Better, Faster, Smarter, Happier: Techie advances local business people love

REGION – Whether industry specific or applicable across the general business spectrum, technology is changing how we communicate, coordinate and collaborate with our colleagues, clients and customers. With a mind-numbing number of advancements hitting the market every day, the TCBN surveyed area business people to find the one hi-tech gadget, or application they can't live without.

Greg Nickerson, City Mac

Fan of: Dragon's NaturallySpeaking voice-to-text software

You might expect an Apple computer store owner to drone on about his addiction to a high-tech application so new and complex that only the most advanced "techies" could comprehend. Not so with Greg Nickerson, co-owner of TC's City Mac. He prefers using relatively standard iPhone apps daily for things like capturing information he can't jot down.

"I often have to record information that I'm not in a good position to type on my keypad, so on my iPhone I will use the voice memo application," he says. After speaking into the microphone he taps the screen a few times, and the software e-mails the recording for later listening. Nickerson then uses Dragon's NaturallySpeaking voice-to-text software so he never has to type out his notes. He's also a fan of Google's hybrid satellite maps – a technology he often demonstrates to customers on the iPad's comparatively huge screen.

John Robert Williams,

John Robert Williams Photography

Fan of: Canon DDP

image-capture software

Veteran photographer John Robert William's downtown Traverse City studios are full of big screens and high-tech tools. His favorite? The Canon DDP (digital professional photo) image-capturing software he uses in conjunction with his Canon EOS1D camera and computers. The software enables him to display on a monitor, in real time, the images he is shooting, providing his clients an unquestionable view of what each photo will look like the instant he captures it.

"The collaboration is so superior to any other workflow, it's mind boggling. It brings a whole new set of communications skills, clarity and brevity, so the feedback is immediate," he says. When taking a portrait, Williams is able to choose the best expression and size, then clean it up and e-mail it to a client's desk before he or she returns to work. For still shots, like food, he is able to adjust the camera's lighting and aperture from the computer. "There is no question that you have what the client's mind eye desires or what I am looking for in terms of light, expression and composition – all the many things that makeup taking a professional photo. You know it when you've got it," says Williams.

Enrico Schaefer,

Traverse Legal, PLC

Fan of: Basecamp extranet system

When Enrico Schaefer, founding partner of Traverse Legal, PLC, installed the Basecamp extranet system, some in the industry second-guessed him, warning him that providing clients full access to their files via cloud computing would be a bad thing. Five years and thousands of clients later, Schaefer is pleased to report he has found exactly the opposite to be true.

In the legal industry, clients often complain that they're unaware of what's happening with their case, says Schaefer. With the extranet system, Schaefer's clients have complete (and secure) online access to their entire file, where they can see case management activities, to-do items, task categories, and internal and scanned documents. The information is preserved forever. "Being transparent to the client means we are constantly setting expectations, and if we do get off track, we'd know it in real time. By massaging expectations on a minute-by-minute basis, we're constantly reinforcing relationships," he says. More than that, he says he's attracting new business for Basecamp, he says: "We have had dozens of clients big and small implement the Basecamp system over their own business models after having experienced it with us."

Brian Lawson,

Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa

Fan of: Text-message marketing

Visitors to Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa have seemingly endless choices of activities to fill their days. Communicating daily specials, activities, and special events could be a daunting task without short code text-message marketing. As the director of public relations, Brian Lawson hails the technology as "an extremely efficient and effective way to communicate with our houseguests."

Mindful to respect their guests and "not overdo it," Lawson says guests choose to sign-up for the service by texting a code to a five-digit number, and messages are sent just for the duration of their stay. The tool is not overused but carefully reserved for times the pro shop has a sale or when light traffic in one of the restaurants warrants immediate appetizer or drink discounts. "It only takes a few keystrokes to create the message, and moments later our guests have it in the palm of their hand. Text messaging saves both time and money while effectively communicating the message to guests wherever they might be, instantaneously," says Lawson.

