Thursday, September 18, 2008

Innovation

(Our 2008 Solutions Catalog with all our client programs -
ask your local CT for a copy!)

Last year when we started our partnership with Merry Meeting, it gave me a chance to formalize our business plans for the first time really since we got started back in 1999. I copied some of the format of Merry Meeting's business plan and added some touches of our own. The business plan gives us clear strategic objectives, tactical plans, and highlights our Mission and our Values.

When it comes to our Core Values, many are the same as any company should have: start with Integrity & the Golden Rule, build with clear Objectives, commit to Excellence, and earn a Profit. We added two that I feel are critical to this particular business: Innovation, and Balance. Balance is a topic unto itself, but the demand in this business is so strong it's easy to get overworked so it's something to keep front and center in all that we do. Innovation though is what I want to talk about today.

I'm very proud of the Innovation we've done at Computer Troubleshooters over the years. We've been at the cutting edge of our industry in literally hundreds of areas, being the first or one of the first computer service franchises to:
  • expand overseas

  • build a franchisee intranet

  • offer employee hiring & management assistance

  • offer a web design & hosting service and content-managed franchisee websites

  • offer an optional CT call center service

  • create a robust managed services program

  • create a National Account program (and more recently a National Client program) to drive more work to our franchisees

  • create a content-based marketing system with automated marketing portals

This year we've gone even furthur. We start with the premise that our job is to help our small business clients be successful. A big part of that is making sure their computers & technology are running smoothly and are as trouble-free as possible. Beyond that though there are many ways we can help small businesses be more successful through technology, so this year we've added:

  • The ReImage tool. While it doesn't work in every situation, when it works it's a HUGE timesaver for us and for our clients.

  • Search Engine Marketing and Optimization services, in conjunction with ReachLocal and others. Over the last three years we've seen a marked decrease in the effectiveness of traditional advertising (notably Yellow Pages and Newspaper) and a similar increase in the effectiveness of online advertising, particularly with search engines. Our new program not only ensures that our franchisees get the most bang for their online advertising buck, it lets us offer those expert services to our small business clients as well.

  • An Electronic Document Management program. Of all the programs we've rolled out in 2008 this one is probably the most boring, and the most useful. Every business has at least one file cabinet (if not a dozen or more), and many even wind up renting storage space to hold old files for retention purposes. Now we can offer inexpensive systems that let them store all their paper files on one computer database, and access them from any PC on the network (with proper authorization, of course). Saves time, saves money, and just makes good sense for small businesses everywhere.
  • Our IP Telephony program. The telephone world is rapidly shifting from the proprietary PBX systems of the past to the new, feature-rich & low cost VoIP-based systems of the future. We're making sure that Computer Troubleshooters everywhere are in the best position to help our small business clients migrate to the new systems by aligning with the best partners and creating internal support & training options for CT's and their technicians. CTUSA has been running on a Fonality IP-PBX system for years so I can speak from experience - once you get a VoIP system it's hard to imagine going back.

  • "Cloud Computing": The big buzzword this year seems to be "cloud computing" - it's almost (but not quite) what "managed services" was last year. The idea is that some applications are better when run from the web instead of from a local server - and this is more often true with small businesses than it is with larger ones, becuase it's a better value for a small business to pay for a hosted application instead of hiring staff or paying us to support a local server. Hosted Exchange is a great example: an 8-person law firm might want the benefits of Microsoft Exchange, but setting up and supporting an internal Exchange server could be cost prohibitive. Hosted Exchange gives you all the same benefits, but someone else handles all the server management responsibities. The challenge of course is partnering with the right providers, so CT has been busy lining up the best hosted services for our small business clients. So far we've got Hosted Exchange, Sharepoint, email, office, database, CRM, online meeting, and collaboration tool applications, and we're reviewing more. While it's not right for everyone, we're making sure CT's can help their small business clients choose the solution that's right for them.

There are dangers in innovating though. You have to start from a strong foundation, because it's easy to get distracted by the promises of "something new". So taking care of a client's basic hardware, software, networking and services needs has to be the core of what we do, THEN we can look at new options to enhance their business. And not every innovation works out - for example a few years ago I was approached by a company who was going to put an end to spam by making people pay to send legitimate emails. Needless to say that idea never went anywhere, but some other ideas like our CT Software Development service are good solutions but for relatively rare situations (we still operate the CT-SD and they do great work, but most small businesses don't need much custom-written software).

