The Cloud Office Part 3: Advanced Paperless Tactics

In our last article, we discussed some simple, low/no cost tactics for rolling out cloud options for day-to-day operations. This time, we are going to look at some much more advanced techniques, some of which might require more significant investments in software/application purchase, hardware procurement, and training. As always, consult with a trusted IT professional and perform a cost/benefit analysis of any major operations changes before investing in their implementation.

Examine Cloud Computing vs. Locally Run Software

Perhaps the biggest debate in software for business now: To Cloud or Not to Cloud, that is the question. The “cloud” is location-independent computing. In many cases, user can access cloud functionality  in a platform-independent way, such as through a web browser. Google and Salesforce are two great examples of companies using cloud computing. With the increasing prevalence of smartphones and the iPad for business and not just entertainment operations managers need to examine whether the cloud functionality and ease-of-use are the right choice. In many cases, one must weigh the value of an app with a one-time micropayment with premium monthly payments to unlock additional features vs. a perhaps higher single upfront cost for an X-seat license for locally installed competing software. Think carefully about which option would be better for your organization, and which will scale with your growth plan. A mixture of local and cloud applications might be the solution.

Software and Applications Across All Operations Levels

From initial customer interactions, customer relationship management, site visit, to project management, the following is a quick guide suggesting some useful software and applications to help run every aspect of your business.

Google Apps

Underneath the framework of your company, consider running Google Apps on your domain to manage email, shared calendars, document sharing, contacts, company intranet and more. Administrators can roll out a branded experience for users (logo and colors). This is a great option for small business especially that don’t have the resources to invest in some of the bigger name small business solutions (Mircosoft). Enterprise editions are available including more guaranteed uptime, 24/7 phone support, MS Office interoperability and more.

Customer Prequalification

Consider website-integrated smart forms that engage with a database (which we will discuss later) along with applications that allow your prospects can engage with to help self-asses their solar potential and educate them will bring better-informed and qualified prospects to you.

Customer Relationship Management

A Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) can help your company manage customers from intake all the way through a project and into referral marketing afterward. Keeping track of each customer’s profile in a single database with notes from interactions, service records, and relationships with other customers highlighted can help you better manage you customer relations, help you learn about patterns in your sales and project cycles, and better inform your marketing efforts. Choosing the right CRM is one of the most important decisions to make as a growing sales-driven business.

Proposals and Contracts

Consider using tools to create attractive proposals, financial analysis, and contracts. A number of financiers and solar services companies offer options that cover the spectrum depending on your needs and budgets. Some will even sell the projects and design systems for you.

Signing and Payment

Consider digital signing and digital payment options. Can you or would you take a credit card payment for the down payment? Apps are even available now for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Consider the fee associated with the credit card processing in your decision.

Encourage Smartphone Use and Related Apps

We have mentioned some uses of smartphones already from site evaluation to contract signing and credit card processing at the kitchen table. Software companies release new apps every day from business productivity, document management, and even industry-specific apps like the Solmetric SunEye. Even just simpler use of smartphones like on-the-go email, contact management, and social media access can improve the productivity of sales staff, and busy executives.

GPS Navigation

Might seem odd amongst the glut of software recommendations, but it's often a time saver to equip crews and sales staff with GPS navigation (as well as paper saver!).

Most important, and I must reiterate, have a solid plan in place and a budget in mind before implementing any new software or changing any company operations practices. Communicate clearly with employees to ensure that they understand the effects that these changes will have on their jobs. Track the results of using these new software methods. While you might not see results immediately as everyone is retraining, continue to measure and analyze data to ensure your new solutions are providing you the results you had forecasted. If not, find out why. Training problems? Software too cumbersome? Bad implementation? Test. Measure. Adjust. Repeat.

Posted on February 1, 2011 and filed under operations.