How Software Can Turn Your Vacation Rental Into A Winner

Listing services such as Airbnb and HomeAway have made it easier than ever to rent out your house, apartment or other property to short-term visitors. As a result, vacation rental has become a booming business.

chevy chase vacation gif
 

V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N!

 
However, a boom in the industry also means an increase in competition, which could affect your bottom line. To make yourself stand out, you need to do more than just maintain your property. You must also monitor reviews, compare pricing and communicate effectively with your renters.

We surveyed vacationers who had rented a property (not a hotel room) in the last 18 months to find out what they thought were the biggest hassles with their vacation rentals.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the results and examine what they tell us about what renters want in a short-term rental. Then, we’ll explore the ways you can use software to address those concerns.

Here are the best ways to make your property stand out:


Review Your Reviews
Know Your Competition
Communicate Clearly and Promptly

Review Your Reviews

Online reviews are a staple in today’s economy, and the data from our survey showed this to be especially true of vacation rental properties:

  • An overwhelming majority of our respondents consulted online reviews before renting.
    • Of those respondents that consulted reviews, all indicated they were influenced by those reviews, with half of respondents saying that they were greatly influenced.
    Did you consult online reviews of the property before renting?
    How much did those reviews influence your decision to rent?

    Clearly, online reviews are extremely important for vacationers looking to rent a property. The takeaway here is twofold:

    1. You cannot afford to have negative reviews.
    2. You need to collect as many positive reviews as possible.

    The best way to do this, of course, is to provide a great experience and impeccable service. However, you must also remember to encourage your happy customers to leave positive reviews, to entice future renters.

    How software can help: Vacation rental software helps you stay in touch with your renters before, during and after their stay. Set automatic reminders to check in during the stay to ask about any issues you can address.

    This way, you mitigate complaints instead of leaving renters on their own to post angry reviews. You can also leverage software to automatically send a follow-up email after each stay, asking renters to leave a positive review.

    Know Your Competition

    The market for vacation rentals is exploding thanks to the sharing economy, which means you’re likely facing stiff competition. Your potential renters know this, and they’re not just checking out your location and prices; they’re also exploring your competitors.

    • All of our respondents say that they compared prices to other properties in the same area.
    • The majority of our respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with the price of the property they rented compared to similar options in both the same geographic area as well as in other areas.
    How satisfied were you with the price compared to properties in the same area?
    How satisfied were you with the price compared to properties in a different area?

    It’s clear from the data that your renters are going to shop around, and you need to make sure they’re satisfied with your price, or else they’ll simply rent elsewhere.

    You obviously want to make a profit, but you must consider what the market will bear and strike a balance between over- and under-charging, so both you and your renters are happy with the final price.

    How software can help: Robust vacation rental software systems automate the process of monitoring the market and suggest price changes accordingly, so you don’t have to manually check every vacation rental listing site.

    This feature helps you stay competitive—instead of having to calculate your optimum price, the software does it for you. This type of software tends to be pricier, though; it’s geared more toward managers with multiple properties.

    Communicate Clearly and Promptly

    Communication is key. This is as true in property rental as it is in all other facets of life. Your renters want you to be in touch with them about their rental, and they want your communication to be clear and concise.

    According to our respondents, most property managers seem to be doing this right.

    However, respondents who were unhappy with their interactions tended to focus on the lack of communication.

    How satisfied were you with your dealings with the property manager?
    How much communication did you receive from the property manager?
    How did the property manager primarily contact you?

    When asked for comments in the survey, respondents said they wished managers had “returned calls in a timely manner,” provided a “faster response” and offered “more communication in general.”

    They also indicated a preference for email as a form of communication over phone calls. One respondent “would have preferred emails over playing phone tag,” while another said, “Just use email or texts; this is the 21st century.”

    How software can help: Vacation rental software lets you set reminders and send automatic emails, so you can keep in contact with your renters before, during and after their stay.

    You can also have the system alert you to their responses, so you can get back to them as soon as possible and keep track of their preferred method of contact.

    Conclusions and Next Steps

    You need to make your vacation rental property stand out from the crowd, and software can help give you that competitive edge through a variety of features:

    Vacation Rental Software Features

    Booking Track who is renting from you on what dates, so you never overbook.
    Billing and invoicing Create invoices and other key documents. Easily collect payment from renters.
    Website creation Create a standout website that draws in customers.
    Monitor competition Monitor the competition for your market and get suggestions for appropriate price changes.
    Automate communication Set reminders and automatic emails so you have just the right amount of timely communication with your customers.

     

    Now that you know just how helpful software can be for you, here are some next steps to consider:

    • Email me at andrewfriedenthal@softwareadvice.com for more information. I’m happy to help you figure out what your own vacation rental software needs might be and to connect you to one of our expert software advisors for a free, no-obligation consultation!

    Software Needs Cycle: Must-Have Functionality for Hotel Management

    Launching a new hotel is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. And, once you’re up and running, scaling and optimizing your business can be just as difficult.

    But hoteliers don’t have to face these hurdles alone. Hotel management software can help you meet these goals.

    We looked at Software Advice data from real buyers and users to determine the top-requested applications based on the hotel’s level of sophistication. Here, we’ll reveal what software applications you need when you start, when you need to grow and later to optimize your hospitality business.

    Needs Cycle for Independent Hotels [GRAPHIC]

    independent hotel needs cycle
    Software Advice has a team of software experts that provide free telephone consultations to hotel owners and managers searching for software. We studied a sample of these buyer discussions to gauge demand for hotel software functions by level of sophistication. (Learn more about these buyer discussions here.)

    Hotel Applications to Start With

    This section is for independent hotels that are just launching and need core functionality to handle daily tasks.

    Front Office and Reservation Management

    What it does: This is the hub of your hotel operations, where you can check guests in and out, add or edit reservations and availability and review details about each stay.

    Why you need it to start: This front office application is the foundation of a successful hotel business, as it gives managers a bird’s eye view of operations in one place. So, it’s a natural starting point.

    All hotel data should be accessible in this interface to improve service and management. For example, as guests check in, a front desk employee could see that housekeeping is currently cleaning their room. The clerk could offer the guests a free drink as they wait to preserve a positive first impression.

    Key Considerations:

    • Look for front office functionality that enhances guest engagement, such as showing personalized messaging during check-in.
    • Most modern reservation systems offer a tape chart view, or a linear calendar view of each reservation based on the length of stay. Carefully evaluate this feature for user-friendliness; it’s likely to be what your employees will use most often.

    Online Booking Engine (OBE)

    What it is: The online booking engine gives guests the ability to search for and book rooms and view rates and other amenities directly on your website. This reservation data then populates the calendars on the front desk application and updates availability.

    Why you need it to start: Guests aren’t likely to call your front desk to reserve a room anymore. Travelers primarily book rooms online, and mobile bookings are becoming increasingly common.

    If you want to run a successful hotel in 2017 and beyond, you must offer online bookings.

    OBEs also include several other useful features:

    • Personalized format and logos
    • Support for multiple languages and currencies
    • Up-selling opportunities at time of booking

    Key Considerations:

    • Because so many bookings come from mobile devices—27 percent of airline and hotel bookings in the second quarter of 2016 and growing—adopt a stable OBE that’s easy to navigate on a smaller screen.
    • Customizable OBEs allow hoteliers to create special discounts or promotions as travelers land on your website. Offer “Book Now and Save” deals that greet website visitors to boost direct bookings.

    Housekeeping Management

    What it does: Housekeeping management helps coordinate and assign cleaning duties with communication tools and status management.

    Why you need it to start: Positive first impressions in hotels can turn a first-timer into a loyal, long-time repeat guest. Think about how your guests feel as they walk into a poorly cleaned room; with efficient housekeeping management, you can be confident about the cleanliness of your property.

    In our latest Hotel Management Buyer Report, we found that 48 percent of hotel software buyers who contact us represent independent hotels, most with around 10 to 49 rooms.

    Furthermore, the largest percentage of these hotels (27 percent) say they need software because they’re just launching the business and want to automate tasks from the start.

    So when we looked at the most-requested applications of these small-to-medium sized independent hotels, we see a similar ranking as our needs cycle.

     

    Most Requested Independent Hotel Applications

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    Clearly, hotel professionals just starting out see these top three functions of a hotel management system as the basis for a successful hotel launch—the ability to manage reservations from online travelers and provide a clean, comfortable space to relax are foundational.

    Housekeeping management functionality helps manage one of these three critical aspects of hospitality.

    Key Considerations:

    • Smaller properties, such as inns or bed-and-breakfasts, may not need to coordinate with more than one cleaner. Many vendors are able to customize housekeeping applications to fit your basic needs.

