(Extracted from ‘Making Good Money in Belfast - The Story of Ten Social Economy Businesses’ by Maurice Kinkead, Sammy Douglas and Geoffrey Ready)
Social economy businesses don’t get to operate in protective isolation from the rest of the economy; they have to fend for themselves and compete against private sector companies often much larger in size and with greater access to capital investment and other resources. In a crowded marketplace, it can be difficult for small social economy organisations to attract customers, establish their credentials or demonstrate a competitive edge over their private sector rivals.
Nevertheless, new technology is helping social economy businesses to redress this imbalance. Business tools and information and communication systems previously only accessible to large enterprises are now finding their way into smaller organisations that are clever enough to take advantage of open source software and other inexpensive technology solutions.
Establishing genuine business credentials these days begins on the internet, and that starts with securing your own unique internet address.
Getting your own domain name, such as those ending with .com, .org, .co.uk or the new .eu (if aspirations for your social enterprise are Europe-wide), can cost as little as £10 a month to secure and have professionally hosted. It is surprising, therefore, to find so many small organisations making do with subdomains of their internet provider’s address, and printing up business cards or promotional material with BT, AOL or other third-party internet addresses.
When it comes to getting your domain hosted, ensure that the charges include all the webspace and email hosting you’ll need. A lot of discount providers end up charging a lot more in the end because they have capped the amount of traffic to your website or they charge for additional email accounts to be set up.
Once your domain name is secured, you can turn your thoughts to developing your website. If you wanted to compete with the ‘big boys’, professional web design used to be an expensive proposition.
Enter content management. Unlike a traditional ‘static’ website, in which every page needs to be individually crafted using a web design application, a website built around a content management system (CMS) organises your website’s content – text, images and other files – within a back-end database.
One of the main advantages of a CMS-based website is that it doesn’t require a trained web developer for maintenance, as it can be updated by regular users through a simple browser-based interface. This ease of maintenance means that your website will be fresher and richer in content, and ultimately deliver better results.
Putting the power of content management into the reach of small organisations is the recent proliferation of open source CMS tools. Popular systems such as Joomla (in which www.makinggoodmoney.org is built), which are free for anyone to download, offer ‘right out of the box’ all the standard CMS features, including the separation of design and content, secure user registration and content workflow. What’s more, they provide access to a vast array of other features, such as discussion forums, emailing lists, web logs (‘blogs’), document management, image galleries, and e-commerce tools, all of which can be used to enhance your website and entice your users (read ‘customers’) to return.
If your social economy business offers goods for sale, then adding online shopping facilities to your website should be part of your development plans. Selling over the internet may never completely replace your traditional shop front, but failing to present an online catalogue and shopping on your website is unlikely to be a mistake made by your competitors.
Like content management, however, e-commerce solutions no longer need to be expensive, owing to the availability of robust open source software applications. A good example is osCommerce, which features a rich set of out-of-the-box online shopping cart functionality that allows store owners to set up, run, and maintain online stores with minimum effort.
Voice over IP telephony
Another new technology that is levelling the playing field between large and small businesses is voice over IP (VoIP) or internet telephony. VoIP, in technical terms, is the routing of voice conversations over the internet or any other IP-based network, instead of traditional dedicated, circuit-switched voice transmission lines.
VoIP is already a proven technology and has become the immediate future of telephony: a couple of years ago, only 4% of UK business phone lines used it, but by 2008 it is estimated that nearly half of all business calls will be VoIP-based. More and more internet service providers are offering VoIP as part of their broadband packages.
Driving this rapid take-up of VoIP telephony is the promise of cheap phone calls: VoIP to VoIP calls are free, and links to traditional phone networks are currently around 1p per minute, including to many overseas destinations.
Everyone will benefit from less expensive phone billls, but the greatest advantage of VoIP to the small social economy business is the added value it brings in terms of features that used to only be available with very expensive phone systems and call centre software. Because a VoIP-based phone system is completed integrated with existing computer networks, it runs as an easy-to-use and configurable software application, allowing advanced and customised communications programmes to be set up.
With a VoIP phone system, even the smallest of companies could offer such features as unlimited voicemail boxes, auto-attendants with different menu levels and functions, advanced call routing, and so on.
The phone system can also be integrated with other applications such as a customer database or groupware like Microsoft Outlook, offering users screen alerts and innformation for incoming calls or one-click dialling. These are the kinds of features that have always separated ‘blue chip’ operations from small businesses, and they may prove helpful to your own social enterprise in fighting for market share.
In addition, with VoIP multiple sites and remote workers can be brought into the main office phone system, with free inter-office calls. Support costs are also kept to a minimum because the system can be maintained in the same way as the rest of the computer network, and the software and configuration can easily be backed up like any other network data in case of system failure.
Implementing a new VoIP phone system from scratch can’t exactly be considered cheap, as the hardware, in terms of individual telephone handsets, is roughly comparable in price to traditional phone systems. The overall price is kept down, however, thanks again to the availability of open source application software such as Asterisk, which offer all the features of an expensive, proprietary phone solution. Lower support and phone costs will also pay off in the long run.
Any social economy business considering investing in a phone system would do well to consider the added features and business value that a VoIP system could offer.
Customer relationship management, or CRM, is an industry term for software solutions that help enterprise businesses manage customer relationships in an organised way. A common example of a CRM system is a database containing detailed customer information that managers, salespeople and support staff can refer to in order to match customer needs with products, inform customers of service requirements, and so on.
CRM systems attempt to capture and track the entire process of a pre-sales, sales and service relationship with a customer. Many software applications are now available that permit you to record this relationship from the time customers first make contact. Good CRM software is much more efficient than fragmented records and filing systems as it can save time in tracking communications and transactions with a particular client.
CRM has long been a buzzword in the corporate world, but the software applications available have usually been prohibitively expensive for smaller organisations to take advantage of. Once again it’s open source software to the rescue, as products such as SugarCRM or vTiger provide all the same enterprise features at little or no licence cost.
There is still a large cost in terms of the time needed to implement a comprehensive CRM system and to re-engineer your company’s operations around it, but many organisations find that it’s a worthwhile investment to make.
Perhaps even more than private sector businesses, social economy businesses are all about good customer relationships – knowing who your customers are, what they want from your company and how you can keep them coming back. CRM can help you retain those advantages of being a customer-focused business and still allow your company to grow.
By putting a CRM system or any of these other new technologies such as CMS websites or VoIP telephony to effective use, it can be a relatively inexpensive matter to project a strong image for your social economy business, assuring your prospective customers that it is you, not your rivals, they should be dealing with.
Article extracted from ‘Making Good Money in Belfast - The Story of Ten Social Economy Businesses’. Written by leading social economy practitioners, Maurice Kinkead, Sammy Douglas and Geoffrey Ready, ‘Making Good Money’ is an inspirational resource for budding social entrepreneurs, with features on successful social enterprise ventures, lessons learned, information on grant availability and advice on sustainability.
The publication is available in print form, priced at £9.95, or as a free PDF download at www.makinggoodmoney.org.