PTG specializes in the delivery of IT services with a focus on business continuity, virtualization, and storage solutions to support your line-of-business and communication applications. Our implementation services are centered around IT and business best practices, gleaned from years of working in the industry and from well-established vendor partnerships.

How We Weathered the Storm

How We Weathered the Storm

A South Carolina snowmageddon at its finest. Not picture: a lot of ice on the roads.

This year’s snowmageddon wasn’t nearly as bad as ones we have seen in the past – but it was still plenty disruptive to schedules (especially if you have kids).  Unfortunately, as an IT support company, we can’t stop just because the ice and snow come to town. The same can be said of our almost all of our customers, as well!

Luckily, we were able to stay productive and in constant communication, even though our physical office wasn’t technically open.  Here’s how:

Our email is on Exchange Online in Office 365. 

As you may know, we are big fans of Office 365.  A few years back our email would have been hosted on an internal server and we would have prayed that the power at the office didn’t go out; otherwise, our email would go down.  Now we experience 99% uptime (or more) with Exchange Online in Office 365.

We publish key apps to the web.

This is one of those features that most people don’t realize is even available.  Using a feature in Windows Server, we have ‘published’ a few key applications to the web, making them fully accessible from any device.  As a business owner, this is especially helpful for line of business applications.  I was able to run a full copy of QuickBooks on an iPad while at home with my kids.

All of our critical on-premises systems are replicated to the Cloud. 

We only have one system left running on our on-premises server (and it happens to be the one that controls all of our tickets, proactive and reactive).  In the off chance that the power did go out at the office, we could have started an exact replica of this key server in the Cloud so we could continue working normally.

Our phone system is Skype for Business.

If you called the office on the Friday of the ice storm, it actually rang to our dispatcher’s PC at her house.  If an engineer called you, they actually used their PC (or their tablet/cell).  Skype for Business (formerly called Lync) allows us to take our phone system with us wherever we go (regardless of the device).

This has probably been the #1 game changer for us as a business. Most of our customers communicate with us by phone, so having our phone systems work without interruption even when we’re working from home is critical.

Skype for Business shows ‘real time availability’ and faster collaboration with instant messaging.

We use Skype for Business as part of an Office 365 subscription, so it integrates with other systems, like our calendars. Since we also use it as our phone, Skype for Business will keep track of our availability and update our instant messaging status accordingly.

While I am not always a huge fan of IM while in the office (I prefer face to face communication), being able to see which of my team were available to answer a question at a glance is very valuable.  Being able to pop them a quick IM gets me a response faster than email (and keeps both of our inboxes just a little bit cleaner – which is always nice).

All of this technology is great – but ultimately, we had a plan.  We knew that bad weather was coming and we prepared our staff to work remotely.  As an organization, we’re going to put a renewed focus on making sure our customers are aware of these options in their business.  Too often we wait until the moment is upon us to prepare and, by then, it’s too late!

If you have any questions about how you could leverage similar solutions for your business, please let us know!




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How To Protect Your Data When Terminating An Employee [Checklist]

Accounting for all company owned equipment is just one of the steps you need to take to protect your data.

Accounting for all company owned equipment is just one of the steps you need to take.

One of the hardest challenges faced by any company is terminating employees. While this is a difficult task, there are some critical steps to take to safeguard your company property and knowledge – and timing is everything.

A terminated employee getting access to company systems can be a huge liability risk, so it’s essential that access is turned off at the right time. Let your IT company (or IT department) know ahead of time – and specifically, what time the access needs to be turned off.

This gives them a little time to prepare and prevents awkward – and potentially risky – situations. If access is not disabled soon enough, you run the risk of the terminated employee getting access to company systems after they’ve been let go.

If access it turned off too soon, the employee may try to access their normal systems before they’ve been terminated and figure out what’s going on when they can’t get to them.

Here’s a checklist of actions you and your IT team will need to take to ensure your company’s data remains safe (please note, this is only from a technology standpoint – your HR team will need to take additional action):

  • Disable and change all passwords for Windows Domain accounts
  • Disable email access.
  • Remove access from any 3rd Party applications (whether they’re on-premises or in the cloud)
  • Change password or remove access from websites with company information
  • Change password or remove access from any applications or website that publish as the company or clients (like a company Twitter account)
  • Remove VPN access.
  • Remove building access including any key card access to doors. If you’re building uses door codes, disabled or change their code.
  • Remove access to any tokens issued for access to applications (like two-factor authentication apps)
  • Wipe company information from any employee-owned devices that were used to access company data (even if your company doesn’t have a Bring Your Own Device policy, it’s likely they still used a cell phone to access email). If you don’t already have a mobile device policy in place, you need to get one in place now.
  • Account for all Company owned equipment owned by the company with an inventory sheet.
  • Account for software licenses designated for use by the employee and redistribute as needed.

