Cindy Bates of Microsoft: Business Intelligence Will Be Transformative for Small Business

It’s been five years since we last spoke with Cindy Bates, Vice President of Small and Midsize Business for Microsoft. With so many developments taking place in that timespan, we were excited to catch up with Cindy and hear her thoughts on what have been the biggest small business developments of the last five years, and also see what she feels will be the biggest development of the next five years.

Business Intelligence Will Be Transformative

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Cindy Bates - Business Intelligence will be transformativeSmall Business Trends: As you think back over the last 5 years, what’s been maybe the biggest thing that’s happened, particularly when it comes to small businesses?

Cindy Bates: I’ve been at Microsoft in 16 years and have seen kind of the full arc of the transition, of what we call the SMB technology revolution. My team and I wake up every day focused on helping the millions of SMB’s in the country grow and thrive, leveraging today’s powerful and affordable technology. If I look back over the 5 years since we last connected, I remember we talked about the early emergence of cloud computing. At that time, it was a relatively new concept. We had the Office 365 just coming out of Beta and talked about tremendous potential for, really, impact productivity for small businesses. I would say what’s interesting is it is the same topics that were emerging 5 years ago that are still totally relevant. It’s the depth and the understanding of the cloud by SMB’s that’s really changed tremendously.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a small business owner who isn’t familiar with the cloud, who isn’t using it to share documents, house their email. Interestingly, Techaisle, which is a research firm, sites 96% of small businesses saying the cloud is their top IT priority. So many great stories. I recently connected with Mike Holwick, a former CPA and Marine, who took over his family’s business, Holwick Construction. Just a great example of how transformational technology is.

His business had been growing tremendously but he was spending about 20% of his time managing all the office stuff. Not a great use of his time. I think lots of small business owners can relate to that, wearing lots of hats. He actually moved his business to the cloud with Office 365 and has seen just such a transformation. He tells us that he now has a full 12 hours extra a week, because of what technology’s done for him, that he’s putting toward driving his business. He thinks that’s generating about $2 million extra in business. Five years has really been night and day in the adoption of cloud computing.

Small Business Trends: When you think about that adoption, is it being driven by looking for efficiencies and productivity gains or is it also being driven by trying to connect with customers and prospects in a more meaningful way? To not only create customer relationships but also extend them, create longer, more fruitful relationships?

Cindy Bates: It’s absolutely all of the above. It’s productivity, it’s connecting with customers. One of the other big trends we’ve seen is the explosion of remote working which ties to productivity but also opens up so many opportunities to really tap into the best of the best when small businesses are hiring. This stat actually floored me; Techaisle says that 21 million employees of small and midsize businesses work from home at least three times per week. That’s a worldwide stat but I’d say about half of that is U.S. It’s a great trend because it lets business owners, no matter where they are, find the best employees.

We’re talking over Skype right now and, with the click of a button, Skype allows employees to connect with IM, high definition video and really shrink geography. Skype Translator lets you actually break down language barriers where you can have automatic voice translations in 7 languages and IM in 50. Just tapping into this diverse talent pool. Not only geographically dispersed but also Millennials, a big trend obviously. They are very focused on collaboration, which technology obviously opens up.

One of my favorite stories of technology transforming businesses and enabling remote working is a company called Mom Corps. It was founded in Atlanta where actually I think is where you are located if I’m not mistaken.

Small Business Trends: Absolutely.

Cindy Bates: Allison was an executive with a Fortune 500 company. She wanted a little bit more work-life balance. She was a CPA. She started doing freelance work and realized that she had such an untapped opportunity of professional women who are wanting to pull back a little bit when they’re raising their kids and this huge demand from companies. She’s started a company called Mom Corps which has now grown nationwide. They have only 40 employees but they have a hundred thousand women working to provide services to, for the most part, larger companies. What I love is the entire company is managed remotely. There’s no office building. It’s just really fascinating to see what technology like Office 365 can do.

Small Business Trends: How do you think video is going to shape the next two years when it comes to small and midsize businesses and their ability to grow their business?

Cindy Bates: I think it’s going to open up all angles, whether it’s using video to hire if people aren’t locally based. Using videos to connect with customers and suppliers. It shrinks the world. I use video all the time. I have a team across the country. About half of them are in Seattle and half are remote, so to speak. We use video conferencing with Skype all the time. It shrinks the world.

Small Business Trends: When you think about what’s ahead, are there certain technologies or certain things that are going to be prevalent, making small businesses succeed, that we aren’t even looking at right now?

Cindy Bates: Yeah, I think a great example right on the emerging trend of where we were 5 years ago with Office 365 and productivity is business intelligence. Just a great example of how even the smallest businesses now have access to the same technologies as large companies. I’m sure your audience has heard of business intelligence. Kind of a buzz word right now but so important for what it really can do to transform businesses, large and small. It’s all about taking your business data, whether it’s how much money you’ve made on a certain product or a certain service, how much you sell during peak times and using that information to form meaningful insights to help drive your business forward. It may be that you see your shipping costs are skyrocketing. You can think about how you might change your distribution strategy and use UPS Regional shipments.

B.I. is going to be really transformational, letting small businesses uncover buying patterns. The tools that used to be so expensive and complex are so simple today. Tools like Microsoft Power BI let users just easily pull in information, visualize it, offer up interpretations. Really powerful technology but I think it’s kind of right on the cusp of exploding.

Small Business Trends: Where can people learn more about what Microsoft is offering small businesses today?

Cindy Bates: I would direct those to our website. Tons of resources there.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.