Sponsored Post

Automation Crucial to Growing Your Small Business

There’s a tale of two small businesses. They’re the same type of business with one big difference. One is growing and another is stagnant and making more work for itself than it’s worth.

The reason for that big difference: automation.

That’s the gist of the new Small and Medium Business Trends Report from Salesforce. Salesforce surveyed nearly 500 small business owners and leaders for the second annual report. Companies between 2 and 199 employees were included.

According to the report, small businesses that are automating certain processes are growing. Businesses that aren’t, are floundering.

The survey reveals that small businesses automating their processes in some way are 1.6-times more likely to be growing than those that don’t. Likewise, growing small businesses are twice as likely to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) as stagnant businesses.

That’s not to say that all small businesses that fail to automate processes and adopt AI tech are doomed to never grow. But for companies finding themselves in a rut, it appears automation may be a solution.

“When we look at SMBs in the category of ‘growing businesses,’ there are more than a few common characteristics; they’re more likely to prioritize CRM in their budgets, to use helpdesk software, and to focus on providing consistent and personalized customer experiences,” notes Marie Rosecrans, Salesforce’s senior vice president of Small Business Marketing.

Take, for instance, those two similar small businesses — the growing business and the stagnant business (those that showed a 1 percent drop in revenue over the last two years).

Salesforce finds that it’s most likely they’re undertaking the same processes. That includes tracking customer data. The Small and Medium Business Trends Report finds that 95 percent of all small businesses are aware of the benefits of doing this.

How they accomplish this is a different story.

The growing business is likely using automation via a CRM platform, like Salesforce, to track customers. However, only one-third of small businesses surveyed by Salesforce actually use a CRM platform.

The rest are likely tracking their customers using non-automated technology, like a spreadsheet. And they’re tracking communications through their inbox.

It’s CRM where the growing business sees the need to automate. Salesforce found that growing small businesses are more than twice as likely to pick CRM as their top automation priority.

A small business that adopts automated CRM can provide more personalized customer service without a lot of the hassle of tracking conversations with customers and having their data at the ready.

Brent Leary, the co-founder of CRM Essentials, reviewed the data from the Small and Medium Business Trends Report and notes, “Many small businesses aren’t addressing customer acquisition and retention issues as if they’re at the highest levels of importance, or possibly don’t equate CRM as a solution to those challenges.

“The importance of providing customers quick answers to questions they have cannot be overstated, as it can be the difference between a one-time customer transaction, or a long-term customer who not only spends more with you, but also refers business to you – thus lowering customer acquisition costs,” Leary added.

The irony is that automating key business processes is designed to save small companies the time they desperately need. Of those responding to Salesforce’s survey, 66 percent of small business leaders say they’re responsible for at least 3 parts of the company.

And more than half of the companies asked (55 percent) say that time just isn’t on their side when it comes to accomplishing what they need to do every day.

Automation is clearly the answer. Small businesses spend an average of 23 percent of their day manually entering data into different systems. That’s nearly 2 hours of an 8-hour day!

So, what’s the problem here?

A stagnant small business that fails to adopt any automated processes is struggling to keep up with its own pace. It’s so bad, it’s dragging the business down. And the company’s team can see a competitor automating and growing. What possible reason is there not to automate the key business processes?

In a nutshell, the Salesforce Small and Medium Business Trends Report finds that the stagnant business doesn’t have the time or budget to implement an automated process like CRM.

Price was picked as the main reason a small business doesn’t adopt automated technology. Right behind that is how easy (or not so easy) it is to get a small business started using an automated process.

Sixty-two percent of the small businesses surveyed by Salesforce say that training would help them adopt automated technology faster. However, the same small businesses that say they need training on adopting and implementing automation don’t have time for it or can’t afford it.

Just 26 percent of those surveyed say they have more than one IT person on staff to help with that training and implementation.

Leary suggests these reasons for not adopting automation and AI at stagnant small businesses should not be excuses. He says, “The willingness to invest in automation, AI, and other technologies to improve customer engagement, and the ability to consistently provide valuable experiences over time, separate growth oriented small businesses.”

Image: Salesforce

This article, "Automation Crucial to Growing Your Small Business" was first published on Small Business Trends

Sponsored Post

11 Questions to Ask Your Cloud Service Provider

Once you’ve decided to adopt cloud computing, it’s time to begin your search for a cloud services provider.

A cloud service provider (CSP) is a company that offers one or more pieces of cloud computing functionality including SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS.