    Hotel Applications to Help You Grow

    This section is for established independent hotels looking to increase new and repeat bookings by maximizing visibility and improving the guest experience.

    Guest Relationship Management

    What it does: Guest relationship management (GRM) is functionally similar to popular customer relationship management applications. Hotels can gather and store information about guests before, during and after their stay.

    Contact information, payment details, purchase history, event participation, personal preferences, feedback from past stays, reviews posted to online travel sites, loyalty program balance, redemption data and even images—All of this data can be used to personalize their experience and entice return stays or purchases with targeted marketing.

    Why you need it to grow: Independent hotels grow by increasing direct bookings and building a reputation of quality. From there, you can raise room rates accordingly to increase revenue-per-available-room (RevPAR).

    A GRM lets hotels delve into customer details to help answer some key questions about important points in their hotel customer journey, showing hoteliers the best ways to delight each guest or traveler segment.

    GRM tool
     

    A GRM helps you gather data and answer questions about traveler preferences and behaviors

    In the guest profiles, you may see that some high-spenders are business travelers who need frequent transportation. Or that a family spent most of their stay last year at a nearby amusement park.

    You can improve their experience and your reputation by pre-arranging cab rides for business travelers, or partner with the amusement park to offer a themed welcome basket with goodies for the kids. These little conveniences and delights go a long way to building loyalty and prompting positive online reviews.

    Key Considerations:

    • A GRM is essentially a customer relationship management (CRM) system, so if a specific hotel software vendor doesn’t offer this functionality, many stand-alone systems focused on hospitality are able to integrate with your core software.
    • Look for a GRM that includes strong reporting capabilities that can dissect data in various ways to identify trends among travelers.

    Central Reservations

    What it does: Central reservations generally refers to functionality in a hotel management system that allows hospitality companies to share their room inventory and rates on the Global Distribution System (GDS).

    This system ensures information about hotels and flights are consistent and up-to-date as travelers search and book online.

     

    How the GDS Connects Consumers to Travel Details
    global distribution system

    Why you need it to grow: A GDS can help you avoid a lot of confusion or worse: a reservation for a room that isn’t available. Bad reviews over major inconveniences can truly hurt an independent hotel, so consistent rates and inventory is an important part of the guest experience.

    You never know where your guests will come from, and wide distribution can put your property in front of people from all over the world.

    Key Considerations:

    • This application is often offered as an add-on module, but is becoming increasingly valuable as travelers search dozens of websites before booking. You want your accurate property inventory and rates to be seen as much as possible during this search.
    • The combination of a GRM and central reservations can help hotels hone their distribution and tailor their website and amenities to their most lucrative traveler segments.

    Maintenance Management

    What it does: Similar to housekeeping, maintenance management helps you keep the physical property in working order to provide a safe, functional space for guests.

    Hotel managers or facility managers can schedule daily or monthly routine repairs to prevent burnt-out light bulbs and noisy elevators, or emergency repairs for leaky toilets or contaminated pool water.

    Why you need it to grow: Maintenance applications lets you track regular check-ups or reactive repairs on lighting, elevators, molding, toilets, pools and more. Not only should guests enter a clean hotel, but structural disrepair plants the idea that there must be other problems with the property.

    The strongest benefit of this functionality is never losing track of maintenance requests.

    Key Considerations:

    • Like housekeeping, it’s possible to work with a single maintenance employee or a third-party maintenance team to handle tasks for smaller properties. As such, maintenance is often an add-on application.
    • Some vendors also combine housekeeping and maintenance management, so that managers can assign maintenance tasks through the same interface.

    Hotel Applications for Optimization

    This section is for established independent hotels seeking to optimize performance with new and diversified revenue streams.

    Reporting and Analytics

    What it does: Reporting and analytics features allow managers to delve into data about occupancy, guest behavior, accounting, rates and even guest sentiment to spot new trends that should be addressed.

    Typically, hotel management systems will offer templates for industry-standard report types, such as financial forecasting for stakeholders and night audit, end-of-day or sales reports. If needed, many vendors can customize report types or allow users to create their own.

    Why you need it to optimize: Every hotel collects valuable data, but not all of them use the data in a constructive way. It’s true that even hotels just starting out should use reporting to find trends that they could take advantage of, but established hotels have the volume of data available to gain significant benefit from analytics.

    Analytics can offer data-driven proof about which kinds of travelers are most valuable for your property and their travel behaviors to open up opportunities for upselling or marketing.

    Key Considerations:

    • Each hotel may need specific reports not available standard in a reporting application, but most vendors will customize features or report types for clients, which may include a fee.
    • Hotel reports contain sensitive information, so use the access control features available in many hotel management system to block unauthorized employee access to data you want to keep private.

    Revenue Management

    What it does: Revenue management gives hotel managers the tools to accurately gauge their market in order to appropriately set room rates and discounts, so they can remove the guesswork from setting prices.

    The software is able to gather rates and inventory from the hotel manager’s property, as well as the data from competing hotels in the same market. Additional factors that can impact rates include special events or festivals, weather, changes in flights or currency values.

    The types of data gathered can vary among vendors, but they tend to compare current conditions to historical data to forecast the best time to increase or decrease room rates.

    Why you need it to optimize: This technology is one of the most discussed (and argued about) topics in hospitality, generally because the return-on-investment has so much potential.

    Like analytics, revenue management is another valuable way hotels can transform lots of data into useful insights about pricing, inventory, marketing or revenue streams. Instead of generating separate reports, a dashboard offers a big-picture view identify revenue areas to improve.

    Key Considerations:

    • Revenue management can be complicated, which is why it’s become the newest valuable role in hospitality, as identified in a 2014 report on emerging hotel professions. Software helps greatly, but consider hiring or outsourcing help to fully understand your data.
    • Advanced capabilities available in modern hotel revenue management applications can offer recommendations even for additional revenue departments, such as restaurants, spas or golf clubs.

    Restaurant POS or Catering, Spa etc.

    What it does: Depending on the characteristics of your property, a restaurant may be a major part of the business. In addition to that, you may offer catering or events, or you might have a spa and other wellness amenities.

    Hotel management systems offer capabilities to manage these additional revenue generators:

    • Point-of-sale (POS) system is used to process transactions in a restaurant, spa or the front desk. These typically can handle various types of currency and languages.
    • Catering and events management stores details about vendors, staffing, menus, budgets, invoices, attendees and more.

    Why you need it to optimize: We found that food and drink is important to 91 percent of travelers. This a big reason why hotel restaurants are so popular, and they can draw locals as well.

     

    Importance of Local Food and Drink for Travelers

    local food and drink importance for travelers

    If your hotel offers these extra amenities, software will help you run them smoothly. Use software to ensure your spa or restaurant adds value for your guests and bottom line.

    Key Considerations:

    • In an integrated system, managers can use POS systems to drive sales by coordinating and presenting specials and limited-time offers on each screen, for both employees and guests.

    Next Steps

    Hotel management software vendors tend to offer these applications in a suite, but depending on your size or level of sophistication, you may want to add stand-alone applications as your business grows.

    If you’re ready to start your software search, we have a few next steps to help you on your way:

    • If you’d like more personal help, call our software advisors at (844) 688-1783 for a free phone consultation to help narrow down hotel systems based on your specific needs.

    How to Build a Business Case for Project Management Software

    Over the past three years, we’ve noticed a significant trend among small and midsize businesses (SMBs) looking for project management software: The majority are purchasing software for the first time.

    If 60 percent of SMBs are turning to software for the first time, an equally high number are likely still struggling with manual methods, unsure if the return from software is worth the investment.

    It’s easy to understand why. There are hundreds of systems on the market, many with a price tag that would make any business leader wary. It can be hard for decision makers to justify the costs of a software investment without hard evidence of the system’s merit.

    In this article, we’ll show you how to build a business case for PM software by identifying the benefits and costs of a PM solution and calculating your return on investment.

    Step 1: Gather the Necessary Elements

    When constructing a business case for project management software, be sure your argument includes the following elements:

    Elements of a Business Case
     

    business case elements
    Executive summary: Provide a brief overview of what you’ll cover in the following sections.

    Challenge or goal: Define the problems you’re facing and/or the goal you’re trying to achieve.

    Solution: Describe how you plan to use software to solve your problem and/or achieve your goals. Outline what you’ll be able to do that you can’t do now and what requirements the tool should have to support your team or department’s ability to solve their problems and/or accomplish their goals.

    Cost: Break down the costs associated with the software purchase and implementation. This includes both physical costs, such as the number and price of the software licenses, as well as costs that are harder to pin down, such as the time required to implement and learn a new system.

