Our move to the cloud for operational tools

June 2nd, 2019 by Heather Maloney

We have at last completed our move to cloud technologies to support our operations. It’s a no-brainer that if you were setting up a new business today you would start out with cloud based tools for your core functions: financials, employee management, sales and marketing, and operations. However, when your business has been running for more than a few years (13 years in our case), moving to the cloud can be a very time consuming exercise and cause lots of disruption. So in the first place you have to actually decide to move to the cloud, and then you need to choose which set of tools from the myriad available. Finally, a careful plan of each technology change will be vital to ensuring the least amount of negative impact.

It is important to remember that “cloud” is not the same as “located on the internet”. For more about this, check out our previous blog post: Cloud does not equal the Internet.

Whilst Contactpoint doesn’t provide migration services for moving to the cloud (there are service providers dedicated to this task across the various functions listed above), we like to do these things for ourselves, and we are often asked for recommendations on which tools to choose. So this blog post will describe our technology choices, the reasons for those, and the benefits we expect to achieve now that we have moved.

In the early days of Contactpoint, there was no such thing as a cloud based financial package. Initially we were using MYOB, but after finding that expensive to add anything useful to, we moved to Xero. At the time, Xero was the most obvious choice – it had been created from the ground up for the cloud. This definitely makes a difference; it means you never have to put up with a piece of functionality or a way to do things that has to cater for both offline users and online.

We’ve been on Xero for over 8 years, and I am very happy with it. There are some things we can’t do inside Xero, and we needed to change a couple of processes, but on the whole is suits us very well. Mostly they have brought functions that we needed to use an external plugin to achieve – like payroll – into the Xero platform over this period of time. The one exception that affects us is the recent removal of employee expenses management, which is a tad annoying and will hopefully be reversed.

Businesses which have a heavy reliance on purchasing (inbound goods) will usually have a separate commercial / purchasing function. Contactpoint doesn’t, so I can’t comment on whether the purchasing function of Xero is extensive enough.

We benefit from having financials in the cloud because:

  1. Our accountant can access it online, and provide advice without us needing to send a data file around (which is of course immediately out of date).
  2. Updates are provided on a regular basis to ensure our compliance is easy. For example the enforcement of single touch payroll by the ATO, which took all of about 1/2 an hour to introduce into our processes, because Xero had already done the hard work for us.
  3. Integration with 3rd party systems, such as banks for automatic loading of bank statements, is easy due to the APIs that are available.

Employee Management
As mentioned above, we use the Xero payroll for the financial and compliance. Over the years, we have experimented with online tools for managing the growth of our employees, but we now tend to do this using our back office tools instead.

We benefit from payroll in the cloud because:

  • Employees have ready access to the details of their payslips, leave calendar, superannuation contributions, via a web browser.
  • Security around these systems is provided, as core to the platform.
  • Compliance functions, such as creating and sending our end of year payment summaries, and pay slips, take next to no time.

Sales and Marketing
Many of the technologies used by the sales and marketing functions of businesses are facilitated by the back-office operational systems. Cloud sales and marketing tools, which manage prospects, lead nurturing, and quoting, include tools such as Salesforce, Hubspot and Pipedrive.

Because of the use of our in-house built client management solution (see below) we currently use that to support our sales and marketing functions.

Of course, we also use many other tools for sales and marketing, including Enudge for email marketing, SEMrush for digital marketing analytics, and our marketing website.

For operations, from a technology point of view, it’s useful to separate that into back-office (documents, spreadsheets, email, calendar, communications – chat and phone for example) and core operations (whatever that is for your business whether manufacturing, distribution, or service delivery).

Because our back-office functions are closely tied into our core operations (managing digital projects for our clients), and our core operations have for the past 13 years been facilitated by an in-house built, online solution, this made our transition to the cloud more complex. I spent over a month analysing more than 50 available tools to replace our project management system, and needed to also weigh up the impact of each solution on our back-office solution. The outcome was a decision to keep our current project management solution because it contains far broader functionality than the tools appropriate to our business i.e. we could purchase a very expensive tool and get 95% of the features we currently have and perhaps a few additional useful features, but the costs are not justified. Importing our existing data from 13 years was also problematic, with most solutions saying whilst you *can* do this, it is not recommended.

For back-office functions, we selected Microsoft Office 365. This was the final step in our move to the cloud, and which we have moved to over a period of 6 months. The choice of back-office solution was really a toss up between Office 365 and GSuite (Google’s alternative). In the end, Office 365 provided the most extensive set of features for all our needs, even though some areas aren’t quite as good as GSuite. The costs were very similar between the two solutions.

