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TechEmergency_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


On a recent visit to my son’s pediatrician, we arrived to find a frantic staff. Their Internet connection and phones had suddenly gone down, cutting off calls and access to patients’ charts. They’d rigged a paper-and-pencil system that still adhered to HIPAA privacy rules, cellphones were buzzing with emergency requests, and our checkup was old-school, without the usual long computerized checklists of developmental goals.


This service interruption went on for two days—a road-construction crew 10 miles away had accidentally severed the fiber-optic line to their office, which is part of a major university system. Our doctor later told us the outage had “finally gotten everyone’s attention” about the need for tech emergency plans.


So, what is your company doing to prepare for the unexpected?


No one can think of every possible eventuality, and business owners know Murphy’s Law often rules the day. But everything from wild weather events and service interruptions from a fragile power grid and persnickety telecom networks have forced companies to start coming up with backup plans for their offices and employees.


The main reason: the rising toll from some notable disruptions. For 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, economists at IHS Global Insights calculated $25 billion in lost business activity in just the first month after the storm. Raising the stakes, a 2011 Insurance Information Institute study found that 40 percent of businesses affected by natural and man-made disasters never reopen.


It’s also part of a greater emphasis on preparedness. Since 2004, September has been designated as National Preparedness Month—a move to educate the American public about how to be ready for, and respond to, emergencies.


While a poor online connection or a downed pole aren’t exactly super-storm material, having a Plan B ready can keep your company running smoothly during unexpected everyday disruptions. And being prepared for the worst can help lessen the bigger risks. Here’s a look at a few things to do to help protect your business in case disaster strikes.


TechEmergency_PQ.jpgDevelop a contingency plan

Fail to plan, plan to fail. Since the summer 2003 blackout that left tens of millions without power on the East Coast, the federal government got serious about having individuals and businesses prepared for the unexpected. Along with a bipartisan mandate to upgrade the nation’s antique power grid, FEMA and the Small Business Administration started to push for companies to develop and practice backup plans to keep their staffs and shops safe (and hopefully running) in case of emergency.


It’s also given rise to an entire industry: business continuity planning. Experts in this field have the task of thinking of anything that could go wrong, from a shutdown by hackers to where to keep documents stored in case of a catastrophic event. An excellent and free resource for those getting started:, which has a step-by-step guide to help assemble a plan and get employees working on everything from crisis-communication details and tornado warning text message alerts to running drills and getting hard-copy contact information in case an IT meltdown cripples an office.


In late December 2006, business coach Craig Hohnberger watched helplessly while an ice storm crippled his Columbus, Ohio, office building (along with much of the Midwest). The power was out, phone lines were severed, backup generators weren’t working, and much of everything else was shut down. “Even the local Walmart closed for the week,” he says. Yet he and his team had landed a big deal, and were dependent on getting the contracts out and signed before the end of the year. They ended up driving some 20 miles before finding a suburban FedEx Kinko’s copy shop that was operating. His outsourced IT provider managed to get them into their files. They downloaded, modified, printed, bound, and shipped on the spot. “It was a close call,” Hohnberger says. These days, his files are routinely saved to cloud computing storage spots and he’s added a routine test process in case disaster strikes again. “As long as I have power and my laptop, I can get anything now,” he says.


Review your insurance policies

What exactly is covered? Insurance can be tough to navigate, and it’s tempting to focus just on the cost of the premium, but what’s covered is far more important. One type to consider for extended emergencies: business interruption insurance. While most standard policies cover only losses to tangible items—like a building, equipment, or inventory—they don’t address the profits you’re losing if you can’t operate. Buyers should expect to document several months of net income. Policies range in price from less than $1,000 to $10,000 a year, depending on the size of the company. And one spot to watch: the exclusions at the end of the policy. Review each carefully with your agent and business attorney—this is the part of the contract where coverage can be revoked for certain events and situations—and add a rider if necessary. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, some business owners found their policies specifically didn’t cover losses caused by downed utility services.  


Invest in a generator

If electric service gets knocked out, be your own power supply. With the right modern technology, the changeover to a standby generator can be nearly seamless. Long a staple of rural operations where utility services can be an issue, repeated outages have been making generators far more common in metro areas. The hard-wired equipment isn’t inexpensive—anywhere from $2,000 to more than $15,000, plus installation, depending on the machine’s capability—but the benefits it brings during an outage can be priceless.


