Monthly Archives: September 2016

Make Your Business Better at Customer Service With Internet

What is the so-called internet of things? It’s most visible in smart appliances, such as networked thermostats or refrigerators. But the internet of things, or IoT, is a concept that comprises much more than just the technology and devices that power smart homes. The internet of things includes incredibly powerful applications for the business world of tomorrow, with built-in dedications to efficiency and data analysis to allow companies to operate more productively and cost-effectively.

“IoT is all about taking everyday objects and appliances that were previously not associated with the internet and connecting them in a way that allows the specifics of those objects to be controlled, monitored or adjusted via the internet,” Pete Sena, chief creative officer and founder of Digital Surgeons, told Business News Daily.

But what does that look like? From managing and optimizing modes of production to delivering a more satisfying consumer experience, IoT forms the bedrock of a powerful new engine for the vehicle of commerce. Coupled with other emerging technologies, like augmented reality, IoT has the potential to radically alter the way business is done.

IoT today

Experts agree that IoT implementation is still in its early stages. When it comes to IoT-compatible “smart” devices, consumers are typically most familiar with products such as Nest’s Learning Thermostat, which learns and adapts to your patterns of behavior and the changing of seasons to program itself for optimal efficiency and comfort. That ability — to learn and make decisions without human intervention — is what makes IoT such a powerful tool for both individuals and businesses.

Companies are already using networked products and sensors for a wide variety of reasons, including to streamline the manufacturing process, to track and analyze shipments, to better understand consumer needs, and to make more informed decisions.

“We see three main use cases for IoT in the companies we work with,” said Ryan Lester, director of IoT Strategy for IoT platform Xively by LogMeIn. “The first is around connectivity for new feature enablement … The second is for better service, to understand when [a product] will fail and if it needs new parts, for example. And the third way is recurring revenue streams or ‘replenishables.’ By monitoring, say, an air filter, a company can automatically ship you a replacement based on your usage.”

In recent years, retailers have begun employing IoT to get a better understanding of how consumers interact with products in the retail environment. Now, manufacturers are using it to develop better practices, by networking essential machines and robotics throughout the process, said Nick Kramer, senior director of data and analytics for SSA & Co.

“We’re seeing people putting sensors on the machines that do the manufacturing, which allows them to process the data to see something trending toward poor quality,” Kramer said. “You can then address trends proactively, before it’s a problem. It’s about anticipation instead of reaction.”

Kramer described how IoT could be used to monitor a product from its creation to its end point. First, networked manufacturing monitors the creation of the product to ensure quality and efficiency, as well as to eliminate any problems before they escalate. Next, IoT helps track and coordinate shipping logistics, again ensuring efficiency, speed and accuracy. Once products are in a warehouse or distribution center, detailed information about inventory and organization, as well as interaction with other autonomous systems such as stock-picking robots, can all be managed by an IoT system. Finally, when a product arrives at its destination, IoT systems can deliver data about maintenance and user interaction, thus creating a more personal and customized experience for the consumer.

Lester said IoT will help businesses boost loyalty and create lifetime customers.

“Because you understand that customer really well, you move from being a one-time transaction to selling them a product as a service,” Lester said. “If you can better understand a consumer’s challenges, you can deliver better products. The second way is the ability to become part of an ecosystem of devices” interacting with one another to create new value for the customer, he added.

“The more we can understand a person, their behaviors and life, the more we can tailor experiences around them,” Sena noted. “It’s about creating more unique experiences for consumers [and] giving them power and control.”

The future of IoT

Business News Daily asked industry experts to comment on how IoT technology might evolve and how businesses might incorporate these systems in the future. Here’s how some of them envision the future of IoT.

Predicting consumer behaviors and needs

“As all of the devices begin to store data about our activities, they will begin to understand our lives. All of this information will be aggregated by a software platform uniting all of our devices — the internet of things — and we will interact with these devices through our virtual assistants. If your virtual assistant reminds you that you are almost out of coffee, knows the brand of coffee you regularly purchase and how much you pay for it, maybe it recommends a different brand at a similar or lower cost. If a company wants to reach an ever-growing amount of consumers, they need to get past the virtual assistant gatekeeper, or find themselves competing for the ever-shrinking audience consuming legacy media and/or researching products manually.” – Justin Davis, director of enterprise sales, CenturyLink

Personalized one-to-one marketing

“Businesses, specifically brick and mortars, will find most success using interactive displays and providing real-time answers for customer needs. Displays can help you create your own model of product —Nike is a good example of this —and take you through varying iterations of products and solutions. You can also be able to point your phone at any product in the store, using the store’s interface, and receive information and pricing.” – Bahman Zakeri, CEO and chief strategist, Xivic

