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Earlier this month at the “D” conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Flip video camera inventor Jonathan Kaplan surprised everyone by taking the stage to announce his latest start-up: a grilled cheese sandwich. Even harder to believe was that Kaplan had already attracted leading venture firm Sequoia Capital, which in the past has backed Google, Apple, and Oracle, and had raised upwards of $10 million in funding.
Tired of Groupon-ing for discounts? How does free strike you? That’s the premise behind FreeMonee, which is hoping to do location-based discount services like Foursquare one better. Launched by veterans of eBay, Oracle, and Visa, FreeMonee gives credit and debit cardholders cash gifts at various stores and restaurants that are part of a “cash-gift network.”
Microsoft has announced their new cloud offering in CRM, called Dynamics CRM. New competition for Salesforce.com is a good thing, and Dynamics presents a consistent interface similar to Outlook. But can they compete in the cloud? PC Magazine has the final word: “Microsoft is not being subtle in its attempts to snatch market share away from Salesforce.com and Oracle. Customers of either those services that switch to Microsoft Dynamics CRM between now and June 30, 2011 qualify for the Cloud CRM for Less offer. Customers will receive up to $200 per user, applicable to services much as migrating data or customizing the solution.” Microsoft Dynamics CRM Poised for Cloud Battle [PC Magazine]
Envision the day when you can video chat or write a report while behind the wheel on your way to work. Not only is the car driving itself, but it communicates with other vehicles and senses the environment, so getting into an accident is nearly impossible. That sounds like a sci-fi fantasy, right? Not at all. Several car companies, including Volvo, General Motors, Ford, Audi and its parent company, Volkswagen, are aggressively developing autonomous cars. Even Google has figured out a way to make cars drive themselves. “Almost all accidents take place because of human distraction,” says Sebastian Thrun, a fellow at Google and director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “A self-driving car never sleeps and always pays attention so we believe there is a significant opportunity to make cars much safer.” For the small business, using AI for robotic driving means commute time can someday be turned into work time. And, it could mean a fleet of delivery vehicles autonomously controlled. “The capability of this is absolutely realistic,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst and editor-at-large for Edmunds.com. “There might be a few odd things to iron out but we’re talking years, not decades to finish it off.” The Google car One of the strangest examples of robotic driving comes from the search engine giant, based in California, who is using their programming prowess to help build AI for cars. Google announced in October that seven Toyota Prius test cars have driven more than 140,000 miles on California roads with only occasional human control. Considering Google’s penetration into the average person’s everyday life — whether through search, maps, or apps on Android phones — it’s entry into the automotive scene almost makes sense. During the tests, a driver was always on board in case something went awry, but it’s still amazing to think about. Six months ago who would have considered the search engine giant would be letting their robocars roam the California countryside? Of course, current AI programming is not quite ready for rush hour. “Construction zones aren’t handled well yet. If the car were to drive on a snow-covered road it would cause problems for us. We also get hiccups, for example, if someone parks and blocks our lane — then our cars are stopped and the person needs to take over,” Thrun says. That said, Thrun maintains that Google’s accomplishment is remarkable. “Until recently, there seemed to be a consensus that this was 30 or 40 years off. And I would submit that the progress that we and others have made has stunned all of us in this area,” he says. Self-driving cars and safety Recently, GM gave reporters (including this one) a ride in a small, autonomous concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas. The two-seater EN-V, which stands for Electric Networked-Vehicle, was designed for use in large cities to help with traffic congestion, parking availability (you can’t imagine a car that is easier to park!) and improved air quality. According to GM spokesperson Daniel Flores, when vehicles are able to communicate with each other and sense their environment, the accidents that contribute to traffic congestion can be eliminated. “Urban congestion is a very legitimate problem. If left without new technologies it’s going to become a bigger and bigger issue,” he says. Volvo also is working on autonomous cars and already offers, in its S60 sedan, sophisticated options such as pedestrian detection and collision warning, both with full automatic braking. The Swedish carmaker is also working on a project backed by the European Union called SARTRE, which stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment. Spokesperson Daniel Johnston says the project is all about platooning many vehicles together — a sort of long-distance game of “follow the leader” in which all the occupants can