Monday, October 12, 2009

WSJ Article on "Why Email No Longer Rules… "

..caused a very heated discussion on the message board and around the internet. After using both Yammer (business Twitter) and Google Wave, I tend to agree with the author, specifically in that email is going to change. Care to weigh in?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Twitter for Business? Yammer!

When you're running a virtual team, it's hard to put a price tag on effective communication. An engineer didn't participate in a decision - problem. Sales filed a feature request a while ago, but it slipped through the cracks - problem. Someone was sick and wasn't in the office when things were discussed, and now they need to be brought up to speed and another meeting has to be called cause they have something to contribute - problem. Someone else wasn't copied on the right email - problem. These little problems pile up real quick and if not addressed, become big problems. And that's when people are in the same office, for virtual teams, square that.

Another everyone's favorite topic is status reports. I'm yet to see consistent and effective status reporting - by the time those reports are put together (if they do), it's typically late to react, not to mention that getting those is like pulling teeth, and getting into the level of detail that's necessary in order to be useful is very difficult to achieve.

In fact status reports was the reason we decided to give Yammer a try. Yammer is a business version of Twitter - microblogging at its best. We've been using it for a month and so far its been working quite well. Not only is everyone copied on the conversations (they have visibility and access control mechanisms in place of course), but Yammer has become the 1st filter for bugs, enhancement requests, and troubleshooting. One of the major benefits of microblogging is hastags which allow to quickly structure the information without maintaining a stringent structure. So adding things like #bug, #review, #status, make it real easy to then go back and pull just those that fall under one of those tags.

Yammer is not the only option for business microblogging. Some platforms like SocialText, CentralDesktop, ZohoProjects have also implemented it inside of their systems. The benefit of Yammer is that you don't have to be tied to a larger platform to use it, plus it provides a desktop client (Adobe Air based), and an iPhone client.

If productivity improvement is the proper measure for tools, I'd say you should see a good 10% improvement out of Yammer... Of course, like with any other tool, making it work will take some effort.

Google Wave (R)evolution

Since this blog is dedicated to next generation Office tools, few things can be more relevant to redesigning the way we work and collaborate than the newly minted Google Wave collaboration tool. I'm a sucker for good explanations and video below is about as good of an explanation of Google Wave as I've seen up to date. Welcome to the brave new world!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zoho launches Discussions

Zoho continues to beef up its groupware features. Today's addition of Zoho Discussion is certainly a welcome bit of functionality. As with most of their products, Zoho seems to have thought it through well and take a page out of several books, supporting things like idea management, issue management, Q&A, in addition to a now standard, lively and fast-moving interface. Too bad the new Discussions are "internally facing" for now - I can think of a lot of reasons to use them with external customers... However, well done, and yet another one up over Google Apps.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.. or Please Help me Decide!

Ok, by now you kind of know what you are looking for.. you've done your homework.. you've found all of these great SaaS products out there - they are good, they are powerful, some are better at this, some are better at the other thing.. now's the time to take the plunge and pick one! Here's where things come to a grinding halt for many. Analysis paralysis creeps in.. this situation is very common as unless you're a compulsive shopper, you need a framework for making the decision. Let me see if I can help you advance a step or two in this process..

One of the first things you need to decide is whether this is going to be the stakeholders in making this decision and who do you need input from vs. agreement from. It's often very useful to separate the two, so you can ask both groups relevant questions. It's difficult to find a solution that works for everyone if you're seeking consensus. There are couple of ways to address that - one is by being keenly aware of agreement vs. input issue, the other way is by narrowing the scope of the solution to either do less, or work for fewer people. Latter will lead to proliferation of systems, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - at the end of the day the worst possible scenario is one big system that doesn't work for anybody. By allowing multiple systems, you're getting the knowledge necessary to then come back and either integrate the systems or converge them.

Some of the other important points in making the selection:

Does it feel comfortable? One thing that gets a lot of people into trouble is that they go by the specs to make a decision. They tirelessly check off feature-by-feature against the competition. The truth is, if the feature is any good, it'll be copied by competition in no time. Go by the feel. Is this the kind of system you and your staff can see yourself using day in and day out?

Support? Can you relate to the person on the other end of the phone? If this is a system where you're going to have to spend some significant time with tech support to set things up and keep them running, call ahead, get a feel for what kind of people they hire to support you. Will you enjoy this interaction in the future?

