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As many may have already seen or heard, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Texas this past weekend. Our hearts go out to all the families and communities impacted by this awful path of destruction. The powerful storm has caused wide spread damage and biblical proportion flooding throughout southeast Texas practically shutting down cities and towns. In the light of the devastation, this unfortunate event has rekindled concerns amongst the business communities about its ability to recover from disasters.

Across thousands of SMBs (Small and Mid-Size Businesses), Information Technology Disaster Recovery Plan (IT DRP) is rarely discussed in full scope. Although many are aware of its importance, with exception to larger businesses, most SMBs have limited or incomplete DRP (if any). According to the Nationwide poll, only 25% of businesses have a DRP in place. Additionally, a research by the University of Texas found only 6% of the impacted businesses survive from data loss disaster. Despondently, staggering 43% will never reopen for business and over 50% will shut its door within two years after the disaster.


Many businesses shy away from IT DRP discussion either by neglect or its low position on the priority totem pole. However, the importance of a disaster recovery plan cannot be emphasized enough especially in this day in age where cyber-attacks are common and mother nature can be unpredictable. To clarify, IT DRP isn’t about just protecting against cyber-attacks and natural disasters. IT DRP allows businesses to recover from other catastrophes and incidents including property fire, data loss (by human or system error), hardware theft, machine failures, infrastructure changes, and so on. It is an essential topic that every business should (not just discuss) create and implement.

Creating an IT DRP is an extensive project, but it is a worth-while investment. If you do not have the means to dedicate a team to IT DRP, businesses can opt to hire outside DRP specialists or IT providers that can assist with their planning and strategy. There are no specific DRP formats to follow, rather each business are entitled to custom build its own IT DRP as needed. However, few basic elements should be considered with formulating a basic IT DRP.

Start With Business Impact Analysis (BIA)
A BIA is an internal study that shows the priority level of what processes are most crucial to least important based on the business workflow and operations. This would be a good starting point to list the hierarchy of each department and its operations. While considering the hierarchy/prioirty, also consider the subset of the BIA which includes the following segments:

Recovery Time Objective (RTO)
Recovery time objective is usually the maximum acceptable length of time that your system can be unavailable. This can be in conjunction with the service level agreement (SLA) or contracted agreement between you and your clients. 

Recovery Point Objective (RPO)
Recovery point objective is the maximum length of time that data is unavailable from the system application (after a disaster). If your business operates with dependency of real time data, this will be a bigger part of your consideration when creating the DRP.

Hardware and Physical Inventory
Make note of all hardware and machine inventory, specs, and infrastructure. This would include onsite and offsite locations including desktop computers, printers, servers, network components, switches, telephony system, security access (credentials) and company mobile devices including laptops and phones. This information will also come in handy when working with your insurance if claim is needed. Keep in mind most insurance do not cover actual data loss of the devices/machines unless there is a special supplemental coverage specifically outlined by your insurance carrier for liability. Thus, the next element is crucial part of IT DRP.

Using Offsite Data Backup
In the event of loss, the most crucial asset (more than the machine) is the data itself. Data can be transferred to another environment during the recovery. This would entail a restore from available onsite back (if undamaged) or more preferably from offsite provider or location. If there is no back up in place, consider looking into a service using backup tape for offsite retrieval. Many cloud providers offer this service. Evaluate different level of offsite back up, duplication, virtualization and full end to end recovery models as needed according to your business needs and budget. 

Invest in UPS and Surge Protectors
Although power back up sounds rudimentary, surprisingly a common cause of data loss is due to unexpected power outages. Even few seconds of power interruption can have a substantial data loss that can quickly compound across multiple users or interrupt online services requiring machine reboot and down time. Use of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) or even a onsite backup generator(s) can extend the data storing and recovery in the event of a power outage to sustain critical operations for an extended time. Consider the appropriate back up power source based on your business critical needs and focus.

