The answer: a crashed computer. At least, that's what a survey released in March revealed.
The small-business survey, which is conducted annually by Brother Printers, found that, "A surprising 75 percent of small-business owners indicate that a crashed computer is more disruptive than a sick employee. Seventy-seven percent noted that a tech malfunction has negatively impacted their business through a missed deadline or business opportunity."
"This year's survey found that technology is just as important as a healthy workforce," said John Wandishin, vice president of marketing at Brother. "The results emphasize the importance of delivering reliable and easy-to-use products to promote a productive working environment."
Brother is a client of mine. I'm even mentioned in the press release. And no, I'm not getting paid to write this. It's just that this issue hits a nerve for me. It affects me personally, my clients and my business.
My company is virtual. We used to have offices, but shut them down over eight years ago. Everyone works from their homes. And up until about two years ago, I had a server in the basement of my house that had installed on it the main applications we use for customer relationship management, accounting and files. We use Windows Remote Desktop so that everyone can log in from wherever they are to do the work. Remote desktop technology works great for us. It's a reliable, inexpensive way to connect a workgroup to a server and create your own "internal cloud."
Yes, it was working great. Until something went wrong. Because one day we were unable to connect to our server. When I ventured down to my basement (something I rarely do, as it's mainly the domain of my kids), I found that the server had gone down. I won't go into specifics as to the reason, except that it had to do with my cat and her inability to locate her litter box, which was located a little too close to the server. So let's leave it at that. But the end result? My company was without a server for an entire week until it got fixed.
So when I hear that three out of four small-business owners feel they are more impacted by a technical problem than a sick employee, I get it. We're all familiar with that sinking feeling when a computer doesn't boot up or it suddenly freezes in the middle of doing something. We know what it's like when a server goes on the fritz or a router can't be found. My company sells customer relationship management systems. We don't install hardware or configure networks. But our software heavily relies on a well-maintained infrastructure. We frequently have clients call us to complain of poor performance, database errors and malfunctions. And, more often than not, these problems are caused by faulty wiring, overloaded servers and from ignoring essential database maintenance.
When a computer goes down, an employee can't work. When a network is poorly set up, people are slowed down. When database errors or poor performance occurs, employees are waiting around. Poor productivity ensues. I see this all the time. So I understand why technical problems are more harmful to a small business than an employee's absence. At least when an employee is out, someone can cover for them. All business does not stop. But when technical problems occur with a key hardware or software component, all business can indeed grind to a halt.
Wandishin is right: Manufacturers do have a responsibility to make reliable, easy-to-use products. But business owners have responsibilities too.
Sure, hardware and software manufacturers sometimes make lousy products, but in 2013, I've found that most in the industry are selling things that are usually reliable. But all technology needs a little tender loving care. And most of my clients, including me, don't provide it. We ignore what the vendors tell us about maintenance. We don't invest in support. We assume that these things will just keep working without any preventive care. And when they ultimately break down, we suffer the consequences.
We are naive if we think we can just buy a server, plug it in, and expect it to run forever without doing anything. Computers are not like refrigerators or television sets, unfortunately. I wish they were. But they're not. We put them under much more stress. They are doing much more work behind the scenes. They are serving more people doing more things throughout the day and night. Even my refrigerator, which is tested daily by the appetites of my three teenage kids, does not come under the kind of stress that my company's server handles every day.
So when small businesses complain when a computer or server or router or other technology fails, and say that it's more disruptive than when an employee is out sick, we have no one else to blame but ourselves. We know this is going to happen. We know that technology can be unreliable. Many of us make alternative plans for when an employee is out for few days. Why don't we think the same way when it comes to technology?
Are your databases on every workstation and server being backed up every night? When was the last time you actually checked? Do you have a backup for your backup, like maybe an inexpensive online service like Carbonite or Mozi, just to make sure? Do you have a spare workstation or two lying around that can be used just in case there's a problem? In this age of cloud computing, are you too reliant on local data? Should you consider outsourcing your server to a cloud-based provider? Or setting up a private cloud using tools like Remote Desktop, so that all of your data is on one server, instead of spread around multiple workstations?
Even more important, are you investing in ongoing support? An actual IT guy who comes to your offices maybe once or twice a month to check on things? Does he shrink, rebuild, re-index and run other maintenance utilities on your databases like you should be doing? Does he check your backups, ensure that you're running the most recent versions of software and operating systems, and then do virus and security checks? Does he clean out unused, unwanted files and check the wiring? These are just a few of the things that we all should be doing every month. But many of us don't, because it costs money and we don't see the actual benefit.
Until something goes down.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses. Besides Accounting Today, he writes for Forbes, The New York Times and Inc.com.
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