    Benefits: Highlight the expected benefits, including tangible gains, such as time and money saved, as well as the intangible benefits, which are harder to quantify, such as increased collaboration and improved risk management protocols.

    Execution timeline: Outline the timeline for implementing the software solution.

    Note: This timeline can vary significantly based on where you are in the software selection process.

    Step 2: Use ROI to Make Your Case

    Decision makers are going to be most concerned with the cost of purchasing and implementing a new PM solution. Their job is to balance organizational spending with internal efficiency and output, so they’ll want to see a solid business justification for the software purchase, i.e. that the benefits outweigh the costs.

    They’ll determine whether benefits actually do outweigh costs by calculating return on investment (ROI), so this is how you should structure your argument as well.*

    The formula for calculating ROI is: (gain from investment – cost of investment) / (cost of investment).

    *Note: “True” ROI is hard to measure and even harder to guarantee. Often, the gains, i.e. benefits, are difficult to quantify, and you can’t know for certain how your company will grow and change over the life of a tool.

    Don’t worry, though. Business leaders understand the gray area around this calculation, and they don’t need an ROI that’s written in stone. They simply need the best projection of the expected benefits and costs of the PM software you can make with educated estimates.

    While the exact benefits and costs will vary from system to system, we’ve outlined some common factors below that may influence your business case:

    benefits costs
    Additional factors to take into consideration include:

    • Number and type of stakeholders/end users. In other words, super users versus the average user. The type of user license you’re purchasing can impact cost.
    • Total cost of ownership (TCO). Finding the TCO is often the starting point for calculating ROI and comparing vendor price quotes. This involves totaling the upfront costs for each solution, calculating the net present value of recurring costs over the expected life span of the tool and then totaling the upfront costs and present value of future costs.

    Step 3: Calculate Your ROI (You Can Use Our Calculator Tool!)

    One of the biggest returns you’re likely to see from implementing PM software (and one that will be sure to catch the eye of business leaders) is a cost savings due to an increase in efficiency performing various project tasks.

    We’ve created the following interactive tool to help you calculate your projected cost savings resulting from an investment in PM software.

    Instructions: To calculate your savings, enter the values prompted in the input field and the calculator will output your estimated cost savings from automating that activity. You can repeat this for as many project tasks as you’d like and then tally the results. Or, present business leaders with the cost savings for a single work item that can be improved.

    Note: According to PMI in their 2017 Pulse of the Profession report, the rate of project failure with underperforming organizations is as high as 24 percent. Conversely, high performing organizations experience project failure at a much lower rate, 6 percent. To give you a clearer picture of actual ROI, we’ve incorporated this project failure rate into the calculation.

    You can assume that the actual savings will be higher than the output of the calculator, since you’ll be increasing the percentage of projects delivered on time as well as decreasing the failure rate.

    Quick Recap and Next Steps

    If you’re struggling to manage your project processes with manual methods alone, it may be time to invest in PM software. To help you present business leaders with the best business case for making this investment, craft your argument around the following elements:

    • Current challenge and/or the goal you’re trying to achieve
    • Solution and tool requirements
    • Cost
    • Benefits
    • Timeline for implementation

    Don’t forget to use our ROI calculator to help you estimate the time and money you’ll save from your investment.

    Now that you know how to wow your boss with your business case presentation, here are a few next steps you should take to help you compare and evaluate solutions:

    • Read user reviews: See how your peers have rated systems for qualities such as ease of use and customer support.
    • Schedule product demos: Discuss your needs with vendors and ask for “day-in-the-life” product demos rather than a reel of feature highlights.
    • Email me at eileen@softwareadvice.com. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about project management software and offer advice on best practices for implementing new solutions.

    The Best Free Tools for Twitter Sentiment Analysis

    Sentiment analysis: it’s not just for figuring out which of your friends is really an android anymore.

    In Blade Runner (1982), the infamous “Voigt-Kampff” empathy test sorted humans from androids by assessing the test subject’s ability to empathize with other beings.


     
    While we haven’t built empathetic robots yet, we have begun using machine learning to identify human emotions expressed in social media data, a technology known as sentiment analysis.

    Twitter sentiment analysis tools enable small businesses to:

    • See what people are saying about the business’s brand on Twitter.
      • Do market research on how people feel about competitors, market trends, product offerings etc.
        • Analyze the impact of marketing campaigns on Twitter users.

        We’ll take a look here at a number of free tools for doing sentiment analysis on Twitter data.

        NCSU Tweet Sentiment Visualization App (Web App)

        Dr. Christopher Healey, Goodnight Distinguished Professor in the Institute of Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University, has built one of the most robust and highly functional free tools for Twitter sentiment analysis out there: the Tweet Visualizer.

        The NCSU Tweet Visualizer is particularly strong in the following areas:

        Ease of Use
        Simply enter a keyword, and the Tweet Visualizer automatically pulls recent tweets (from the past week, though the time range is shorter for popular subjects).

        You can then explore the many visualization options that the tool offers for tweets.

        ncsu tweet visualizer scatter plot

        Scatter plot sentiment visualization in the NCSU Tweet Visualizer

         
        One highly useful feature in the Tweet Visualizer’s visualizations is that you can mouse over bubbles in scatter plots etc. to pull up individual tweets from identified Twitter users and see where they fall in the emotional spectrum.

        Sophistication of Sentiment Analysis

        Healey explains that his sentiment dictionary “has three emotional dimensions for words:

        • Pleasure (how happy you are).
          • Activation (how excited you are).
            • Dominance (how much does this particular term dominate the overall sentiment of the snippet of text it’s in).”

            ncsu tweet visualizer heatmap

            Heatmap of emotional dimensions in NCSU Tweet Visualizer

             

            By measuring pleasure, activation and dominance, the NCSU Tweet Visualizer offers far more dimensions than can be found in many other free sentiment analysis tools. Most of these tools only focus on the “pleasure” dimension and rate sentiment according to a three-value scale: positive, negative and neutral.

            By contrast, Healey notes that “our scales run on a nine-point range, so we have a semicontinuous representation of sentiment. Whereas a lot of systems will just say that a text is positive, negative or neutral, we can actually say how positive, how negative etc.”

            The “activation” dimension sounds somewhat odd, but Healey observes that it has an important use:

            “Suppose I’m very pleased about something and very activated about it: the kinds of words we’d use would be like ‘elated’ or ‘excited.’

            Now suppose I’m equally pleased about something but I’m very low on the activation scale. In this case, we’d say that I’m ‘calm’ or ‘relaxed.’

            If we only looked at the pleasure scale, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between ‘excited’ and ‘relaxed.’ The activation scale allows us to do this.”

            Topic Clustering Ability
            Finally, the Tweet Visualizer doesn’t just handle sentiment classification, it also performs topic clustering.

            In other words, it automatically clusters tweets into related topics by leveraging machine-learning algorithms. (See our in-depth explanation of clustering algorithms for more details on how this type of machine learning works.)

            The tool combines sentiment analytics with topic clustering to help you understand how people feel about particular topics:

            ncsu tweet visualizer topic clusters

            Topic clusters for recent tweets about Microsoft in NCSU Tweet Visualizer

             

            The NCSU Tweet Visualizer should be enough for basic social media monitoring and brand management use cases, but there is no API for advanced implementations.

            Other Tools

            Enginuity (Web App)

            Enginuity is a paid solution, but a basic version is available as a free web application. It works differently from many of the free sentiment analytics tools out there. Instead of directly querying tweets related to a certain keyword, Enginuity allows you to search for recent news stories about the keyword.

            The tool then queries both Twitter and Facebook to calculate how many times the story has been shared. It also analyzes whether the sentiment of social shares is positive or negative, and gives an aggregate sentiment rating for the news story.

            Enginuity is thus a great tool for finding stories to share through your social channels, as well as getting a combined picture of sentiment about recent events trending on social media.

            Revealed Context (API/Excel Add-in)

            Revealed Context offers a free API for running sentiment analytics on up to 250 documents per day. There’s an Excel add-in as well as a web interface for running analytics independently of the API.

            While Revealed Context doesn’t offer an interface for directly scraping Twitter, it’s simple enough to analyze a spreadsheet of tweets without using the API. With the API, you can build a pipeline that feeds recent tweets from the Twitter API into the Revealed Context API for processing.

            Steamcrab (Web App)

            Steamcrab is a web application for sentiment analytics on Twitter data. It focuses on keyword searches and analyzes tweets according to a two-pole scale (positive and negative). Visualization options are limited to scatter plots and pie charts.

            MeaningCloud (API/Excel Add-in)

            MeaningCloud is another free API for text analytics, including sentiment analytics. One of the advantages of MeaningCloud is that the API supports a number of text analytics operations in addition to sentiment classification. These operations include topic extraction, text classification, part-of-speech tagging etc. (See our article on text analytics if you’re not familiar with these operations.)