do other things instead of paying attention to the road. “The idea is to compact distances between lead and following cars. Compacting space allows for more cars in one lane,” he says, adding that platooning also saves fuel by reducing air resistance, resulting in the use of less horsepower. What about people who like driving? Along with Stanford University and Oracle, Audi and Volkswagen have successfully created the Autonomous Audi TTS Pike’s Peak Research Car which last September completed the 12.42-mile Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb without any driver behind the wheel. Because some people actually like driving, Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, executive director of the Audi Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif., says Audi is less concerned about making fully autonomous cars and is more focused on “reducing accidents down to zero. That would be a dream.” He says Audi is working toward that lofty goal by experimenting with its self-driving car and through a new research collaboration with four universities in California and Michigan to bring as much information as possible about drivers and their environments into the vehicle. Cars that talk to one another Edmunds’ Karl Brauer says the technology in today’s new cars like Audi’s A8, which is covered from head to toe in sensors, has several cameras and is connected to the Internet, making the prospect of cars talking to each other and automatically averting dangers on the road much more feasible. “We can put sensors in roadways. We can put sensors in cars. We can put GPS devices in vehicles so that they are aware of where they are and what’s around them. That can already be done now — it’s largely what the Google car does. But it’s going to cost money and it’s going to require some standardization work,” he says. About that standardization, Ford recently said it is partnering with other auto makers and the federal government to create a single language that ensures all vehicles can talk to each other based on a common communication standard. The company says its involvement is part of a stepped-up commitment to developing wirelessly connected intelligent vehicles. Steve Birkeland, who owns a Minnesota-based company called Custom Canopy, says he often drives hundreds or more miles to get to a job site and would be interested in reclaiming time spent in the car as long as doing so was safe. “I could easily see a sleeping area where I would leave for Denver after dinner, watch a movie, go to sleep and wake up in the morning in Denver.” Not everyone is buying the idea of cars that talk to each other and drive themselves. Paul Burton, who owns West Point Driving School in Sacramento, says, “Unless autonomous cars are vastly superior to the average teenage brain — which is pretty sophisticated — they’re going to make a lot of mistakes.” According to Thrun, the AI is coming along, however. In the next decade (or less), your car might just drive you home. Now if we can just figure out how to make them brew coffee.
You’ve heard the expression, “the customer is king.” In today’s economy, the customer is key to your future success. The right customer relationship management (CRM) strategies can give you insights that lead to increased revenue, improved earnings and solid competitive advantage. Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Whether happy or unhappy, your customers are a vital, often underutilized source of business intelligence. Companies that take the time to understand their customers are better able to anticipate and respond to their needs. They also gain a distinct advantage over their competitors. At this stage of the recession, many companies have lost sight of the competition, focusing instead on cutting costs and improving efficiencies. And they have succeeded; in fact, today’s companies are leaner and meaner than ever before. But now is the time to look outward – focusing on better CRM to grow top line revenues, improve earnings, and take market share away from the competition. Know your customers and reap rewards The key is capturing the right information about your customers. With effective CRM processes and technology, you can build a single “book of truth” about each customer. It’s a data warehouse that chronicles each customer’s history, including the products they typically buy, how often they buy, as well as their individual preferences and any problems they have had in the past. CRM delivers instant, company-wide access to valuable customer profiles and gives you the insight you need to turn this data into actionable information. With a detailed customer history, you can easily segment customers, identifying which are your best customers and why. Is it their margins? Or is it their consistency of buying particular products and services? Linking your data warehouse or business intelligence system to your CRM process and technology can help you answer questions like these and gain an enriched insight that allows you to know how and when to focus on particular customers. Profitable communication Consider, for example, a customer who prefers doing business with your company over the Internet. If you don’t know that information, you may unnecessarily redouble your sales efforts by having a direct sales person call on that client. Had you known the customer’s preference, you could have eliminated the