Happy National Small Business Week in the US! We recommend small businesses invest in some social business, information management and customer experience management tools to keep new customers coming in, and keep current ones happy.
Don't be scared! Just because we recommend social business tools for small businesses doesn't mean we think they should launch a dozen social media marketing campaigns and become super active on Facebook and Twitter.
What we mean by social business are more internal tools that allow employees and staff to stay connected. Options like Yammer and other activity stream tools make for a useful, intuitive collaboration core that workers in almost any kind of work environment would likely not find too cumbersome.
Check out Yammer or SocialCast. Both are free, and only require a company email address to sign up. SocialCast is free for up to 50 users, and Yammer goes up to 100, it's just that there are fewer integrations/limited support available with the free versions.
At least with these configurations, employees can stay in contact with one another, access resources they may need, and generally collaborate various projects.
Using this kind of internal collaboration system is good for centralizing communications, and at least keeping the bulk data out of email. Of course, there are those who don't mind using email for the bulk of their communication, but at least for internal comms, activity streams are a good place to start.
The two we recommended have free and paid versions, that way if more functionality is needed, upgrades can be made quickly.
VMware's Socialcast was recently updated to include project management.
Customer Experience Management
While it may not be quite a universal truth, there can be little doubt websites are the core of pretty much any business today. Customers can find a business with a quick Internet search, and the ones that pop up high on a list of choices tend to get noticed. Additionally, making the sure the information customers are looking for is readily accessible on that site is also critical. If customers can find the info they need without a hassle, it often gives them some idea that this business understands what its customers want.
That is the kind of experience we are talking about when it comes to customer experience management, a nebulous term that we simply use to denote a set of tools companies use to let customers know they are the right one to do business with. As such, the website itself needs to have the necessary tools to allow for things like customization and speed. A fast website won't turn people off, and a more customized look makes them feel welcome.
There are many, many, customer experiece management tools out there, and for small businesses, we recommend a Web content management system that underpins those tools. This is the backbone of a website, and WordPress, for example, is one of the most popular types of CMS in the world. This is mostly because it is free, and not too difficult to set up.
We recommend a tool called Adobe Business Catalyst, an all in one tool for building websites that includes non technical editing tools, templates and even some marketing and e-commerce functionality. For about US$ 60 per month, the WebCommerce edition of Adobe Business Catalyst can be set up for up to five users. Storage is limited to two gigabytes, but it includes social media integration and the ability to build Web apps and FAQs.
Besides Adobe, we like Plone, a free Web CMS that is only slightly more technical to set up, but is available in 40 languages. As a free product, access to round the clock support isn't available (there is paid support, of course), but the administration tools and user creation process are things that set it apart from other open source systems
Information management may be a bit less sexy than content or collaboration, but it is a critical part of any business because it includes things like archiving and records. At least we have a couple of free tools to recommend in this area. Check out Alfresco Community Edition for an open system of document storage and collaboration. A system like this will help automate document based processes to encourage collaboration.
Another choice is called Nuxeo, also an open source system that could even double as a CMS. The Nuxeo Platform, as it's known, helps with document and image processing, and provides handy tools like versioning and secure access that businesses will find critical.
These particular recommended sets of tools aren't necessarily meant to be used in conjunction, and not every business will need to rush out and grab one of each. However, from a digital perspective, social business, customer experience management and information management are three of the core needs for businesses to keep and continuously generate repeat customers.
Just from a logical point of view, these areas are critical because they tackle things like workflow, online presence and data management. These are the areas that need to be considered in any digital business because the Internet is only getting used more, and people almost always connected to it via mobile devices. Using ideas from the three main areas here, small businesses can take advantage of some of the most advanced enterprise tools, and do more business in an organized way.