Continued streamlining of business operations

“IoT is expected to revolutionize traditionally managed businesses and, in conjunction with big data analytics, would result in more effective and efficient use of resources. Service companies can leverage IoT-based solutions [by helping] their technicians to monitor and assess issues visiting their customer’s location. IoT would help bridge the demand-supply gap for businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, with the integration of inventory management and customer relationship management systems. In a world where everything is connected and devices intelligently communicate with each other … the IoT could well become internet of everything.” – Abhinav Sridhar, senior consultant, Aranca Research

Enable better, autonomous allocation of resources

“IoT … excels at allocating resources; it’s designed to “give life” to inanimate objects. This allows connected objects to work better, learn to work together, adjust to changing environments, and try to prevent problems.” – David Tal, president of Quantumrun.com

IoT challenges

Despite the huge and wide-ranging possibilities, implementing IoT will not be easy. If it really represents the radical shift that professionals like Kramer suggest, then there will certainly be a lot of pitfalls and obstacles along the way. One such challenge is getting consumers to trust and adopt the new technologies.

“In people’s eyes and ears, IoT is this sort of buzzword,” Kramer said. “There’s going to be an adoption challenge; [some people] don’t want these things to know what they’re doing. I expect some resistance at the end-user adoption level.”

However, that’s not necessarily true for businesses. Indeed, Kramer said companies are already implementing IoT solutions en masse.

“I definitely think businesses will adopt with less hesitation — we’re already seeing it,” he said. “To stay in the game, you’re going to have to adopt these things.”

But another challenge lies in actually building and maintaining IoT systems. According to Lester, until IoT systems are properly constructed and open enough to share and analyze data, a large amount of information will be essentially useless to the businesses looking to profit from their own networks and sensors.

“People are too caught up in the tech part of IoT and are kind of missing the business opportunities,” Lester said. “The vast majority of companies say that connecting product data is important, but only 51 percent of companies are actually collecting that data, and less than one-third are making that data actionable, are able to analyze it. There’s a disconnect there.”

To bridge that gap, companies will have to bring organized data into business systems already in use, as opposed to using a separate, dedicated IoT system, Lester said. That way, the people who need to use the data can easily access and analyze it.

“There’s really good information coming from connected products, but we have to get it to who can use it best,” Lester said.

And, of course, security and privacy remain the major concerns surrounding the internet of things. Hackers can steal private information or misuse aggregated data, and interconnected systems are particularly vulnerable to malicious attacks or tampering. Therefore, the industry will need to continue to devise strong and creative countermeasures as IoT develops, Kramer said.

“The more things are connected … the only way to truly protect a device is to not connect it to anything,” he said. “But that precludes you from getting any real value out of it. The thing that has to be in place is the security and privacy aspect.”

How Businesses Can Prepare and Adapt With Internet

The Internet of Things (IoT) — Internet-connected devices that communicate with one another — has been highly discussed in recent years, especially as the capabilities of smart technologies continue to advance. Most tech-savvy consumers are aware of the way that the IoT will impact their home and work life, but what does this upcoming trend mean for the business world?

“The ‘connected world’ vision is no longer a buzzword — it’s already happening,” said Waqas Makhdum, vice president of marketing at cloud mobile app development platform Kii. “Over the next few years, we see it becoming an integral part of our lives, whether it is through smart homes, smart cars or smart health care. It’s clear that the IoT will disrupt most industries.”

Five tech industry experts shared their thoughts on the major changes that will come with the evolution of the IoT, and what businesses of all sizes can do to prepare and adapt.

Focus on services

In years past, technology advancements were focused on hardware: Everyone needed to purchase a certain device or program (and each subsequent version) in order to stay current. But as the IoT advances, Raj Badarinath, senior director of product marketing at commerce solutions provider Avangate, believes that this model is going to change.

“Revenue will not come from the hardware, but instead from services on top,” Badarinath said. “In the IoT era, new models such as subscriptions, freemiums and bundles are rapidly becoming the preferred choice over traditional hardware options. Services are easily upgradeable, much more amenable to ecosystems that are constructed around hardware, and provide multiple revenue opportunities rather than a one-time sale.”

The problem with this service-centric environment is that small businesses are struggling to find the best strategy to charge customers for value in a transparent, secure and easy manner, Badarinath said. A customer-centric commerce platform can keep track of critical data like purchase history, payment methods and loyalty program information to help companies improve the customer experience and create a solid foundation for monetization.