This list certainly isn’t everything. That’ll change based on your company and the employee being terminated. The longer an employee has been there, or the more access they have, the more you’ll need to do.

It may feel weird to let your IT team know an employee is being terminated before the actual employee – but it’s a necessary step to keep your company’s data safe.

Our friends at Propel HR have written more about this one their blog and why timing is so critical from an HR perspective. You can read their post on their blog.

7 Things to Try During Your Office 365 Trial

Moving to the cloud can be a big change for any business, no matter the size. Office 365 can be an incredibly powerful service for your business – the key word here is can. It isn’t always right for every company. If you’re considering Office 365 (or another cloud service), doing an Office 365 trial is your best bet for figuring out if it’s right for you.

Here are few things to try during your trial to see if it’s a good fit for you.Haven’t signed up for a trial yet? Sign up now:
Register for a 30-Day Trial of Office 365

(The features here are assuming you’re on a trial of Office 365 E3, which is a middle of the road plan for Office 365. You can compare all plans here.) 

1. Use Office 365 across different devices.

Easily one of the best features in Office 365 is the ability to access to your information anywhere and from any device. We recommend trying the programs you use the most (or the programs you’re most interested in) on the devices you use the most.

You can install Office programs (like Word, Powerpoint, OneNote) on up to 5 devices. Install the programs on your work computer and any other devices you work from regularly, like your phone and/or tablets.

Some the programs are almost identical across devices. Others, like Outlook, have dedicated mobile apps that have their own features you can’t get on the desktop app (like swiping to schedule messages). Spend some time with each of them, so you can figure out if they’ll be useful for you.

2. Try it with co-workers.

Your trial includes up to 25 users, so get your co-workers involved (if 25 users isn’t enough, we can actually add more seats for you if needed – just let us know). Try to get a few people from different departments set up on the trial. This will let you test two key points:

Does it work for everyone in your organization?

Office 365 is great if it works for you. But if you have employees who work primarily in a line-of-business software that doesn’t play nice with Office 365, it might not be the best solution for their department. Getting different departments involved in the trial should bring any of these potential issues to light up front.

It’ll also give you a better idea of what version different departments will need. You can mix and match plans in your company as needed. Take note of what features everyone needs and plan accordingly, so you aren’t paying for more than what you need.

Collaboration Features

Another key advantage of Office 365 is the collaboration tools like file sharing and co-authoring. Try sharing and editing a Word Document or an Excel spreadsheet with a co-worker to see these in action. Take note of permissions while sharing – you can give people access to edit, or to just view. Try co-authoring in both the desktop and web apps for the full experience.

If you have a team you work with regularly, you can create an Office 365 to make collaboration easier for you as a team. We’ve written more about Office 365 Groups here.

3. Try the Office Web Apps.

If you are used to using Office programs like Word and Excel on the desktop, the web apps can be a different experience.

The biggest change is how you access them. You get to these through your browser instead of a desktop application. One big advantage of this? Autosaving. You never have to worry about hitting the save button because it saves as you go.

The other notable difference between web apps and the desktop apps is the features. The web apps are simplified versions of the desktop apps, so they don’t have some of the more advanced features. A lot of times, the basic features are enough (for example, this entire blog post was written and edited in the web app).

Test out the web apps and see they will be enough for you. If so, you may be able to use a lower cost Office 365 plan that only includes the web apps. If you’re in the web app and find you need a feature only available in the desktop version, it’s easy to switch between the two (as long as your plan allows it – most do).

4. Try lesser known programs.

We see this a lot: a company will pay for Office 365 and not take advantage of half the programs included. And usually, it’s because they don’t know what they do – or even that they’re there. Some of these actually have free versions outside of Office 365, so even if you don’t move forward with it, you can still the programs.

Here’s a few apps included that most people don’t use:

OneNote

OneNote is a note taking app (think Evernote alternative) that can sync across device – but it includes more than just notes. You can add images to notes and clip web pages to view later. You can also send emails to your OneNote notebook. If you’re on a device with a touch screen, you can use the Draw mode to use your finger or a stylus to take or annotate notes.