Frequency of the upgrades. This can tell you a few things - how hard they are working on the product, how aggressive they are at being the best there is, how fast they will fix an issue you're having

Customizability. Everyone's business is a little bit different. Your edge over the competition is how well you engineer the processes, how much better your follow-up looks, how you utilize the knowledge capital you've accumulated. This implies that customizability is a key factor.. the system is a platform and more often than not you need to make it your own.

Reputation and viability. The good news is that SaaS space has been relatively stable when it comes to companies going out of business or other

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Email with CRM or Relenta's European Cousin Funnela

CRM and Email are like oil and vinegar, like bread and butter, like Yin and Yan.
And as long as we're on the subject of CRM and Email working together, a while ago I covered Relenta and recently I discovered Funnela - it's European cousin. Both are web-mail clients with some basic but fundamental CRM features (like contacts and tasks) that are built into the email itself. Imagine pulling up a client record and seeing all the emails attached to it, or creating a task for your assistant right from the email.

So, with all these CRM options out there, which one do you choose (I'm sure you're asking yourself by now slowly sipping that latte)?
I think the rule of thumb here is this - if you spend most of your time in Email and you don't have products, quotes, funnels, and forecasts to deal with; if all your need to a way to track customer files and tasks associated with your email, I would steer you towards Relenta and Funnela. If, on the other hand you need those features I just mentioned, you're in the market for a real CRM (like Zoho CRM I recently covered)

Enhancing your email can be an empowering experience, let me know how it goes!

Bonus: if you ever struggled rationalizing the meetings and how they affect getting things done, read Paul Graham's essay. It's official - Paul is topping the list of the most insightful people I know.

9/16/09 Update: Funnela just announced addition of the Deals module, putting it ahead of Relenta in the friendly email-centric CRM category.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Would you like email with that CRM?

Watch out Salesforce!.. no, really..

There's no doubt that Zoho is building good products. But it's different when you you find a new nugget of new useful functionality almost weekly - this makes a GREAT product. The feature that compelled me to write this blog entry is being able to configure email within Zoho CRM. This bridge between email and CRM has long been a bottleneck in CRM adoption, as without a nice integration people would gravitate back to email.
Leave it to Zoho to do this right - you set up your email in Zoho Business and link to it from within the CRM. You now have a new tab in the CRM for email, but more importantly, all the conversations are now tied into the client files without needing to do it explicitly!

This feature only costs $3/user/month, which is affordable to any kind of business and does not require the kind of spit-and-gum integration that would be needed with (not to mention that it would be 10x more expensive). This feature, in addition to the amazing AJAX work they've done to make the system lightening-fast, makes Zoho CRM a winner in my book.
Also, I have a feeling that there's more to come with integration of their other office applications into the CRM.. Can't wait..

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Skype gets built-in Screen Sharing. Watch out WebEx!

In a stroke of genius or simply by stumbling into it, Skype is gracefully extending itself to the lucrative and real web conferencing market. Yes, Skype 4.1 now includes native screensharing.. and like everything Skype, it's EASY - just select the area on the screen that you want to share as you're talking to the other participants of your voice conference.

Why is this such a big deal? Think about it - if you've ever done WebEx or any type of other web conferencing that typically inolved going through a presentation, you know that things rarely go smoothly - installing the agent, wrong version of java, separate phone bridge not working, meeting details getting mixed up in multiple versions of emails... etc.. it usually takes anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to get things going. With Skype - it's a natural extension of their capabilities utilizing the ubiquity of the client, built-in video decoding, perfect voice quality, and easy and flexible conferencing options.

So here you have it - you heard it here first - Skype is the new Web Conferencing sheriff in town - watch out!

Zoho Projects gets big updates

I haven't covered much of Zoho Projects so far as it's been sort of vanilla, par for the course. Not anymore! With the recent overhaul Zoho Projects gets useful micro-blogging, integrates documents, adds wikis (although wikis may have been there prior to the last release) and forums, makes reporting project time easy with time sheets. Overall the experience is very fluid and quick, and makes the app a pleasure to use. Project tracking features are not the most advanced, but above average, with task dependencies and GANT views. So, bottom line - Zoho Projects is quickly advancing to the front of the PM pack and now has a very solid offering here too.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

IS THAT MY PHONE? RingCentral, VirtualPBX, and Onebox go head-to- head to be all a small business needs for a competent phone system.