Our back-office functions were previously delivered by:
– iiNet for Hosted Exchange Email.
– local installs of Microsoft Office for Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Outlook.
– DropBox for cloud-based file storage. We moved away from having a physical internal file server about 2 years ago to give us greater storage capacity, flexibility and reduce risk.
– Slack for internal chat communications (a more recent addition which helped to reduce email volumes and increase collaboration).
– 3CX for VoIP function (cloud based telephone system) which also included a mobile app so that internal calls could be picked up remotely on mobile.

Office 365 replaces all of the above via the following components:
– Outlook Email
– Office 365 versions of Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Outlook – we also install these locally, and of course they are updated free of any additional charge.
– Microsoft Sharepoint provides cloud-based file storage. We were paying for ~1.2Tb of data storage through DropBox. After moving all our files (and a wee bit of cleanup on the way), our file storage is now around 250Mb. A significant part of that space reduction was due to the way that DropBox counts storage usage i.e. we never had anywhere near 1.2Tb of our own files.
– Microsoft Teams for chat.
– Microsoft Skype for Business for VoIP function (cloud based telephone system). Whilst this is more expensive than the 3CX system, the quality of the voice is better than the fully cloud 3CX system we had moved to when we moved office and went 100% wireless. Previously we had an internal PC for our VoIP system.

We benefit from back-office in the cloud because:

  • No cost to purchase upgrades to office software.
  • Cost reduction – DropBox alone was costing us >$300 per month, and was not providing the collaborative tools that are afforded by Office 365. iiNet was costing ~$100 per month to support all the email accounts required by our team. Add to that the cost of Slack and 3CX (annual maintenance + monthly costs), and the outcome was a ~20% net reduction of monthly costs.
  • Security around these systems is provided as core to the platform and managed through one tool. Reducing the number of environments makes it easier to control security.
  • Quicker to scale up as we grow employee numbers.
  • Better collaboration functionality. Whilst DropBox facilitates collaboration through DropBox Paper, this is separate to the file storage area, so it wasn’t really practical to use. Now multiple team members can work real time on editing documents, presentations and spreadsheets – way better than email these items around to the team and then one person collating the outcome. Using Skype for Business provides access to video calls with our clients without needing to invest in a separate tool.
  • Improved voice quality with our phone system.
  • Telephone System Management. Having the phone system integrated with our back-office system (Skype users are also Microsoft Teams users) makes management of communications that much easier.

Core Operations

As mentioned above, our core operational system remains our in-house built online client area. This facilitates a broad range of tasks across our organisation, including standard processes, project management, ad-hoc client requests (tickets), work prioritisation, prospect management and much more. Office 365 provides some of these tools through Microsoft Teams, so it could be tempting to move some functions into that environment, however having as many of the components of our current operational system in the one location is more important. Microsoft Teams is also a little immature with regard to its project team functionality, although it appears they are committed to enhancing it significantly in the short – medium term.

Our core operational system is regularly enhanced to meet our ongoing needs and to better support the services we provide our clients. Moving to Office 365 meant that we had to remove pre-existing integrations with Slack and DropBox, so we will be investigating re-introducing these functions through integrations with Office 365.

We also use numerous other cloud systems in the course of our operations including Figma – cloud based design tool, SEMrush and Google Analytics – cloud based digital marketing analytics tools, BitBucket – cloud based version control for software, TimeDoctor – cloud based time tracking solution, KeeperSecurity – another Microsoft solution for managing client credentials, and more. It is unlikely that all of the operational tools our business requires will ever be provided within the one system, so having a solution like ours which can be easily integrated with other online tools via APIs is very important.

Now that we have completed the move of our back-office systems to the cloud, we will be exploring additional integrations between the various cloud solutions mentioned above and Office 365. We expect these opportunities will also increase over time.

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2 Responses to “Our move to the cloud for operational tools”

  1. Marie Cosgrave Says:

    Congratulations Heather. A lot of work involved which will save time and money in the future. Excited to have you and your team doing similar work for us and have up and running this coming financial year. Especially thankful of your recommendation of Xero and the work you are doing so that all our online sales just “automagically” appear as sales in Xero !

  2. Heather Maloney Says:

    Thanks Marie! Yes, I’m looking forward to having your Xero integration in place as well. Love seeing technology making lives of people who work really hard (like you) that much easier. Regards, Heather

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