Sway

Sway is a presentation building app. Yes, Powerpoint is also included, but Sway and Powerpoint are fundamentally different programs and have different uses. We’ve broken down the differences here.

Yammer

Yammer is an internal social network for your company (though you also have the option to join external networks). It can seem like a unnecessary feature if you aren’t used it to, but trust us – it can seriously reduce email clutter from company-wide announcements. This video has some more details.

Delve

Delve is one app to try later on in your Office 365 trial, because it’s power is in its search. It uses machine learning to figure out who you work with the most and what files you’re looking at. It takes this knowledge and displays what files you’re mostly like to need.

You can also use Delve to search for files. It’ll search your files, along with files shared with you (or shared publicly within your organization). We’ve gone into more detail about it on here. After you have been using Office 365 for a couple weeks and have a few more files to search through, check out Delve to see what it serves up for you and how powerful the search is.

 5. Try out OneDrive and Sharepoint.

OneDrive and Sharepoint are the two options you have for cloud storage in Office 365.

Learning where to save your files can be a little confusing, and will depend somewhat on your company’s set up. The short version is OneDrive replaces your My Documents folder and Sharepoint replaces your company’s shared drive. We’ve gone into more detail about this here.

One of the nice features of OneDrive is the ability to sync folders to your desktop. Go ahead and set up a folder to sync and try it out. It should be possible for you to completely replace saving files on your desktop without changing how you work.

It’s hard to get a clear picture of everything Sharepoint can do in a 30-day trial, but you can get the basics. The most common use for Sharepoint is to act as a company-wide server, so go ahead and play around with setting up folders and sites for different departments. There is a lot more you can do with Sharepoint, like creating custom applications, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fit that in your trial.

6. Use Skype for Business for messaging.

Here’s a program where it’s key to test with coworkers. Like the name suggests, Skype for Business is the business version of the chat and calling app Skype.

It includes instant messaging, voice and video calls, online meetings and screen sharing (if you’re on an E5 plan of Office 365, it can actually replace your phone system entirely – unfortunately some of those features aren’t available in the E3 or Business Premium trial). Try testing out all of these with some co-workers to see if they’ll be useful for you.

Skype for Business can be purchased and used on its own – but there are some really nice features worth testing when used inside of Office 365. Here are a few to take note of and test:

  • Automatic status changes: Skype for Business will integrate with your calendar and automatically change your status when you’re in a meeting.
  • Reply with IM: You can reply to emails with an IM. This is useful when you just have a quick question or response to an email from a co-worker.
  • Creating a Skype meeting: You can create a Skype for Business meeting directly in your calendar and when creating meeting requests.

If you’re using GoToMeeting or a similar online meeting platform, test out the comparable features in Skype for Business – you may be able to eliminate the other platform and save some money.

7. Compliance Center and Data Protection

If your company deals with sensitive data, this is a key area to test. Office 365 meets compliance regulations – but only when used correctly. Even if you don’t legally need to meet regulations, these are worth looking at to beef up your data security.

Be sure to test each area and make sure it will fit with what your company needs. Always use dummy information when testing security features in case something isn’t set up incorrectly.

There are more security features than just these, but to get a good feel of what you can do in Office 365, we recommend testing out:

  • Encrypted Email: This makes sure only the intended recipient can read your emails. We’ve gone into more detail about how it works and what it looks like in Office 365 here. Set this up and send some encrypted emails to people in and out of your organization.
  • Data Loss Prevention: These are a set of policies that prevent sensitive information from being emailed (more detail here). Set up a few policies, like send a warning message if a social security number is included in an email and test it out with emails to people inside and outside of your organization.
  • Mobile Device Management: If your employees use their phone for email (whether you’ve asked them to or not), you need to have a way to control company information on that phone. Take a look at this section to set up Mobile Device policies and see how you can remotely wipe company phones if they’re lost or stolen.

It’d be impossible to test every Office 365 functionality and feature in 30 days. Going through this list will give you a good idea of the capabilities. Don’t stop with just these if you see something else you want to test!

If you like what you see during your Office 365 trial, but it has more (or less) than what you need, there are several other plans available and they can be mixed and matched as needed (and it’s pretty easy to switch between plans if you decide you need more or less later on).