effort and cost of a direct sale and freed up your direct sales force to focus on generating new clients. CRM is a great way to streamline and optimize your sales force. The information you gather in various systems can show you where to focus your efforts, directing your sales force to certain sets of clients. When implemented properly your CRM system will enable you to be more successful in attracting new customers, responding to new leads and closing deals more quickly. By improving your responsiveness to customers you also build loyalty and decrease customer “churn.” At the same time, you can identify the best ways to cross-sell and up sell to each customer, either through direct sales, telemarketing, Web marketing, or other sales or marketing activities. If your goal is to better enable your website for e-business activity, CRM is the ideal approach. It establishes a single point of contact with your company and enables you to capture vital customer information and put it into various applications. The result is a cost-effective and efficient way to communicate with and learn from your customers. Creating your system Practicing CRM does require discipline in the form of a more efficient and integrated internal business system. When it comes to developing a CRM system, it is important to remember that this is an “outside-in” approach that focuses on customer input. The most critical component is spending time with customers, learning what they find most valuable about doing business with you. By doing that, you are essentially identifying your main competitive advantages. From there you can design your processes and the supporting systems that will capitalize on that competitive advantage. As with most IT initiatives, there is a wide variety of CRM hardware and software available from major vendors like SAP and Oracle. When choosing your CRM system, be sure to couple it with business intelligence capabilities that allow you to capture data in a variety of areas and organize it into a single book of truth about that customer. As you put that information into your CRM software in the right fields and capture all the types of transactions you do with clients, you now become very effective in the way to interact with them. Keep in mind that CRM can only work to your advantage if you view as more than just a tool for getting more from your customers. It helps you do more for your customers. When you become more responsive to customers and understand the way they want to do business with you, you give your organization a head start over the competition and prepare for the impending recovery. Mike Gorsage is a Partner and Leader of the Business Operations and Technology Practice for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the nation’s largest executive services firm, providing financial and technology leadership nationwide.
Does your business need an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system? If your company is experiencing rapid growth and the corresponding strain on legacy systems, or if you’re starting a new process — such as manufacturing — from scratch, you may benefit from an ERP system, experts say. Such a system maintains in a single database the information gleaned from a variety of business functions, such as financial, manufacturing, human resources, and customer management. As such, ERP systems offer a bird’s-eye view into the working of the company and allow users to cross-reference business functions. An executive might drill-down into the data, for example, to learn how business financials were affected by installation of a new customer relationship management (CRM) system. When ERP includes manufacturing information, businesses can reduce inventory by closely tracking customer orders and shipments, says Eric Kimberling, president of the Panorama Consulting Group in Denver, which helps companies clarify ERP goals before implementation. Act like a bigger business ERP systems help you behave like a bigger business, says analyst Dan Miklovic, research vice president for the manufacturing industry at Gartner. “By automating finance processes, you can do things like accept online orders and to business-to-business transactions electronically, instead of via e-mail,” he says. Many of smaller players think they’ll have difficulty finding an ERP application. But all major ERP providers — with names like Oracle, SAP, Syspro, Microsoft Dynamics, and Epicor — make specialized offerings for small and mid-sized businesses, Kimberling says. Many other vendors cater exclusively to the small and mid-sized business market. “When ERP is done right, the number one benefit is streamlining your processes and making them more efficient than doing data entry and keeping track of stuff in spreadsheets and digging for data,” Kimberling says. “ERP makes those things more flexible and accessible to employees.” Take Solaicx, which implemented an ERP system in July. The Santa Clara, Calif., based company has been moving from research and development to the manufacturing of ingots and wafers for the solar industry. It recently opened a manufacturing plant in Portland, Ore. “We were running QuickBooks and some miscellaneous packages. In the research and development stage that works fine,” says Jeff Osorio, Solaicx’s chief financial officer. “But in commercial applications, with the volume of transactions that would be going through