Debi Piette-Wilson, Star Delivery

Fan of: Xcelerator

Sometimes using multiple technology applications can consume more time and paper than necessary. Prior to implementing a new comprehensive courier-dispatch software package, Star Delivery owner Debi Piette-Wilson and staff used to manage the company's finances in QuickBooks and operations with Excel spreadsheets, resulting in a lot of paperwork. Xcelerator, a software solution designed for the courier and messenger industries, merges these functions into one system with several benefits.

"At a glance, we can see profit per job/individual delivery. It allows us to notify our drivers of deliveries via a cell phone, where they used to call in a "proof of delivery." We were taking all of that verbally, which is very time consuming," she says.

At the time of delivery, drivers now access the Internet through telephones, input the information, and the system automatically populates. Clients can then receive an e-mail notification that tells them when the package was delivered and who signed for it.

After using Xcelerator for six months, Piette-Wilson says she has seen a marked increase in productivity and accuracy, thanks to a cut in the manual transference of information, which was required when operating two separate applications.

Laura Oblinger, Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce

Fan of: Doodle, a free online

scheduling program

Coordinating a meeting may seem simple, unless you are responsible for synchronizing the schedules of dozens of people in different organizations. Laura Oblinger, senior vice president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, will tell you a large part of her administrative team's job once involved manually tracking down large groups of people, finding their availability, setting dates and following up with each. "It's truly amazing the amount of work it takes to coordinate sometimes up to 20 different calendars for one particular meeting, and to do that in phone calls and e-mails is not efficient," she says.

In order to increase efficiency, her staff now relies on Doodle. The free online program allows users to send an e-mail to a multitude of people with one link to a poll of the meeting dates and times suggested. Once recipients respond, the originator is able to look at the poll and decide when to hold the meeting, based on the majority of people available. They then report the final date and time to the group, and the meeting is set. Oblinger says using Doodle is simple, yet something that has had a lot of impact on staff efficiency.

Jill Ryan,

The Inn at Black Star Farms

Fan of: Webervations

Like most in the local hospitality industry, Jill Ryan, manager of The Inn at Black Star Farms, is overwhelmed with guest-related tasks in summer. Although the stately Sutton's Bay bed and breakfast is limited to eight guest rooms, much of her summer days used to be spent tethered to her desk, answering phone calls from prospective guests, checking availability and booking rooms. Not anymore. Since implementing Webervations, an online reservation system last year, Ryan has seen incoming phone calls decrease by 50 percent.

High-end bed and breakfast inns appeal to those willing to pay a premium for the personal pampering and face time their hosts provide, which may seem to contradict new computer applications. But programs like Webervations actually create more opportunities for interaction with guests, says Ryan. "I can update reservations and check availability all from my iPhone, without having to sit in front of a computer," she says. Ryan now spends less time manning the phones at her desk and more time ensuring her guests fully enjoy being unleashed from theirs for a few days.

McKeel Hagerty,

Hagerty Classic Insurance

Fan of: Steelcase Walkstation

McKeel Hagerty isn't concerned about spending too much time sitting behind his desk. That's because he doesn't have one. While attending a conference at Steelcase in Grand Rapids a few years ago, Hagerty noticed a high-tech product he felt would help him multitask – a necessity for a busy father and the CEO of Hagerty Classic Insurance. "The (Steelcase) standing desk line is all about combining activities and trying to put a little more vitality in the way people work. We were remodeling our office at the time, so I went ahead and ordered one," says Hagerty.

His decision to ditch a typical desk for the sleek and pricey Walkstation did not come easily though. Hagerty used to begin his day answering e-mails at home until realizing he was left with no time to work out. Promising himself he wasn't going to sit and answer e-mails all morning anymore, he mounted a desk over a regular treadmill and walks while clearing his inbox, logging four to six miles if he "really gets into it." His new Walkstation has a maximum speed of two miles per hour, an adequate rate for someone who doesn't want to sweat in his work clothes. BN