I know, I am fully aware that my slightly overzealous statement will cause some to question my sanity. However, if you haven’t already discovered Google Apps for your personal life or more importantly your business go home tonight and DO IT. It’s simple, it’s free (there is a paid version but for a small business it isn’t really necessary) and it’s powerful beyond imagination. I figured I’ve spent so much time selling people on using Google Apps its about time I write about how the suite can help.
The next question you probably have is “what would a plumbing contractor know about desktop productivity and powerful cloud computing applications?”. The answer is, enough to make me dangerous . I should start the article with “Google Apps has affected my life positively in the following ways” but I don’t think an Intervention is necessary is this case.
I am always leery of productivity software or web applications as they apply to small mechanical contractors. Most times the barrier to entry is just flat out too high to make work. A Word processor, Power Point, Outlook and Video can all add up when you have to buy multiple user licenses for all the people you want to have use them in your organization. All of these issues can be resolved by using Google Apps, in fact this suite of products offers so much more and is evolving all the time.
So I think the first step to take is to take a leap of faith and set up a Gmail account. We see so many people with AOL, Comcast and Yahoo email addresses, just search Gmail in your search browser and follow the directions. Heck if you don’t want to go through the trouble leave your email addie here at theplumbinginfo.com and I’ll personally send you a Gmail invite.
So you’ve got yourself a shiny new Gmail account fresh with a new email address and 7.5gig in on-line storage. What is the first thing you should do to make it more like home? Import your contacts. You can import contacts from Outlook, Outlook Express, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. so you don’t have to re-type your giant phone book. I think it’s time to mention this, if you happen to have a Droid platform phone you can sync Gmail with it and never worry about backing up your phone contacts again. No SIM cards, no phone carrier back-up, no Blackberry Desktop Manager. If you happen to lose your contacts for some weird reason, Gmail Contacts and your phone are is always synced seamlessly. The iPhone can also use Gmail to update your contact list but it isn’t as streamlined.
So are you attached to your Outlook Calendar? There is a full featured Calendar App at your fingertips with some great features. The most exciting feature and one that is apt to help most business owners is the ability to create multiple calendars like Personal, Work, Other business, Vacation etc. I’m going to bait the hook a little harder, if you have an office and ten employees have business calendars of their own, every one of those employees can share their schedules with you or one person in particular or everyone, provided they have a Gmail account. Again, no per user license fees allowed.
At this point, you might ask, haven’t people been doing these kinds of things with computers for a while? Yes, calendar sharing, contact management, push (sync) technology, and email clients, have been with us for a while, however, for the most part, these have been the domain for the larger organizations. What computer professional term “enterprise level”. This meant that one had to have specialized hardware like mail servers and exchange servers for calendars and contacts. With this hardware comes and expensive IT staff to manage it. Companies like Microsoft are now trying to bring these types of products to smaller businesses by offering hosted services solutions where theses servers are maintained outside your walls up in the cloud. These companies charge for their services. For some organizations, this may make sense, but integrating the services offered by Google can offer the same functionality but for free.
Practical Plumbing Company Applications
Let’s give a few practical examples of how this application can work to stream line your business and save you money. You have five service plumbers, and they are running around all day going from one job to another. At the end of everyday your dispatch person, secretary, yourself whoever schedules the manpower for the following day. He/She/They can set up daily schedules for each plumber, color code them and share them with everyone so every person in the service chain knows where everyone is working. Here is another example; most companies, even service based contractors have a part of their business that is contract work. Work that needs to be estimated and solid numbers given to the customer. When the bid documents come in and the estimating schedule is set, every person that estimates work can see what they are bidding and when the price is due to the customer. I think the two above examples give you an idea of the power and flexibility of this Google App, you can essentially have your own dispatch and scheduling program right inside Google Apps.
OK now you know that you’ve got everyone in your company on the same page, contacts and schedules are covered. Do any of your employees work on word processing documents? Silly question right, we all have to use a word processor at some time. You can upload and convert all of your Word documents to your Google Docs and all your Excel spreadsheets to Google Spreadsheet and all of your Power Point presentations to Google Presentation. In addition you can create questionnaire forms in Google Forms and publish them and track answers. Even a drawing application is included in Google Docs to make charts, diagrams, designs, and more. You can even convert your Google docs into the popular PDF format. Every single type of document described above can be shared provided the people you want to share a document with have a Gmail account. You can share a document and set that document as one that can be edited or just viewed. If the document is set so that each person can edit, you can see who has done the editing, when it was done and you can see revision history as well. As you can see this is a true collaborative suite of applications. Businesses can share documents like prospect lists in a spreadsheet form.
But wait there’s more. With the integration of Google Voice and the very recent ability for you to place calls or video chat right from inside the Google Apps suite you may find yourself never logging out of these applications, they are that useful. Google Voice has been in beta testing for over a year and was by invitation only, I was lucky enough to receive an invite and can say from 9 months of experience this is a great product. Here is an explanation of what Google Voice does and how it can help you. You are a small business owner, you wear multiple hats, you are in and out of the office all day. What can you do to streamline how you connect to your customers, employees and home life? Sign up for Voice. What you get is a Google phone number, generated from the area code of your choice. Google voice allows you to push three different phone numbers to your Google Voice number. So if you want to transfer your home, work and your significant others cell number you your Google number it is a matter of seconds. What will happen is when any of those numbers are dialed they will ring the device that you tell it to ring. If no one answers that person can leave you a message at your Google Voice mailbox. The message can be accessed via the phone or the Google Voice website. Additionally, an email will be sent to you allowing you to play it from your inbox and most interesting of all, messages are transcribed and sent as a SMS text messages to your cell phone. Google voice can also be used to send and receives text messages from your computer.
The Google ecosystem
When your stuff is in the cloud, every computer you use at becomes “your” computer. You and your employees become unchained from the desktop PC’s and are free to roam, share and collaborate without missing a beat. Not to mention that you will be part of a new community and movement. What I am really talking about here is the Google ecosystem. These services are can be used in an a la carte fashion, or in a fully integrated suite of tools. As these tools continue to develop, developers continue to improve offerings around these tools. There are already countless browser add-ons and extensions for the Google Suite of products. With a Google Voice add-on, you can check your messages, make calls, and send texts from your browser regardless of the web page you are currently viewing. Google labs is an experimental website that test new products and services. Some products come and go like Google Wave, but some features are embraced by the community and become part of the vast Google ecosystem. With the development of the Android phones, the Google Chromium OS, and the upcoming Android tablet, one can see a very diverse and rich ecosystem for developers and end users. If you do happen to have or be a Microsoft Outlook holdout, one of the best features of most Google products is they will work inside of Outlook. Outlook users can add Google calendars and Gmail easily into Outlook alongside their other data. Its’ win-win.
Now is a good time to get your feet wet and take steps toward the future and cloud computing.
Certainly these types of cloud applications and services do not start an end with Google. Google, at this point however, has arguably gone the furthest the fastest and most conveniently while being the cheapest. As you can see, at least I hope you can see how useful Google Apps can be and how you can integrate and implement it’s power to streamline your small contracting business.