            The MeaningCloud API is more flexible for use in topic extraction than the other solutions we’ve considered, since with other tools topic clustering is performed automatically according to the initial keyword you enter.

            Additionally, MeaningCloud allows users to upload custom dictionaries for use in topic extraction and sentiment classification.

            MeaningCloud offers an Excel add-in, but it doesn’t work with Excel for Mac (a problem with many Excel add-ins).

            socialmention (Web App)

            Socialmention is a basic, search engine-style web app for topic-level sentiment analysis on Twitter data. You can enter a keyword, and the tool will return aggregate sentiment scores for the keyword as well as related keywords.

            One neat feature of socialmention is support for basic brand management use cases—the tool returns a “passion” score that measures how likely Twitter users are to discuss your brand, as well as the average reach of the Twitter users discussing your brand.

            The caveat is that the tool still returns wonky results for lesser-known brands, but this is an issue with sentiment analysis in general.

            Data Mining Platforms With Sentiment Analysis Capabilities

            Open-source data mining platforms offer some of the most advanced support for text and sentiment analytics out there essentially for free.

            Solutions such as RapidMiner and KNIME have built-in sentiment analysis modules as well as a host of third-party modules. We explain how to use data mining platforms for sentiment analytics in our article on free text mining tools.

            Conclusions

            Nearly all small businesses understand the value of social media marketing, but few have the tools to analyze the impact of social media marketing efforts. This is because currently, such tools are priced for Fortune 500s.

            With free tools for sentiment analysis, however, you can begin understanding how your Twitter marketing efforts are performing without any investment, save for your time. Additionally, you can begin monitoring Twitter for signs of problems (e.g., customer complaints about your brand) as well as wins (e.g., things customers like about your brand).

            If you have questions about how to begin using sentiment analytics at your small business, you can email me at danielharris@softwareadvice.com.


            Improve Customer Experience in Retail Stores With New Technologies

            Customer experience in retail has evolved from a vague subset of customer service to a strategic priority warranting dedicated business units. It is perhaps the largest driver of business for companies both big and small.

            Enterprises are spending millions of dollars trying to answer the question of how to improve customer experience in retail stores and through digital channels. It’s time retail-oriented small and midsize businesses (SMBs) develop their own answers as well.

            Having proper retail management software is a place to start, but where do you go from there?

            In this article, we explore a Gartner report, titled “Implications of Customer Expectations on Retail Business Strategies and Technology Investments for Digital Business and Beyond” (available to Gartner clients), that looks at where retail is heading and what businesses can do to stay ahead of the curve.

            Note: Some of these concepts might appear to require more resources than the average retail SMB has access to. But as these trends begin to set customer expectations, it’s important for small businesses to pay attention to them to remain competitive.

            From Shoppers to Loyal Customers to Brand Advocates

            The first area of customer engagement centers around something you should already be doing: social media.

            parks and rec gif

             
            Miriam Burt highlights the overwhelming power of social media in driving purchases and improving customer experience in retail.

            “In the consumer survey [from the fourth quarter of 2015],” Burt says, “56% of consumers said they made a purchase because of something they saw on a retailer’s social media page. Retailers have begun to capitalize on this with noticeable increased activity on social media.”

            Burt refers mainly to large enterprises with dedicated social media teams. But maintaining an active social presence doesn’t require a dedicated team. We’ve covered how SMB retailers can implement and measure meaningful social media campaigns.

            Whether your business is large or small, you can leverage social engagement as a means of achieving customer loyalty and advocacy.

            “The real opportunity afforded by the convergence of mobile and social is the ability to convert loyal customers into advocates or brand ambassadors in customer-to-customer networks.”

            Miriam Burt, Vice President for Gartner Retail

            As Burt describes it, graduating a loyal customer to a brand ambassador with a shared voice in promoting your company “is a very cost-effective form of marketing with a high ROI.” Customers authentically sharing their experience among peers can be very impactful.

            Customers sharing positive customer experiences in retail reviews and on social media will influence future consumers’ perceptions of their own experiences.

            Creating a team of advocates is an inexpensive, but highly efficient, marketing process. Here are some key steps to achieving a social strategy that drives customers from loyalty to advocacy:

            Define success criteria for your social initiatives. Begin with a firm definition of success for this social initiative (i.e., drive $10K in sales from social conversions, achieve 25% increase in social posts referencing company, gain 10% increase in posts from unique social accounts).

            Optimize shopping experiences for mobile. Customers increasingly use mobile devices to interact with social media and shop online. To capitalize on these sales, you need to optimize your mobile shopping experience. This includes optimizing your website’s mobile design and adding direct links to products within your social posts.

            Leverage your most persuasive advocates. Your most loyal and vocal customers can provide you with high-impact marketing at no cost at all. Identify these users and approach them about formally joining your marketing program as a “brand evangelist”, as Burt puts it. You can incentivize them with special promotions from time to time or provide other benefits.

            Support Behaviors That Resonate With Customer Lifestyles

            When it comes to customer loyalty and advocacy, Burt points out that much of what generates these sentiments happens outside the shopping experience.

            Retailers need to go beyond the “what, where, when and how customers are buying products and services” and consider “why they are doing so.”

            By doing this, you can understand how your business supports your customers’ behaviors and lifestyles. She offers an example of how a retail business can support a family’s healthy lifestyle:

            “[It’s] far more than just about buying fresh fruits and vegetables to make healthy meals,” Burt says. “It encompasses a lifestyle which will, at the very least, take into account healthy eating, regular exercise, education and clinical advice, and follow-up regarding preventive healthcare services. Further, introducing a major lifestyle change—for example, one brought about by a new baby—into the scenario of nurturing a healthy family will be much more than pushing offers on diapers!”

            She explains that this process will require a more holistic engagement with customers, to encompass their lifestyle and goals:

            “In this case, understanding what nurturing a healthy family means in the overall context of the lifestyles of a retailer’s customer base is what will enable the retailer to drive new ways to provide value to its customers.”

            Customer expectations along these lines are evolving, but in time, they will significantly impact the structure of retail organizations, key performance indicators (KPI’s), processes and roles. Burt says a key component that’ll help businesses adapt to this change is a “rapid build up of high-quality collaborative ecosystems to take in partners that can service customers as they conduct their cross-industry lifestyle processes.”

            Following the example above, a health food store might partner with a rock climbing gym. The gym might provide a popup wall for toddlers to play on at the store, while the store has a popup produce and juice stand at the gym. Going further, the two businesses could even partner with a chiropractor or holistic doctor.

            Here are ways that you can help customers achieve their ideal lifestyles:

            Dedicate time to understanding customer lifestyles. This could mean analyzing customer data from social, from your CRM, or even from surveying customers. Regardless of the source, you want to understand how your products fit into the overall lifestyle of your customers.

            Form strategic partnerships with businesses that also support these customer lifestyles. Determine businesses that are adjacent to your offerings and target lifestyles. Setup partnerships and events that make sense for you and your partnering businesses.

            Engage With Customers On Their Channels And Gather Meaningful Data

            An essential part of understanding customer behaviors and lifestyles is having meaningful data. But this data isn’t just readily available. You have to work for it.

            lotr meme

             
            As Burt puts it, “excellent data management will yield competitive advantage. High-quality, well-curated multi-channel data will be the lifeblood of digital business for the optimization of business decisions.”

            Collecting this highly valuable data requires retail management technology that can track customer purchase histories as well as meaningful interactions across all channels.

            Burt emphasizes the importance of a multichannel approach to customer experience and data gathering. This, in other words, means being where the customer is.

            Be Aware of Emerging Customer Experience Trends

            As it becomes increasingly common for retailers to adopt a multichannel approach, new customer experience trends are arising, driving new expectations among consumers.

            “Investment is slowly building up to incorporate and mine high-volume, high-velocity, and very importantly, highly complex and variable types of data and information for efficient and effective decision making,” Burt says.

            “Although traditional data sources such as transaction and data logs still dominate big data processing efforts, technology investment is slowly increasing in a wider range of data types, including audio, video, image, geospatial and even 3D modeling data.”

            It’s outside of the budget of your average SMB retailer to perform 3D modeling, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t invest in, setup, and monitor geospatial technology. This includes iBeacons and other such technology, which enable you to analyze a customer’s movement throughout your space.

            You can tie this system to data channels, and also track and analyze online customer purchase and product viewing histories.

            And while there is software out there that can mine social media for images and videos for your products, you can do this yourself by looking at followers’ recent posts. This is a fantastic means of generating new marketing approaches and promotional images, and provides another opportunity to engage with customers actually using your products.