Harnessing and analyzing data

The premise of the IoT is that, at any given time, devices can transmit data to and from one another and process it to improve decision-making. Businesses have already been tackling the challenge of harnessing Big Data through their own internal analytics platforms. The IoT presents this same challenge on an even larger scale.

“The IoT is not just about connecting cameras, fridges, vehicles, etc.,” said Todd Krautkremer, vice president of sales and marketing at cloud-based virtual private network service Pertino. “People want to analyze vast amounts of data and be able to do things with that information that are relevant and impactful. But how do we take this data and make it intelligible, accessible and actionable from a business standpoint?”

Krautkremer emphasized the importance of cloud-based computing to ensure that all connected devices can always be monitored, updated and controlled in real time. He also noted that third-party service providers will be critical to helping smaller businesses keep track of data and capitalize on the IoT.

The cloud and the customer experience

It’s clear that the IoT will continue to increase the amount of data businesses need to process. But with such a strong focus on finding the right data solutions, it can be easy to lose sight of your most important business driver: your customers.

“Companies have to keep an eye on their customer experience,” said Lynda Smith, CMO of cloud communication solutions provider Twilio. “There’s a lot of work going into making sure [the IoT] experience is natural [to human users].”

Smith reminded small companies to take advantage of the cloud to help them develop a great customer experience and compete with larger enterprises. This can range from using cloud solutions to deal with incoming customer data to facilitating customer service interactions in the cloud.

New security challenges

The downside of the IoT is that more data and more connected devices mean more opportunities for hackers and cybercriminals to launch an attack. The security risks associated with the IoT must be taken into consideration by businesses of all sizes.

“If you have devices recording and reporting [data], there’s a lot of risk,” said Walker White, CTO of clean data solutions provider BDNA. “If a device is connected, it can be hacked. With fully automated security systems, someone could break in, lock all the systems, and even remotely turn the lights on before they get there. These are very real risks.”

If you think the answer is to “avoid the IoT,” think again. White believes it will be nearly impossible to steer clear of the age of connectedness.

“People say they won’t embrace it, but that’s like saying you don’t embrace the Internet now,” White said. “It’s coming and you can’t fight it. Everyone will benefit [from the IoT], but unlike other technologies, this has a great deal more risk. The broadest storyline here is to proceed with caution.”

‘IoT-izing’ your business

Many businesses, especially smaller ones, are usually late adopters of technology, Makhdum said. But the IoT presents an opportunity for businesses of all sizes to add real value to their bottom lines, customer satisfaction and other significant KPIs.

“It is very important that businesses remain proactive in building a plan framed around what part of their company can practically be ‘IoT-ized,'” Makhdum told Business News Daily. “Framing and planning this will be crucial for successful IoT initiatives.”

Makhdum recommended investing in the IoT-related technologies such as sensors, data intelligence and infrastructure to support the volume of connectivity and resulting data. Focusing on employee training in both customer-facing and internal processes will also help companies take full advantage of the IoT.

Finally, be sure to connect with others in and out of your industry to stay up to date on the latest changes that may affect your business.

“There will be unpredictable and unexpected challenges that occur in real-time that will be hard to be prepared for,” Makhdum said. “Collaborating with industry and cross-industry consortiums help ensure sharing best practices across the board.”

How To Make Customer Service Has Changed

The basic goal of keeping customers satisfied has always been at the heart of customer service. In years past, it meant doling out smiles and fielding the occasional phone call from an upset customer. In the modern world, there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

The biggest change in customer service is the sheer number of channels through which people can contact your business. Instead of just phone calls and snail mail, consumers can now reach you by email, social media, text message, video call and live chat. Mobile technology has also enabled constant connectivity, giving customers 24/7 access to public forums in which they can talk — or complain — about your company. Only organizations that are willing to adapt and respond to this shift in business-consumer dynamics will survive.

Current business leaders and customer service experts shared their thoughts on how the landscape of customer care has changed, and where it’s headed as technology and communication continue to evolve.

Customers are in control — and that’s how it will stay.

Smart business leaders know that customers are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to public brand perception. The Internet has given consumers a powerful voice, and they’re not afraid to use it.

In the past, if a customer had a problem with a product or a company, there wasn’t much they could do about it, said Robert Johnson, president and CEO of customer service software company TeamSupport. Now, a person can let the entire world know about a poor experience.

“We’ve all seen Yelp reviews, YouTube videos and posts on social media lambasting brands,” Johnson said. “This type of consumer empowerment has only existed in the past few years.”

“You can’t treat people badly anymore,” added Alex Bäcker, CEO and co-founder of queue management solution QLess. “People no longer stand for [waiting] in line, being on hold or having their time wasted.”