Likely, the first thing you’ll discover when looking for a cloud service provider is that there’s a very large number to choose from. How do you know which provider is the right one for your small business? The key to success lies in the answers to the questions below.

Questions to Ask Your Cloud Service Provider

As with web hosting providers, not all cloud service providers are equal. By asking these questions, in no particular order except the first, you can quickly eliminate many potential providers from your list.

1. What Cloud Computing Services Do You Provide?

This is a great first question for quickly weeding out a number of providers from your list. After all, if they don’t provide the cloud services you need, they won’t be a good fit.

For example, if you want an end-to-end SaaS business management suite, and a service provider doesn’t offer that, you can stop asking your questions and remove them from this list.

2. Where Is Our Data Stored?

You want to make sure that your data is being held in an up-to-date data center. This will help insure both reliability and performance as you access services.

It’s a bonus when the provider has a fall-back data center or two. That way, if there’s a problem at the primary data center (i.e. earthquake, flood, power loss), your services will fail over to a secondary data center with little to no interruption on your end.

3. How Secure Is Our Data?

Security is always important, especially when it comes to safeguarding customer data. Ask your provider about:

  • Their security policies and practices;
  • The size and experience of their security team; and
  • Past breaches and issues.

4. Do You Perform Regular Backups and How Fast Can You Perform a Restore when Needed?

Backup and restore is a critical cloud computing functionality. If your data gets deleted, corrupted, or even becomes a victim of ransomware, the best solution is to restore a recent backup.

Timing is important here as the older the backup, the more data you end up losing when it’s restored. Ask potential providers if they provide hot backups, ones that run regularly during the day. That way, you’ll only miss an hour or two of data when you perform a restore.

Also ask how long it takes to have a restore done. You don’t want to wait days to be back in business.

5. How Frequent Are Your Service Outages and How Long Do They Last on Average?

As the average cost of downtime for SMBs is $7,900 per minute, this is a business-critical question.

Don’t be put off by a provider that has experienced outages; it happens to them all. Instead, focus on the number of outages and how long they last. A great cloud service provider has few outages and they should not last long.

Also ask about maintenance outages. These are scheduled outages during which the provider upgrades their hardware and software. Find out how much warning you get before these occur (so you can accommodate them) and whether they happen during business hours (which will impact you directly).

6. How Easy Is It to Manage My Services?

Most small businesses have small IT teams — if they have them at all. Therefore, being able to easily manage their hosted services is an important factor in selecting a provider.

Many providers offer consolidated services management functionality and that goes a long way toward helping a small business do more with less.

7. How Flexible Are My Services?

One of the big advantages of cloud computing is the ability to add capacity and services as they’re needed, and remove them when they are no longer being used. This “flexible consumption” license model will save your small business money by enabling it to run short-term projects without having to permanently purchase hardware and software licenses.

Make sure your cloud provider offers flexible consumption. If you don’t need it now, you likely will be glad to have it in the future.

8. Can You Consolidate All My Service Charges Into One Bill?

Both your IT and finance team will be glad you asked this question because, by consolidating your cloud services bill into one, you’ll get an overall view of what you’re buying and what you’re using.

In the case of the flexible consumption licensing model mentioned above, it will enable you to quickly see if you’re paying for services you no longer use or, if you’re coming close to a limit and need to purchase more services.

While you’re at it, ask potential cloud service providers about service charge increases. How often do they occur and how much warning do you get before they happen?

9. What Service-Level-Agreements (SLAs) Do You Offer?

A service-level-agreement (SLA) is just that — a promise to provide a specific level of service whether that’s uptime, backups, restores or more.

A service provider often offers more than one tier of SLAs. For example, a lower-priced tier may promise that a restore request will be completed within one business day while a higher-priced tier promises that a restore request will be completed within one hour.

Also ask about penalties, such as financial compensation or free services for a period of time, if the provider does not meet the promises within an SLA.

10. Can You Provide References?

This is a very important question to ask. Don’t take the service provider’s word for how good they are. Ask to talk to current customers without the provider being present.

Also, search Google for “(provider name) review”. This way, you can find more feedback and input as you make your decision.

11. What cloud offers are in place to do a proof of concept to showcase your services?

Most companies don’t ask for offers that are in place to explore a proof of concept. For example, if you have an application that needs to be migrated to cloud infrastructure, Meylah offers $1,500 in free assessment services to easily help you build a plan for migration or $2,000 in development services towards a cloud application development.