            This data can also have major implications outside of simply marketing. As Burt puts it,

            “The important insights gained from such [data] investment is also feeding into other key areas of technology investment such as multichannel customer analytics and merchandise planning. The ability to use accurate and timely data to simultaneously plan merchandise assortments, purchases and inventory levels across all the channels.”

            In other words, tools that gather and analyze meaningful data on the customer experience in retail stores and through digital channels are driving newer tools that build off this data analysis and provide greater insight into customers’ behaviors and lifestyles.

            Nonetheless, there is a base software all SMB retailers need in place before adopting these new technologies and improving their customer service: a retail point of sale system.

            • Adopt retail POS software: Most readers will have already adopted POS software for their retail system. This is the first step on your path to creating a better customer experience and meeting evolving customer expectations.
            • Leverage social media to gain data: Once you have a POS system in place, you can get active on social media and find a way to make customer data meaningful beyond a single purchase. Social data can inform numerous business decisions that can help improve your retail customer experience.

            The Most Important Steps You Can Take to Boost Tour Bookings

            Did you know that tourism accounts for one-tenth of the world’s entire GDP?

            That amount, equal to 7.2 trillion U.S. dollars, was revealed in a 2016 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council. That’s a lot of money—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a cut.

            The same study finds that, worldwide, one in every 11 people is employed in the tourism industry. That tells us that while there’s a lot of money in tourism, there’s a lot of competition as well.

            As a local tour guide, tour planner or travel agent, you’re probably well aware of the competition you face. You know that attracting tourists and gaining their business is a never-ending challenge.

            So, what does it take to be the go-to tour operator at a hot tourist destination? That and the following are revealed in this report.

            How Consumers Choose Their Own Adventures

            Let’s imagine someone who is planning to take a vacation in a few months. They’re going someplace they’ve never been before. They’ve already purchased their airline tickets and made a hotel reservation.

            Below are two hypothetical consumers and the approach each takes to planning their vacation time:

            1. The first consumer is the type of person who likes to plan ahead.

            They’ll go online to research their destination and figure out what activities and sites are in the area. They’ll ask for recommendations from friends and family, and then start planning out their days. When possible, they’ll also make reservations with local tour guides or tour operators, but only after checking out online reviews.

            2. The second consumer thinks their daily life is busy enough and vacations should be all about relaxing.

            They’re not the type to person who likes to plan every last detail in advance. When they arrive someplace new, they’ll ask hotel staff for suggestions about day excursions. If they suggest something that really piques the consumer’s interest, they’ll book the activity with the hotel.

            According to a survey we recently completed, the majority of U.S. adults are more like the first consumer.

            Our survey asked the question: “Do you plan tours and activities before you go on vacation, or after you’ve arrived at the destination?” According to the results:

            A Majority of US Adults Plan Excursions Before Vacationing
            adults plan excursions before vacations

             
            In terms of competition and your overall business strategy, what does this particular finding suggest?

            Your tour operation needs an online presence. More than just a website, you need a website that people will see when they’re researching tourist activities in your area. Try typing terms related to your business into a search engine such as Google or Bing.

            If your company’s website isn’t on the first page of results, then it will be difficult for tourists to find. Adding useful tour-related content to your site is a good way to improve your rankings.

            Online booking features can greatly increase your sales. A great website is important for publicity and branding, but don’t miss out on a larger opportunity. As the data from this survey suggests, a majority of tourists prefer to book excursions in advance.

            rezdy online booking

            Online booking application from tour operator software vendor Rezdy

             

            Important Factors When Choosing a Tour Operation

            We’ve seen above that two-thirds of U.S. adults prefer to book their vacation excursions and day trips ahead of departure. This suggests that a strong online presence is very important for local tour operators seeking to grow their businesses.

            But, there are additional factors that customers bear in mind when planning their trips.

            In our survey, we asked people which factors they consider before booking a local sightseeing tour. We told them to imagine they’re vacationing somewhere for the first time and asked them to choose their priorities from a list of common factors.

            Here’s what we found:

            Factors Tourists Look for When Choosing a Local Tour
            local tour factors tourists look for

             
            Tour operator software is designed to help your business address these customer priorities, in the following ways:

            • It lets you offer online booking, either through your own website or by integrating with third-party travel agents or other channel partners.
            • It makes it easier to offer all-inclusive packages by handling the back-end accounting that’s required with package pricing.
            • Extra options, packages and side trips can be added to your itineraries with ease, again because the software helps you keep it all organized.
            • You can extend booking functionality to include partners, such as hotels.

            Getting the Reviews You Need to Grow Your Tour Company

            As we’ve seen, the most important factor when choosing a tour operation is good online reviews. That’s not really much of a surprise, since consumers count on online reviews to help with so many of life’s decisions.

            So, how can a tour operator get good online reviews? At first glance, this seems like an easy question, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

            The obvious step is to run a tour operation that’s worthy of good reviews. Offer a better experience than your competitors, a better value or both. And, ensure that your customers leave satisfied.

            Maybe you run the best tour operation in your area, but don’t get the reviews you feel you deserve. What’s the problem?

            Chances are, you haven’t made it easy enough for happy customers to leave reviews.

            Customers generally have three ways to leave reviews online:

            • Directly on the tour company’s website
            • On social media, e.g., the tour company’s Facebook page
            • On a third-party reviews site such as TripAdvisor or Yelp

            To grow your collection of online reviews, you need to make the process of leaving a review as quick and easy as possible.

            The following tips can help:

            • Claim your business’s page on the big-name sites such as TripAdvisor. This will help you monitor and respond to new reviews.
            • Show that your company is engaged by responding to reviews. This will encourage others to leave reviews.
            • Encourage reviews by running contests and promotions. (First, be sure any contest or promotion is allowed by the site’s terms of use.)
            • Include links to places customers can leave reviews in your outbound emails.
            • Have a smartphone, tablet or laptop available that customers can use to submit a review at the end of a trip or service, possibly in exchange for a future discount.
            • Choose tour operator software that includes applications for soliciting reviews.

            Many tour operator software platforms have tools that assist with the collection and curation of online reviews. Scroll through some examples below:

            Trekksoft includes a website builder that can include a summary of reviews from Tripadvisor directly on your webpage

            Screen in Zozi showing the setup of an automated email that could, for example, ask customers to leave a review after completing a tour

            Survey collection tools, like this one from AnyGuide, can help monitor service and suggest which customers to reach out to for reviews

            The right software can do a lot to help you run your tour operation. In order to get the best return on your investment, however, it’s important that you choose software that fits your operation and its goals.

            Take a look at the list of tour operator software products and call our advisors at (844) 687-6771 to help you choose the right tool for your business.


            Survey: Local Presence Dialing—Foot in the Door, or Door-Slammer?

            Local presence dialing is the practice of making it seem as though a call is coming from a local area code, even when it isn’t. (Note that this differs from caller ID spoofing). It’s available through many telephony platforms and has found favor with many call centers—especially those engaged in outbound sales.

            The idea is that people are more apt to answer a call from an unknown number if that call appears to be coming from a local number: this gets the caller’s “foot in the door.” But is answering enough? Does local presence dialing really open doors for outbound-sales calls, or does it only slam them shut? We conducted a survey to find out.

            People Four Times More Likely to Answer for Local Numbers

            We began our survey by testing responses to three different scenarios. In all three, we asked participants the likelihood that they would answer a call if they did not recognize the number on the caller ID.

            Likelihood of Answering Unknown Call
             
            likelihood of answering unknown call

             
            The results are quite clear: People are nearly four times more likely to answer calls from local numbers. Only 7 percent said they’re likely to answer a call from an unknown caller with a toll-free area code—but that number leaps to 27.5 percent when the unknown caller is using a local area code.

            These differences became even starker when we examined each scenario individually:

            Lowest Answer Rate for Toll-free Area Codes
            When people see a toll-free area code on caller ID, they can be certain it’s a business calling. If it’s an “unknown number”—meaning, a business the person doesn’t have a pre-existing relationship with—they often prefer not to answer the call. In fact, just over 80 percent said they’d be “extremely unlikely” to answer the call.

            Slightly Higher Answer Rate for Out-of-state Area Codes
            Calls from out-of-state area codes are, by definition, not local—but it’s not a given that they’re business numbers, either. Those who said they were either “somewhat” or “extremely likely” to answer an unknown call from an out-of-state area code totaled 13 percent—nearly doubling the 7 percent for the previous question.

            The portion who said they’d be “extremely unlikely” to answer also dropped marginally, to 75 percent. It’s clear that people are more willing to answer unknown out-of-state calls than unknown toll-free calls.

