By Ashley Fletcher Frampton
Your dreams of opening your own storefront are likely illustrated with snappy brand logos and eye-catching displays. Choosing technology solutions for your business might seem far less glamorous. But the tech choices you make will play a major role in how smoothly your business runs, how many customers you attract and, ultimately, how much money you make.
Here is a guide for making sense of some of the main tech decisions you’ll face when setting up your small business.
First, figure out how much bandwidth your business requires. Consider how many people will be using the internet at the same time and what kind of work they’ll be doing. If you’re uploading and downloading large files and conducting video conferences, you need more bandwidth than someone primarily accessing email. Other things to consider: Will your internet support your phone service and point-of-sale software? Will you offer WiFi to customers?
Think about your needs at peak times. If you don’t purchase sufficient bandwidth, your systems could run slowly and bog down your business. Internet service providers offer tiered options for businesses, priced according to your needs.
Depending on your region, you might have several providers competing for your business. Compare customer service and contract terms, called service level agreements (SLAs). Some providers offer 24/7 support, which could be vital if your business runs beyond daytime hours. No matter the time of day, a business can’t afford downtime, so choose a company with solid ratings for helping business customers through a glitch. Some providers compensate businesses for downtime.
Speeds can vary by region as well. Most areas have access to high-speed business internet, but in some places, businesses can get additional speed (for additional costs) through fiber optic networks.
Primary business phone options are traditional wired phone lines or VoIP (voice over internet protocol). VoIP runs on your internet connection and offers flexibility that can be valuable to small businesses.
With VoIP, you can:
- Make calls displaying your business ID from both office and mobile phones
- Check office voicemail from a mobile phone
- Receive voicemail as email, a feature that is convenient on the go and useful for keeping track of messages
- Add phone lines to your service if needed without new hardware
- Set up an automated recording that directs callers, saving you the cost of hiring someone and installing equipment needed for those features on a landline system
Just keep in mind that an advantage of landline phones is that you can still make calls when the power or internet is down, while VoIP requires internet connectivity.
Point-of-sale (POS) systems
You need to accept money from customers, and not just cash. To do that, you must have payment equipment and software, called point-of-sale systems. The good news for small businesses is that many of these systems can run on a tablet, desktop computer or mobile phone. Many also offer accounting and inventory-management features, helping you keep tabs on which items are selling well and when to reorder.
POS equipment includes payment-card readers, barcode scanners, receipt printers, cash drawers and mounts that turn tablets into terminals. Before buying equipment, though, choose the software you will use, as some programs recommend specific hardware. You can purchase POS software with a license up front, or you can opt for a cloud-based software-as-a-service with monthly fees.
Security systems are not essential, but they can reduce losses from theft by customers, employees and intruders. In addition, they could qualify you for a discount on your insurance. Surveillance cameras deter theft and aid investigations. Alarms can protect you during business hours and afterward. And something as simple as a bell on your door can boost security, alerting you when someone enters and leaves.
If you opt for cameras, today’s technology goes beyond on-site recordings. Cloud-based video monitoring systems allow you to check live cameras or recorded footage from mobile devices. They store recordings in the cloud, making footage recoverable even if your equipment is damaged. And beyond security, these systems can let you monitor the times of day that your store has the most customer activity, helping you staff accordingly.
In short, you need a website, and it should be mobile-friendly. Customers increasingly search for businesses online via mobile phones, and if they struggle to find your physical location or phone number or to understand what you do, odds are they’ll look elsewhere. Relying on social media alone is a poor strategy, because it gives you less control of your messaging. Instead, use a website and social media platforms together for a well-rounded approach.
Whether you launch your site via a do-it-yourself platform or hire a developer, invest in a design that is professional-looking and user-friendly. Even if it’s a simple interface, you should use it to provide the basics about your business and keep it updated. Then, you can leverage your website as an anchor for any marketing campaigns, including social media.
With today’s tech features like mobile connectivity and cloud-based computing, it’s never been easier to get your storefront up and running to serve your customers and grow your business.
Ashley Fletcher Frampton is a freelance writer and editor who helps businesses tell their stories. She covers the value of technology for today’s small businesses for Comcast Business.