manufacturing, we needed more.” Solaicx now houses its financial and manufacturing data within the new ERP system, from Syspro. That kind of integration makes for greater visibility into all aspects of the company, Osorio says. The real value to small business Bear in mind, however, that purchasing and implementing an ERP system is no small task, these experts say. Consultant, vendor, or other outside help is often needed here. The real value to small and mid-sized businesses comes in the way they customize and configure the core product to their own particular industry and individual needs, Miklovic says. But ironically, that kind of customization can be harder for small businesses to find. For example, businesses located in areas without a pertinent systems integrator or reseller that can essentially make a house call, could face customization challenges, he says. “The challenge is making sure the domain expertise is available in the geography you’re operating in,” Miklovic says. An automotive supplier in California, for example, will have a tougher time finding a reseller with pertinent automotive expertise than will a similar-sized supplier in the Detroit area. In the same way, a Californian small or mid-sized business serving the wine industry will have an easier time finding an ERP reseller to meet its needs. “But the good news is, ERP systems are affordable and can radically improve your business,” Miklovic says
TMC Communications, of Santa Barbara, Calif, resells telecommunications services such as phone, voice over Internet protocol, data and other enhanced services mostly to business customers. The business, which has 45 employees, including several who work remotely, found that it could best control its internal use of bandwidth – and avoid the cost of adding bandwidth – by deploying an application delivery system, IT director Alan Nafziger tells IncTechnology.com. Elizabeth Wasserman: What type of problems were you trying to solve by deploying a network management solution? Alan Nafziger: We move a lot of data around. Being a telecom reseller, we do a lot of billing and we get a lot of data from carriers and have to process that data. We also do a lot of backup. We have a hot standby database at Rackspace for disaster recovery, so we are continually transferring Oracle files to the backup database in case of an earthquake, a fire, or what not. We have a nice, bonded T1 circuit with a 3 Meg pipe that we are able to fully utilize. We also run our own Web services and have people who work offsite and connect through a remote desktop VPN into our network. As soon as we deployed Rackspace for disaster recovery, we had issues with our remote people. They reported slow, intermittent service. Basically, the network was choking off the remote applications. Wasserman: What did you decide to do? Nafziger: We were reselling a product from Streamcore and, in the process, we realized that the product was practical for us to use. It lets you see exactly what’s going on with the network at an application level. It’s different than just shoving traffic through the network. You can see what’s going on at a granular level – which applications are taking up bandwidth. If someone calls in and says the website is slow, I can look and see if it is a network problem or an application problem. It enables me to be much more intelligent in terms of where we put our resources and in terms of troubleshooting. Wasserman: How did this help you with your remote workers? Nafziger: We have a handful of people who work from remote locations. One guy works in Thailand and every night at 1 a.m. he was kicked off our network or reported things being slow. Since we’re a telecom reseller, we get all call detail records come in over night. We get all these FTP downloads between midnight and 2 a.m. But as soon as we put in the solution and turned on the optimization feature, we could prioritize which application gets bandwidth at any time. It not only tells you what’s going on but helps you control it. Anyone can look outside and see what the weather is doing, but can they control it? This allows you to assign a higher priority to traffic moving in an interactive way, such as voice over IP, any real time protocol traffic, Web conferencing, audio visual streaming, and so on. In our situation, we have a remote desktop protocol, a Citrix or RDP session that we don’t want to be interrupted. Wasserman: What have the results been? Nafziger: I haven’t heard from him since regarding those complaints. We’re not getting as many complaints in general and I’m also able to give the websites that our agents sign into a higher priority than the file transfers. The results are that I get a maximum use of my bandwidth. If the bandwidth is available, and there are no remote sessions, those file transfers get to take up the whole pipe. The result is a more efficient use of my network. I could have added more bandwidth to solve the problem and our remote employees still would have been choked out. This is a more intelligent way to address the situation. I don’t have to buy another circuit or a single, dedicated circuit to do all file transfers. It’s plenty of bandwidth if it’s managed properly. People that throw bandwidth at a problem without understanding the applications running over the circuit are really doing themselves a disservice. They’re attacking the symptom, not the problem.