Wrapping Up

The questions above will enable your small business to whittle down the list of potential cloud service providers to a manageable amount.

Once a provider passes that gauntlet, feel free to ask more questions including technical specifications and limits as well as industry-specific compliance needs.

Do not stop asking questions until you’re satisfied that a provider is the right fit for your business. Always remember, it’s much cheaper to discover things beforehand then after.

Cloud Technology Photo via Shutterstock

This article, "11 Questions to Ask Your Cloud Service Provider" was first published on Small Business Trends

Sponsored Post

4 ACA Reporting Tips Every Small Business Needs to Know

The latest attempt to repeal Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), has failed. On July 28, 2017, the “Skinny Repeal,” which promised to eliminate the individual and small business mandates of Obamacare, was unsuccessful.

However, the new administration has vowed to continue working on the issue of healthcare. Whether new legislation will be introduced before the end of 2017, or what the fate of any such legislation would be, is hard to judge.

One thing is clear — Obamacare is still legally the law of the land as of this writing. The law applies to employers with 50 or more full-time employees (as this is defined under the Affordable Care Act).

Unless and until the legislation is officially changed, employers are required to comply with the law, including employee tracking and reporting requirements, and it’s more likely than not those tracking and reporting requirements will continue for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it’s a good time for a refresher about the requirements for employers under the ACA law.

5 ACA Reporting Tips Every Small Business Needs to Know

Which Employers Are Subject to ACA Reporting?

Employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees must provide benefits under the ACA or face a fine.

To determine whether you have 50 full-time equivalent employees as required under the ACA law, you have to follow a formula.  According to the IRS, “To determine its workforce size for a year, an employer adds its total number of full-time employees for each month of the prior calendar year to the total number of full-time equivalent employees for each calendar month of the prior calendar year and divides that total number by 12.”

See the formula on this page to calculate the number of full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) for a month.

What Type of Reporting Is Required?

The ACA requires employers subject to the law to complete forms 1095-C along with the 1094-C transmittal sheet. The forms are intended to confirm full-time and full-time equivalent employees are getting minimum essential care under the law.

There is a reporting requirement for sending 1095-C and 1094-C transmittals to the IRS. Under the law, employers are required to send 1095-C to all employees to provide information on their healthcare coverage. Form 1094-C is sent only to the IRS as a cover sheet for the 1095-C forms filed with the agency.

Specifically, Form 1095-C provides information about the type of healthcare provided to your employees, as well as information on whether employees might be eligible for a premium tax credit. The form also provides relevant information about periods employees may have gone without required health coverage.

Form 1094-C is a cover sheet providing additional information to the IRS, including the name of the employer, number of employees and the number of 1095-C forms sent to employees and the IRS.

If you file electronically, you get more time to file than you do if you file by paper.

What Are the Deadlines for Filing?

Deadlines for filing these forms in 2017 were actually moved up earlier than in 2016. The move caused considerable confusion in the small business community as many small businesses were unaware of the change.

For 2018, the deadlines are:

  • January 31, 2018 — Send Form 1095 copies to recipients/employees
  • February 28, 2018 — Paper filing of 1095s (and 1094 transmittals) to IRS
  • March 31, 2018 — E-filing of 1095s (and 1094 transmittals) to IRS

What Are the Penalties for Missing Filing Deadlines?

Employers missing the filing deadlines with the IRS for forms 1094-C and 1095-C or who file forms containing inaccurate information could face penalties of up to $260 per filing. Employers could also face a fine of $260 per filing for failure to distribute forms to employees or file with the IRS.

Employers with more than 250 full-time or full-time equivalent employees are required to file electronically by the IRS, rather than by paper.

What is Employer Shared Responsibility?

Under the ACA, employers with 50 or more full-time employees (or full-time equivalents) are required to provide sufficient and affordable healthcare coverage to those employees. The Employer Shared Responsibility provision also requires employers to communicate key details of health insurance coverage to the IRS, including verification that the “minimum essential coverage” (MEC) is being met.  Employers that fail to meet these requirements face a Shared Responsibility Payment ranging from $2,000-$3,000 for every full-time and full-time equivalent employee not covered.

Conclusion

This gives you a quick overview of some of the major requirements of the Affordable Care Act.  There are many more nuances and details that employers need to comply with, as well.

