place, you’ll be able to get deeper insights into operations and customer behaviors and preferences. Companies typically start out with “descriptive” business intelligence (BI) tools to dig in and get more visibility into key metrics such as those noted in Figure 1, and make better decisions. For instance, if you’re a retailer, these tools can provide analysis to pinpoint optimal locations for new stores, more accurately forecast customer demand, minimize inventory or negotiate better pricing from suppliers.

Moving Up the Curve

Until recently, having solid analytics capabilities for internal, structured data was enough to give many businesses an edge. But, with more data and different kinds of data pouring in from more places, companies are looking for new ways to help them access, analyze and use data to gain market and competitive advantages.

In broad-brush strokes, big data helps do this in two ways. First, big data technologies crunch through both structured and unstructured data exponentially faster than was ever possible before. Examples of technologies that enable this super-charged data crunching power include hardware with increased memory and parallel processing capabilities, and Hadoop and MapReduce, which harness the power of multiple, distribute computers for problem solving.

Using this kind of technology, you can run analyses that used to take days or weeks in minutes. This make it possible to analyze data that you may have collected for years, but were never able to analyze before, or to weave new, external data sources into your analysis.

In addition, new kinds of analytics tools and solutions make it easier to explore data in more accessible, actionable ways, including:

  • Mobile business intelligence. Nowadays decision-making is as likely to happen in an airport or at a customer site as in headquarters. Mobile solutions let users see, share, report, and analyze data on smartphones and tablets. They take advantage of native, user-friendly mobile interfaces, such as touch screens, and give users the ability to make smarter, faster decisions regardless of location.
  • Visualization. You may be able to look at a hundred of rows of data and make sense of it, but can you look at thousands of rows and figurer out what’s going on? Visualization solutions help people to see what’s happening across hundreds of thousands of data points quickly and easily.
  • Sentiment analysis. Social media and digital sites have given customers and potential customers a much bigger and louder voice. Sure, you can easily tell how many followers or fans you have, but do you really know what it means to your business? Sentiment analysis identifies the user attitudes towards a brand, product or event by using variables such as context, tone and emotion.
  • Predictive analytics. Using mathematical algorithms, predictive analytics helps you to spot what’s likely to happen next. With predictive tools, you can examine large amounts of historical data (internal and external, structured and unstructured) to identify hidden patterns to alert you to future trends and stay ahead of the market.
  • Prescriptive analytics take things a step further, actually guiding you to a course of action, via options for what you should do next. Prescriptive analytics solutions can fine-tune themselves as they take in new data to continually improve your decision alternatives.

Choosing Your Big Data Path

Where you go next depends on where you are today, and your business goals, as discussed in Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs. Often, explains Brendan McGuire, “the greatest opportunity is to make data more consumable…making it easier for the business person to have conversations with the data, whether its structured or unstructured, through better mobile solutions, or visualization.”

Meanwhile, LPA Systems is helping hotel chains use forecasting and planning solutions to get a better idea of expected occupancy rates based on historical transactional data mixed with external information about upcoming events and other factors to optimize pricing and marketing initiatives. As Jesse McNulty explains, “Now they can better assess if they’re going to be overbooked on a weekday in July, and charge more, or if they’re going to have occupancy issues, and need to do a promotion”.

Although prescriptive analytics is still further out on the horizon for most companies, Joe Rodriguez sees customer interest in this area growing. “Just like your GPS provides you with alternate routes, tells you where to go, and what turns to make in your car, prescriptive analytics can be like a crystal ball to help predict outcomes and improve decision-making for the business.”

Perspective

As revealed in the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, three out of five midmarket respondents report that analytics, information and big data solutions “create a competitive advantage in their industry,” representing a 66% increase since 2010. Given the rapid rate and pace of change in business and technology, this gap will widen.

While turning information into insights isn’t easy, the good news is that vendors are increasingly recognizing that big data isn’t only for big businesses. Whether you are just starting to think about the relevance of big data for you business, or you have some of the basics in place, more vendors, including IBM, are focusing on SMB customers. Not only are they building more solutions tailored to SMB requirements, they are also developing educational materials to help you learn how more about applying big data solutions to real world business problems. As important, they are growing and training their business partners to help you get up the learning curve, implement solutions and optimize the value you gain from them.

So do your homework. Assess your company’s key challenges, we’re you’re at today, and were you want to go. Talk to colleagues and business advisors you trust. Start developing a strategy to get the wisdom you need to grow your business and stay ahead of the competition.

This is the final post in this blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs? parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. The second, Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs looks at how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

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