If you have any questions about your trial, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
 




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What You Need to Know About Ransomware

One of the most popular posts on our blog is about how to block Cryptowall in Office 365. It was written in 2013, but continues to be one of the most visited pages on our entire site because of the devastating effect Cryptowall – and all other forms of ransomware – can have on your business.

Ransomware is a type of malware that infects your computer and encrypts all your files until you pay a ransom fee to the attackers. It will block you from opening your files, in some cases it will take over your entire screen, take over and turn on your webcam or encrypt your files with the intent of scaring you into paying the ransom. Basically, until the bad guys get what they want, your computer has become a useless desk decoration.

As the cherry on this sundae, these attacks require that the ransom is paid in encrypted, non-traceable currency like BitCoin or MoneyPak. In 2015 alone, Cryptowall and other encrypting malware have ransomed some $325 Million from its victims. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

Types of Ransomware

So is there more than one type of ransomware? Yes. There non-encrypting and encrypting ransomware:

Non-encrypting

ScarewareThe non-encrypting type tends to fall into more of the “scareware” category. In other words, their bark is worse than their bite. Usually, these types of malware display a message that takes up the entire screen and states that your computer has been taken over by a Federal Law Enforcement Agency (i.e. FBI, CIA, NSA) and demands you pay the ransom or face criminal charges, fines or even imprisonment.

These infections are commonly referred to as “the FBI Virus.” There are usually accusations of pirating copyrighted material, distribution of child pornography or attempts to hack into government entities that have been traced back to your computer.  The really bad ones go as far as to activate your webcam, display your public IP address, Internet Service Provider, and your geographic location.

So what’s the good news you ask? These infections can typically be removed with a good scan and removal of malware and rootkits.

Now as scary as these non-encrypting ransomware programs are, there are worse things out there. That leads us into…

Encrypting ransomware

Encrypting RansomwareThese are the malicious infections who come in through the same Trojan Horse means that their non-encrypting kin enters your computer. Instead of throwing up messages about possible illegal activities, though, they encrypt the files on your computer.

That document or spreadsheet that you were editing without a problem earlier today that suddenly won’t open properly or look like someone typed your document in some weird characters are good signs you’ve been hit with the encrypting ransomware.

You may get an error message on your screen indicating that you have a certain amount of time to pay the ransom or the encryption key that was used to encrypt your files will be destroyed forever by the hacker, leaving you with a completely unusable computer. Here’s a screenshot of CryptoLocker, a common encrypting ransomware.

Server Encryption

If that wasn’t bad enough, the encryption doesn’t stop at your local computer. If you have mapped network drives that connect back to your corporate server, the infection begins encrypting the files on those drives as well. So now your entire company is at risk.

If you are particularly unlucky, you will get no notification of the infection. One day your files that you were able to open, edit, and save will stop working. They are at least nice enough to drop a few unencrypted files on your computer: Usually a picture file, a web page shortcut, and a text file laying out the steps to pay the ransom for the key to decrypt your encrypted files, as well as the consequences for attempting to remove the infection without paying.

Newer, scarier variations

In the new version of Cryptowall 4.0, the files are encrypted without notification to the user, the file contents and even the file name are altered. Now that’s just dirty. Unfortunately, the groups behind these attacks are also improving the malware payload droppers (what they use to install the malware), as well as using encrypted web communication, making it even harder to detect an infection (you know, until all your files are encrypted).  It’s a big bad world out there.

How does it get in?

The most common method for delivery is a Trojan Horse program. Like the Trojan Horse from the Greek and Trojan war, it is a program masquerading as some helpful with more sinister motives hidden inside. Once downloaded, it quietly drops it’s “payload” – malware – onto your computer in the background.

Ransomware typically travels one of two ways: Either an email with an attachment that appears to be a Word or PDF document or a drive-by attack on an infected website. In both instances, opening either the document or web page has dropped the malware onto your computer.

So, if it can be anywhere what steps can you take to prevent these nasty things from infecting your computer and causing untold problems?