Even a full repeal of the ACA may not eliminate the IRS reporting requirement. Though some lawmakers continue to press for full repeal and replacement, any new plan may still carry a tax-related component (e.g., tax subsidies or tax breaks) that could require some level of IRS reporting.

At this point, businesses cannot count on the requirement being eliminated entirely. In fact, any new legislation may add to the burden, if tracking and reporting requirements change significantly.

Learn more here about ACA reporting requirements from business compliance firm ComplyRight. Or download the printable simplified ACA primer (PDF) from efile4biz.com, a ComplyRight brand.

Healthcare Photo via Shutterstock

This article, "How to Comply with the Not-Yet-Repealed ACA Healthcare Law" was first published on Small Business Trends

Sponsored Post

Dimes to Dollars: 10 Energy Saving Tips That Add Up

Did you know you could save small amounts that together add up to big benefits for your business?  Conserving energy, making smart use of technology, recycling, seeking out energy tax breaks, and other moves can improve your business, help make employees more committed and result in savings.

Here are 10 ways to do that:

  • Adjust the office thermostat.  Historically temperatures in offices have been set for the assumed height, weight and metabolic rate of a 40 year old man. A better average suggests setting cooling at 76 and heating at 70. You should also involve your employees in the decision.
  • Pick the right light bulbs.  Ninety percent of all the energy produced by a traditional incandescent bulb is released as heat and light bulbs make up 5 percent of your energy budget. Choosing more energy efficient bulbs could save $75 on your energy bill.
  • Turn lights and equipment off.  Beyond replacing bulbs, there are other things you can do to cut the energy you consume. Install dimmers, turn off equipment when not in use, dust light bulbs to lengthen their life and use motion sensors to turn off lights automatically when everyone is gone for the day.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle! There are 254 million tons of garbage produced annually in the U.S. Doing what you can to reduce your own company’s waste plus looking to get your energy from more renewable sources shows stewardship of the environment your customers will appreciate.
  • Shop around for energy.  A surprising 90 percent of small businesses don’t switch vendors — and this includes energy providers. But energy makes up an average of 30 percent of your business costs. So saving even a few cents on your energy rate could make a huge difference to your bottom line.
  • Do an energy audit. Establish a baseline for your energy use. Then start looking at the sources of your use, whether habits and behavior like leaving lights and computers on, choices of technology like the kind of light bulbs you use or simply the age of your equipment. This will give ideas on how to start saving.
  • Ask for advice and tips from energy suppliers. While you can do an energy audit and implement many of these other tips yourself, your energy provider can also help. So contact them for more on reducing energy usage.  
  • Landscape outdoors for summer cooling or winter warmth. Did you know landscaping on the property where your business is located can save big bucks? Plant evergreens as windbreakers, deciduous trees for shade and shrubs for insulation. These steps can save money on heating in winter and cooling in summer.
  • Choose smart technology. Implementing energy saving policies with the help of your employees is a great first step. But the easy install of a smart thermostat and other similar technology can help you manage energy efficiency even more.
  • Take advantage of energy tax breaks. Finally, look for tax breaks and rebates that pay back for making energy saving improvements. For example, you can get a $1.80 per square foot deduction for installing energy efficient lighting, HVAC or water and a $7,500 credit for buying an electric or hybrid vehicle.  

For more tips about saving energy, please see the reading list assembled by Constellation.

These tips and many more were presented during a recorded webinar held October 5, 2017 with Michael Cammon of Constellation, small business expert Ivana Taylor, and hosted by Anita Campbell, SEO of Small Business Trends.  You can watch the full session here:

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Photo via Shutterstock

This article, "Dimes to Dollars: 10 Energy Saving Tips That Add Up" was first published on Small Business Trends

Sponsored Post

Dreamforce 2017 Agenda

We’re less than a month out from Dreamforce 2017 and if you’re attending the marquee Salesforce event, prepare for an event featuring big names, keynotes on business growth and break out events focused specifically on small business.

Headlining the keynote roster are former First Lady Michelle Obama, actor and noted investor Ashton Kutcher, the CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA Sylvia Acevedo and former First Daughters Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush.

Dreamforce 2017 will be held in San Francisco from November 6 to 9. This year, more than 175,000 people are expected to attend the event. And if you think that’s a lot, wait until you see what’s in store.

“You can be overwhelmed because there’s so much going on,” says Brent Leary, the co-founder of CRM Essentials and a Dreamforce veteran. He attended his first Dreamforce back in 2004. “You want to look far in advance and map out what you want to see early … camp out almost.”