Review, Update, and Test DRP
IT DRP has no value if it cannot be adhered to and executed in the event of disaster. Dedicate a team (or provider) to review and update existing DRP. If none exists, consider assigning few members to spearhead the DRP project. Something is better than nothing. Once a DRP is in place, simulate an outage and test the recovery process to ensure its integrity and feasibility. Testing should be performed every quarter (3 months) if possible at a minimum. This will ensure any infrastructure changes, workflow adjustments, and the unknowns can be identified and will be minimally impacted during the recovery. Testing the DRP deployment is probably one of the most neglected step by many businesses but a crucial one.

Just like driving a car, no one expects to be in an accident. Similarly, businesses usually don’t think about dealing with the worst case scenario until it happens. But being prepared can make the difference and expedite the recovery process. IT DRP isn’t just about having a contingency plan in the event of a natural disaster or massive hacking. It is designed to help with the hiccups that don’t make the headlines including internal data loss and human errors. Having a strategy and plan is an essential element of sustaining the business operation, reputation, brand, and growth. Regardless of what stage of IT DRP planning you may be in, it’s never too late to start one or update an existing one to ensure its effectiveness down the road.

On a closing note, as a strong supporter of the Red Cross, we encourage you to contribute and help. For those who would like to contribute and donate to the hurricane relief efforts, you can simply donate by texting the word HARVEY to 90999 (this will initiate a $10 donation to Red Cross). Alternatively, you may also visit www.redcross.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS. Always verify the charity websites and its legitimacy before making any donations to prevent scams, identity theft and misuse of your information. Thank you.

 

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In today’s fast paced and well-informed world, customers are looking for immediate gratification. If your business can’t deliver top class customer service in timely manner, you are risking losing a customer and possibly the longevity of the business. From a business perspective, this can be a challenge for small and large companies alike. With social media and news traveling faster than any word of mouth can keep up with, companies can suffer critically with just one bad incident.

For example, earlier this year in April 2017, United Airlines made headlines after a passenger was forcibly and violently taken off its flight due to overbooking. The incident was posted on social media and shared across all news channels instantly. The CEO’s initial poor handling of the event caused additional further damage. The incident sparked outrage with company stock holders and frequent flyers patronage. This mishap took a financial toll on United Airlines with a loss of nearly $1 billion valuation.

So how important is customer service? To put it in measurable figure, businesses lose roughly $62 billion per year due to poor customer service. To further extend the alarm, a recent study by SuperOffice discovered that many (small and large) companies are disconnected with its customers. The 2017 Customer Service benchmark report shows that most businesses (80%) think they are offering excellent customer service. But in reality, the study found only 8% of those customers actually think they are receiving top customer service. One of the main criteria studied was the amount of time it took a business to reply and address a customer’s email. Out of the 500 companies studied, only 11% actually replied to first email and 41% did not even respond! To add further, of the replied emails, it took an average of 15 hours to address.

Again, with instant gratification that customers seek today, businesses need to be more attentive and proactive when communicating. Whether it’s a customer phoning in for a question, emailing a complaint, or even posting a negative comment on social media…it is the responsibility of the business to listen and respond in timely and professional manner.

The opportunity in various customer service and technical support arenas from airline to software industry for the past 15 years have helped me garner valuable experiences. More importantly, what I have learned is that regardless of the industry, customer service’s core principles are the same; Customers want their problem resolved soon as possible. Businesses want to provide a fair solution and keep their customer happy. But a key element to achieving and retaining happy customer comes down to the basics of timeliness and responsiveness.

Let’s share a brief segment that I developed to address on handling the initial contact when dealing with customer’s complaint. I found great success using the method and have trained many on integrating the process with their approach. Just a small disclaimer, following is a method I developed from my personal experience; it may or may not be suited for every business model, but I earnestly hope it will help.

Using L.A.S.E.R.

L – Listen

Listen to your customer. Whether the customer is complaining or inquiring about a situation, it is your duty to carefully listen to what the customer has to say. This applies to phone calls and emails. If you receive a call from an unhappy customer, let your customer speak and vent. Take notes if needed, but do not interrupt. You may show empathy as needed, but let the customer finish explaining their situation. For emails, do not take it out of context. Read it objectively as possible without getting emotionally charged. Email can be easily misinterpreted and emotionally coupled if it contains all CAPS, exclamation marks, threatening verbiage and so on. But, do not be quick to judge simply based on the first email. Always remember, usually the issue is about a business situation not a personal attack on you.