Consumer empowerment also means that customer expectations about when and how they communicate with brands are incredibly high. It’s not enough to provide a “business hours only” phone number or email address for customer support — you need to be where consumers are, right when they need you.

“You can no longer segment yourself to service practices that only you are comfortable with,” said Amir Zonozi, chief strategy officer of social influencer engagement platform Zoomph. “When a customer reaches out to you on Twitter, it needs to be solved on Twitter. When they reach out to you via email, it needs to be solved via email. Asking your customers to switch their preferred method of communication is taking your customer out of their comfort zone and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.”

Quick, personalized responses are a service benchmark.

Social media can be a blessing for businesses that use it well, and a curse for those that don’t. But love it or hate it, it’s here to stay as a customer service channel, and your business had better get on board if you want to keep up with consumer demands. Ignoring customer comments, whether positive or negative, won’t stop people from posting them, and this approach could even damage your reputation more than any product issue or poor experience.

“Embrace social media as an opportunity to not only directly connect with your customer, but to publicly demonstrate your ability to quickly respond to your clients with outstanding service,” Zonozi told Business News Daily. “Every business makes mistakes, but what differentiates great customer care is when the public can see a response that really solves a problem and shows your dedication to individual experiences. People care more about you mastering the response than they do about the mistake or issue itself.”

Simon Chkifati, co-founder of Luxor Limousines, agreed, noting that successful companies have to be literate in all social media channels and know how to productively handle complaints on any of them. This means offering a personalized, relevant response to every customer inquiry.

“Generic responses to customer issues are no longer effective because customers now expect a more tailored approach,” Chkifati said. “Customers who feel cared for will use your service again and ultimately become advocates, recommending your service via word of mouth, both online and in the real world.”

Customers want to help themselves.

Some businesses have troubleshooting guides and FAQ pages on their websites, but companies are increasingly trying to help customers solve their own issues.

“Customers want the ability to help themselves, and we see more and more companies implementing self-service strategies,” Johnson said. “If done correctly, customer self-service can be a great ‘win-win’ where the customer gets the answers they need at a lower cost to the company. The holy grail of self-service is if you can get a robust customer community put together which allows customers to talk with each other and even solve each other’s problems.”

“As customers use more and more self-service, customer service agents will get more complex questions, so businesses need smarter knowledge to empower agents to handle those questions,” added Anand Subramaniam, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at eGain Corp., a provider of customer service management software.

For more information on customer self-service, visit Business News Daily’s guide.

Texting isn’t just for peer-to-peer communication.

Today’s consumers are used to firing off text messages at all hours of the day to share information, ask questions and carry on conversations with one another. Although it may not be the norm for business-to-consumer communication just yet, text alerts are becoming more prevalent and accepted. In fact, a recent survey by cloud communications provider Corvisa found that 77 percent of consumers are open to getting text messages from companies, particularly when it comes to fraud alerts (56 percent); reminders for payment, appointments, reservations, travel status, etc. (54 percent); and notifications of sales, discounts or special promos (49 percent).

“Given the increasing prevalence of text messaging, especially among millennials, I think we’ll see more companies using SMS as a way to deliver convenient, high-quality customer service,” said Matt Lautz, CEO of Corvisa. “Texting allows companies to proactively engage with customers in a number of ways, using an outlet that matches the lifestyle of today’s consumer.”

Consistency is the key to improving service.

Collaboration allows people to connect from practically anywhere in the world to brainstorm, share and execute great ideas that drive the company forward. The same principle can and should be applied to customer service, both among the various departments in an organization, and between businesses and their customers, experts say.

Businesses aren’t great at this yet, Subramaniam said. According to an eGain survey of 5,000 consumers, the biggest pain points in customer service are insufficient knowledge and inconsistency among agents, and the inability of websites to deliver answers.

“Take a unified hub or platform approach to omnichannel customer engagement and knowledge management, rather than taking a point solution approach,” Subramaniam said. “This enables seamless customer experiences across touchpoints, while speeding up time to market.”

Johnson noted that anyone in the company dealing with a customer issue should be able to efficiently share information, and have that customer’s history and previous experiences right at their fingertips. The right tech tools ensure that knowledge moves quickly and that solutions are recorded for future reference, in case the issue arises in the future.

No matter what industry you’re in, it’s more worth it than ever to invest the necessary time and resources into providing the best possible customer service. Any and all interactions today have the potential to be a lasting record of how your company treats its customers — and it’s in your best interest to make that record be a good one.