  • Don’t open emails or the files in emails from senders that you don’t recognize.
  • Don’t click on links in emails from senders that you don’t know. Don’t click on links from people you do know if there is anything abnormal going on. When it doubt, confirm with the sender that a link is legitimate before clicking on it.
  • Don’t go to websites that you don’t recognize and be cautious with websites you DO know. Make sure the URL is correct. Hackers are putting up websites that are cleverly misspelled versions of sites like Microsoft or Google web pages to direct people to the sites that run their malware.
  • Block executable file types from coming through on email (here’s how) or block file attachments entirely, requiring a safe word to allow emails with file attachments through. This stops the Trojan Horse programs from getting through via email attachments and dropping their malicious cargo onto your computer.
  • Start running Deep Packet Inspection on all traffic on your network, both encrypted and plain text. This is typically run on a firewall and will spot the network traffic of ransomware attempting to communicate with its host and kill the connection, stopping the damage dead in its tracks.
  • As always keep your anti-virus, operating system and programs as up to date as possible. There are constant updates to patch vulnerabilities that have been discovered and exploited by these hackers.
  • Ensure that you have good working backups. Good backups have saved our clients hours work and untold anguish once the breach was discovered.
  • Get with your IT company (or IT manager) and examine your user’s permissions on shared folders on your servers. Really think and ask how much access the users need. Are there users that have full access where less will suffice? Encrypting ransomware takes enormous advantage of the permissions of users on network drives.
  • Encourage your users to not save anything locally on their computers. Instead, save all important data on network drives or cloud storage so that they are covered in case they do get infected.
  • Train your employees on data security. It only takes one person clicking on a bad link to potentially compromise your entire company. Make sure all employees are trained on data security best practices like warning signs, what to look out for before opening attachments or clicking links and what to do if something goes wrong.

What to Do if You Are Infected

So all this prevention sounds good, but truth be told the people who are deploying these attacks are smart enough to know how to circumvent most of the common anti-virus and anti-malware programs on the market today.

So, what should you do once the infection is discovered? Immediately shut down the infected computer and unplug it from the network. Contact PTG Support as soon as possible so that we can determine when the infection began. This will help us figure out where the infection began and what we can do to mitigate any losses.

At this point, consider everything stored locally on this computer lost. The data isn’t coming back. We err on the side of cautious and will not risk re-infecting a network with a computer that has been compromised by these types of ransomware. The computer will be completely wiped clean and reinstalled from scratch.  From here, we’ll work on restoring you from your backups and getting you up and running again as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, ransomware is only expected to increase and it’s evolving all the time. It’s essential to put the right security systems in place and train all of your employees on data security best practices. Talk to your IT company to see what data security training they offer and to see what holes in your defense need to be fixed.






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6 Technology Resolutions for 2016

hands-woman-laptop-notebookIt’s a New Year – which means that the gym will be busy until sometime around mid-February.  It’s a great time to review your top goals for 2016 (or resolutions – whatever you want to call them).  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a great time to get your technical house in order.

Here are our top 6 recommendations for technology goals you should set for yourself:

 

1. Change your password regularly. 

For those of you who don’t change your password regularly, the top of 2016 is a great time to do that across all your accounts: personal (like Facebook and Twitter) and professional (such as your Quickbooks Admin password or your Office 365 password).  You should be changing this every 90 days!  We know  – it’s a pain – but not nearly as painful as someone hacking your account.

2. Review and update privacy settings. 

Review your privacy settings, particularly for Facebook  and Google Accounts. You may be publicly posting information you’d rather keep private – and information that could be used against you to guess passwords or answers to security questions. Both Facebook and Google add new “features” on a regular basis and tend to opt users in by default. Recently, Facebook even changed their search so public posts now appear when you search for a subject. Review these settings and update them as needed so you aren’t broadcasting information you’d rather keep private.

3. Take advantage of unused features and programs. 

Take advantage of features you aren’t using in services you’re paying for. We have a lot of Office 365 customers who don’t use the service to its full potential, simply because they don’t know everything it can do. One part that often gets overlooked is Onenote. Personally, I use OneNote heavily both professionally and personally.  It syncs across all my devices, so I don’t have to keep up with all my handwritten notes and to-do lists, which goes a long way to keeping me organized.

4. Use Clutter in Outlook.

Turn on Clutter for Office 365.  This has been a game changer for me.  If you aren’t familiar with Clutter, it is a part of Office 365 that moves all mail that it deems as ‘non-essential’ to a Clutter folder.  It is remarkably accurate.  It uses machine learning to determine what senders you tend to interact with most and what senders you normally just delete.  You can also train it by moving messages in and out of the Clutter folder. Over time, your mailbox will be much cleaner.

5. Use a password manager. 

Use a password manager (like LastPass or 1Password) to store your passwords.  We’ve discussed this on the blog several times but it’s worth mentioning again.  One of the worst security mistakes you can make is using the same password across sites or services.