            Highest Answer Rate for Local Area Codes
            Now, the real question: Do people respond differently when the unknown caller appears to be calling from a local area code? Twenty-eight percent of those polled said they were either “somewhat” or “extremely likely” to answer calls from unknown callers with local area codes.

            This is a rate twice what we found for out-of-state area codes, and almost four times what we found for toll-free area codes. And the percentage that are “extremely unlikely” to answer dropped to 53 percent—down from 80 percent with toll-free area codes, and 75 percent with out-of-state area codes.

            As a strategy for getting people to answer the phone, local presence dialing is clearly extremely effective.

            Mixed Responses to Local Presence Dialing

            The above results prompt several questions, the first being: When a person notices a discrepancy between what caller ID displays and the presumed location of the caller, what conclusions will that person draw? To find out, we asked our participants what assumptions they make about the company’s motivations for using a local area code.

            Suspected Reasons Out-of-State Companies Use Local Area Codes
             
            using local area codes out of state

             
            The goal of local presence dialing is to get more people to answer the calls, and the results we presented above show that it is effective. They also show that people understand the motivations behind the use of local presence dialing: Seventy percent stated that the reason a business would alter its displayed caller ID is to increase the chance they’ll answer.

            They’re right, of course—and this suggests that the practice may now be commonplace enough that people expect it.

            Nearly Half Would Hang Up on Local Presence Dialers

            Local presence dialing does increase the rate at which people answer calls from unrecognized callers. And once they realize that the caller is not local, most people know the reason the caller used a local caller ID.

            How, then, does this affect the relationship moving forward? We asked how people would react if they answered a call from a company using a local area code, but found the company was actually out-of-state.

            Reaction to Answering Out-of-State Calls From Local Numbers
             
            reaction to local calls with out of state numbers

             
            These responses are very polarized. Just over half said they’d either ask about the discrepancy, not care or be only “curious” about it. Meanwhile, just under half said they’d hang up the phone because of it.

            Given that these were anonymous responses to an online survey, it’s prudent to take them with a grain of salt. It’s possible that in real life people would not be so quick to hang up the phone. Nevertheless, this does serve as a strong indication. It at least tells us how people feel they’d react, even if in reality, their reactions might be a little less severe.

            Respondents Divided on Reaction to Local Presence Dialing

            Local presence dialing is just the first link in a chain: one that begins with a phone call and ends, ideally, with some form of business transaction. With the above questions, we’ve seen how answer rates can be improved with local presence dialing, as well as what people think and feel about the practice. But how does all of this influence the last link in the chain? Does local presence dialing affect business outcomes?

            Impact of Local Presence Dialing on Likelihood to Do Business
             
            local presence dialing impact

             
            What we see here is a large portion of respondents claiming local presence dialing would negatively affect their likelihood to do business with the caller. Interestingly, though, we see an equally large portion on the fence.

            It seems likely that those expressing a neutral opinion, saying they’re “not sure” if their decision to do business would be affected, would base their decision on other factors, such as the content of the call, the sales pitch or the attractiveness of the deal or business proposal.

            Conclusions

            This survey has revealed several important lessons regarding the practice of local presence dialing. The first is that it clearly works. People are far more likely to answer calls from unknown callers if they see a local number on caller ID: four times more likely than if the caller ID displays a toll-free number.

            However, once people realize the caller’s actual locale, they’re generally savvy enough to understand the reason for the discrepancy. The strategy does have a small element of deception, though, and a large portion of respondents claim they’d react strongly to this (by hanging up the phone). It’s uncertain whether or not, in reality, people would react as strongly as they claim.

            The most significant findings are, first, that local presence dialing could negatively affect the chances that a person will want to do business with the caller. This indicates that the practice should be used with caution.

            The second is that there’s an equally large group indicating they’re unsure if it would impact their decision. This uncertainty means that in these cases, local presence dialing does work to get the caller’s foot in the door.

            Given that local presence dialing can increase the answer rate by several hundred percent, the 41 percent who claim they’d hang up can, in a statistical sense, be written off as a loss. That number of slammed doors is more than made up for by the increased rate at which others are opened. Discounting other factors, such as the company’s reputation or broader public relations strategies, local presence dialing can be very effective.

            Methodology

            To find the data in this report, we conducted a four-day online survey of six questions, and gathered 2,310 responses from randomly selected Internet users within the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.

            Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent partner vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. To further discuss this report, or obtain access to any of the charts above, feel free to contact me at craig@softwareadvice.com.


            How to Collaborate When You Outsource Your Project Management

            If you’re considering outsourcing project management tasks, there’s a wealth of information out there to help you weigh the pros and cons:

            outsourcing project management serp results
            For those businesses where the pros win out, we’ve created this article to help you get started.

            We highlight what to look for in contractors you hire, as well as the capabilities you’ll need from the tools you’ll use to collaborate. We’ll also provide three best practices to help you structure and refine your processes.

            See the Next Steps section at the end for a checklist of outsourcing best practices.

            For insight into how real companies approach outsourcing project management, we spoke with industry experts to learn their tips for collaborating with contractors.

             

            Todd Williams eCameron
            Jason Monte Brolik
            Todd Williams is president of eCameron, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in project auditing, rescue and delivery.
            Jason Monte is senior account executive at Brolik, a digital branding agency specializing in web design and digital marketing strategy.

             

            Collaboration Capabilities to Look For

            Before you start, it’s important to consider the collaboration capabilities necessary to get the job done. This includes both the qualities you should look for in contractors as well as the tools you’ll need to do the job effectively.

            In People: When outsourcing some or all of your project management (PM), it’s essential that outside parties can communicate and collaborate effectively with in-house staff. Look for the following qualities when evaluating potential project contractors:

            potential project contractor qualities
            To help you evaluate whether a contractor possesses the above mentioned qualities, eCameron’s Williams recommends asking them the following types of questions:

            Framework for Evaluating Collaboration Qualities
            1. How do you handle a customer/end user that is uncooperative in getting you information?

            2. How would you address an executive sponsor that is not engaged in the project?

            3. What do you do when someone on the project does something wrong?

            4. What techniques do you use to enhance teamwork on the project?

            In Tools: Consider tools with the following capabilities when you’re choosing a collaboration platform:

            Communication Coordinate and communicate about projects in real time. Features include private chat/messaging, group chat, videoconferencing and activity feeds.
            Planning Roadmap an entire project or focus on a specific phase—map out the critical path and identify any dependencies and constraints. Common features include Gantt charts, backlog tools and boards and calendar integration.
            File sharing and document storage Create and edit documents, upload files, share with other users and store them in a centralized location. Features include version control, change tracking and tagging.
            Workflow management Define known workflows and processes. Users know where an item came from and where or to whom it goes next.
            Task management Create and assign tasks to users. Set a task deadline and track progress of that item. Often includes automatic notifications alerting users of status changes to tasks.
            User management Set user permissions, allowing admins to restrict or grant access to project information based on user role. Features include administrator roles, guest access and user-specific security settings.

             

            Three Tips for Effectively Outsourcing Project Management

            Now that you know what contractor qualities and software capabilities can help you when outsourcing PM, let’s review a few best practices that should govern this endeavor.

            1. Plan First, Avoid Questions Later
            When an organization is using multiple tools, e.g., a small business using social collaboration tools rather than one formal PM solution, it’s essential to establish a communication plan and hierarchy.

            Take the time to review communication strategies with contract workers at the start of a project. You’ll want to address:

            communication plan tool hierarchy
            By doing this, you can increase productivity by reducing redundancies and questions sprouting from tool confusion.

            2. Location, Location, Location
            This doesn’t refer to the geographical location of your team, but rather the centralized location of your project documentation.

            If your contracted workers are remote, PM tools can help facilitate the shared workspace enjoyed by co-located employees.

            Choose one tool to act as the document management and storage system and enforce this policy. According to eCameron’s Williams, unless all documentation is stored in one spot, the tool is useless.

            “From the start of a project, I refuse to accept documents that are not in the tool or that have had change tracking removed,” he says.

            3. Access Makes the Work Go Faster
            While absence may make the heart grow fonder, restricted access certainly doesn’t make it easier for contract workers to do their job.

            This is where user management capabilities, such as guest access and user permissions, can be a huge asset for your team. Alternatively, consider tools with subscription licensing, which allow you to purchase an additional software license for the contract period.

            How can you determine the appropriate level of access for contract workers? According to Brolik’s Monte, decide on how much access they need to do their work efficiently.

            He notes that most outsourced talent charges on an hourly basis (unless working under a fixed, per-project contract). As such, it’s important that contractors aren’t wasting time tracking down information and resources required to complete their tasks.

