iBeacons could be about to make your customers’ smart phones smarter. And that could give you new ways to reach people when they’re near your business.
Read on to learn about iBeacons: tiny gadgets that could spark a new mobile revolution.
An iBeacon is a low-powered transmitter that can let nearby devices like smart phones know it’s there.
An iBeacon can then ask these devices to do certain things, like pop up a message on the screen.
Here’s a potential scenario to help you understand how iBeacons work:
The idea behind iBeacons is simple, but they can be powerful when combined with mobile apps. They could be particularly useful to retailers, restaurants and cafes.
iBeacons use Bluetooth to communicate with nearby mobile devices. Apple created them and has included the technology in its devices since 2013.
Because iBeacons use Bluetooth, they’re inexpensive to buy.
iBeacons allow businesses to show consumers targeted messages, information and offers based on location.
They can pinpoint where someone is on your premises. The level of accuracy means you can even provide information targeted by which aisle or shelf they’re browsing.
For instance, iBeacons could enable you to:
There are applications outside retail, too. iBeacons could help at events, in theatres and cinemas - as well as almost any other physical location.
Well, it’s still early days. At the moment, few companies are using iBeacons in anger:
Like most location-based technologies, there are some concerns over iBeacon privacy. Retailers could use them to track shoppers’ movements in detail.
They could easily be used to answer questions like:
iBeacon advocates argue that consumers can always choose whether to grant a business access via a mobile app. And that’s certainly true, although whether consumers understand these access requests is another matter.
Although iBeacons are still in their infancy, there’s nothing to stop you trying them out in your business. But as consumer awareness is low, at present iBeacons are most appropriate for companies with their own established apps.
In any case, iBeacons are yet to show their full potential. If you adopt them earlier, maybe they offer a chance to steal a march on your local competitors.
How do you perceive the cost of technology? Viewed one way, it’s cheap. A £400 laptop is all you need to run most typical business software — and it’ll do the job for at least a couple of years before it needs upgrading.
But from an alternative perspective, technology can sometimes seem like a never-ending source of expenditure.
Got a computer and a smart phone? These days, that might not be enough - you could need a tablet computer, too. And while you’re at it, have you considered trialling wearable technology in your business?
Then there’s the cost of maintenance and support. According to some research, businesses spend 75% of their IT budgets on maintaining existing IT.
That £400 laptop may fade into insignificance alongside the annual cost of IT support, software updates, backups … and all the other assistance you need to keep your business IT running smoothly.
In addition to these fairly obvious tech costs, your business could be paying for its IT in other ways.
These three might not show up as lines in your IT spending, but that doesn’t mean you should underestimate what they’re costing.
No matter how small your business, a significant hidden cost will arise if employees need to duplicate their efforts.
Do any of these situations sound familiar?
If so, your people are wasting time performing tasks that your computer systems could be doing for you.
The cumulative impact of these inefficiencies might not show up in your IT budget, but they can cost your business dearly in terms of reduced productivity and missed opportunities.
Often, modern software packages can be connected together, or extended via add-ons which pull in data from elsewhere.
For instance, some accounting packages can pull in statements from your internet banking, so you don’t have to match up transactions manually.
Do you have a decent training budget for staff? Indeed, do you bother training your employees at all, or do you just assume they already know how to use advanced features of Outlook, Excel and more?
Employers tend to take IT skills for granted, particularly when it comes to using common pieces of software like Microsoft Office.
That can be a costly attitude. IT skills vary enormously in almost every business. What’s more, people can use software for years without ever realising there’s a better or quicker way to do something.
You can also explore on-the-job training, and get the most confident employees to pass knowledge on to their colleagues.
Technology can be distracting. Sometimes, it can be really distracting.
When you’re trying to work on your computer, you’re only ever a couple of clicks from reading an interesting story on BBC News or checking for updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Before you know it, that brief distraction has become 15 wasted minutes, as you hop from interesting site to interesting site. Heck, there’s a whole industry built up around attention-grabbing headlines (warning: that link may distract you).
And then there are internal distractions, like endless one-line emails debating some unimportant point and instant messages that interrupt your flow.
Throw in smart phone notifications and general office chit-chat, and it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done. If time is money, wasted time is wasted money.