It’s a common mistake because it’s so hard to keep up with all your passwords.  Password managers solve this problem for you.  They generate and store secure passwords for you and makes logging into your sites and services a snap.  Most even has mobile apps so you log in, no matter what device you’re using.

6. Unplug.

Unplug more.  Listen. We love technology – we’ll be the first people to tell you how much technology can improve your life and your work when used right. But our mobile devices have turned into tethers.  While they are powerful, useful, and help keep us productive, if left unchecked their use can interfere with our daily life. (It can even impact your posture and your mood according to a recent study.)  I installed an app called ‘Moment’ recently that tracks your time on your phone.  I won’t share the number (I am too embarrassed), but suffice it to say that using the app has opened my eyes to the ‘moments’ I am missing!

We’d love to hear your feedback on these goals – what are your top goals for 2016? Let us know below or on Facebook and Twitter!

 

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Our Top Blog Posts of 2015

man-coffee-cup-penIt wouldn’t be December without a ton of lists counting down the Top ___ Of the Year! We’d hate to be left out of all the fun – so in the spirit of the season, we’re counting down our Top 5 Blog Posts of the Year! To be clear, these are our top viewed posts in 2015 (by page view). Not all of these posts were written in 2015, but they continue to be our most popular blogs.

An interesting note before we jump in: A good chunk of our top posts (even outside the top 5) focus on how to do something in Office 365. Helping clients improve productivity and take full advantage of technology are key to our business – we’re thrilled to see our blog readers interested in the same goals (and interested enough to spend an average of 5+ minutes reading these posts!).

5. How to turn off OWA sound notifications in Office 365

This one is pretty straight forward. Sound notifications can be a huge distraction (not to mention annoying). Here’s how to turn Outlook sound notifications off. Read more…

4. Powerpoint vs. Sway: What’s the difference?

Sway is Microsoft’s new presentation building app, released earlier this year, which when you first hear it, may inspire a little confusion. Microsoft already has a presentation builder – a little gem known as Powerpoint. This post breaks down the fundamental differences and when to use each program. Read more…

3. How to turn names into email addresses in Excel

Not too many people enjoy manually entering and editing data. Thankfully, Excel has a lot of ways to make it easier. Unfortunately, if you don’t use Excel all the time for your job, you may not know about them. This blog shows you how to combine columns in Excel to turn names into email addresses – the same method can be used to combine columns with other kinds of data, too! Read more…

2. Blocking the Cryptolocker Virus in Office 365

It’s no surprise that this is one of our top posts of all time (originally written in 2013!). Ransomware is scary stuff – this post shows you how to block executable files. Attachments containing .EXE files is a very popular way of spreading ransomware, so following this method can reduce your chances of falling victim of ransomware. We use this in our own company and for our clients. Read more…

1. Office 2016 vs Office 365: What’s the difference?

Office 2016 was released in September to much fanfare (you know, until Windows 10 was released and stole its thunder). But with Office 365 already on the market, it’s key you know which you need before purchase. This post breaks down the differences between the two and what your options are for purchase. Read more…

Thank you for reading our blog posts. We know you’re busy, so we thank you for your attention and hope that our blogs make your job a little easier (and safer!).

Getting the most out of your relationship with your IT company

As hard as it may be to believe sometimes (and despite what we as technical people may sometimes think) we, as IT support providers, don’t always know everything. Is it ego? Is it a fear of appearing ignorant or incompetent in front of a valuable customer? The honest answer is it’s probably a little of both.

The problem is that we sometimes let our technical brain get in the way and start solving what we think the problem is before clearly identifying it. After all, we’ve fixed issues similar to this dozens of times and in an effort to boost our customer’s confidence in us, we assure them of this very fact.

Take a look at this clip from a famous sketch from the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and Jack Webb.

Now, as hysterical and alliterative as this clip is, it perfectly illustrates what your IT provider, should be doing in every interaction. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of Jack Webb’s character (Joe Friday) and ask the right questions. Working with incomplete information and unanswered questions leads to assumptions. It is our job to get all the necessary facts before we can begin to analyze and solve a problem.

That’s where you come in. We know if you’re putting in a service ticket, it’s probably not just to say hi. You’re likely experiencing a tech issue that’s annoying at best – but potentially keeping you from doing your job. To do our job most effectively (and as quickly) as possible, we need something from you: information – and the more we have, the better.