As a small business owner going to Dreamforce for the first time or on a return trip, there’s plenty to keep you occupied the whole week.

You’ll want to check out the Dreamforce website to get the full lay of the land for the event. There’s literally too much to cram into one article. To help you better navigate the event, Salesforce is launching an agenda builder at the Dreamforce website to help you pick the events that best suit your business and needs.

Salesforce senior vice president of SMB product marketing, Marie Rosecrans, tells Small Business Trends, “Dreamforce provides a unique opportunity for small business customers and prospects. You can connect with other people at Dreamforce but we will also have 100 breakout sessions specific to small businesses.”

The one big event you must attend, Rosecrans says, is the Small Business Essentials keynote.

Rosecrans and Salesforce executive vice president of SMB sales Tony Rodoni will deliver the  Small Business Essentials keynote at Dreamforce, “Gear Up for Growth”. They’ll be joined by Salesforce customers including Stella & Dot CEO and founder Jessica Herrin, Code.org CEO and founder Hadi Parvoti, and Kabbage director of sales strategy and growth Alfredo Jimenez.

The Small Business Essentials keynote will be held on the second day of Dreamforce, November 7, from 11 to 11:30 a.m. (Pacific). Even if you can’t attend, this address will be one of many events livestreamed on Salesforce Live and available for free to anyone checking in online.

Attending the keynote, while vital to the Dreamforce experience, is just one of the many things you should plan to do. To get the most of your trip, small businesses should take advantage of the expert help and networking available to them.

“I always want customers to walk away from Dreamforce inspired,” Rosecrans says. “The way you can do that is not only attending our keynote but then also to go to the sessions and identify two to three takeaways you can implement when you get back to the office. (Small businesses will) not only walk away feeling inspired but they’ll get some productivity tips that they can employ immediately.”

So, which sessions are right for small business? Keep in mind, there are more than 2,500 different sessions and group discussions and keynote addresses being presented during Dreamforce. Here are the events geared right to your small business.

If there’s just one you can attend, small business owners would be remiss if they didn’t take advantage of the one-on-one sessions being offered by Salesforce.

“Don’t pass up on this unique opportunity,” Rosecrans says.

These one-one-one sessions with Salesforce pros last about a half-hour and you can walk away with those couple things you can take right back to your company to start better using Salesforce right away.

“For folks who are actually going to be there, take advantage of the one-on-one sessions,” Leary says. “There are some really cool opportunities.”

Leary says small businesses should identify their pain points in sales, customer and lead gen, and other areas and prepare to address them with Salesforce pros or other customers at Dreamforce.

Rosecrans adds that Salesforce dispatches its top experts to provide advice to small business customers of theirs during these sessions.

Outside the one-on-ones and keynote addresses by some of the most recognized names in business and beyond, the biggest opportunity for small businesses like yours at Dreamforce is the chance to network with other companies and professionals using Salesforce.

Rosecrans tells Small Business Trends, “There’s a lot of tools and resources we’ve made available to customers. There’s nothing better than walking around and meeting customers who are just like you.”

With thousands of chances to meet someone just like you or in a similar situation as yours, you can find out how they’re using Salesforce.

“There are some really fascinating people and companies all in one place,” Leary says.

All small business activity at Dreamforce will be centered at the Small Business Lodge, located at the Marriott Marquis hotel. The lodge serves as the base camp for small businesses during the event. And that’s where the one-on-one sessions will be held.

At the lodge, small businesses are also going to find workshops offering advice on using different Salesforce products. These workshops will focus specifically on how small businesses can use these tools to spur growth and even sessions for companies just getting started with Salesforce.

One area where Leary says small businesses should be paying particular mind at Dreamforce is the development of artificial intelligence (AI). He says Salesforce’s AI tool Einstein is one example.

“I would want to find out as much as I can about how (AI) can impact my small business. Everyone is talking about AI,” Leary says. “It’s time for small businesses to fully understand how to implement it in what they do. Try to understand AI because it’s not going away.”

“(Small businesses) should be implementing AI,” Rosecrans adds. “It just makes them smarter. It allows them to focus on the right leads and the right opportunities. Einstein can benefit them because it’s built right into Salesforce CRM.”

This article, "Dreamforce 17 Will Feature Keynotes on Growth, Small Business Breakouts, Big Names" was first published on Small Business Trends