Today, businesses of every size have workforces that span the globe and customers who expect superb service 24-7. Connectivity is no longer just a communications matter; it's the essential fabric that enables worker productivity and drives customer satisfaction. Done right, connectivity can propel a company to new heights; done poorly, it can lose your competitive advantage.
"Connectivity is absolutely key for any small business," says Diane Eschenbach, a consultant and the author of How to Quickly Start a Business Online. "Small businesses really have to start thinking outside the box now when it comes to being connected with their customers."
Small businesses are often composed of teams of mobile workers for whom the desk phone is passé. They work across multiple devices, and they need to be able to access data and documents and collaborate from anywhere. Hosted phone systems/unified communications, which tie together all the communication devices, are a key to that flexibility, as Matt Tortora well knows.
Tortora operates What's Good, a virtual farmer's market that connects food growers with buyers. "I constantly travel, and Saturday and Sunday are work days," he says. Even if he's out in a field meeting with a grower, he needs to be immediately accessible to customers, his U.S. employees, and his 20-person development team in Brazil. "No matter where I am, I always have to maintain a presence for my team as if I am in the office," he says.
Mobile and bursting
Systems that support mobile and disperse workforces are becoming business imperatives. The recent Alternative Board's Small Business Pulse found that 88 percent of business owners rate their satisfaction with cloud technology above average. Entrepreneurs cite the primary benefits as mobility and productivity (22 percent) and quicker/easier access to data (21 percent).
For example, Mike Wolfe, director of operations for Delgado Stone Distributors in Brookfield, CT, used cloud-based technology with Wi-Fi and cellular data capabilities to create real-time manufacturing and inventory processes. He also implemented a CRM system his company's salespeople use in the field on their mobile devices, tablets, and computers. "This has improved internal communication between customer support and sales, which in turn has improved customer satisfaction," he says. "Everyone is on the same page; it's easy for the customer to buy or obtain information."
Connectivity affects companies in surprising ways. Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, found remote teams that communicate in bursts - exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity - perform much better than those whose conversations involve long lag time between responses.
But it's important to appreciate that effective connectivity must be flexible. "Creativity can be sparked through togetherness as well as alone time," says consultant Kathryn Trauth Taylor. "It sometimes requires connection, and at other times, independence. I see every day how important it is to provide my team with flexibility, mobility, and virtual collaboration opportunities. Writing, especially, can demand privacy and independent reflection, followed by collaborative feedback sessions, and preceded by ideation and research."
Reinforcing brand identity
The amount of data that small businesses consume today has also upped the ante for connectivity. Businesses are constantly downloading and uploading data, especially when working with remote teams, processing financial transactions, or connecting to customers.
Jonathan Santos, who runs Revive, a Las Vegas company that produces backpacks designed to carry a basketball, makes liberal use of social media to post videos communicating the brand message "wake up and win. "Working virtually, it's important to have a good connection at all times to help us upload videos to our social channels," he says. Videos are a key method of reinforcing his brand identity, and without good connectivity that identity can sputter.
Connecting to customers - and providing them with good connectivity - is evolving new business opportunities as well. A study by technology by research and consulting firm Yankee Group found that 96 percent of customers prefer companies that offer free Wi-Fi; 64 percent of people have chosen a restaurant based on free Wi-Fi availability.
"It's clear that a retail or customer-facing establishment that didn't provide Wi-Fi, was like an establishment that didn't provide a bathroom," says Robb Hecht, adjunct marketing professor at New York's Baruch College. "And that irks customers."
Connectivity has moved beyond a nicety that coffee shops, hair salons, doctors' offices, and laundromats offer. It can mean entry into a deeper relationship with customers. DY Martin, a high-end liquor retailer and distributor in Louisiana, uses connectivity to drive more personalized and efficient customer interactions - right in the aisles of their stores. Every customer-facing employee uses mobile to connect with their warehouse inventory and provide personalized service.
And that's what connectivity can mean to a small business - more personal relationships, happier workers, and higher productivity. Small business owners should consider the words of best-selling author Parag Khanna: "Mankind has a new maxim - connectivity is destiny - and the most connected powers, and people, will win."
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