The cloud is an invention designed to make our lives easier, but the concept can be confusing. This article is designed to demystify the cloud and provide tips on how to incorporate it into your business.
The cloud is basically hard drive storage, hosted by a company, accessible via the Internet. You are likely using the cloud already. If you have a smart phone — Apple, Android, Windows or Blackberry — you are using the cloud. Unless your email is on premises, it’s cloud based. Have any apps on your phone? Yep, those are all cloud backend. Is it secure? For the most part, yes.
However, be prudent about who you use and their policies. Just like in roofing, you get what you pay for.
The best way to use the cloud is for file storage. The concept is to have all your files accessible anytime, anywhere Internet connectivity exists. Since cloud storage is simply a hard drive in the “sky,” it’s easy to think about how cloud services can benefit you and your company. Here is a list of the top seven:
1. File Storage: Job files usually consist of photos, proposals, contracts, purchase orders, invoices, receipts, permits and more. Scanning any paper documents and adding them to a single storage folder in the cloud allows access from any Internet-enabled device. No more running back to the office to grab a copy of the contract. Cloud storage services such as OneDrive, DropBox, Google Docs and others are all free services available on many devices. My recommendation is OneDrive with its 1TB of free storage — more than you would need for the entire company. Combine cloud storage with an in-vehicle printer and your mobile office is ready for deployment.
2. Email Anywhere: Today’s modern companies utilize email more than any other form of communication. It’s a great way to simply share information such as files, updates, questions, reminders, confirmations and more. I personally enjoy two advantages email provides; time to research before reply and the ability to “carbon copy” all parties relevant to the communication. Since every phone call is actually two calls, email improves communication efficiency, despite popular belief. There are many email services available like Outlook, Gmail and iCloud that give ample email storage space and connect to your device of choice. Outlook allows domain masking so you can use free email with your company’s vanity domain (YourName@YourCompany.com) for a more professional appearance.
3. Calendar Sync: Just like with email, Microsoft Exchange started the revolution of synced services on multiple devices. Having the ability to sync your calendar with multiple devices ensures high productivity and prevents missed appointments. Just about every modern email service includes a calendar sync as well. However, the key to maximizing performance is calendar delegation: allowing others the ability to view, add and delete appointments from your calendar. All of our field employee appointments are set from the office using this ability. It works great for your sales team since a customer appointment can be confirmed before they hang up. It also keeps the team efficient by territory and estimate type grouping. Need to meet a coworker on a jobsite? Take a peek at the person’s calendar to see when he or she is in that area and available before sending the meeting request. This level of effectiveness may cost up to $50 per year per user, but it’s worth it and comes with much more than described here. Research Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps to implement.
4. Shared Notes: Your team is working on bidding a big project. You need input from the safety coordinator, purchasing, estimating and approval from the company’s president. Since there are many things to discuss, try entering notes into a shared note program such as OneNote, Evernote or Asana and sharing it with your collaborators. Each time a note is made it is tracked with a date/time stamp and the person’s initials, so you can gain valuable input and approval when it is convenient to each person involved. Each of these programs is available on multiple devices and is easily shared. When the job becomes a reality add photos, documents, hand drawings, quotes and more to the notes for a full record of the job.
5. File Sharing: File sharing is the next evolution after file storage. Let’s say you’ve created an estimate for a potential customer. The complete proposal package includes photos, notes, cover letter, pricing and a contract. Storing the files in the cloud is a great first step. Now you have access to it anywhere, anytime. Now let’s kick it up a notch by storing the file in a place it can easily be shared. You could allow your customer access to the files in case he or she misplaced a copy. A better use is to share the files with the production team so the job goes off without a hitch. Imagine the speed and efficiency if you are backing out of the driveway after winning a sale, and the customer receives a phone call from the office production coordinator asking what color he or she decided on to get the job started. File automation is yet another level of productivity available, but not discussed here. However, consider starting with a service that provides it so your file-sharing process can grow as you do. I’m a fan of SharePoint. It has everything you will ever need and is used by almost all Fortune 500 companies. OneDrive has the ability to share, but without the automation component. Google Docs is similar to OneDrive. iCloud is yet more limited, but a great start for those in the iOS ecosystem.
6. Document Collaboration: Taking file storage and file sharing to the next level is document collaboration. So you’ve uploaded your proposal to the cloud and shared it with the sales manager. Now, with document collaboration, both of you can work on the document simultaneously via the cloud. Office 365 and Google Apps both have this capability. No more driving to the office to work on something together. Work from home, the jobsite or the side of the road together in real time. Add the capability of Lync Communicator or Skype, and your document collaboration becomes a virtual meeting.
7. The Internet: The biggest advantage of the cloud is access to the Internet itself. A virtually endless supply of services, location information, directions, storage, collaboration, communications, search and just about anything else you could need is now available right in your pocket. Take advantage of the ability. Don’t skimp on your phone service provider’s data plan and get it to work for you. Need directions to a jobsite? Where’s the nearest Home Depot? How far away is the nearest roofing supplier? What’s the weather like today? All relevant questions for our industry answered via the cloud.
This is really just scratching the surface of the cloud. In the very near future, the “Internet of Things” will make the cloud part of everything we do in life. I suggest making an effort to incorporate as much of these ideas as possible to stay in line with the new way society communicates. Your customers will expect it, and the level of productivity gained will only help increase profits.
This month’s homework is to consolidate and organize all of your common files. Find a cloud backup provider and begin migrating your data to the cloud. Consider a service that has automatic backup enabled to keep an ongoing copy of everything important to you. If you would like to chat about anything written here or have questions about anything cloud, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can help get you started and pointed in the right direction.