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Four High-Tech Steps SMBs Should Consider Now

The fiscal fourth quarter has just started. But now is the time for small businesses owners and mid-size business managers to start looking ahead to 2009.

"Cost cutting" is a popular topic during today's uncertain economic times. You can hide in fear and close your wallet. Or you can take these four steps to gain more predictable operating costs -- while driving your business forward.

1. Move to a managed services contract: If you're using an IT consulting firm or solutions provider to maintain your network and PC infrastructure, ask them about so-called "managed services." Many consulting firms now offer flat monthly fees to maintain, protect and optimize business desktops, servers, network infrastructure and applications.

This flat-rate approach will eliminate those "surprise" emergency IT repairs that can throw off your company's monthly budget or hinder cash flow.

If you're not familiar with the managed services, here are some key questions you should ask as you seek information about the industry.

2. Rethink business travel: Notice I'm not suggesting that you eliminate business travel. Face-to-face engagements are still important when meeting new clientele or pitching new business.

But for established business relationships, consider transitioning your face-to-face meetings to the virtual world -- especially if you need to communicate on a global scale. Convene online meetings using WebEx, unified communications and other tools that drive rich discussions. Make sure your business's web site includes a simple instruction page to help all of your employees -- and your customers -- get started with these collaboration tools.

And lead by example: Your top executives should be hosting the collaborative gatherings from time to time.

3. Find Your TelePresence: Conventional wisdom says TelePresence -- a rich, comprehensive video conferencing technology -- is too expensive for small businesses. But that's a misnomer.

For about the price of a one-week business trip, it's now possible to deploy a personal TelePresence system in a central office or a branch office. (In fact, the concept of Personal TelePresence dates back to at least 1994.) Each time a TelePresence system eliminates a business trip, you're essentially pay your company a dividend or freeing up cash for marketing, sales, research and development -- or other revenue-lifting activities.

4. Head for Home: If you still offer company cars to some employees, it might be wiser to invest those corporate dollars in your employees' home offices. Your company will spend less dollars on rising energy costs; employees will eliminate commute times and related expenses; and at home TelePresence and collaboration tools will make staff members far more productive.

I'm not suggesting that you eliminate company cars for your road warriors, top revenue producers and field service experts. But take a look at the numbers -- and ask your employees -- to see if they'd prefer to reduce their travel expenses in return for at-home TelePresence.

Some pundits think that at-home TelePresence won't gain momentum until 2010 or so. I disagree. I think leading-edge users are already making the move. I'll be looking for an in-home TelePresence system myself in the first half of 2009.

You have nearly 10 months of operating expenses to review from 2008. Take a close look to determine how your company is spending its travel dollars. Then, shift a portion of those dollars to collaborative tools.

Your company will gain improved productivity -- while earning a financial dividend -- every month in 2009.