Whatever your business, you’ll need to communicate with those you’re relying on to make it work. But what telecommunications set-up will be right for your venture – and will it still be right this time next year?
The remarkable leaps in technology we have witnessed over the last few decades have meant that entrepreneurs now have a dazzling array of methods through which to communicate with their customers, prospects, partners, suppliers and anyone else involved with the business. However, telephony still lies at the heart of most small businesses’ communications structures, and optimising your telephone system is a fundamental part of maximising your potential.
Many small business owners starting out as sole traders choose to conduct their activities via their existing personal phones, and this is a perfectly feasible option especially if call volumes are comparatively low: if your phone use consists mainly of receiving enquiries and calling clients to confirm meetings or addresses – for example if you’re a painter and decorator – there might be no reason to change your existing call plan. It is still worth contacting your mobile service provider to see if there are any packages more appropriate to your new circumstances, once you have a reasonable idea of how your phone activity might change (ie if you are suddenly making many more calls you should try to get a package which offers you more free minutes per month) but savings here will be comparatively small.
As soon as you start to consider a bigger business, however, the telephony options become significantly more complex and getting them right becomes consequently more crucial. For instance, if the business has multiple employees or partners, even if there are no actual premises and hence fixed-line requirements, you may be able to secure an extremely attractive multiple-phone package meaning it is no longer economical to run everything through your existing personal phones – this becomes especially important if you are going to be sending and receiving a lot of data through smartphones as you should be able to secure significantly discounted rates through a business package which might not be available to consumers. The smartphone revolution and the rise of wi-fi options and tablet computing mean that remote working is an increasingly popular option for small businesses, and data packages are an area of solid competition among providers – and, of course, crucial for your business in terms of both affordability and availability: there’s no point having a very cheap package if you can’t ever get reception or if your data transfer is glacier-slow. Shop around and ensure the package you are considering ticks all your boxes, not just price.
If you are looking to receive incoming calls from potential customers (and most businesses do!) you may wish to set up a dedicated business number even if again your business does not have fixed premises (this is particularly important even if you are expecting a lot of customers to come through via your website – many people still prefer to make their enquiries over the phone rather than via email). With a little investment you can easily set up a number which routes calls through (perhaps via your home phone line) to your mobile phone. This is a good way of instilling confidence in customers who might otherwise be a little wary of calling a mobile number, as there is a residual suspicion of businesses whose primary contact number is a mobile one: people prefer to engage with businesses who can demonstrate a degree of scale, and organisations who don’t own their own premises (and fixed phone lines) run the risk of being judged as insubstantial or fly-by-night.
Various business-number options are available for entrepreneurs. If you have the wherewithal you can offer customers a freefone number (0800 or 0808) but bear in mind you will be charged the cost of each call by your provider, and will almost certainly have to pay for the set-up and rental of this number, so be sure you’ve triple-checked your sums before taking this option. More commonly, businesses would look at either a “normal” landline number – ie, the same kind as your home landline – or, if wanting to present the impression of being a nationally focused organisation, and offering customers and prospects cheap calls, a number such as an 0845 number which means your customers will only incur a local-rate charge when calling from a landline. Again, there are cost implications here so be certain you have all your calculations correct before committing.
Yet another option is to look at actually making money from your incoming calls. This can be done either via premium-rate numbers (normally appropriate if your business is actually centred around gaining revenues from incoming calls, for instance via “chat lines”, but also commonly used by companies offering technical support for their products or services) or via “revenue-sharing” numbers whereby a proportion of the call charge incurred by the caller is handed over to the business by the phone company. Again, this is commonly used by companies offering technical support, but normally a minimum call volume is required by the phone company before this option is made available so it may not immediately be a possibility for your start-up. Be aware that the usage of both premium-rate and shared-revenue lines is subject to regulation and you may well face significant legal penalties if you misuse, even accidentally, these options.
So much for the numbers – what about the hardware? As noted, it is possible to run a business – especially a start-up – without any fixed premises, but get to any scale in terms of employee numbers and you’re almost certainly going to have to look at setting up an office. This is where things get more complicated: how do you structure your communications so that they are most effective in terms of driving your business forward, but don’t cost the earth?
Fixed lines are a benefit when it comes to transferring calls, especially from a switchboard or reception, and more management-facing factors such as listening in on employees’ calls, analysing call times and efficiency, recording complaints etc. Business owners have the ability to channel calls – both incoming and outbound – through computers to integrate the information directly into company databases (so for example a call with a client is automatically recorded in the appropriate file). In terms of outbound communications, call-automation technology can put your business in touch with a huge number of potential customers (though this might not be appropriate for your business) and this is much more economically delivered over a fixed line than through mobile channels.
Of course, the more a business wants to do with its communications, the more it has to invest in the kit to allow it to do so – there’s a big cost difference between having a number of fixed lines for incoming and outbound calls and having those lines routing through a switchboard and an array of analytics and monitoring technology, augmented by automated diallers and mass SMS distributor software. Even at the very basic level costs can vary – for example, do you want your phones to be bargain-basement cord phones or do you want to equip your staff with headsets for added flexibility and the ability to use their computers comfortably while talking? – while as the level of sophistication grows, so too do the potential outlays. As always, working out exactly what you need – and what you may need down the line – as early and as fully as possible is invaluable when it comes to getting the best deal and putting in the most appropriate systems for your business.
Unless there is an overwhelming case for doing so (ie, if your business case demands it), shy away from making heavy communications investments in the early stages of your project: you may shell out thousands for an all-singing, all-dancing system suitable for a couple of dozen employees only to find that you stay at a headcount of three or four for a couple of years; contrarily, you might invest in kit which rapidly becomes inadequate as you grow faster than expectations. Remember, too, that the pace of change in this arena is truly extraordinary, so try to avoid tying yourself down to any one system or package for too long (even though providers tend to offer bigger incentives the longer you commit to using their services). You may find your system of choice becomes obsolete much faster than anticipated, and while larger businesses may be able to take that kind of hit without too much disruption, start-ups can rarely afford to make the same mistakes.
It is now technically possible to run an office without any fixed phone lines whatsoever, running all your voice communications through company mobile phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems such as Skype. The latter options in particular are increasingly popular (especially considering the video component) and normally free (other than the cost of the broadband of course) to call someone using the same system; they may also offer comparatively cheap call rates for calls to landlines or mobile numbers around the world. While still in its relative infancy, the VoIP revolution is potentially game-changing for businesses large and small, and no entrepreneur should commit to any particular telephony structure without investigating what Skype and its competitors can offer, and potentially integrating them into the office.
While the landline-free office is a possibility, however, it doesn’t mean that it is automatically practical for your business. There are a number of reasons why you may want to take the “traditional” landline route, including cost – you may be able to secure substantially lower rates for your landlines than for mobiles and if you make a large number of outgoing calls (for example, sales pitches or market research) this will quickly prove an important saving. Obviously, costs vary and it is vital to shop around, but even initial acquisition costs tend to be significantly lower when using landlines (it’s merely common sense that a landline phone will cost less than a smartphone).
Words: Jamie Liddell
This article was first published in Your Business with James Caan in January 2012.