Posts Tagged 'Integration'

My Mobile Phone Experiment, Part Four – Thoughts on Windows Phone Mango

After recently saying goodbye to my HTC HD2 Windows Mobile 6.5 device, a few months ago I started an experiment. Grabbing a SIM Only Deal from mobile carrier, Three – I would, in turn, use an iPhone, a Windows Phone device and an Android device for a few weeks at a time each, using them in anger as my sole device for day-to-day activities, both business and leisure.

You can read about my original motivations for this experiment here.

You can read part one of this experiment – my thoughts on the iPhone here.

You can read part two of this experiment – my thoughts on the Windows Phone here.

You can read part three of this experiment – my thoughts on Android here.

The overwhelming theme coming out of my review of Windows Phone was “It’s all about Mango”. Every irritation, bug and missing feature I mentioned seemed to be fixed by the upcoming Mango update that was released in September.

HTC Pro 7 HandsetSo in an attempt to give Windows Phone a fair shake of the stick, at the end of September I once again borrowed from my friend Steve Silk at Staffordshire University the HTC Pro 7 phone, and duly updated it to Mango – or Windows Phone 7.5

Firstly, the update process itself was fairly easy – once I’d impatiently “forced” the update through the Zune software using these instructions.

The update itself took around 90 minutes, with little or no intervention required on my part.

Once the update was completed, I jumped straight in and was… well… fairly underwhelmed. The Windows Phone interface is mostly unchanged, which is no bad thing as I like the tile-focused home-screen.

The Live Tiles feature (wherein icons on the home-screen can display live information about people or apps) is now supported by more 3rd party apps, but in reality I didn’t find myself staring at the home-screen to catch live tile updates very often. Still, Live Tiles remains a nice feature and the interface is very clean and easy to navigate.

One change I wasn’t fond of was that the Phone Search button is now dedicated to the Bing web-search engine. This may be irritating for anyone like me who prefers context sensitive searching within apps, as it was in Windows Phone 7, but I guess it’s a matter of preference.

The biggest change in Mango for me was the addition of Multi-tasking. Windows Phone didn’t really allow you to switch between apps. You were often left loading apps up from scratch after you’d gone to read an SMS or make a call. Now, you can multitask. Sort of…

In reality you can only multi-task up to 6 apps at any one time. It’s better than no multi-tasking at all, and I hear the arguments over resource use affecting usability – but still frustrating in use as I almost always have e-mail, SMS, Web Browser, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare open. Use one other app, and one of those previously opened windows closes meaning you have to re-load it next time you want to use it. The fact that most Windows Phone seems underpowered compared to their Android and Apple competitors would give some idea of why this feature is the way it is.

The back button (which allows you to scroll through previously used windows) remains a neat feature. I found myself wishing that feature could be ported to iOS when using my iPod Touch.

Music wise, Mango is easy to use as a media player with the lock-screen offering the ability to pause, stop and skip tracks. I also like the Zune software’s interface on the PC, and maybe even prefer it to the woeful iTunes.

What I didn’t like was the lack of PC-like file system – anything you want to get to and from handset needs to be via the Zune software, or rely on 3rd party plug-in’s. I know it’s only a minor irritation, but I like being able to drop files onto the SD-Card directly – a feature Mango doesn’t allow.

One less than minor irritation is the Internet Explorer 9 web-browser. Whilst it boasts some great features including full HTML 5, it just doesn’t sit well with me and I found myself getting really irritated with how slow it was to display web-pages – especially moving back to a previously loaded page. As far as I can tell there are little or no 3rd Party Web Browser options on Windows Phone, and so if you don’t like IE (as I don’t) then you’ll flat out of alternatives. I found myself really missing the slick and smooth Dolphin Browser on Android. I’m sure there is all sorts of statistics to show how IE is a faster browser, but I found it clunky and slow.

In-Car support is excellent. My in-car Bluetooth hands-free kit  connected first time and allowed features such as Contact sync and then subsequently connected each time without any intervention on my part. Leaving Bluetooth switched on in this way doesn’t seem to drain the battery life – very cool! But the coolest feature for me was the in-car SMS Voice options. When an incoming SMS is received, Mango tells you who the message is from and asks you if you want to listen to the message in-car. It does a fine job of reading messages out, even down to “Sad Smiley”, “Happy Smiley” or “Kiss, Kiss” and gives you the option to reply. Sadly, Mango voice recognition isn’t too hot at recognising spoken words – and even the simplest of responses needed to be “dumbed down” to work. For instance, saying “Thanks Mom, see you soon.” had to be changed after four failed attempts to “Thank-you Mother. Goodbye”. Not quite as warm a response…

Bing Maps is included as an app, and is a decent tool to help direct you to locations. It’s no replacement for a dedicated Sat-Nav though, with no automatic re-calculation of route if you make a wrong turn, and a tiny on-screen display with not even the most basic spoken turn-by-turn information. Again though, it’s better than nothing – and it more or less helped me to most of my destinations during the course of this experiment.