Smart Tips to Maintain Business Growth

When entrepreneurs launch their businesses, they often think rapid growth and record-breaking sales numbers equate to success. And with so many media outlets covering startups boasting incredible spikes in their revenue and customer bases, it’s easy to understand why. Companies that don’t see fast expansion may feel discouraged, but is this type of immediate success really sustainable?

Business owners who focus on growing quickly may want to take a lesson from the classic “tortoise and hare” fable, in which the slow but steady tortoise won against the hare. Though speed might put you ahead of the competition at first, you’ll likely end up burning out before the race is over.

“There is always a desire to move it to market as soon as possible, lest [the business] becomes obsolete or a competitor yanks the title of ‘pioneer,'” said Jay Jumper, president and CEO of electronic signature service company SIGNiX. “This is a natural mentality for business owners, but it’s not always the best strategy for building a successful company anchored in long-term development and growth. Rather, deliberate, steady maturation, characterized by careful research and long-term forecasting, allows a company to position itself for enduring success and sustainability.”

“Steady growth that builds on a strong foundation is better for all the vested parties in the long term,” added Numaan Akram, founder and CEO of Rally Bus, a crowdsourced event transportation company. “Companies that grow fast are often foregoing fundamentals — profit, processes, protocols, etc. — which leaves them open to competition. A company that built [its] foundation with strategic thought will be less vulnerable as it accelerates growth.” [Grow Your Business: 5 Tips for Scaling Up]

Maintaining slow but steady business growth

In an age of instant gratification and decreasing patience and attention spans, “slow and steady” is a difficult path to follow. It takes smart restraint, intense focus and a true vision of the future needs of the marketplace, Jumper said. If your goal is to build a slower but longer-term strategy for your business, here are a few tips to help you accomplish it.

Take your time, but be ready to move quickly when necessary. This advice sounds contradictory at first, but Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of alternative financing company Bizfi, said that following it is what helped his business stay ahead of the competition.

“There is, for some companies, a temptation to grow rapidly just to stay in the headlines,” Sheinbaum said. “It took [Bizfi] 10 years to reach $1 billion in funding originated, and that was absolutely the right pace of growth. We took the time to refine our underwriting, and as a result, we are extremely happy with our portfolio’s performance. Not every company in alternative finance can say that.”

While it’s a good idea to slow down and really refine your product or service, you also need to recognize which opportunities can help you grow — and when you find one, be ready to move in and seize it, Sheinbaum said.

Invest in the right people when you need them. Hiring more staff to ensure growth is a double-edged sword: You’ll have more human capital to get your “growth” work done, but you’ll also have a much larger payroll, which could ultimately hurt you if you don’t expand as quickly as you thought you would. Therefore, strategic hiring — finding the right people at the right time — is very important.

“One of the best ways to ensure steady growth is to invest in people,” Akram said. “Co-founders and early employees [must] have proficiencies that complement each other. [You need] angular individuals [to] come together to create well-rounded teams.”

Sheinbaum noted that your business should be constantly adding employees who have cutting-edge skills in the areas in which your business wants to expand, but only if it makes sense to do so.

“There is no point in making a hire if it is not going to add to the growth of the business,” Sheinbaum said.

Keep an eye on your cash flow. Quick, exponential growth doesn’t necessarily guarantee future burnout, but slow growth doesn’t ensure longevity, either. It’s all about running your business smartly and efficiently, regardless of your growth rate, said Martin Okner, co-founder and managing director of business advisory firm SHM Corporate Navigators and chairman of ACG New York. He told Business News Daily that managing your company in a way that maximizes cash flow will put you on the path to success.

“We often see companies that are growing rapidly make the mistake of investing too much money and time into marketing and staffing, and not enough time and money on the innovation pipeline, channel diversification and development, order fulfillment, and supply chain,” Okner said. “[However], slow-growth companies spend too much time and money on innovation … while not investing enough time and money into sales. Either trajectory, if managed well, will work out in the long run.”

Plan for the future, rather than just acting on current trends. If you’re in an evolving industry like technology, you know how important it is to stay on top of what your competitors are doing. A strategy based on trend chasing might get you immediate results, but you’ll be better equipped for real, lasting growth if you look toward the future as well.

“Envision long-term operations from the start,” Jumper said. “Not only do you need to think about what your product or service will look like a decade or more into the future, you should consider the greater trajectory of its application.

“For instance, highly regulated industries like health care and financial services weren’t jumping on the e-signature bandwagon when we started, but that’s where we envisioned real success because that’s where there are a lot of paper-heavy transactions,” he added. “With a clear destination in mind, we could build a strategy to win the race to get there with a deliberate strategy.”