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The Home Working Imperative

It’s amazing how old attitudes persist in the face of all evidence and reason, isn’t it?

I recently ran across a press release from global recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International with the headline, “61% of Executives Surveyed Believe Telecommuters are Less Likely to Advance Compared to Employees Working in Traditional Office Settings". This is ridiculous.

In an age of crazy fuel prices, too many employees are pouring too much of their disposable income into their fuel tanks. Many fear they can’t keep up with expenses. When people are worried, it’s hard for them to focus on their projects.

Employers are anxious too. The cost to heat, cool and light an office space has grown dramatically over recent years, putting pressure on already lean profit margins for many.

There is an alternative to the traditional office environment. With ‘hot desking’ and home working employers could reduce the space they need to run their operations by half or more in some instances. And who said the office environment is the most productive place anyway? According to research sponsored by Internet firm AOL, a staggering 2.09 hours a day is wasted by the average worker, with office gossip being one of the main distractions.

In contrast, the managers at Technology Management have found that many of their home workers choose to log on and start work at the time they’d usually be getting into their car to start their commute.

Nevertheless, an unbelievable proportion of managers hang on to the entrenched idea that an employee who is out of sight is somehow less worthy than someone who is. “Managers have this fear of losing oversight over employees, and I don’t know if it’s justified,” says Kurt Reymers, a sociologist at Morrisville State College, SUNY. He cites a variety of studies, including one published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showing that people who have the flexibility to work from home are more productive and less stressed.

To be sure, physical presence is required in places like plant floors and retail stores. But for a knowledge worker who can operate dependably and independently, a home working option makes complete sense. According to independent research 6 million people in the U.K. could potentially do their jobs at home. And with the average UK commute now taking 45 minutes to travel 8.5 miles – 17% further than a decade ago and the worst record in Europe – the time is right to make significant savings for all involved.

To me, the evidence is clear. Managers should now do everything they can to encourage home working. It’s true that many like the social aspect of working in the office, but even if this were cut to only one or two days a week, the benefits remain significant. Managers can start by:

Measuring performance, not face time. This is very old news, but it bears repeating. If knowledge workers do quality work, then it should not matter where or what time of day they do it.

Investing in meeting and collaboration technologies. Home workers who need face-to-face chats with bosses or colleagues or who need to attend meetings and collaborate on documents now have a range of excellent new options. For example, Microsoft Communications Server offers users instant messaging, Voice over IP telecommunications (VoIP), audio and video conferencing. Microsoft SharePoint can support teams with project and document collaboration – with workflow that can identify where projects have stalled and prompt users to address the problem. And, of course, many Microsoft business systems, including their customer relationship management software, are now accessible through a web browser.

You can learn more about home working technology at this September’s Technology Expo in Wolverhampton. For more information visit www.tecman.co.uk/expo

Letting your customers serve themselves

In these tough economic times, is there a way to better serve your customers and reduce customer service costs? Web self-service may be the answer to holding on to your important customers while continuing to add value.

Web self-service is an approach to customer relationship management (CRM) that allows customers to access information and perform routine tasks over the Internet, without requiring any interaction with a representative of the business.

For customers, self-service offers 24 hour-a-day support, and immediate access to information without having to wait for an email response or a returned telephone call. Ultimately, the success of Web self-service depends upon the quality and quantity of information available and the ease with which it can be accessed.

Deploying Web self-service applications benefits a company in a variety of ways. The most prominent motivation is the lower cost, as compared with telephone or email service by a company representative. According to Forrester Research, the cost of the average Web self-service session is £1, compared to £10 for an email response and £33 for a telephone call. Another, more controversial, business benefit of self-service is the ability it affords the company to gather personal information about the people who use it.

US-based software developer, c360, offers a Web self-service add-on to Microsoft Dynamics CRM – Microsoft’s customer relationship management software. The c360 Customer Portal allows organisations using Microsoft CRM to extend their customer service and support functions to the web to achieve more efficient support and service as well as higher customer satisfaction and self sufficiency. The c360 Customer Portal allows organisations to quickly and easily create a web self-service presence that is fully integrated into their Microsoft CRM solution.

A common complaint aimed at customer service teams is that they don’t keep the customer updated with the progress of their issue. Often, this is because the issue is ‘in progress’ and the systems aren’t in place to prompt the service person to call on a regular basis to update the customer. With c360 Customer Portal an organisation’s customer can raise customer service cases, view and update service cases and view case history – enabling the customer to stay ‘in the loop’.

Microsoft CRM enables users to build a library of answers to common problems. Originally this tool was designed to help service personnel answer customer queries more quickly, but with c360 the ‘knowledge base’ is opened up so that customers themselves can search this information and solve the problem.

While personal human contact is the best way to build strong customer relations, Web self-service provides another tool in the armoury for SMEs wishing to offer world-class customer service at an affordable price. With other portal technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, the possibilities of sharing information in new and dynamic ways is limitless.

You can learn more about software tools for SMEs at Technology Expo 2008 on Wednesday 24 September in Wolverhampton.

Gartner Research Suggest Firms Miss Social Site Success

The BBC today report on the productivity gains businesses can and are making with similar tools used in social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Increasingly, Microsoft’s business products are incorporating these tools, too.

MSN Messenger is an easy way to communicate quickly with colleagues on and off-site that is free to use, requiring only a web browser.