Overall, the in-car versatility of Mango is something I’d rank highly.

Talking of Battery life, it remains good in the Mango update. I could get around a day and half’s average usage without requiring a charge. Irritatingly though, when plugged in to charge the ‘phone turned itself on. Whether this is a HTC fault or a Mango fault or indeed a “feature”, I don’t know. The “Battery Saver” feature remains cool – turning off Push E-Mail and other non-essential features when the battery runs low.

On the integration front, Twitter is now integrated into Mango. It’s an overdue feature, but one that compliments Mango’s already excellent Social Networking features. You can look at a contacts profile, swipe to the right and see a list of recent SMS, swipe again to see their latest e-mails, Tweets, Facebook updates, Photos and so on. Very cool.

No Google+ support whatsoever. Not entirely unexpected, but as a Google+ user myself I missed this integration.

The Facebook integration is good, especially for the camera. It enables you to give a title to photographs and tag people before uploading the snap. Disappointingly though, there’s no notification of the success/failure of a Facebook photo uploads. I found that some FB photo uploads failed (presumably due to a bad carrier signal) but I didn’t have the option to re-try them, and so had to re-create the uploads from scratch. It’s small features lacking like this that can build into bigger frustrations.

The Facebook app under Mango is not so good though. Like IE9, I found it slow and clumsy, and so reverted to using the Mobile Web-Interface instead.

Within Mango you can create groups of contacts – such as business, friends, family, etc. This is a neat future that I found using a lot to quickly find and catch-up with different types of contact.

I’ve still yet to “get” Xbox Live integration where you can supposedly connect and play games with XBox 360 friends. I’ve yet to find anyone else who uses it either.

E-Mail connectivity still lacks Exchange Tasks and Notes support. As even iOS 5 added this recently, it’s flabbergasting that Microsoft don’t support their own e-mail server software as well as their competitors now has Exchange Task support built in, but included in the Calendar rather than as a separate app (Thanks to both John Clark and Andy Parkes for helping me find this feature!)

You now have the ability to combine mailboxes into a single view, and the Calendar pulls in information from Facebook as well as Exchange. This is useful.

As I’m a Google Mail user, I found the GMail support underwhelming. The e-mail interface as a whole is nice and clean, but GMail features such as Archiving are missing. I understand why this is – why would Google create a feature rich app for their Windows rival – but you get a better GMail experience under iOS, so Windows Phone is lacking here. Please don’t ask me to migrate to Hotmail as a suggested alternative either…

In conclusion – Mango is the ‘phone O/S that Microsoft should have released initially. It shores up a lot of features missing from Windows Phone 7, and adds some very cool other features too. I loved the Social Networking integration, and the SMS Voice features as part of a strong In-Car setup were very cool.

I could easily live with Mango as my main ‘phone, but… I wouldn’t choose to do so knowing that both Android and iOS5 are available on the market too.

That’s really disappointing for me, as I really like Windows Phone and I secretly hoped Mango would sway me to choose WP7 as my main platform.

But, despite the nice interface, both Android and iOS have much better 3rd Party App support, much more powerful handsets available, and Android especially is much, much more configurable.

Where I see Mango making a splash is at the slightly lower consumer end of the market. Mango does a *lot* in handsets that, on paper at least, are not as powerful as their Android or Apple competitors that are also more expensive to buy. For most people who aren’t real power users, Mango will be a great option – although statistics show that only one in fifty mobile devices currently sold are Windows Phone.

But, Windows Phone includes every feature that your average Social Networking/E-Mail reading/Web Browsing/casual Photographing user might want.

However, if you’re a power user on any level – then my conclusion is that the latest upmarket Android handset or iPhone are probably the better choices for now.

 

Richard Tubb is an IT Business Consultant who works with ambitious IT companies who want to grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the elected chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him atrichard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.

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My Mobile Phone Experiment, Part Three – Thoughts on Android

After reluctantantly saying goodbye to my HTC HD2 Windows Mobile 6.5 device earlier this year, I started an experiment. Grabbing a SIM Only Deal from mobile carrier, Three – I would, in turn, use an iPhone, a Windows Phone device and an Android device for a few weeks at a time each, using them in anger as my sole device for day-to-day activities, both business and leisure.

You can read about my original motivations for this experiment here.

