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RISMEDIA, October 18, 2010—Family owned and operated since 1855, Baird & Warner is one of the oldest residential real estate brokerages in the nation, with 26 branch offices servicing more than 300 communities throughout northeastern Illinois. Baird & Warner provides a full range of services for consumers including residential sales, financial services, title services and home services.

Having been in business for as long as we have, our company has gone through a lot of disruptive changes, not just dramatic market shifts like the current downturn, but also the emergence of new technologies. Over the years, we’ve shifted from desktop phones to mobile phones, and more recently, from on-premise IT solutions to the Web as a platform. In IT, we are constantly reevaluating which tools will best support our Realtors in the field, and administrative staff back at our headquarters in Chicago.

Earlier this year, we began looking at how we could improve our e-mail and messaging system. Because of the nature of our business, the majority of our employees are highly mobile and independent. These 1,600 agents operate as islands, and depend on mobile devices to do their work from any location. To support them, we had been using a Microsoft Exchange alternative called Kerio that uses the Outlook client and provides a Webmail product, but we began to see performance issues and maintaining the infrastructure was becoming increasingly costly.

We began to look at alternatives. We needed a messaging solution that could grow with us for the long-term and that would work well for all employees, but we were also feeling cautious because of the economy. We didn’t want to take a huge risk. Since I’ve been a Gmail user since it was in beta, I had been keeping my eye on Google Apps and how its enterprise offerings have grown.

My positive experience with Gmail helped me narrow our choices down to Google Apps and Hosted Exchange. After running a cost comparison, the choice became pretty clear. Since Google Apps takes care of maintenance and software updates, the value proposition for a company of our size is pretty substantial. We chose Apps for its capabilities, but the fact that we saved a substantial amount of money over Microsoft Exchange was a nice bonus.

To help us make the transition, we brought in Cloud Sherpas, a Google authorized reseller since 2008. Cloud Sherpas provides a full suite of migration, deployment, and training services for Google Apps, which made it much easier for us to get up and running. The company also offers tools through the Google Apps Marketplace that help IT administrators better manage Google Apps.

Cloud Sherpas did all the setup and configuration of Google Apps and trained us on how to migrate our old mail, contacts and calendar data. After we learned the processes, we migrated the rest of the company. They also provided train-the-trainer services and webinar training for our remote offices. This was critical for us because some users had never used Web-based e-mail, so transitioning them to a new way of working took extra time, but was critical for our success. Cloud Sherpas provided specialized training for Outlook users, and gave a step-by-step process for learning to do the same tasks in Gmail.

We initially deployed Gmail, Calendar and Chat. We currently have a small team reviewing our existing intranet and determining how we can migrate it to Google Sites and Google Docs in the future. For now, however, we are already seeing a host of benefits just from migrating our messaging system.

Improved mobile access to e-mail is a big win for us. From a cost perspective, with Google Apps there is nothing additional that we need to do, buy or maintain to enable mobile devices. It just works straight out of the box on virtually any mobile device that our employees care to use. Previously, we were using IMAP to enable mobile e-mail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t real time, which is critical in our business. Now, our agents in the field get real-time push e-mail and access to their entire mailbox from their mobile devices.

Beyond better mobile e-mail access, faster performance and infrastructure cost savings, we’re also happy about not having to spend any time maintaining and upgrading our messaging systems.

What’s equally important, however, is that our employees like using Google Apps. The new tools have eliminated their number-one problem, which was wasting time managing a small inbox. Whereas before they only had 100 MB of space, with Gmail, they get up to 25 GB of storage. There’s really no need to ever clean out your inbox now. Our Realtors drive our business, and we need to give them the tools that allow them to be more productive on behalf of their clients. Because if they’re happy, we’re happy.

Mark Steward is the IT Director at Baird & Warner.

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