After a long hiatus, I'm ready to start working on the blog again. My apologies to everyone for a long drought.

Today's post I wanted to dedicate to how Web is changing telephony. What prompted this review was an announcement from Google for a long awaited relaunch of GrandCentral (now Google Voice). While Google is targeting the consumer with their service, there are a small bunch of good Web2.0-inspired solutions for businesses. I will look at 3 - RingCentral, VirtualPBX, and Onebox.

The common functionality among all 3 is:
  • automated attendant (a prompt to enter extension)
  • hunt group and follow-me functionality (ringing multiple lines simultaneously or sequentially in order to reach you where you are)
  • schedule-based call routing (play this prompt during the working hours, and afterwars send the calls to voicemail)
  • voicemail and voicemail-to-email forwarding
  • click-to-call (a web button you can place on the web site to originate a call)
  • toll-free numbers
  • music on hold
  • call screening
  • web-based configuration and management
Here are some differences though:

1) VoIP lines.
2 of the solutions covered - Ringcentral and Virtual PBX offer VoIP
lines (both to the computer with their Softclient, and to the desk with inexpensive standard-basedphones). VOIP adds another variable which is quality.

2) Queues.
Queues allow you to queue up the callers if the lines are busy. There are subtleties to that feature and out of the 3, VirtualPBX is the only one that offers it. This is the type of feature that used to be unaffordable to the small businesses, and while not all the businesses will need it right away or at all, it's the one that makes a huge impression.

3) Soft Client.
Ringcentral offers a soft Client - a PC-based phone that allows you to take you extension anywhere you can take your PC. Soft Client makes it easier to manage the calls that are coming in as your disposition options, history, etc are always there in front of you.


Pricing-wise, most of these Virtual PBX services are comparable, and pricing is a function of included minutes (all the calls are bridged so you will rack up the minutes fairly quickly, unless
you're using it for voicemail only), number of extensions, and number of ACD queues.

There's usually an inexpensive way to start using the service (starts from $10/mo except for OneBox) and an easy way to scale up, usually getting you into $50 to $80 territory by the time you're fully ramped up.

Because these are bridged calls (the service has to maintain both legs of the connection), the minutes rack up pretty quickly and additional minutes are not cheap (averaging 6 cents a minute). One technique to effectively deal with that is to instruct your stuff to call the customer back directly if the call is to take a significant time.

Another option with both RingCentral and VirtualPBX is to go with VOIP lines for the extensions which will give you unlimited minutes, but only if the calls stay on the network.

..and some prognosis

With the proliferation of alternative communication mechanisms (texting, twittering, online chat, etc) and personal cell phone, istelephony still relevant?

It's probably going to take a few decades, but judging by what Gen Y is doind (predominantly texting), I could imaging the use of telephony is going to continue sliding (at least for inbound
communication). Text (cell phone texting / IM / twitter) will be used a predominant method for a customer to get a hold of the business. The communication can then escalate to voice if needed.

If this rings true, the need for a PBX and sophisticated inbound call handling will subside significantly. For now however, these types of solutions are invaluable to small businesses (that seem like big businesses on the phone), and with the trends towards resurgence of small business, the companies offering virtual PBX services should continue to grow and provide their customers with more features and value.

Note on 8x8: I did not include 8x8 because their pricing doesn't fit the web2.0 model
Note on Vonage: I didn't include Vonage because they do not have auto-attendant which I consider to be a critical feature
Note on Skype: While I use Skype a lot for person-to-person and conf. calls for the team, it's missing the call-attendant functionality and other features listed above that would make it a
front-office tool
Note on I originally included them in this review, but then decided to take them out based on the feedback I've found and lack of focus on small business.

Call for feedback: Please comment how the phone services listed here (or the ones you're using if I missed it) are working for you!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Platform-as-a-Service Roundup

I recently came across this comparison table, and in light of Coghead going out of business and selling its technology to SAP, I thought I would post it here to help you, dear readers, in making your decisions when it comes to "applications without (much) programming":

(complete credit for the compilation above goes to