You can read part one of this experiment – my thoughts on the iPhone here.

You can read part two of this experiment – my thoughts on the Windows Phone here.

HTC SensationAt the start of September, my friend Steve Silk at Staffordshire University provided me with a HTC Sensation running Android 2.3.

So how did I find it? Read on!

Firstly, this experiment isn’t about the handsets themselves – it’s more about understanding the capabilities of the various Mobile Operating Systems out there. That said, the HTC Sensation looks beautiful – with a large bright 4.3” screen, very thin design but comfortable enough in the hand – plus a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, making it really fast in use, and an impressive 8 Mega-Pixel Camera.

I initially felt uncomfortable using the catch to take the back of the case off to insert the SIM card, as the case does feel plasticky and flimsy, but got used to it over time. The Micro-USB charging slot is on the left hand side, which feels awkward too – and the power button on the top of the device doesn’t feel comfortable initially as it’s too thin, but again, you get used to it. You’ll hear that phrase “I got used to it” a lot…

The Sensation boots up quickly… sometimes. I’ve gone from pressing the power button to entering my SIM PIN and being at the home screen in as little as 5 seconds on most occasions, yet on others it inexplicably takes 30 seconds or more from the SIM PIN to arriving at the home screen. It’s still faster than most other Smartphones I’ve tried though.

Through the setup stage, and no surprise here, you’ll need a Google account. Everything revolves around a Google account, so if you’re going Android, get used to using Google.

imageOn the home-screen, HTC have placed their HTC Sense interface on top of the usual Android UI. As a fan of HTC Sense, I quickly got to grips with this and was swiping left and right between the numerous home pages you’re offered to install Widgets and App shortcuts.

Talking of Widgets, which are small “always active” apps on the Android screen, HTC bundle a load of them out of the box – from Calendars to Agendas to something HTC call “Friend Stream”, a Twitter-like display of all your friends Twitter and Facebook updates. I found myself using it a lot. There are also a ton of widgets you can download for free. The home-screen may not look too impressive at first glance, but you can customise it to your own specifications very quickly.

Android gives the ability to create folders on a home-screen to contain Apps, but it’s far from intuitive to do this. I had to ask a fellow Android user to show me how. Once you’ve got it, it’s simple. Likewise adding App shortcuts and moving them between folders is simple, but clunky. This was the start of a number of indications that Apple’s iOS is simply easier to jump right in and get working with when compared to Android, but that Android is more customisable. Another running theme in my findings.

Google+ ScreenshotGetting back to Social Media, and I was blown away by how well Android and HTC Sense integrates with not just Twitter and Facebook, but LinkedIn, Google+ as well as Exchange, GoogleMail, Flickr, Foursquare and seemingly anything else you wanted to use. Once you’ve setup an account for each of these platforms, the HTC Sensation pulls all the updates and any other information from them and presents it in a unified fashion within your contacts screen. It *can* get messy, the Sensation occasionally got confused with duplicate GoogleMail and Exchange information – but on the whole it’s fairly amazing to be able to see all your friends latest Facebook updates, their Mobile numbers (whether pulled from Exchange or Facebook), Flickr pictures, Twitter updates and everything else in one location. Of course, you can use the individual apps for Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. as normal – but if you’re a heavy Social Media user, then you’ll love Android.

Android is hot on notifications. It’ll automatically notify you of new e-mails, voicemails, SMS, Facebook messages, Google+ updates, software upgrades, patches and… just about anything it can. All of these are present in a non-obtrusive way in the notification bar at the top of the home screen, which you slide your finger down to open and view. Initially, all these notifications can become a distraction – constantly sat winking at you from the top of the screen. Over time I learned to quieten the Sensation though – turning off notifications and learning to resist the temptation to act upon others. Android is *very* customisable from this perspective. Out of the box it can blow your mind with all the info it presents, but as you become comfortable you can tailor it to your own liking.

As you’d expect, GoogleMail is supported very well under Android. It’s very easy to setup and you can easily archive messages, read HTML messages, and do just about everything you’d do in GoogleMail.

Microsoft Exchange support was just as easy to setup, and reading and responding to e-mails was a pleasure within the Android GUI. Frustratingly though, Android (like iOS and WP7) doesn’t support Exchange Tasks and Notes. Again I’ve got to ask, if Windows Mobile 6.5 supported these features years ago, why don’t modern SmartPhones? Bizarre. There is a 3rd Party app called Touchdown which brings Tasks and Note support into Android, but it feels a standalone app rather than integrated into the Android experience, and so I couldn’t find myself comfortable using it. Google – as well as Apple and Microsoft – please support Exchange Tasks and Notes in your Smartphones!