            “The cost of a subcontractor doing poor work stemming from inadequate access to information or tools is much greater than an additional monthly subscription to a piece of software.”

            Jason Monte, Senior Account Executive at Brolik

            Next Steps: Download Checklist

            Although outsourcing PM may not be right for everyone, for those that choose this route, Brolik’s Monte says that bringing in outside talent can sometimes take a project in a new, and perhaps a better, direction.

            He uses a potential contractor’s software development skills as an example. “It would be great if a [contract] developer was proficient in PHP for an application we’re looking to build in PHP, but if they’re a whiz at Ruby on Rails, let’s talk about the pros and cons of building it in each and make a decision on how best to move forward from there,” he says.

            If you’re considering outsourcing project management, download a copy of our checklist so you can reference our tips for evaluating contractors and effectively collaborating with them:

            outsourcing PM checklist

            Download Checklist

            If you have questions about our best practices, or want to discuss the tools available for collaborating with contractors, email me at eileen@softwareadvice.com. I’m available to answer any questions you may have and can help get you set up with a price quote or product demo if you’re ready to compare solutions.


            IoT Maintenance: A Platform Guide for Small Businesses

            The buzz around the Internet of Things (IoT) is intensifying, but the vendor landscape remains crowded and highly fragmented.

            Hundreds of IoT vendors are flooding the market, each with its own industry focus and marketing spin. This makes selection a real challenge, especially for smaller organizations. According to Gartner:

            “Through 2018, there will be no dominant IoT ecosystem platform; IT leaders will still need to compose IoT solutions from multiple providers.”

            (The full report, “Market Guide for IoT Platforms,” is available to Gartner clients.)

            Despite this complexity, IoT’s business optimization and cost-saving capabilities are quite valuable to certain industries. Businesses such as manufacturing, health care and facilities management will find great value in IoT, particularly for maintenance management operations.

            Gartner recommends adopting the technology soon to get ahead of the competition. They state:

            “By 2020, more than half of major new business processes and systems will incorporate some element of the Internet of Things, whether large or small.”

            This guide will provide a map of this technology landscape, looking at what constitutes an IoT platform, and what to bear in mind when evaluating IoT systems.

            What Is an IoT Platform?

            In a recent report, we looked at what lessons can be learned from the mining industry, which is at the forefront of adopting IoT technologies. The applications in this industry include adding remote control functionality to heavy trucks and continuous miners, and automating fresh air pumps so they are used only when and where necessary.

            In that piece, we defined the three basic components of IoT:

            iot basic components

             
            In a simple sense, an IoT platform is a software suite or cloud-based service that enables and manages the connectivity among “things.”

            The things in question can be just about anything:

            • Manufacturing companies can attach condition sensors to production machines to stream data and optimize performance.
              • Health care organizations can use devices to track expensive assets or patients who may get lost.
                • Facilities managers can create a “smart building” by integrating various building systems and performing analytics to more efficiently manage a facility.

                An IoT platform enables these types of connections and applications. While functionality differs among systems, the following capabilities should be present in any platform, according to Gartner:

                • Management of IoT endpoints, or “things.”
                  • The ability to create and customize applications.
                    • Event processing: the ability to aggregate and analyze data related to a specific “event” (such as temperature readings in an overheating AC motor).
                      • The ability to process decisions using rule engines and business process management.
                        • Analytics using IoT data and visualizations with dashboards.
                          • Cybersecurity: authentication, encryption, certificate management.
                            • A physical layer (such as Wi-Fi) and a data layer (such as HTTP) to support IoT device communication.
                              • Integration tools to connect to other business applications.
                                • API management.
                                  • User interfaces for end users and development.

                                  Organizations can find these capabilities in most IoT platform vendors today, but certain limitations should be kept in mind when searching.

                                  IoT Market Limitations and Pricing

                                  Companies need to have a clear idea of what they’re seeking in an IoT solution; otherwise, they’re bound to be overwhelmed by the confusing vendor landscape.

                                  The key consideration to keep in mind: No IoT platform is a complete solution.

                                  Any platform will require some degree of configuration with other systems and data sources to best meet the needs of a specific IoT project. In many cases, a platform supports the integration of multiple specialized technologies.

                                  For more context, Gartner identifies a couple reasons why this market can be so confusing:

                                  • Vendors are developing industry-specific platforms. Hospitals and manufacturers, for example, will have different requirements for IoT endpoints and connections. Depending on the region, they may face industry-specific compliance and regulatory issues. Eventually, dominant vendors will establish standard platform configurations for each major client vertical.
                                  • The IoT market includes both startups and large, established vendors. Gartner calls 2016 the “year of the marketing message of the megavendors,” in which large companies such as AT&T, GE and IBM aggressively reached out to potential clients. These vendors may have great marketing and roadmaps for IoT solutions, but are likely still building out their platforms.

                                  As is expected in such a volatile market, prices remain fluid, and costs to implement a platform can vary wildly. Some factors that will contribute to pricing include:

                                  • License fees for the platform, which can range between $5,000 and $250,000.
                                    • Monthly fees for wireless connectivity.
                                      • Fees based on the number of connected devices—ranging from 20 cents for a consumer device, to $10 for an average enterprise asset to thousands of dollars for complex, industrial assets.
                                        • Tiered fees for support, ranging from standard business hours to 24/7 availability.

                                        Keep in mind: these numbers are estimates and may not factor in complexity of assets, capabilities of a given platform or implementation or integration services.

                                        IoT Vendors to Evaluate

                                        Most IoT platform market contenders provide the capabilities listed above, but some focus on cloud-based platforms, while others opt for more traditional on-site deployments.

                                        The list below, while not exhaustive, offers an overview of some popular platform vendors in the market and lists some of the common applications for each platform.

                                         

                                        IoT Platform Name Top Use Cases
                                        Amazon AWS IoT Asset management, predictive maintenance
                                        Bosch IoT Suite Industry 4.0, smart buildings
                                        AT&T IoT Platform Asset management, vehicle solutions
                                        Electric Imp Energy management, asset management
                                        GE Predix Asset performance management, automation
                                        IBM Watson IoT Product life cycle management, asset performance management
                                        Microsoft Azure IoT Remote monitoring, predictive maintenance
                                        Oracle IoT Cloud Fleet management, connected assets
                                        ThingWorx IoT analytics, industrial connectivity
                                        relayr Cloud Predictive maintenance, infrastructure management
                                        SAP Hana IoT Asset optimization, connected energy
                                        Teezle IoT Fleet management, connected products
                                        Telit deviceWISE Industrial automation, application enablement

                                         

                                        These vendors can work with your organization to customize and implement a platform that meets your needs. When choosing the right IoT platform for your business, you’ll want to consider their capabilities, services and pricing.

                                        Next Steps

                                        Gartner suggests some short-term actions for those companies committed to enhancing their operations with the IoT:

                                        1. Establish an IoT strategy that will include making tactical decisions for the next three to five years as the market matures.
                                          1. Create an IoT team to ensure you have the IT architecture required to support these projects.
                                            1. Evaluate vendors based on your list of requirements, including:
                                              • Technical capabilities of the solution
                                              • Alignment with your specific industry requirements
                                              • Partnerships with system implementation providers
                                              • Alignment with your system infrastructure
                                              • Security features and future upgrade options

                                            Companies should expect to learn more about IoT as they use it. Since it’s a relatively new market, IoT has the potential to gain value as companies experiment with new applications.

                                            Industries that rely on maintenance management processes can benefit greatly from IoT applications. For example, a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) stores tons of valuable maintenance data which is then used to enable greater predictive maintenance and automation and further reduce costs.

                                            You can review the top CMMS systems or give us a call at (844) 689-4876 for a free phone consultation to narrow down your maintenance software options. For any specific questions, contact me at taylorshort@softwareadvice.com.


                                            The Most Important Sources of Unified Communications ROI

                                            Typically, building a business case for a new phone system isn’t tough.

                                            Chances are the system simply isn’t working at some branch office, support is difficult to reach, or worse, the system is now completely unsupported by a vendor that’s declared bankruptcy.

                                            Sometimes, building a business case is as easy as showing executive leadership the cold war tech that’s lurking in the phone system closet:

                                            patching through phone systems

                                             

                                            Calculating the return on investment (ROI) for a full-fledged unified communications (UC) system, however, can be much tougher. There are a number of factors that affect ROI on UC solutions, such as:

                                            • The choice between cloud-based or on-premise deployment
                                            • Your network environment
                                            • Support costs
                                            • Per-seat application licensing
                                            • Compatibility with related business applications and systems

                                            In this article, we’ll present a simple calculator tool for estimating ROI on UC solutions. We’ll also discuss the more advanced considerations that you need to think through when selecting a platform.