A – Assess

Assess the issue. This is the information ‘gathering’ segment. Ask the customer relevant questions to help better understand the problem (ie. their account info, date of purchase, product info, etc). But try not to ask same questions (that may have been shared from the initial call/email). After obtaining the information, then evaluate the situation. Analyze what steps you should take next to find the answer/solution for the customer. For example, is the situation about the defective product, delivery issue, service rendered question, incorrect pricing, and so on.

S – Solution

Seek Solution. What options are available to remedy the problem? Can the issue be resolved with corrective actions (ie. product replacement, price adjustment/credit, discount, or even a refund)? If none applies or you do not have the authority to make the decision, go find someone who can share more insight on the topic. If decision maker isn’t available, set the proper expectation with the customer (see next section).

E- Expectation

Set the right expectation. One of the key problem with customer service is that business over promise and under deliver which can aggravate the situation. Your business must be able to meet the minimum customer service standards expected by your customer. If the expectation is high, make sure you match that with over the top service. When dealing with customer’s complaint, ensure that you are working diligently to find fair solution. If you cannot offer an immediate solution, kindly explain that you will urgently look into a solution (with someone who can and will get back in timely manner). Important – do not state you will have an answer by end of the day when you are unsure. Be honest and offer an acceptable time table to get back. Also, whenever possible, do not transfer your calls to different departments. Try to obtain information from other department or offer conference call (with other department member) to resolve the problem. Limit the amount of people involved with resolving the issue. Customer will become agitated and make situation worse if they have to explain the problem to someone else (again).

R – Respond/Reply

Respond in timely fashion. Do not be one of those businesses that neglect emails/voicemails or reply few days later. Open your emails promptly and tackle the challenge. Make the return call on that voicemail. Not responding in timely manner will only escalate the situation. For emails, do not use automated email response. This is an unpopular trend that customers are not fond of it. Customers are smarter and more educated than ever before, they don’t need an email confirming the receipt (customers know that you are simply buying time with this method). They want a ‘human’ to reply in timely manner with a solution. If automated response is in place, make sure a ‘human’ follows up with the email within one (1) business day. Personally, it is a good habit to reply within the same day or sooner if email is received during business hours. If email is received after hours, it should be addressed next business morning. Always respond and acknowledge emails promptly even if there is no immediate solution. Ensure the client that you are working toward a solution. Keep the communication active and open.

Good products/services and competitive prices are important, but many businesses know that excellent customer service is the most cost effective means of retaining its clients, increasing sales, and more importantly growing the business. If there is anything we can learn is that most businesses can do a better job of executing and delivering top class customer service to its clients. Let’s start by responding to customers’ emails/calls promptly, honestly, and effectively.

 

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Blog

Lost among the clouds? You’re not alone. In the industry, many have heard of ‘the cloud’ terminology in one form or another. Shockingly, from my personal encounters, numerous IT professionals could not explain it thoroughly. Only  handful were able to explain lucidly. Even then, they were not confident on how to apply the cloud terminology properly.

 

The lack of confidence with the explanation is bothersome. But what’s more concerning is the universal confusion with the term and usage. Is the term ‘cloud’ being used too loosely in the industry? Is it a propaganda to get us comfortable with the cloud concept? Or has the term ‘cloud’ become synonymous like Q-tip is to cotton swab, Sharpie is to permanent marker, and Google is to search engine? If so, what is the cloud synonymous with?

 

If you search the web for cloud computing, results will return tons of associated IT products, software, services, and articles to further add to the muddle. The term has become a haze more than a cloud in my opinion. Maybe the ideology and inception of the cloud are the culprit.

The origin of the ‘cloud’ term is unclear. Some believe the term derived from the legacy network schematics where the diagrams of servers were drawn with circles and resembled a ‘cloud.’ Another theory indicates how telephony systems were drawn with cloud symbols to represent a network. Then in the 1970s and 80s, the cloud term began to be used more specifically to denote collection of computer networks by Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) which eventually evolved to the internet we know today.

