By Jonathan Kini, Head of Small & SME Business at Vodafone UK

The connected world has changed our perceptions of what constitutes good customer service and almost instant gratification is now a hygiene factor. For example, a growing number of people use social channels to interact with brands. Research by First Direct found that 44 per cent of consumers now use the web to share grievances about products and expect an immediate response, no matter the time of day. As a result, companies can live and die by how well their communications systems, networks and applications are set up to serve their customers 24/7.

While it can be hard for SMEs to compete with large enterprises which have greater resources and budgets, smaller businesses have more built-in flexibility that can enable them to deliver services which give provide a competitive advantage. By nature, SMEs are more nimble and unconstrained by corporate red tape making it a lot easier and quicker when it comes to implementing new business processes and IT systems. Because of this, they have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their larger counterparts in terms of customer service and the ability to deliver go-to market strategies more quickly, offering services that address ever-evolving consumer demand. This ability to respond quickly can often mean the difference between losing or gaining customers and advocates, especially in what remains a buyers’ market.

Research from Vodafone UK has found that 80 per cent of customers spend more time with companies that give them a good customer experience. As a result, companies are adopting a much more customer-centric approach. For large enterprises, this can, in part, be driven by expensive Customer Relationship Management systems (CRM) that measure the customer journey and give a holistic view of their interaction with a brand – a task that can require skilled individuals to use the systems to their full potential. However, big budgets should not be a pre-requisite for delivering better customer service. Therefore SMEs should focus on their core capabilities and existing skills sets while implementing simple tactics and tools that enhance their existing strengths.

There are various inexpensive tools available to help SMEs enhance their communication around the clock for their customers. By integrating landlines, email and mobile phones onto one truly converged system, SMEs can operate on a ‘Unified Communications’ platform that allows them to easily migrate calls to the appropriate contact first time. Staff can therefore be contactable by customers, partners and colleagues from anywhere on any device, ensuring no customer call or email is missed. This in turn allows them to have an ‘always on’ approach without breaking the bank and live up to the levels of responsiveness expected by consumers today.

Being contactable on the phone is only one way of ensuring your business is responsive. In fact, less than half of customers prefer businesses contacting them in this way, meaning there are a range of new, alternative and preferred platforms such as social media. The survey revealed that 14 per cent of customers prefer to interact with customer services teams through a channel other than telephone or email, for example Facebook or twitter. Therefore to deliver high quality customer service, it’s important that SMEs invest in an integrated multi-channel approach that enables customers to easily contact customer enquiries departments through whichever platform they choose, and provides consistent, high quality service no matter what the channel. Years ago, customers were expected to follow the rules set by businesses but the tables have turned in recent years, requiring businesses to put customers at the forefront of all decisions.

Customer service, however, is just one example of how Unified Communications can help support SMEs. It also enables businesses to mobilise their workforce whilst ensuring frontline efficiency by enabling employees to access the information they need to stay productive out of the office as well as be able to answer customer enquiries in a quick and effective manner.

In addition, as SMEs tend to be agile and unhindered by legacy IT systems, they often have the ability to adopt new technologies quicker – increasing their route to market and path to business growth, giving them an advantage over their larger competitors.

But driving business growth through customer responsiveness doesn’t need to be a job done solely by SMEs. Around 3.2 million UK smaller companies are collaborating with an average of 16 businesses each to share skills and expertise. Why? Closer cooperation across the supply chain can be mutually beneficial, not to mention boosting the levels of customer service within both types of firms.

For example, Bearmach, a Land Rover parts distributor, which has used Unified Communications to improve its level of responsiveness, customer service and overall operations. Bearmach is a rapidly growing SME that needs to keep-up with increasing demand.

By having the ability to integrate their desk phones with their mobiles, Bearmach employees were able to stay connected and be accessible to each other whilst in the field – both in the UK and abroad – as well as to their customers and suppliers, enabling them to be more responsive and deliver greater customer services. By converging its fixed and mobile line employees had a level of flexibility which they never had before. For instance, warehouse staff were equipped with mobiles, enabling them to share information on stock more quickly which resulted in faster response times to customer enquiries and orders.

Furthermore, by solely relying on desk phones, employees would miss customer calls when they were away from their desk, preventing Bearmach from delivering high quality service. For a company who prides itself on customer service, this was a disaster. By implementing Unified Communications employees never miss a call, whether they are at their desk or offsite. Similarly, if someone is on the phone and a customer is trying to reach the enquiries department, the call is automatically transferred to the next available representative, ensuring customers are not left waiting.

Ultimately, whilst cost is one of the biggest determinants on the level of investment SMEs make in technology, customer service is an area which businesses cannot afford to undermine when there is a risk of losing customers to a competitor. This becomes more significant as customers’ expectations, and demands, for seamless customer service continues to grow as a result of greater connectivity, new technologies and channels increasingly converging and transforming the way consumers engage with brands.

As such, the return on investment in technologies such as Unified Communication systems is undeniable when it is implemented efficiently and effectively. The benefits include customer loyalty, greater productivity and collaboration amongst staff, and often lower overhead costs and increased profits.

Ultimately, by leveraging its agile nature, SMEs are in the ideal position to reap the various benefits of the flexible infrastructure which Unified Communications lends to businesses, while satisfying customers’ expectations for responsive and relevant customer service anytime, anywhere.