When you’re putting in a service ticket with your IT company, these are the questions to ask yourself:

  • Who? Who is this happening to? Is it just you as an individual or an entire department? Is it just computers of a certain kind (Windows or Mac) or with a certain application installed?
  • What? What exactly is the problem? What were you doing when the problem appeared? If possible, can you recreate the problem or is it intermittent? What steps have you taken since the problem started? What, if anything, changed before this problem started?
  • Where? Are you in the office or are you working form a remote location? Is this problem happening on your main computer or your phone or tablet? Are you on a wired or wireless connection?
  • When? When did the problem start? Has this problem happened before?

Some of the questions you genuinely may be unable to answer and that’s ok. The more details we have, the better equipped we are to begin tackling the problem at hand. We strive to be so familiar with your environment that the slightest clue can point us in the right direction. And that leads us into…

Screenshots.

IT providers love screenshots. It’s a great way for us to get information that otherwise may be difficult to convey (like exact details about where the problem is happening or what kind of error message you’re getting).

One great tool that Microsoft now includes as part of Windows is the Snipping Tool, which you can use to take and annotate screenshots (directions how can be found here) to show exactly where your problem is occuring.

To maximize your support, send these screenshots to your IT company, along with the the answers to the questions about. Having all of this information from the get-go should make it easier, and faster, to solve your issues and get you working again.

If you’re a current customer of ours, you can send your screenshot as an attachment in your request created in Direct Connect. If you don’t have a login, aren’t sure how to get logged in or need help getting set up on Direct Connect, let us know and we’ll help you get set up!

To really, truly get the most our of your relationship with your IT team, though, make them a partner up front. We as a company want to help you solve problems before they happen, so you have fewer service tickets to begin with. This means being a partner with you for growth and helping you plan as an organization to further your productivity and keep your data safe.

But we know printers break, error messages happen and passwords need to be reset. When those issues come up, though, we’re here for that, too.




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How to Budget for Technology Costs as an SMB

IT CostsHard to believe it’s almost the end of the fourth quarter of 2015! This is usually the time of year when people reflect back on the past year and start to plan for the new year – including budgets.

IT and technology costs can often be overlooked when budgeting for the next year. Here are a few items to keep in mind when setting your budget (we’re primarily covering hard costs here, but just as important, is IT support to ensure your technology is actually working for you).

Start with the easy stuff first

Most laptops and desktops have a three-year warranty. While we typically don’t condone purchasing the extended warranty on consumer electronics, it’s worth the extra money for business grade equipment. This warranty covers everything in the device (except batteries). A good rule of thumb is that most business class laptops and desktops should last three years of heavy (40 hours per week) of use.

After three years, it’s time to think about replacing the device. In some cases, if the device is still running well, you can occasionally purchase an additional two-year warranty from the vendor.

Take an inventory of how many employees are likely going to need a new computer (or new accessories for existing computers) in the next year. Planning to do any hiring in the next year? Make sure to include those computers (plus accessories like keyboard, extra monitors, etc).

Servers and firewalls

A physical server normally has a life of 3-5 years. Vendors typically don’t support server hardware past five years, so it’s usually a good idea to budget for a 5-year replacement cycle (another good idea is considering cloud-based servers or virtualization).

Most firewall manufacturers put an end of life on their firewalls after three years. This means you should plan to replace your firewall every three years IF you want to continue to receive security updates (and you should – working on an outdated server can put your business at risk. We’ve written more about that before).

Alternatively, you can look into firewall as a service programs. In this model, you essential treat your firewall as operating expense versus capital expense, and you never have to worry about having a firewall that is unsupported. This is usually a much more feasible (and safer!) option for small to mid sized businesses.

Annual renewals

Line of business applications, antivirus, security software, and ‘traditional’ software usually have an annual maintenance component. One good way to budget for this is to look at last year’s PnL to pinpoint those renewals.

It’s usually a good idea to weigh the risk of not renewing your maintenance with the cost of the maintenance. If it’s an application you plan to move to the Cloud this year, you may not need to renew. In some cases, we’ve seen vendors allow for partial payments to cover periods shorter than a year.

Major projects to support growth

This one is our favorite. We all like to grow, right? If you’re planning a new office (or a remodel or office expansion), rolling out a new product offering or service line, chances are you may need technology to help support that initiative.

