Meeting Your Small Business Communications Needs¹

Meeting Your Small Business Communications Needs

Market competition and competitive technologies have increased the range of communications options and services available for small business owners. Today’s business owners enjoy the ability to customize their communications packages to meet their needs today, while leaving flexibility for future expansion.

The right choice for your business will depend on a variety of factors, such as the type of business you’re running and your expected calling patterns. Are most of your customers in your local calling area? How many long distance calls do you plan to make? Would advanced features pay for themselves in productivity improvements? Thinking about how you’re likely to use your phone will make evaluating your options easier, and can help guide your discussions with potential providers.

Local telephone service is likely to be the foundation of your business communications needs. Generally speaking, providers offer unlimited local inbound and outbound calling for a flat monthly fee that depends on the number of lines your business needs and the features you add.

Some of the most common call-related features available with local service packages include:

  • Call Waiting
  • Voicemail
  • Caller ID
  • Three-Way Calling
  • Call Forwarding
  • Return Calling
  • Repeat Dialing
  • Distinctive Ring and Priority Call

For many small companies, these services will be hosted by the service provider, giving you the flexibility to add or delete features as your needs change. For others, they can be controlled by software operated within your premises.

Depending on the number of lines, features such as direct dialing of extensions, intercoms or hunting (directing incoming calls to an open idle line if an active line is dialed) may be available.

VoIP Flexibility

For a growing number of small business owners, using a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone system provides considerable cost and flexibility advantages over traditional PBX equipment, including the ability to manage your small business phones remotely.

Using a VoIP-based (also known as hosted or cloud-based) phone package gives a small business powerful and flexible communications capabilities, without the expensive investment in equipment and bandwidth required by enterprise-class phone systems.

Most services take advantage of your company’s existing broadband connection to route voice calls over the Internet or your provider’s network. This allows small businesses to configure advanced calling and messaging features that are delivered as software services, without the need to buy or lease dedicated infrastructure equipment for your workplace.

For example, remote workers or team members in different locations can be reached through your main number, and transferred to users as if they were in the same building. Outside the office, you can use your smartphone or a laptop app (known as a softphone) to make and receive calls just as if you were sitting in your workplace.

Because these features are delivered as apps, it’s easy for your company to configure a quality phone system that improves communications with customers and team members, and helps your company present a professional, credible appearance to customers and prospects.

Long Distance Deals

Long distance services are sold by providers in a variety of packages that combine monthly fees and either unlimited calls or calls that are billed in increments ranging from six seconds to a minute.

For instance, if you don’t expect to make a lot of long distance calls, you may choose a plan with a smaller monthly fee that bills a relatively higher amount for each call you make. If you typically make more calls, you may prefer to buy a block (such as 1,000 minutes) for a set monthly fee, or to pay a higher amount for unlimited long-distance calling.

If you would like to track long distance costs by customer or by employee, or to bill clients for telephone expenses, check with potential service providers to make sure your billing information can be broken down with enough flexibility to provide this information.

As with local service, trying to understand your needs is an important step in making the most cost-effective choice for your business.

For both local and long distance services, it’s critical to evaluate not only the price, but also the reliability and reputation of the service providers under consideration. Savings from a seemingly low rate can be wiped out by charges and fees that may not be obvious until the first bill arrives.

Toll-Free Services

Toll-free numbers have become affordable tools that businesses of all sizes use to make it as easy as possible for customers and prospects to reach them. Offering a toll-free number sends a signal about your commitment to customer service, and helps remove much of the hesitation prospects may feel about contacting a company outside their immediate calling area.

A toll-free number allows customers and prospects to reach your business from a region you specify. Depending on your customer base, you can accept toll-free calls from anywhere within the United States and/or Canada, or you may choose to restrict toll-free calling to a specific state or group of area codes.

Once an incoming call is dialed, business owners have a great deal of flexibility over how it’s answered. You can direct a toll-free call to your main office number, or you can have the call routed automatically to your mobile or home number.

Companies can also create rules that dictate how calls are handled depending on the time of day or the day of the week. For instance, calls made outside your specified business hours can automatically be sent to a mobile phone, voice mail or an after-hours answering service.

These call-behavior rules can often be configured by small business owners through a Web interface, giving them the flexibility to customize their toll-free number as their needs change. Similarly, business owners can track promotional or lead-generated initiatives by correlating their toll-free call traffic with their marketing efforts, or adapt their call rules to handle seasonal demand.

A small business with more than one location can also create call-routing rules based on the location of the person making the call. For instance, the caller’s location can be determined by your telecom provider, and the call can automatically be routed to the location closest to your customer.

Toll-free service typically includes a virtual directory and extension service that presents callers with a menu that allows them to reach specific employees or departments within your company.

International Calling

Today’s business world is truly global, and companies of all sizes are achieving success serving international companies. Doing business often means looking beyond your local area, and advanced communications technologies have eliminated many of the barriers that previously prevented small businesses from providing services globally.

If you call overseas frequently, consider adding an international calling plan to your phone package. Most plans generally require a monthly fee, but making as few as two international voice calls a month would probably make the fee a good investment.

The discounts are applied to direct-dialed and credit card calls to more than 200 countries worldwide. In most cases, you will be billed for the first 30 seconds of the call, then in per-second increments, and rates remain the same regardless of when the call is placed.

For companies that make international calls once in a while, a prepaid calling card from your telecom provider may be an affordable compromise between the cost of a standard-rate call and subscribing to a monthly calling bundle. The per-call savings may make entering the credit card numbers worthwhile.

If your business takes you outside the United States, there are a number of ways you can help reduce the cost of calling home. In many instances, calling into the United States from beyond its borders can be less expensive than dialing abroad from the U.S., if you plan your calls carefully.

For instance, check with your mobile provider to see if it offers discounted calling plans for using your handset abroad. This will depend in part on the technologies involved - the United States uses a blend of several incompatible cellular technologies, while most other countries have adopted the GSM standard.

Buying a prepaid mobile handset in your destination can be another affordable choice. You can either have a phone shipped to you before you leave, or pick one up at your destination. The cost savings in calling back to the United States often justifies the small investment in a reasonably priced handset that you can give away at the end of the trip.

For shorter trips, renting a handset in your destination country can offer an affordable alternative.

Remember, the quality of your phone service is a reflection on your business and the service it provides. If your customers find you difficult to reach or your connections don’t sound clear, any apparent savings from choosing a cut-rate service could be more than offset by lost revenue.