The SMS client was very easy to use, with threaded messages and the ability to forward SMS to other contacts. I did notice that Android grouped together conversations though, so if you sent a group SMS – then your inbox would show that conversation separately, but not under individuals SMS threads. I’m guessing this can be changed, and I can see why this would be of benefit to some people, but I occasionally found it confusing.

Wi-Fi is a breeze to setup. You’re instantly notified (see the pattern here?) when an Open Signal is available, and it’s a few clicks to setup your favourite Wi-Fi connections. Once you’ve set a number of Wi-Fi connections up, Android automatically and seamlessly connects to them as you move around. However… this hammers the battery something rotten. I found that using the HTC Sensation as a web browsing device killed the battery life, and it wasn’t unusual for me to require a charge after 90 minutes or so solid use. Not good.

Green Power Battery SaverAs with all the shortcomings in Android though, there are workarounds. I installed an app called Green Power Free that turns off Wi-Fi when the device isn’t in use. It helped, but the battery life on the Sensation is still really poor – I couldn’t get a full days use of it without some charging in between.

Getting back to Apps though, and this is where Android excels. The Android Market isn’t quite as nice an experience as Apple’s AppStore, but it is packed full of apps – some good, some shockingly bad. Whereas Apple vet all apps that appear in their appstore, Google don’t place the same restrictions on. This becomes self-regulating though as you find yourself using apps based on Word of Mouth recommendations or the ratings other users have given the app in the Market.

I couldn’t find a single App that I used on iOS missing from the Android Market. What’s more, I found a few Apps that I would have loved to have used on IOS but couldn’t find, available on Android. Overall, I think I prefer Android’s Open policy to Apple’s vetted apps policy as it allows more variety.

You might think that all these 3rd party apps (especially the poor ones) affect stability. Well, during a months use the Sensation crashed and rebooted just one time. Throughout the rest of the time I noticed one or two inexplicable slow-down’s, occasionally, but overall the platform was really robust.

Moving between Android Apps is fairly easy – pressing and holding the Home Button on the HTC Sensation brings up recent apps for you to browse through, and pressing the back button sometimes takes you back to your previous app. I say sometimes, because other times it didn’t seem to work and I had to manually go and find the app to re-visit it. With full multi-tasking support for all apps though, this wasn’t a problem as every app was presented in exactly the same state you left it.

Web Browsing is a great experience (battery life problems, as we’ve discussed, apart). I installed the free Dolphin Browser HD to replace the built in web-browser, and didn’t look back. It’s a pleasure to use, with the ability to pinch and zoom in on screens with text being wrapped automatically, and share content with any of the Social Media sites integrated into Android.

Android supports Adobe Flash, and there are great apps for both YouTube and BBC iPlayer. If the HTC Sensation had a more resilient battery, you could easily use this as your one and only media device.

The HTC Sensation has a physical Search button, and was context sensitive. Press it from the home screen and you’re presented with a Google Web Search box. Press it within Facebook, and you’re presented with a Facebook friend search. Very neat.

There is no physical camera button though, which is irritating if you’re a Social snapper like myself. The camera app is pretty amazing though, taking good quality shots and offering you the ability to easily tidy them up with crops and auto-enhancements, before sending them directly to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter or any other 3rd Party app you’ve installed. It doesn’t just blindly send the picture either – the Facebook app allows you to tag people, the Twitter app allows you to add Hashtags – just a really good experience.

Google+ Android App ScreenshotOne feature that did have me going “Wow” was the Google+ app feature that automatically captures and uploads any photos you take on the camera to a private location on the web, and then easily allowing you to share those pictures on Google+. A great way to both backup your snaps and share them.

Again, if you’re a Social Media person, you’ll love Android.

You don’t really need a PC to use this ‘phone, as it sets up out of the box and it’s easy to install apps and run Android updates over the air. However, if you do connect it to a PC then you can browse the device as a drive, or install software to use the PC’s Internet connection from your ‘phone – a useful feature I used whilst avoiding Roaming Data charges in Europe during the test.

Doggcatcher ScreenshotI didn’t play a lot of games on the Android, but there are tons to choose from. Likewise, I only used the Android to listen to Podcasts (using the great Doggcatcher app) and the occasional tune via the integrated FM Radio rather than lots of music, but it was intuitive to use, and I felt comfortable leaving behind my iPod Touch in favour of an all-in-one device like the Sensation.

By this stage you’re probably getting the impression I liked Android. You’d be right. It isn’t as intuitive as iOS, nor does it have the clean style of Windows Phone, and for that reason I didn’t pick up the ‘phone and become instantly “Wowed”. But for every irritation I came across, I found that Android’s customisation ability allowed me to overcome that irritation. What’s more, time and time again I came across instances where I thought “It’d be nice to be able to do this…” and investigation showed that Android allowed me to do that.