This is an area where we see most business failing to plan. It is certainly a little more difficult, but if you look at your overall financial plan for the year, you can spot the areas where you are planning for growth. Make sure you have the processes and technology ready to support that growth! This includes everything from computers for new employees to more IT support to support those new employees to upgrading technology systems.

If you’re planning major projects or planning to grow, involve your IT team (whether internal or an outside IT company) up front. Being proactive about IT can prevent technology problems from occurring down the road.

Budgeting doesn’t have to be a painful process. In fact, if you’re a current customer of ours, we can help you plan your technology budget! If you’re interested in that, please let us know!

How to keep your data safe while shopping for the holidays

How to keep your data safe while holiday shoppingWell folks, that time has come again: The biggest shopping days of the year are just around the corner. No doubt that even as you read this, you’re strategically planning your routes and timelines to reach every store to get all the best deals for during Black Friday (or maybe you’re going with our preferred method and planning exactly what leftovers to eat while shopping online on Cyber Monday – after business hours, of course).

As exciting as all of this consumerism is let’s remember there are people trying to make off with your hard-earned money and will use the excitement of the holiday season, when your guard is down and your spending is up, as cover. So here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind as you prepare to shop ‘til you drop:

Wifi

Wifi has become such common convenience that we’ve come to expect to use in our daily lives – even when out shopping. But do you really know who is running the wireless network named “Starbucks Wifi” you connected to before pulling up Amazon.com or making a banking transfer while you stopped for coffee during your shopping marathon?

It’s pretty easy for less than honest folks to set up a wireless network that looks legitimate and set up camp in a coffee shop or a crowded mall. Logging into your account while connected to one of these networks will send your username and password right to their laptop.

How do you combat it? Steer completely clear of unsecured public wireless networks. You just never know who might be watching the traffic that goes across them. If you must do something online, the safest bet is to wait until you get home or use your data to browse. A ding from the cell phone company for going over your data limit is better than having your accounts cleaned out by the hacker because you just had to check Facebook on the free wireless.

Email

We all know that the closer Black Friday and Cyber Monday get, the more ads and promo emails you get from retailers advertising the enormous discounts and specials that are happening. Promises of coupons or mail-in rebates will flood your inbox and junk folders from now until New Year’s.

These deals are enticing, but let’s make sure to check a few things off of our security checklist before getting click-happy and ending up with an infected computer or an empty bank account – or both. There are always a few giveaways to the emails that are real and the ones that are bogus attempts to steal your data:

Poor spelling and grammar is a tell-tale sign of emails from spammers, hackers and phishers. The email from “Macie’s” instead of “Macys” and “Azamon” rather than “Amazon” that look like they were written by a first grader are not the ones you want to click on.

These are phishing scams hoping that you won’t be paying enough attention to notice that the email didn’t come from Amazon.com in hopes of stealing your login to go on their own shopping spree, at your expense. This doesn’t, however, mean that a perfectly spelled email is going to be safe.

Another point to remember is the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The email promising $600 off of a TV that costs $800 is begging to be opened but think before you click. Do not, under any circumstances, submit your confidential information to a web page that you opened from an email. This is an all too common mistake that hackers love to exploit to gain personal information.

If you have a question regarding an email that was sent to you from a company call and verify its authenticity. Isn’t a 45-minute phone call to find out an email is or is not real, better than spending hours on the phone with the credit card companies trying to figure out how you just bought a TV, a crock pot, a sectional sofa and a new suit in 3 different states when you haven’t left the house?

Constant Vigilance

The best thing you can do for yourself is to be vigilant and err on the side of caution – this applies on and off line.

Don’t keep your credit card in your hand while waiting in line. The person behind you who appears to be talking on the cell phone may just be waiting for the right time and angle to snap a picture of your card and go home to buy themselves a present or twelve with your money.

Keep an eye on your bank account during this time of year. Make sure that you know that the purchases that show up on your accounts are ones that you actually made. Small charges that you didn’t make are telltale signs of someone who has compromised your card number and is testing it to make sure that it works before really running up the balance.

Enjoy yourselves out shopping and busting doors – just be cautious about it.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Secure Passwords [Infographic]

Having a strong password is your first line of defense in data security. Keep your data on lockdown with these Do’s and Don’ts of Secure Passwords (click to expand):

The Do's and Don'ts of Secure Passwords

 

Remember – there is never a 100% guarantee when it comes to data security. But having a strong password and using these password best practices is the first step in getting close.