Having said that, coping with distractions can be hard. Different techniques work for different people, but here are some tips to reduce distractions at work.
Traditional business telephone systems are slowly being replaced by modern VoIP (voice over internet protocol) systems.
These telephone systems route calls across the internet rather than using standard telephone lines. They’re flexible and can be much cheaper.
VoIP can be an excellent option, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. Dave Millett from telecoms brokers Equinox say these are the ten key questions to ask any potential supplier.
Being part of the Telecoms Ombudsman scheme demonstrates that the supplier is willing to accept independent, binding arbitration in the event anything goes wrong
Many providers will be part of the Internet Telephony Services Providers’ Association (ITSPA). This trade body aims to promote competition and self-regulation, and therefore does not offer the same protection.
Ideally, you want to use a VoIP system that’s built on large, carrier-grade platforms. These scale easily, providing confidence that the supplier can cope as demand for its services increases.
Any conversation about your VoIP provider’s platform could get technical quickly, so don’t be afraid to ask them to explain things in simple terms.
Look for a provider that your hosts its system from several locations, so you know there’s a backup in case one suffers problems.
Calls that are routed across the public internet can be more vulnerable to delays and quality problems caused by network congestion. It’s better if your provider has its own dedicated network for calls.
Also check how regularly they measure the quality of their connections (in technical terms, this is how often they check the ‘latency’ and ‘packet loss’ of calls).
If they’re monitoring these items constantly, they’ll be able to identify and fix problems faster.
Check whether the VoIP provider can issue phone numbers itself, or whether it sources them from another operator.
If the numbers are sourced from elsewhere, taking numbers to another provider in future could be more complicated.
It’s easy to look up the issuer of a phone number online.
Many VoIP providers simply sell on a service that is run by another company. It’s hard to tell when this is the case, except by asking outright.
In general, it’s best to have direct contact with the company that actually runs the service. It can take longer to resolve problems if you buy through a reseller, because you always have to deal with a middleman.
These days, most VoIP services can be hooked up to desk phones, so your employees can dial out and receive calls as normal. They don’t need to know that calls are being routed over the internet.
Most suppliers will provide phones from reputable manufacturers like Cisco, Polycom and Mitel. Watch for companies that supply phones that are poor quality or soon to be superseded. These can be harder to replace if they break.
As a guide, it should cost less than 1p a minute to call UK landlines. UK mobiles should come in below 6p per minute.
For most businesses, it’s best to find a provider offering no minimum charges, no call set up fees, and with per-second billing.
If a provider’s rates seem very low, check who carries the call traffic. Some super-cheap services use lower-quality call carriers. And that can result in lower-quality calls.
There’s not much point in signing for more than 12 months unless there is a significant financial advantage.
The VoIP market is still moving fairly quickly, so if you lock in for longer you could miss out if services that are more affordable or with better features become available.
VoIP is meant to be flexible, and that should extend to the number of people using it. If your business grows, it’s important you can add extra people to the system.
And if things go the other way — or you operate a seasonal business — you won’t want to be paying for capacity you’re not using.
Most VoIP systems will offer an online control panel (they might call it a ‘portal’). You can sign in to this to set up the system the way you want it.
Ask the provider to give you a proper demonstration of this control panel before you sign up. If it’s easy to use, this can be a good indication that you’re dealing with a supplier willing to invest in its customer experience.
On the other hand, if it’s hard to achieve even simple tasks, think twice before committing.
Overall, VoIP is an attractive prospect for many businesses. But as with any major investment, it pays to ask the right questions.
Finally, always remember that the cheapest package may not be best for your business in the long term.
Copyright © 2014 Dave Millet, Equinox
IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This week, we have a neat trick for those times when you are busy and are 'burning the midnight oil'.
Sometimes, when we’re busy, we can end up sending emails at odd times of the day (or night). Luckily, Outlook has a feature to delay sending those messages until a more normal time.
Read on and find out how to use it…
There are a number of reasons you might want to delay sending an email in Outlook. For instance:
You wrote the email at an odd time (say 4am, or Sunday), but you don’t want the recipient to know you were working on it then.
You know the email recipient will appreciate getting your message at a certain time of day, when they’re less busy.