Although the true derivative of the term ‘cloud’ is still debatable, ‘cloud computing’ was first coined in 1996 by Compaq Computers (yes, that Compaq computer) as referenced in an internal document outlining the usage of the internet for computer processing. However, the popularization of the term really took hold of the industry when Amazon introduced its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) in 2006. Without going into detail, Amazon brought virtualized computer service to the masses where consumers and businesses can run their applications on virtual environment or servers by simply connecting through the internet. Shortly thereafter, other major software giants jumped on the band wagon to offer their own cloud services such as Microsoft Azure, IBM SmartCloud, and Google Cloud.

 

Modern cloud service was initially offered for research facilities and the military where super computers were networked to furnish high computation process. The cost associated with these super computers service was probably more than anyone can imagine. The cloud model blossomed as it was utilized heavily for corporate data centers. This allowed large companies to access the data via internet in secured and scalable environment. The cost was still substantial, but the savings outweighed the expense of maintaining the data internally.

 

Then came along the real mass appeal by offering cloud services to SMB (Small and Medium size Businesses). The appeal (affordability-‘pay as you go’ model) is what may have been the viral catalyst for the cloud as we know (or still confused about). Cloud providers were attempting to educate and promote its virtual solutions to the mass business market. But as information overload took hold of the SMB; IT providers, administrators, directors, and businesses were freely and generically applying the term. The messy abuse of the word consequently caused vast confusion. 

 

Finally, in late 2011, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) set some order to the cloud chaos. NIST defines cloud computing as ‘a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.’ NIST further defines the cloud into characteristics, model, and deployment. But for the focus of this article, I’ll share the models to help better understand the core fundamentals of the cloud. There are 3 models as defined by NIST. Below is a concise description of each.

 

Software as a Service (SaaS) Software as a Service is probably the most common reference we know when referencing to the cloud. It is a software delivery method that allows access to software and its functions via the internet connection usually through a web browser. A simple example would be an email service such as Gmail. You are connecting to the email contents through your laptop/pc or even a mobile phone. But the software and data are all handled by Google. For businesses, an example would be CRM or a healthcare software that runs offsite on a server by a vendor/software provider.

 

Platform as a Service (PaaS) Platform as a Service is an environment where the business or consumer can install its own custom software or application that is located offsite and hosted by a cloud provider. However, the server is not maintained by the consumer including network, storage, operating system and so on. But the consumer still has full control of its deployed application or software. An example would be a business storing its database on the cloud server for access. This is cost effective for many businesses as investment in hardware, security, maintenance, and upgrades are not needed.

 

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) Infrastructure as a Service is full blown virtualization environment. IaaS is popular in the data center where software and servers are purchased as a fully outsourced service and usually billed on usage and how much of the resource is used. IaaS gives the consumer ability to control the operating system, arbitrary software/applications, network and storage.

To complement the confusion, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) added two additional models (Naas and DSaaS) – Network as a Service and Data Storage as a Service respectively. But it has not been formally adopted by NIST.

 

Amongst the confusion, however, one thing is clear – cloud service is rapidly becoming the ‘go to’ IT solutions for businesses. This makes perfect sense as establishments are boot strapped and/or striving to balance their budget; the resources to purchase, deploy, and maintain the infrastructure of servers, software, and data storage can be dauntingly costly and prohibitive. The ‘pay as you go’ model of the cloud offers a significant financial incentive and savings. The upward trend in business cloud service is clearly visible. An article from Forbes noted that the cloud market was $180 Billion in 2015, $209 Billion in 2016 and expected to be $390 billion by 2020. I can only imagine the market exponentially amassing from here on out.

 

As cloud services continue to rise in demand (and out of necessity) for businesses, the cloud terminology will float ever more prominently across the industry and businesses alike. Many say that the cloud has become more of a metaphor to internet linked services rather than a single solution. I must agree. We will need to embrace the extended usage of the terminology, but more importantly we will need become part of the cloud integration in order to survive and thrive as businesses. Now where is my Kleenex?

 

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