Are you considering using cloud services for your small business’s technology needs, but not really sure how to do it or why you should go about it? Read today’s guest post from Patricia Sigmon to learn more.

The phrase cloud technology may be part of the business lexicon, but how many small and medium-sized businesses are really taking full advantage of the cloud’s time- and money-saving advantages?

If you engage in social networking such as LinkedIn, or use an email system such as Gmail, you’re already in the cloud. But there’s so much more to cloud technology. Here’s a taste of how you can use the cloud to benefit your business, and why your business should join the “cloud crowd.”

1. Protect your business, fast and cheap. A classic way people use the cloud is for backups. No one wants to pay a tech company for three days of labor to restore an accounting system to the last backup; the last backup could be corrupt and not even usable. Outside backup services are cheap and reliable. Most small businesses pay about $10/month to back up the data that could destroy a business if lost or unrecoverable. Stop wasting maintenance dollars and in-house support dollars; off-site cloud-based data backup services will alert you of any data problem, will continue even if you “run out of backup space,” and will save your business enormous dollars in the event of a disaster–a power outage, sabotage, a natural disaster, and other unthinkables.

2. Your email is your lifeline–treat it that way. Stop relying on in-house servers, free email systems and multiple email systems. There is nothing more shortsighted than using a free, fading-away email system. Email is more than messaging. It’s your business history; it’s also your legal records. Track it and don’t get caught short. For very little per month, you can have a reliable, large-scale email system interface with your PDAs and your Outlook with a pure cloud solution. That’s three times the safety for each email you send and receive–on your PDA, PC or online–accessible from anywhere, even if your Outlook crashes. Have automated archivals and stop wasting time looking for lost emails. People have learned the hard way–don’t get caught without your email.

3. Share your sales information across the country and the globe. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems for small businesses are available for as low as $30 per month. Pure cloud-based sales systems allow traveling employees, traveling salespeople, customers and vendors to all share information in the most cost-effective manner possible. CRM in the cloud means no paperwork, no excuses. Who did so-and-so call last week? What appointments has salesman Y secured? CRM is what the cloud was made for.

4. Invoice your customers quickly and easily. Let your service providers enter their “time sheets,” let your producers enter their “sold products,” and let cloud-based invoice systems quickly, promptly, and easily invoice your clients, collect your funds, and update your accounting system. No more in-house servers, in-house technicians, in-house wasted support dollars. The cloud enables invoicing to be automatic. It creates alerts, it reads and validates employees’ entries, and it is fast and on time, regardless of holidays or broken networks.

4. Reach prospects and clients more easily than ever. From your sales database, your client database, and lists of strangers and peers, all of your contacts can quickly and easily use cloud-based marketing systems to send out newsletters, WebEx invitations, track registrants for events, send thank-yous and reminders and interface easily with your email systems. The marketing department resides in the cloud when you subscribe to the most modern systems the cloud has to offer. Just provide a list and an invitation or newsletter–the cloud-based systems are savvy, sophisticated and more thorough than a team of in-house clerical people. Responses are received and automatically booked.

A final word: Many cloud newbies navigate toward free cloud solutions–free email, free storage and so on. My advice is get value, get responsible, and get reputable. Free is just that–free; so if your business’s livelihood relies on it, look for cloud applications that are reputable and inexpensive, rather than free.

Patricia Sigmon is founder and president of LPS Consulting, a 30-year-old technology firm that specializes in creating technology solutions for small to midsize businesses, with profit generation and return on investment as the focus. Sigmon also provides profit-generation advice in her boutique, profit-centric firm, David Advisory Group. A successful entrepreneur, a sought-after speaker, and leading expert in the field of profit management, she is author of Six Steps to Creating Profit: A Guide for Small and Mid-sized Service-Based Businesses (Wiley).