You don’t want to encourage your own employees to respond to emails outside of office hours, even though you tend to send them then.
Whatever your reason, Outlook has a ‘delay delivery’ feature built in for situations just like these.
Here’s how to delay delivery of an email in Microsoft Outlook. These instructions are for the latest version (Outlook 2013), but should work in previous versions, too:
That’s it. Now when you select Send, the message will be held in your outbox until the delivery time you selected.
Depending how your email is set up, you might need to keep your copy of Outlook running in order for the delayed delivery to work:
To check what kind of email system you have, go to File > Account Settings > Email. The Type column will show what kind of system you have. (Alternatively, just ask your IT supplier.)
Data backup and storage is the IT equivalent of tidying things up at the end of the day. It means you’ve put away all your information away neatly so it’s accounted for, secure and easy to find.
It sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, think again…
Every day, more data is handled by your employees, who may be in different places using a whole variety of devices.
This broad distribution of data can make it more vulnerable — and any security breaches could damage your company.
Sometimes, the solution is to put together a centrally-controlled data backup and storage plan. But where should you keep those backups?
This is where the debate starts. In the red corner are the cloud converts. These people are quick to point out that nothing offers the same storage capacity, flexibility and ease of access as backing up your data to the cloud.
Over in the blue corner, we find people who approach the cloud with caution. They cite research such as a recent Symantec study showing that 68% of companies have run into some issues when recovering data from the cloud.
The workplace is complex. Companies need to prioritise IT spending and work with old IT equipment as they build confidence in the security and benefits of a cloud provider.
But once you have that confidence, the result is that your information is tidy, managed and protected in a cost-effective way.
Until, that is, employees start asking for data they have lost or can’t access. The effort required to meet these requests can catch you off guard.
Earlier this year, we (Iron Mountain) interviewed ten senior IT professionals in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
These conversations revealed some firms are seeing data retrieval requests increase by as much as 60%, year-on-year.
Often, employees want to retrieve documents they have accidentally deleted or misfiled. Or perhaps they want to view access-controlled, centrally stored business data.
In any case, getting the data can be frustrating, complicated and time-consuming. Sometimes, it requires help from an external expert.
How important is data to your business? In companies where data represents a significant competitive advantage — and keeping it confidential is important — employees may not be allowed to keep business information on their computers.
Instead, they might need to request data on a case-by-case basis. This can create a flood of daily retrieval requests.
Ultimately, you need to ensure that ease of data retrieval is factored into your overall data backup and storage plan.
The best approach is a tiered one, with information ranked from by how often it’s likely to be requested. Data required frequently can stored on servers nearby. Less-vital information can be clearly indexed and stored off site, where it can still be retrieved if required.
This blended approach keeps thing running smoothly, while minimising the impact on your IT resources.
Tidying data away and getting it out again may seem peripheral to the exciting things you do with the information. However, if you don’t get those two stages right, the bit in the middle can’t happen either.
Copyright © 2014 Christian Toon, Head of Information Risk at Iron Mountain.
IT for Donuts is our regular weekly feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This week, that smart phone in your pocket probably has a really decent camera built in. So we reveal four ways it can be useful at work.
The humble shoebox is totally fine for storing receipts, as long as you don’t mind when you lose crucial paperwork or the print fades to be unreadable.
In the 21st century, there really is a better way. Whenever you make a business purchase, snap a photo of the receipt with your phone.
You can save these images to your computer or back them up to cloud storage like Google Drive.
Alternatively, you might prefer to use a service like Receipt Bank to automatically extract the data about each expense and import it into your accounting software. It can save you quite some time.
Nobody ever enters all the details off someone’s business card into their electronic address book, because doing so is boring and time-consuming.
Using a smart phone to take photos of other gadgets sounds quite meta, but it can solve a real problem.
Hopefully you already have some way to keep track of valuable computer equipment and mobile devices in your business. But if you take a photo of each — ideally from an angle that shows the serial number — it can be easier to make an insurance claim in the future.
Often, the most productive ideas come from brainstorming sessions. But what do you do with the inevitable whiteboard scrawls that result?
In the short term, it’s a good idea to take a photo of your scribbles and email it to everyone involved. That way you won’t be at the mercy of any over-eager whiteboard cleaners in your office.