Unifying communications means smaller businesses can spread themselves further afield, take on larger competitors and attract better customers, as long as their vision extends beyond initial technology, writes Sue Tabbitt
It used to be that a small business was at a disadvantage compared to its larger competitors, restricted in its ability to go the extra mile due to the finite capacity of its staff. Being able to answer the phone, access information and connect with colleagues was tied directly to where people were.
Thanks to unified communications and complementary facilities, such as cloud-based IT infrastructures and applications, these restrictions have largely been lifted, giving small businesses new agility. Their only limitation now, other than perhaps access to funds, is their physical ability to deliver against customer demand. Out-of-hours availability, quick access to experts and the ability to keep tabs on the business are no longer an issue.
Somerset-based soft drinks company Think Drinks is a passionate convert to unified communications for all these reasons. Since adopting Vodafone’s combined landline and mobile package One Net Express a year ago, it has seen a significant increase in business efficiency and customer service, allowing it to court a calibre of client it couldn’t have contemplated before.
The company is no longer limited by the number of lines coming into the business for the volume of calls it can handle. Staff can now make and answer landline calls on the move. The Vodafone service provides a “virtual” landline number that goes straight through to the right mobile. Voicemail is consolidated too, so employees no longer need to check for messages in multiple places.
Communication is so much more fluid and easy, we don’t need offices all over the place to be able to cover new areas
Before making the switch, Think Drinks found that its old fixed-line phone system was limiting its growth potential, and its ability to respond quickly and effectively to customers. The business has only two full-time office staff plus another five who spend almost all their time on the road, seeing customers. “We got to six people and a turnover of around £400,000, and found we had hit a wall,” says managing director Tom Collins.
Discounting internet-based phone solutions (VoIP) because of “shockingly poor” broadband capacity in its rural location, Think Drinks settled on a mobile solution where calls would be managed and routed via the cloud. For additional flexibility, it also signed up to Microsoft Office 365 from Vodafone. This lets staff use Microsoft Office desktop applications on any device in any location, giving them ready access to email and customer data wherever they are, for a nominal monthly fee.
For a small company based in South-West England, this new-found agility means suddenly being able to target the whole of the UK. Mr Collins says: “Communication is now so much more fluid and easy, we don’t need offices all over the place to be able to cover new areas – all we need is a bloke, a van and an iPad, and suddenly we can ‘do the north of England’.”
Definitions of what constitutes “unified communications” (UC) are blurred. Originally it was about bringing together the most common forms of business communication – phone calls, voicemails and emails – and managing them all in the same place so that users didn’t have to go to multiple end-points to keep on top of their contacts and messages. “Presence” or status information meanwhile gave them more control over when and how they were contacted. Today, to keep it relevant and useful, UC must also include instant messaging, conferencing and collaboration capabilities – and, increasingly, social media.
One company proactively incorporating social media into its UC activities is Fishy Fishy, a small chain of seafood restaurants on the south coast of England. Co-founder James Ginzler consolidates all of his communications using a BlackBerry smartphone and Playbook tablet. He “talks” to his head chef, via BlackBerry Messenger, about the best stock to order and uses the tablet to check the performance of his restaurant by viewing spreadsheets on the move. Other employees use the social media apps on their BlackBerrys to engage with customers.
Mr Ginzler says: “We use email, Twitter and Facebook on BlackBerry to share little bits of information, to communicate among our team and with our customers in a non-intrusive way. Those conversations determine what we’re going to do next, where we might take the business. We can share our ideas anywhere, anytime. I can be in Brighton, when the rest of the team are in Poole, and be totally confident everything’s running smoothly.”
A single unified inbox underpins these communications, so that Mr Ginzler only has to look in one place for updates from his chef and customer views on Twitter. The devices are synced too.
The more gadgets and channels available to users, the more important it is that they update their status information so that other team members can make contact easily, otherwise there is a danger of individuals dropping out of the loop. “The notion of status is what ties it all together,” says Peter Gradwell, founder of Gradwell, a business VoIP specialist.
Gradwell’s clients include opticians, financial advisers and architects – small practices with just a handful of personnel who may be dispersed across different locations. Gradwell’s cost-effective solutions involve linking those disparate end-points via a unified VoIP service.
“As long as you have a landline phone, you’re an island,” Mr Gradwell explains. “But if you switch to an IP-based [internet protocol] phone system you can tie all the different points together. A single, unified status then tells you when and how each person is available to be contacted.
“Companies still need landlines and business numbers,” he says. “But a centrally managed VoIP service means that calls can be answered centrally and be routed to whoever’s free to take a call. It’s a way of ensuring that all offices are covered or seeming to extend opening hours by allowing calls to be answered from home. It saves time, makes life easier and gives customers good service.”
Cloud-based solutions and services are powerful facilitators, he adds. “As staff move out of the office, it gives them greater access to the things they need. From our perspective as a supplier it lets us stitch different services together to create something that is much greater than the sum of the parts because of the ease at which cloud services can talk to each other.”
Hot property builds in social forums
London-based property maintenance business Aspect.co.uk is at a stage in its development where it is ready to expand nationally through a franchise model. Incoming jobs are co-ordinated by a team that takes bookings and sources trades people, a set-up that relies heavily on unified communications (UC).
The company uses a series of technologies, arranged so that whether customers engage with Aspect.co.uk by phone, email or live chat there is complete continuity. It is particularly on the ball when it comes to harnessing the latest web forums and social networks, all managed through a single, UC strategy. These channels include:
- Live Chat – customers can submit inquiries and make bookings via Aspect.co.uk’s website, using PCs, smartphones or tablets
- Twitter – as a direct tool to respond to customer inquiries and bookings, and to actively find and respond to people posting general queries about plumbers or electricians. When a landlord reached out to Aspect.co.uk via Twitter, leading to a booking worth £200, it spawned repeat business across a further three properties
- Facebook – customer bookings come in directly through Aspect.co.uk’s Facebook page and customers, who have used the service, are adding testimonials to the page. Aspect also uses Facebook as a recruitment tool
- YouTube – a useful marketing channel, for distributing clips showing maintenance techniques such as how to wire a plug and to attract more franchisees, for example
- Yammer – following advice from digital media agency Ascender, Aspect now plans to adopt the enterprise social forum Yammer - a secure, cost-effective and trackable instant messaging platform. Aspect will use it in its call centre and, for example, to disseminate information to those about to start a shift.
All these forms of communication are brought together via a single operating platform so that a job booking or customer inquiry is handled in exactly the same way, regardless of how it has been generated.
Aspect.co.uk’s managing director Will Davies says that, by tying all of the company’s customer sources into a single, unified platform, it has been able to monitor more scientifically how much leads cost to generate and their results, using a new automated tracking facility. Where it had cost the business £30 per new client booking in job acquisition, this has now been reduced by some 28 per cent, enabling Aspect to reduce its £80,000 marketing spend by the same percentage.