You’ll gather I think that Android’s Social Media integration is incredible. I thought iOS was good in this area, but it can’t hold a candle to Android – which offers an amazing choice of options to remain connected and share content.

It’s been a month since I began using Android, and a strange feeling has come over me. Unlike Apple iPhone users, or even Windows Phone users, I don’t feel voraciously defensive about Android. If I’m asked how Android is, I won’t staunchly defend the Android platform against the sticks and stones of others. I just smile and say “Well, I like it”.

Unlike the Apple iPhone – it doesn’t “just work”. It takes a bit of time to get used to, and for the non-techy this will be a challenge, but once mastered, you can customise it to the hilt to do everything you want, exactly as you want it.

Unlike the Windows Phone – it doesn’t blow your socks off the first time you see it. But it feels very much like Windows Phone in that it’s challenging the way you’re used to doing things, and offering you new, more efficient ways of doing stuff on a day-to-day basis.

But you know what? After a month, it feels comfortable and it works just how I want it too – both as a business device and a consumer device for a Social Media addict.

I really don’t want to give the HTC Sensation back. If I had a choice of which Mobile Operating System I’d like to use tomorrow, it’d probably be Android, but oddly I’m sure I’d begrudgingly live with a Windows Phone or an iPhone too.

I’m aware the HTC Sensation is a pretty kick-arse handset in terms of capabilities and has a ton of HTC customisation goodness to it. To this end I’m going to grab another lower spec HTC Android handset to see how that performs, and I’m also going to grab a non-HTC Android handset (the Samsung Galaxy S2 springs to mind) to see what the non-HTC Android experience is like.

Since I started the experiment, Windows Phone’s latest update – Mango – has also been released. As promised, as the next part of this experiment I’m going to revisit the Windows Phone platform with the Mango update to see what has changed there.

Despite having tested the three main mobile O/S from Apple, Microsoft and Google – this experiment is far from over. I think it’s fair to say you can see my clear favourites emerging though.

Watch this space. Smile

 

Richard Tubb is an IT Business Consultant who works with ambitious IT companies who want to grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the elected chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him at richard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.

How do I choose a CRM Vendor to work with?

My last blog post, entitled “How do you move from being the “IT Guy” into a Trusted Business Advisor?” prompted a lot of responses. It seems that becoming the “Trusted Business Advisor” is the goal of the majority of IT Solution Providers (ITSP’s) and Managed Service Providers (MSP’s), but achieving that status is easier said than done.

One of the techniques I suggested for ITSP’s and MSP’s moving away from providing purely maintenance and support and towards being seen as a valued business partner for clients is to become adept in offering a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution that can be customised for a clients specific business needs. There’s no quicker way than to both learn about and demonstrate an understanding of a clients business than taking the deep dive required to deploy a CRM solution.

Two Businessmen shaking handsBut where to begin? There are a slew of CRM packages on the market from many different vendors. Many of the e-mails I received on the subject of CRM’s spoke about being “too complicated”, “poor support” and “too expensive for SMB’s”.

I’m going to say right now that this blog post isn’t a CRM product comparison. I’m not going to recommend this CRM over another. As with all these types of topics, I do have my own preferred suppliers and software, but that’s based on my own experiences. You should find your own solutions by exploring the options and speaking with your peers on what works and what doesn’t.

I’m also going to preface this list by stating the most important technique for offering CRM solutions that I believe you can adopt. My American friends use a phrase I love – “Eat your own Dog food”. What this means is don’t try to offer a solution to your clients that you don’t use yourself. In the world of IT, that perhaps doesn’t mean you have to use the same CRM package internally that you deploy to client sites – it’s likely that you use an IT industry specific product with CRM-like capabilities such as Autotask or ConnectWise – but it does mean you have processes that support your business internally, targeted and consistent marketing, strong customer management systems in place, and a generally good understanding of the benefits that using a CRM package can bring to a business.

Once you’ve got those things in place, and begin looking at your clients business through new eyes, starting conversations about a CRM solution becomes something that not only you want to do, but knowing the benefits it brings to your client – you can’t help but do.

Back to our list of questions I ask when choosing a CRM vendor. Does the CRM Vendor…

Offer both Hosted and En-Site Solutions

If you work with a vendor who provides purely Hosted based CRM solutions, then seemingly every client you speak to will express concerns about security and ask you for En-Site options.

