Expert Corner: Remote Access on a Budget
I work in one town but our main office is in another town. I had to figure out how to make sure our employees can use the software we use. Here is what I do to make it all work.
We manage about 3,000 clients and have three offices 45 miles from each other, along with a number of our employees who work from home one or more days a week. We don't have server farms or a bona fide IT department. Other than a fast internet connection, a Netgear gigabit router and a Cisco switch, we use the cloud and other free tools to manage our systems because we live on a budget.
I am a sales person, first and foremost. If I'm not selling, we're not making money. I don't have time to spend on the road outside of client meetings and sales presentations.
The question has always been, how can I get software and minor hardware issues handled without having to drive an hour just to fix a very simple problem?
We started off by using a Web-based management system called AMS360 (www.ams360.com). Any associate can work with a client from their office or while the agency principal is lounging by the pool in Fort Myers Beach. This has completely changed the way we do business. We got rid of the file cabinets and now have all documents, client notes, and expenses for future client contacts in one place.
In the millisecond world we live in, clients believe that quotes and changes need to be handled within the minute, not the hour. Because of this access, I am able to complete tasks from the client's office and provide them with a confirmation email before ever leaving the meeting.
As a management team we can review associate interactions with clients by reviewing activities created for each client in the management system. This allows us to change our methods or identify potential problems with the sales structure before it turns into a problem.
Tech support is another major issue. Over the years, I have had to deal with fixing simple issues over the phone, explaining something to an associate who doesn't even know where to find the Windows control panel or how to set the properties on their multi-screen workstation.
One of my new favorite applications for doing tech support is called LogMeIn.com. I first install the LogMeIn client on every one of our remote machines. Then I can easily make any software change without leaving the office. If the computer boots up and has Internet access, I can control it.
I use the free version that allows me to see all computers, monitor computer use, and just about anything else except play sounds or transfer files. I have even used my laptop to show a presentation on a workstation connected to a projector within the same conference room.
Transferring files between our offices was always a big question mark. It's now a breeze. I found a free Web app called Dropbox. This is a form of online storage, but the idea is you can share files and folders with anyone who has a Dropbox account (such as our own employees). I simply install an app on my PC, then drag and drop files into folders within my Dropbox account for others to access.
I have created folders to share with the office staff and other colleagues. Each folder is shared only with a defined group or individual. I even placed the article I am writing now in my Dropbox for later review and retrieval. It replaces having to email a file -- one that was probably too large for the 5MB email limit on the mail server and also does not give my colleagues access to the original source file.
Another area of irritation for us has to do with managing virus protection on remote computers. We use a product called Sunbelt Vipre (www.vipreantivirus.com). We can update virus definitions automatically or make changes to our remotely defined groups, such as sales staff, customer support workstations, laptops, and other groups I have created. It allows me to filter websites for content by keyword and monitor use without using an onsite firewall, which means less PC maintenance for me.
One of the best parts of Vipre is the ability to generate custom reports about everything from individual computer use to spyware or virus threats.
Our fourth area is the life blood of office communications: email. For that, we use a combination of Microsoft Outlook and Gmail.com. We do not have an Microsoft Exchange Server within our organization, so we use Gmail to control the flow of email to our smart phones.
Setting up our Charter hosted email to forward a copy of every email to our individual Gmail accounts saved us thousands of dollars since we would have spent that on an Microsoft Exchange server.
Basically, I send a copy to my laptop and one to my Gmail account. This syncs seamlessly with my BlackBerry Bold 9650. Outgoing email looks and feels like I am sitting at my desk when, in reality, I am probably powering through lunch and trying to catch up on the morning's email.
I manage the email with the BlackBerry's option to delete e-mail on the mailbox and on my phone. Ok, you are probably asking: why do that? Isn't it better to save e-mails on the server? After a few months of deleting emails accidently from the phone and the mailbox, I found that I wanted copies to remain in Outlook on my laptop so I could add them to the management system with client notes and the files that just don't work on a phone. So I didn't want to keep e-mails on the server; I wanted to force myself to keep them. Let's face it: software vendors go out of their way to integrate with Outlook. It's true that I have to delete something twice, but Outlook routes email to folders easily to save them.
Time is money and I am not making money unless I am selling something. I don't have the time to spend on the road when I can do most of my tech support from my own office. It just makes sense to utilize all the tools available to manage information and systems remotely.