“There are certain small businesses that clearly have a return on investment, where the payback is much shorter,” says Aaron Jagdfeld, chief executive of generator maker Generac. “With a restaurant, if you lose a weekend night, it’s like losing an entire week,” he says. “No one can really afford to not be up and running.” He says much of the company’s past year has been dedicated to educating businesses on what they would need to provide an alternate energy supply to keep their operations going, and what could be lost if they go dark for too long. “The big part is understanding the financial ramifications of an outage. We’ve been hearing from many companies that it’s become too critical to take a chance anymore,” Jagdfeld says.


SBC newsletter logo.gifBack up everything that’s important

Greg Wiszniewski’s midtown Manhattan Busy Bee Cleaning Services was bustling last October, with 130 employees fanning out to New York City’s homes and offices. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out Wiszniewski’s access to his office for a few days while he was stranded in Queens thanks to the flooded subway system. In the meantime, he lacked contact information for staffers and clients; nor could they reach him. Appointments were missed for days. “It was a mess. A total mess,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just that I couldn’t speak to my cleaners, I couldn’t talk to my customers. I didn’t have a backup plan, and with the hurricane that was made obvious.” Some customers never called back, and a few employees didn’t return either—tough losses in an already trying time.


Flash forward a year, there’s an entirely different routine. Every Friday without fail, Wiszniewski makes a printout of contact information for everyone involved—clients and cleaners alike—for the appointments for all of the upcoming two weeks. It may seem like the bare minimum, but it’s peace of mind that helps minimize the risk of a similar disruption in the future. “You realize that you sometimes need to rely on paper, on physical copies, because you don’t know when a system is going to fail,” he says. “I seriously have not failed to print out that list of events, and even potential events, ever since.”

CloudSecurity_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

If you’re a small business owner who’s looking for assurances that it’s possible to keep your business information or client data absolutely confidential, no matter what, Patrick Weir has some news that you’re not going to want to hear.

“There is nothing that’s 100-percent secure, whether you’re on the cloud or completely offline,” says Weir, the CEO of EZTrackIt, a cloud based package management system. “Nuclear power plants and high-powered government installations have tried to secure their operations by cutting off all access to the web, and even they discovered that they were still vulnerable.” So once you acknowledge that no type of data storage is perfectly secure, Weir says the issue then becomes how much should you trust the web, or store your data locally?

Where’s the safest place to keep your data?

Even local, on-site storage is no guarantee of data security. “Recently, the onslaught of natural disasters, the latest being Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, has taught some of us a very harsh lesson,” says Natalie Sulimani, founding partner of Sulimani and Nahoum, PC, a New York City-based law firm. “Redundancy is important. Maintaining files in multiple locations is a must.

How many files were lost due to flooding or a server going underwater? If it was even one, then it was too many.“

One of the primary advantages of the cloud for small business owners is that your data is stored remotely, hundreds or even thousands of miles from your place of business. This puts it safely beyond the reach of any localized natural disasters.

Weather is only one of the factors that could compromise your data security. Data theft can be an internal threat, if unscrupulous employees steal customer information for nefarious purposes, or your data can be among that targeted if a cloud-based system like Gmail, DropBox, or Salesforce is hacked. Ironically, it’s easier to defend against the latter problem.


“Cloud computing puts your files in the hands of competent IT professionals who will secure your information and provide the necessary redundancy so that if a server goes down, your files will live on and be available when you need them from another server,” Sulimani explains. “Their major, if not sole, purpose—and the reason you pay them—is to safeguard your files and ensure that you will always have access to them when necessary, so they are highly motivated to do it well and properly.”

If someone tries to hack into a major cloud-based system, to try to steal confidential information, for example, their security teams are continually watching. “They’re going to be all over that like a swarm of angry bees,” Weir notes. By contrast, backing up your data locally with a small company that manages many things means there’s a chance any vulnerability of theirs may be missed for quite some time.

What happens if something goes wrong?

“Part of the reason we’re so comfortable with cloud at the moment is there hasn’t yet been a breach,” says Lori Mac Vittie, senior product manager of emerging technologies for f5, an Internet security firm. Mac Vittie is a subject matter expert on cloud computing, cloud and application security, and application delivery. “But it’s not a question of ‘if,’ but rather ‘when’ there will a breach.” Rather than going forward in the expectation that a security breach would never occur, it’s smarter for small businesses to develop practices that would minimize the damage if there was a problem.

Reduce risk by being selective about what information you entrust to cloud storage. “The type of data you give a cloud-based company is entirely up to you,” Weir says. “If there’s no compelling reason to put extremely sensitive data like social security numbers or client birthdates into the cloud, don’t put it there.”

“The answer to ‘Should we store data in the cloud?’ depends on the answer to ‘What are the consequences of this data getting into the hands of competitors or thieves?’ combined with ‘Is that an acceptable risk?’” Mac Vittie adds.