If you work with a vendor who provides purely En-Site CRM solutions, then seemingly every client you speak to to will express concerns about cost, maintenance and support, and ask you for Cloud options.

Yes, regular readers of this blog will know I’m beating the drum on the Cloud topic again – but the answer remains the same whatever the solution you’re offering. Don’t try to dictate to your client what is best between Hosted and En-Site. Offer them both options and let them come to their own conclusions based on the honest pro’s and con’s.

Offer great levels of support

I define great support as:-

  • The Vendor offers support by telephone, e-mail and managed on-line forums that specifically covers your local hours of business
  • The Vendors Support team understands they are speaking with an IT company, and not an end-user. When needed we can skip the scripts and deep-dive straight into a techy problem.
  • The Vendors Support team offers dedicated implementation help, and doesn’t leave it to the Partner – especially during those first few implementations.
  • The Vendor offers training videos and materials allowing you to learn at your own pace, and regular training webinars and Conference calls which allow you to schedule time for your engineers to learn.
  • When required to and requested of, the Vendors Support team will speak directly with the end-user to swiftly resolve their issue.

Offers Integration with 3rd Party Products

… with popular accountancy packages. Not just exports and imports, but true integration wherein things such as invoices and credit notes are raised and synchronised back and forth between CRM and Accountancy.

If you’re working in the US, then integration with QuickBooks is essential.

If you’re working in the UK, then integration with Sage is essential.

Check with your existing clients on what Accountancy package they currently use. Then make sure the CRM product you’re looking at supports integration with that package.

Check the Integration has been tested as working with the local version of your Accountancy package. QuickBooks in North America is different to QuickBooks in the UK.

Imports and Exports are still important. Can end-users easily export data to an Excel spread sheet to work on, or are you as the IT company going to be fielding a regular stream of 1st Line Technical Support calls on how to do exports regularly?

Offers *Strong* Integration with Microsoft Outlook

Every CRM package integrates with Microsoft Outlook. But not every CRM-Outlook integration actually works. Outlook hanging. Outlook crashing. Add-ins that have to be deployed individually rather than centrally. One way integration rather than two way synchronisation. All these things can cause a head-ache.

If your client is like the majority and uses Outlook as their trusted source for keeping data, then trying to educate them to instead work solely within the CRM instead will be an up-hill struggle. Strong Outlook integration allows the client to dump data in either Outlook or the CRM, and know the data is then synchronised to both systems for future use.

Product is aimed at SMB’s

There are a lot of CRM products that profess to cover both the Enterprise and the Small and Medium (SMB) business space.

In my experience, choosing a CRM product that is aimed specifically at the SMB space alone pays dividends.

Many vendors definition of what SMB is are radically different. Microsoft defines SMB as 5-500 seats. The rest of us tend to speak about SMB as 5-75 seats.

The easiest way to find out where the CRM vendors product sits is to ask them to describe typically deployments.

Typically, SMB CRM products have a much shorter cycle to deploy, and as an IT company you can teach your staff and clients how to use the system at a basic level in a day or two, not a week.

Licensing costs will be talked about in hundreds instead of tens of thousands, and you’ll be able to buy licenses individually instead of in SMB unfriendly blocks of five or ten.

Offers a mutually beneficial Partnership

Before entering a Partnership with a CRM vendor, ask them what their perfect partner looks like.

If the answer is simply “They sell lots of licenses”, then tread carefully. If you’re taking your first steps into CRM deployment, then you might only do one or two small deals initially whilst you find your feet. You don’t want to sell a product and then not appear on the vendors radar because you’re small fry.

If the answer is “Work with us to grow both our businesses”, then we’re getting closer to a good match. The Vendor might offer Not-for-Resale (NFR) software for internal use, regular training, a steady stream of referrals in your local area and marketing development funds. In return you should offer to make up-front commitments to your vendor about training staff, targeted marketing campaigns you will run, case studies you will help them to develop, and sales targets you will strive to achieve.

My thoughts here are that your small business clients probably work with you because you’re an small business too, understanding the problems and challenges that small businesses face. With that logic in mind, you should probably be looking to work with a CRM vendor who values fewer good quality, deep relationships over larger volumes of relationships.

***

So that’s my take! There are many, many CRM packages out there. But remember that you don’t just want to be selling another box of software here – you want to be offering your clients a real value added service that helps you become a Trusted Business Advisor. That means understanding their business and their business challenges, and working with a CRM partner who supports you in that goal.

 

Richard Tubb is an IT Business Consultant who works with ambitious IT companies who want to grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the elected chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him at richard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Looking at Managed Anti-Virus for MSP’s

Last year I gave a series of presentations to a number of SMB IT User Groups about my belief that one of the keys to growing a successful IT Managed Service Provider (MSP) is to move away from the “big bang” model, and to instead be looking for recurring revenue opportunities.