                                            Modeling ROI for UC Systems

                                            UC systems differ from a simple phone system in that they also handle other forms of communications: text messaging, instant messaging, email, voicemail, contact center workflows etc.

                                            Moreover, UC systems unify multiple devices (e.g., mobile and desk phone pairing) to provide a relatively seamless user experience.

                                            Added communications functionality, however, comes at added cost.

                                            If you’re simply looking for the cheapest business phone service around, a system like Ooma Office will be your best bet. Ooma and competitors such as Grasshopper sell to the smallest businesses around, where keeping the phone bill down is the number one reason to replace a phone system.

                                            The issue with providers like Ooma and Grasshopper is that they don’t scale when your business begins to grow. Small business phone system providers don’t offer the robust service level agreements (SLAs) that enterprise UC providers offer.

                                            They also lack necessary communications features and usage requirements that growing businesses demand.

                                            If you’re a dry cleaner that’s been operating out of the same location for 30 years, something like Ooma is probably right for your needs.

                                            If you’re a growing wholesaler opening up a new branch office, however, you need to begin thinking beyond simple line-item expenses in the phone bill.

                                            This diagram offers an expansive definition of what ROI for UC includes:

                                            Major ROI Factors for Unified Communications
                                            unified communications roi factors
                                            Let’s take a look now at each major ROI factor for UC.

                                            SIP Trunking Helps Reduce Costs

                                            Historically, savings on phone service has been the primary reason to move to a phone system based on VoIP technology (which transmits phone calls as data packets over the internet) rather than traditional phone service.

                                            Traditional phone service is substantially pricier than VoIP technology, particularly ISDN PRI (see our guide to business voice service types if you aren’t familiar with this service offering).

                                            The major problem with VoIP technology is that you need a special network service known as SIP trunking in order to connect calls between the internet and the traditional phone network (see our explanation of the service if you’re still learning the territory).

                                            Without SIP trunking, you can only make calls to other VoIP users—you can’t make a call to a landline or cellular number.

                                            With that said, however, SIP trunking service is still far cheaper than traditional phone service.

                                            In “Slash U.S. Telecom Expenses With SIP Trunks,” (content available to Gartner clients), analysts Rafael Benitez and Ted Corbett estimate that businesses still using traditional voice services like ISDN PRI can achieve savings of up to 40 percent on their phone bills by migrating to SIP trunking.

                                            If you’re already using SIP trunking, you probably won’t achieve savings of 40 percent by investing in a new UC system. However, UC can still offer major savings when it comes to conferencing services, another significant component of the phone bill.

                                            Rafael Benitez notes in “Midmarket Context: ‘The Roadmap to Reduce Your Audioconferencing Expenses’” (content available to Gartner clients) that conferencing savings of over 10 percent can be achieved simply by investing in a UC system that handles conferencing and ensuring that employees use the platform for internal meetings.

                                            The reason to adhere to these rules, Benitez explains, is that “on-net” calls aren’t routed through the traditional phone network, and hence don’t incur per-minute calling charges from the SIP provider.

                                            Cutting the significant costs of audio conferencing is an important source of ROI for a new UC platform for organizations that have already migrated to SIP trunking.

                                            Moreover, even if you don’t plan on replacing legacy phone systems at all of your branch offices, a UC platform can integrate with third-party phone systems at branch sites to unify all of these systems into a single telephony platform.

                                            Many SIP trunking providers can then route calls between your branch offices over the internet rather than the phone network, which means that interoffice calls are essentially free.

                                            Workflow Improvements Simplify Business Processes

                                            With unified communications, employees can choose from a variety of ways to get in touch with colleagues, such as:

                                            • Voice calling
                                            • Video calling
                                            • Web meetings
                                            • Email
                                            • Instant messaging

                                            Moreover, a functionality known as “presence” allows employees to indicate whether they’re available to talk and which communication channel they prefer.

                                            If you’ve ever used Skype, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts or another calling/messaging client with a list of contacts, the little indicators that show whether contacts are online are an example of presence.

                                            google hangouts presence

                                            Managing presence in Google Hangouts
                                            Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.
                                            Source: Google.com

                                             

                                            UC systems integrate presence status across all the devices that employees use, so colleagues can always see who’s available to approve a request or help with a problem. Unified presence can thus be a game changer, as we discuss in our case study of a cloud UC deployment.

                                            By giving employees multiple communication options and allowing them to track colleagues’ communication availability in real time, UC platforms speed up complex workflows.

                                            Mobility Helps Employees on the Go

                                            UC systems generate value by supporting employee mobile device usage in two ways:

                                            1. Unifying employees’ mobile devices with the rest of the communications system.
                                              1. Routing calls from mobile devices over Wi-Fi networks to cut costs.

                                              Regarding the first point, UC platforms essentially treat any mobile device (e.g., smartphone, tablet, laptop) as an extension off the phone system.

                                              Employees can manage communication preferences such that calls are forwarded to their mobile devices when they’re not in the office, and can even continue conversations and video meetings across multiple devices with certain platforms.

                                              Such features offer major productivity benefits for both remote workers and “road warriors.” But more tangible ROI can be achieved with the “least-cost routing” options that UC platforms enable for calls from mobile devices.

                                              Cost savings with least-cost routing stem from the variety of wireless networks out there, which range from 3G and 4G cellular data networks to public and private Wi-Fi. Frequently, phone calls will simply go over whichever network the employee has configured on her or his device.

                                              With a UC platform, however, the platform itself identifies the cheapest network to route the call over. In many cases, substantial savings can be achieved by sending calls over private or public Wi-Fi to bypass the per-minute calling charges and high usage fees associated with 3G and 4G cellular networks.

                                              Least-cost routing is especially important for road warriors, since roaming fees can be avoided if employees send calls over Wi-Fi, as we describe in this case study.

                                              Application Integrations Extend Your Capabilities

                                              The final way in which UC platforms generate ROI is through extensive integration with your whole ecosystem of business applications: your office productivity suite (Microsoft Office, Google Apps for Work etc.), your CRM system, your ERP system, your accounting system, your contact center platform etc.

                                              Such integrations create substantial productivity hacks. For instance, you can include video meeting links in calendar invites to simplify the process of planning meetings.

                                              More dramatically, UC platforms enable click-to-dial from CRM systems and other systems, so that employees can simply click on a contact’s phone number to make a call. This can dramatically impact the productivity of sales teams.

                                              A Unified Communications ROI Calculator for Grading Vendors
                                              If you’re determining ROI for an on-premise UC system, you’ll be paying a large sum upfront for the ability to license the system perpetually. In other words, you buy the user license once and the user can continue using the system for as long as it works.

                                              This means that an on-premise system is a capex (capital expenditure)—it represents a one-time, large investment of capital as opposed to an ongoing operational expense (such as your internet service bill).

                                              The system won’t pay for itself overnight. Thus our calculator outputs the number of years it will take for the system to pay for itself.

                                              Cloud UC systems are typically licensed on a monthly subscription basis. This transforms your phone system from a capex to an opex (operational expenditure). Thus we can subtract your operational expenditures for your new system from your current operational expenditures to arrive at the amount of savings you can achieve per year.

                                              With a cloud system, the SIP trunking service is typically handled by the same vendor that delivers your phone system applications. Thus we can calculate the amount of savings you can achieve by migrating to SIP trunking.

                                              With an on-premise system, however, you pay upfront for the system and then find a third-party SIP trunking provider to buy monthly service from.

                                              Some quick notes on using the calculator:

                                              • When we ask about lost opportunity costs, we mean, for instance, the amount of revenue your sales team is missing out on when the phones are down. If you don’t know this figure, our formula will still work without it, but we recommend you try to estimate it to get a better sense of ROI for the new system.
                                              • Remember when estimating the number of licensed users at your organization that not all employees will require a license on the system. Warehouse workers may only need a single phone for the whole warehouse, whereas desk employees will typically require one license per employee.

                                              Note: Click on the white boxes in the “Input” column to enter values.

                                              Note: Our formula for ROI on systems with subscription licensing assumes that you’re currently using traditional voice service—if you’re not, the ROI it outputs will most likely be higher than the savings you’ll actually achieve.

                                              We don’t factor in phone service savings in our ROI formula for on-premise systems, given that the SIP trunking provider is separate from the phone system vendor. If you’re using traditional telephony services and calculating ROI on an on-premise system, the system will most likely pay for itself more rapidly than our formula indicates.

                                              If you have any questions about the factors that go into calculating ROI on UC, or if you have questions about how to use our ROI calculator, you can email me at danielharris@softwareadvice.com.