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The questions you need to ask about the cloud

Before you commit to placing your data with any cloud-based service, Sulimani recommends doing your due diligence. “Investigate the online storage site’s security measures, policies, recoverability methods and other procedures,” she says, “and ensure that the online storage provider has available technology to guard against breaches.” Doing this will let you know what steps the service provider does to protect your data, as well as what steps they’ll take to get your data back should it be lost for any reason.

It’s also important to understand your legal relationship with the service provider. Do they have a legal obligation to keep your data confidential? Will they notify you of any subpoenas regarding your information? If you decide to stop working with that service provider, what happens to your data? To find the answers to these questions, you can read the terms of service, ask the provider directly, and consult your business attorney.

eCommerce_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

There are three reasons why retailers should want to use the recommended product feature on their websites, explains Dave Huckaby, author of the Grabapple Guide to E-Commerce. “You increase conversion rates, increase ticket size, and increase user engagement,” he says. “Amazon is the king of product recommendations, and we can all learn from their example.”

Carol Friedman, owner of Books to Bed, which sells children’s sleepwear, agrees. “I wanted the Amazon effect,” she says. “After adding the recommended product feature to our website, we saw an increase in how long our visitors were staying on our website. And the longer they stay, the more they spend.”

Making the most of the recommended products feature

There are two ways for a retailer to add the recommended product feature. The first option, custom-coded websites, generally incorporate a SAAS (software as a service)-based solution where a third party manages the recommended product feature for a monthly fee. Custom coded websites are a pricey option, costing at least $5,000, which Huckaby says is typically out of reach for many small businesses. On the other hand, a majority of e-commerce sites, including Shopify, Yahoo Stores, and Big Commerce, incorporate a recommended product functionality as part of their standard package, with enhanced versions available as an upgrade.

“It's one thing to have a recommended products feature, it's another thing to use it strategically,” says Linda Bustos, director of e-commerce research at Elastic Path, a provider of e-commerce software. “The biggest mistake is using defaults out of the box, and not applying appropriate merchandising rules to your tools.

Taking a hands-on approach is essential to success with the recommendation products feature, Bustos adds. “The key is to begin with your sales strategy, and ensure your tool is set up to deliver you goals. Systems that automatically generate recommendations require some behind-the-scenes fine-tuning to ensure that your customers are seeing the products you want them to see.

“Whichever platform you choose, take a quick run through the instructions, watch any videos the host may provide, and see what the tool’s limitations are,” Huckaby recommends. “The best way to learn the software is to just start playing with it. See what you can do and what you can’t.”

eCommerce_PQ.jpgHuckaby, who uses Big Commerce to host his own e-commerce sites, used this method to discover a problem. “On the categories pages on my site, there’s lots of relevant text, which is great for Google, but that text is the first thing the customer sees.” he says.  “They have to scroll down to see the product. I had to go into the code and fix that myself. It’s an example of how these solutions aren’t necessarily tailored to the needs of the retailer. You have to be willing to go in and tweak them.”

Location is everything: The best place to display product recommendations

“Where you show product recommendations matters,” Bustos says. “It's very common to do so on a product page, but you can also use the recommended product feature to display merchandise on your home page based on past visit viewing behavior or incoming search terms. You can also make use of the recommended product feature right after the action ‘add to cart’ and on your cart page.”

“You want to alter your product recommendations based on where your customer is in the buying process,” Huckaby adds. “If your customer is looking at bass boats, for example, you can recommend other bass boats. But if they’ve started spending a lot of time looking at one particular bass boat, you’ll want to display trolling motors, oar locks—the type of add-on items that would increase their satisfaction with the purchase. Once they have that boat in their shopping cart, you want to recommend the specific bolt-on accessories that are made for that particular bass boat.”

SBC newsletter logo.gifCreating your own recommended products feature

Using your site-search feature, you can create your own recommended products feature if the results you’re getting from your embedded tool aren’t satisfactory. “Let’s say during the holiday season you want to offer gift sets containing several items, but your system doesn’t have the capacity,” Huckaby says. “Making use of your site-search feature, you can do a search by tags to include all of the gift sets. Then you save this search as a static web page, and link to it from your product page. When customers click on the link, they’re presented with all of the gift sets.”

Test everything

“As the store owner, you want to keep a log,” Huckaby says. “Track your results over 90 days to see how things are working. Then, if you go in and make some tweaks, you’ll want to track those as well.”

Bustos also recommends extensive testing of the recommended product feature. Her list of what to look at includes where the recommendations are placed; how many per page; and the price points. She also advises retailers to use language such as “you might like” and “recommended for you” rather than “similar item” or “goes perfect with.”

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