Never is this more apparent than with Anti-Virus products.

Weekly World News paper headline "Computer Virus Spreads to Humans!"I know I’m not alone in saying that managing and maintaining Annual Anti-Virus renewals is a chore. You’ve got numerous problems, not least of which is the admin overhead of expanding the Anti-Virus (AV) license when a new workstation or user is added to a client’s network. Sending multiple invoices throughout the year with Pro-Rata costs for new licenses is a chore, and worse, if pro-rata *isn’t* available from your AV Vendor of choice, you’ve got a whole heap of licenses with different expiry dates to manage.

From a clients perspective, Annual AV renewals are a pain because they are inflexible. With the economic downturn of recent years, I’ve seen MSP clients who were reluctant to sign-off on an Anti-Virus renewal for x amount of licenses because their gut-feeling was that in 3 months time they’d actually only need x minus 3 licenses, due to reductions in staffing. As the MSP you get into that sticky situation where you’re chasing the client to renew their license renewal in order to keep their network safe, but the client themselves are in no hurry to sign off.

Then there is the fact that traditionally Anti-Virus Vendors offer juicy incentives to new clients to lure their business away from competitors. Your client approaches you to say he’s seen an offer for Anti-Virus that is half their current Anti-Virus renewal rate – and you have to spend time trying to persuade them to stick with the solution they’ve already got.

So it’s fair to say that Annual Anti-Virus contracts are typically are a chore, for both MSP and client.

Then there is the actual Anti-Virus product itself. Many products are not aimed at the MSP market. For years, AVG Anti-Virus was one of my MSP’s favourite products for the Small Business market, because it was aggressively priced and reliable. But as we added more and more MSP clients the reality struck us that we were doing a lot of remote administration across a variety of admin interfaces – very inefficient. Wasn’t there any way to administer all of these clients sites from a central console? With AVG, the answer was sadly no.

The Anti-Virus product any MSP chooses to work with nowadays should be fully multi-tenanted. In other words, you should be able to manage as many functions of the product as possible (starting virus scans, dis-infecting files, responding to alerts) from a single interface covering all your clients, rarely having to remotely connect to a clients server through Remote Desktop or a similar tool to perform functions.

So as an MSP you want a multi-tenanted Anti-Virus product that does not bill on an Annual basis.

The solution is a rolling Anti-Virus contract with an MSP aware AV Vendor. My own MSP moved away from annual renewals to monthly recurring contracts around two years ago, and life became much easier – both from a technical management and an administration perspective.

Trend Micro LogoAt that time we moved on to using Trend Worry Free Business Security under the Trend xSP model. Put simply, Trend provided us with a license code which enabled us to install to as many end-points as we chose, be they workstations, servers or machines that were off the main company network – very useful if the Managing Director or his family want their home computers covered and managed by their MSP!

Each month, we would bill the client for the number of licenses that they had used. If a client added or removed machines during a month, the number of licenses for the following month would be amended appropriately.

Once a Quarter, we reported back to Trend on the number of licenses we had used during that quarter – and paid our bill appropriately.

From our perspective as an MSP, we were never laying down cash for AV renewals on behalf of our clients because we’d already received payment from our client on a monthly basis. We didn’t have to pay the Vendor for their licenses until the end of a Quarter, we were much more efficient from an administrative perspective, and we made a tidy profit to boot.

I’m also a believer in the more line items you have on the monthly invoice you send to a client, the “stickier” you are likely to be with that client. Always be letting the client know the reality of the wide variety of work you do for them every month, to help them understand the value in your relationship with them.

From the clients perspective, they had the flexibility of only paying for what they used and as they paid monthly they didn’t have to suffer the “big bang” of annual Anti-Virus renewals.

What’s more, as an MSP working with a MSP savvy Vendor in Trend, we were given a single web interface (Trend Worry Free Remote Manager) that allowed us to be much more efficient about managing our client machines from a Technical perspective. From that web interface our engineers could respond to Virus alerts, remotely kick-off virus scans, amend AV engine settings and monitor the status of dozens of client sites from a single location.

The product wasn’t perfect, by any means. As an MSP we were not alone in becoming used to experiencing issues with Trend’s “Smart Scan” function which seemed to kill certain machines performance. There was still a need to remotely connect to clients servers to perform certain tasks which we’d have preferred to have completed centrally, and deployment still required work on the client site too. We’d also have liked the Anti-Virus reporting to have fed back to our PSA Tool (ConnectWise) to enable alerts to be managed through a single interface and reports to be delivered to our clients in a single uniform fashion – but these points aside, it was fair to say that Anti-Virus management with a Managed AV product such as Trend Worry Free Business Security was infinitely easier and more profitable than with traditional AV products.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to have a play GFI’s new Managed Anti-Virus offering – which integrates into their RMM tool, GFI Max.