I often tell people that the best part about Computer Troubleshooters is that we have the best R&D department in the world: 500 franchise locations all over the world, all looking for and trying out new solutions every day. The best ones rise to the top and make it into our Solutions Catalog. The rest tend to be discussed and dropped fairly quickly. But by constantly finding new solutions, new vendor partners, and new technologies we're sure that CT will always stay out in front when it comes to effective innovation.

3 comments:

John Kilgore said...

Chip - I agree with your assesment on the direction of the IP telephony suite making a major move into the small business world (finally). Key players like Cisco are focusing a LARGE part of their marketing strategy to the SMB market in 2009 I know for sure, especially with their UC500 line of equipment. One thing I'm afraid of however is a "mom n' pop" VOIP rush... where every provider out there has a different VOIP solution and every SMB out there has a different product. Imagine trying to support linux if you were a windows guy - your best bet would be to learn how linux works and maybe learn a distro or two, but you couldn't support one distro from another because they are so different. That's what I'm afraid is going to happen to the VOIP market, especially with Microsoft's newest "a monkey can do it" system. That personally scares me to death.

Chip Reaves, CEO, Computer Troubleshooters said...

You know that's a really good point John. I've got a meeting tomorrow to review three VoIP proposals on behalf of a local non-profit (DCM, I'm the "technology guy" on the board sometimes) and all three are pretty different.

I think fragmentation is likely in the near term, because you do have some major investment (money or otherwise) in some pretty diverse platforms (Asterisk PBX, hosted Asterisk, appliance-based, Microsoft's thing). We had the same challenge putting together the training workshop for the last conference, but it ended up working out well -we had reps from 3 or 4 key vendors come out and do basically a "IP Telephony 101" type course where they talked in general terms about how everything comes together and what some of the "gotchas" are. They inevitably dipped into some platform specifics, but the concepts are mostly the same even when the implementations are different. And at the end of the day it's just an IP device talking to another IP device talking to a different network, so basic network diagnostics can carry you a long way. One of the concepts we're looking at within CT is a "Product Champion" or "Niche Champion" strategy where we identify the CTs who are particularly strong in a given category and setup a structure to make them available to others in the network through a standardized format. It'll probably be 2009 before we get the concept ironed out, but IP Telephony will definitely be the first category we roll out (followed by HIPPA and/or doc management).

Back on the fragmentation issue though, I think the industry will mature fast enough that it'll be more a "apple vs pc" consideration rather than a "psychiatry vs dentistry" training problem. Think of content management systems for websites - on a daily basis I'm using PHP Nuke, Dot-Net-Nuke, the custom CT-CMS system Ace built for us, and an old legacy Java-based system. Each one is a different login structure and behaves slightly differently, but the menus are helpful enough and commands similar enough that I can muddle through. I think for most of us the same will be true of IP Telephony systems too.

John Kilgore said...

I think in addition to the aforementioned services you suggested there's a bigger picture to this - it's all about convergence. Voice and Data are are already converged, my team is implementing it together everyday. However without the big picture in mind and a roadmap to march to, converging voice and data in a recurring revenue model isn't going to work. It's all about selecting a product that works (or assimilates into) a managed platform that can be managed by a single tool (or, again, assimilates into a single tool).

What am I getting at here? I think that when we have tons of people putting in cheap and immature (*cough* open source *cough*) solutions for SMB's we'll find that managing that will not be possible, or even cost prohibitive come 5 years from now. Little support and development from open source systems will only provide the market with frustration, and then we'll be in the "phone guy vs. computer guy" world all over again. Why can't the Computer Guy be the Phone guy?

What am I suggesting? Find a large named partner and learn their solution, whether it be Cisco, Avaya, Shoretel, etc.

Another point that I'd like to make does actually converge (for a lack of better terms) with your blog posting. Cloud Computing & VOIP, it's coming. Bandwith.com is already doing it - and charging a ton in managed services costs to keep it up and running. Why can't we do the same?