But there’s one thing that’s at the root of any survival tactics – and that’s the technology tools you use to support your business – whether it’s a CRM application to get closer to your customers, an SQL Server implementation to expand your services, or an entire infrastructure overhaul to prepare you for the next upswing.

A roundtable discussion on strategies to help Canadian small businesses deal with the recession was held by Microsoft Canada on February 10, 2009. The participants included: Harry Rosen, Executive Chairman of Harry Rosen Inc; Christianne Paris, Vice President, RBC; Brian Monteith, Master Franchiser, Intelligent Office; Lee Piccoli, President, Fusion Home and Eric Gales, Vice President, Small Business and Midmarket Solutions & Partners, Microsoft Canada.

According to Eric Gales, regardless of the type of business you run, “The role of IT is to help you navigate through today’s challenges.”

Despite the difficulties we’re facing today, it’s important to keep in mind that the right technology investment can help in three ways, he says. “First it helps companies reduce costs and improve processes. Second, it drives more productivity and faster decision making. Third, it enables you to realize new business opportunities. Companies that invest intelligently to grow will succeed – it’s a matter of figuring out how those investments should be made in difficult times.”

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Hold on to those customers

For retailers, that could mean upping the ante on customer relationship management tools and integration. Harry Rosen, Executive Chairman of Harry Rosen Inc. says his operation’s reputation was built on building rock solid customer loyalty. As the organization grew, so did investments in technologies for capturing information. He notes that while they started out getting that customer information manually, “We put all that together and then began to use technology to capture it. Now any sales associate in any store can pull up information on a customer’s personal profile.”

While he admits that he leaves the IT decisions to the experts, he says that the business is constantly investing in better technology for data capture and relationship building. In fact in every economic downturn, Rosen has pushed for more investment in whatever helps make their customer relationships stronger – not less. “Every downturn makes us appreciate the value of building relationships and staying informed,” he said.

Relax, rethink, regroup

Sometimes, slower markets can provide an opportunity for companies to regroup and invest in all those technology infrastructure projects that were shelved during busier times. “There is no better time than now when things are slow to take on implementation and software enhancements,” says Lee Piccoli, president of Fusion Homes.

He says the company is currently implementing and/or enhancing software solutions in every single department – a huge infrastructure project that had been sitting on the to-do list for some time. “We know that having new technology will allow us to take a dominant position when things turn around.”

IT infrastructure building is also a good way to keep your prized human resources he adds. “Technology projects are a great way to hang on to the talent you have, because it gives them something to work on.”

As Fusion Homes expands its offices, the technology investment won’t stop with the current software upgrade. “Anytime technology gives you the opportunity to integrate people more and share information faster, you have to look at it seriously.”

Go big or go home

One company that is thriving in the current downturn is Intelligent Office, a provider of virtual office solutions. Master franchisor Brian Monteith says that with businesses downsizing their operations, they’re keen to look to companies like theirs to provide the infrastructure they need. And that includes all the technologies that support it. “Technology is in fact the driving force behind our business.”

Right now Intelligent Office is investing in a number of Microsoft products to keep the momentum going. “The big strategy for us is positioning ourselves to deliver better services and expand our technology offerings. We’re looking at more locations, more options and more technology.”

The newest initiative on the drawing board is an SQL Server implementation for a data recovery and backup centre for its customers. “As we evolve more people will want to work from home, and we will have the infrastructure in place to complement that through a national VPN (virtual private network). Part of that will be leveraging Microsoft SQL Server technology to support thousands of people wanting backup services. On top of that will be VoIP, and Microsoft has a number of software applications we will be implementing moving forward.”

Keep your head in the cloud

The push to keep costs at bay is one reason why low-cost entry services like Microsoft Office Live for Small Business are gaining considerable ground with small business owners, says Gales. “We launched Office Live as a cloud-based service for companies to leverage at little to no cost. That’s going to be an even bigger trend over time.” Microsoft Exchange Online is another service that is seeing uptake as an affordable hosted enterprise messaging solution for sharing calendars and contacts.

“There are a number of opportunities besides these that allow business owners to leverage great software solutions in the cloud to reduce costs, whether it’s for telephony, storage, or communications,” says Gales.

Whatever the technology choice, having a good head for business really boils down to some tried and true basics. “The rules of business success are simple,” Gales adds. “You originate something, you find customers and you sell it. What technology does is enable us to scale that and do it more efficiently.”

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