GFI Max LogoGFI Managed Anti-Virus (MAV) has caused quite a stir in the MSP community since it’s release a few weeks ago, with lots of chatter on LinkedIn and Twitter about it.

The killer feature here is integration. If you’re an MSP running GFI Max as your Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM) tool, that word “integration” is very significant!

imageGFI Managed AV is built on the Vipre Anti-Virus product, produced by Sunbelt Software. GFI acquired Sunbelt and the Vipre product in July 2010, and have been working on incorporating Vipre into their Managed Service Provider range since.

The product is priced aggressively, and MSP’s can bill their clients on a monthly basis for the product and receive payment from the client before GFI ask for their license payment.

Tracking license usage is very simple thanks to GFI Max’s strong reporting features. There’s no danger of an engineer deploying to a new workstation and your billing department forgetting to invoice – everything is automatically tracked.

From a technical perspective – rather than go over the features the GFI Managed Anti-Virus brings to the table, here’s a short video of the product that managed to sneak it’s way onto YouTube ahead of the actual product launch recently.

GFI Managed Anti-Virus

There are still some features that I’m sure MSP’s would very much like to see – for instance, there is rarely a MSP client who doesn’t already have an AV product installed, so a tool to automatically remove existing AV products before deploying MAV would be a boon. That said, many GFI Max users have already created scripts deployed through GFI Max to automate some of that process, and I understand the Developers at GFI are working on an official tool to achieve the same goal.

But the real benefits are seen in on-going management terms. Rather than you or your engineers having a separate interface to visit to manage AV (such as Trend Worry Free Remote Manager) they simply visit the GFI Max Dashboard and use the same familiar interface to deal with Virus Threat alerts, Scan Results and Virus Quarantine.

GFI Max Dashboard Anti-Virus Features

All issues and alerts are reported into this central dashboard, which means they can automatically get raised (and closed) as tickets within your PSA tool of choice – ConnectWise or Autotask.

The ability to set Anti-Virus Policies centrally is a time-saver, both in terms of setting up and the amount of on-going maintenance it minimises. I’ve seen many MSP’s who struggle to uniformly deploy AV using the same policies (such as directories to exclude from File Scans, etc). MAV uses a hierarchy similar to Active Directory, so you can amend policies at the Client, Server or Workstation level – but easily use a standard set of policies across multiple deployments.

The reason I’ve always personally been a very vocal raving fan of GFI Max is the simplicity of their products. As a very small MSP, there simply wasn’t time for me to take deep-dives into products before I started using them. As my MSP grew in size, I wanted engineers to hit the ground running rather than having to be extensively trained in a product. The GFI Max Dashboard is easy to learn and use, and now that ease of use has been made available for an Anti-Virus product too.

Whilst I’ve traditionally been a huge fan of “Best of Breed” for MSP’s when choosing products to deploy at their client sites, I’m rapidly warming to the idea of having many products within a single dashboard for the efficiencies it provides. What’s more, whilst I’ve no prior experience using Vipre as a stand-alone product so am still learning about it’s weaknesses, I’d be stunned if I found any other AV that was so much better than Vipre that I’d be persuaded to use it in preference to those integrated features we’ve covered.

If you’re an MSP using GFI Max as your RMM tool, then MAV is going to be a no-brainer for you to adopt. The benefits of having AV in the same interface your engineers are used to is the killer feature.

If you’re an MSP with no RMM tool currently in place, then MAV may persuade you to adopt GFI Max. You’re probably already frustrated with having multiple interfaces for all those different AV’s, and using MAV quickly kills that frustration off.

If you’re using a competing RMM tool such as Kaseya or Zenith Infotech which already has an AV bolted into to it, then you’re probably happy with it (and have invested a lot of time into getting it working as you like it) so I’d actually urge you not to check out GFI MAV for fear of becoming envious.  Smile

The bottom line here is that if you’re an MSP or IT Support provider using a variety of Anti-Virus products across many client sites, typically on an Annual Renewal basis – then you’re probably not making life easy for yourself. Problems with billing, problems with administration, problems with maintenance.

Standardising on a product, especially one that is multi-tenanted and MSP friendly, brings many efficiency benefits and starts to help you to increase your recurring revenue stream.

 

Richard Tubb is an Independent Consultant who works with IT companies to enable them to feel more in control and to grow their business. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him at richard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.


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