By Ian Philip, CEO at Anvil Mobile provides some hints and tips for better business communications

With so many different options of mobile phone, traditional land lines, new Voice over IP (VoIP) services and broadband packages available for start-ups and small businesses, making the right choices can be very difficult. And of course there is always someone who will claim to offer a better solution and a better deal. But for a growing business, being easy to contact at any time and presenting the right image to a wide audience are vital for success.

Mobile phones have revolutionised business, particularly for people constantly on the move. The problem is that customers know that in most cases it will be more expensive if they are calling a mobile. Not only that but an 07xxx number will often give the impression that there is no substance behind the business; no office, staff or way of knowing if it is a local company. Many potential customers will still prefer to look for an advertised local number to call.

One way to get over this hurdle is to rent a local BT number and put it on divert to your mobile phone. But the line rental usually costs between £13 to £15 (ex VAT) per month and on top of that, there are expensive divert charges in the region of 26p per minute that mean hefty bills. In addition, with this approach return calls will always display a mobile number, while background noise and bad signals are a further give away to the fact you are always calling from a mobile.

Fortunately, technology has moved on and alternatives are now available. Using 3G, which is available on most modern mobile phones, an existing SIM card can be replaced with a new generation of SIM with a land line number directly assigned to it. This way, callers are charged only for calling a land line, the voice quality is excellent and when you call someone it is the local number that is displayed as the caller ID.

Even if your business already has an established and advertised BT number, this can be ported onto a new SIM card, providing continuity and avoiding changes to stationery, promotional material or directory listings. This is also true for most numbers provided by ISPs and less well known telecoms operators.

Multiple local numbers to grow your business

Having one local number helps with your immediate market but it’s also possible to have more local area numbers to help reach a wider audience. For example, a Cambridge based company may wish to also advertise its business in adjacent towns such as Huntingdon, Peterborough, Bury St. Edmunds and Ely with the appropriate local area codes. This provides an opportunity to grow the business with more in-bound customer calls and also enhances the image of the company. All of the local numbers can be answered on the same mobile phone with the landline number at a typical cost of 3p per minute as a divert charge. And where products or services are not dependent on geography, some smart businesses have advertised London, Birmingham and Manchester numbers, for example, and seen a rapid increase in revenues. This is ideal for internet retailers or a price comparison web site, for example — but not so good for window cleaners or emergency plumbers.

Presenting a more professional image

Another smart way for small to medium sized businesses to present a more professional image and make sure calls always go to where they will be best handled is to use an intelligent call management service. With a new or existing local number ported to the service, an auto attendant - press 1 for sales, 2 for service etc. — will answer the in-coming calls and route them to the right mobile or fixed handset. And if you want to make sure calls are always answered, set up a hunt group so each number is tried in turn until the call is answered. In busy periods, calls can also be queued and answered as lines become free.

With intelligent call management it is also possible to set up rules that change depending on the day or time. So, in office hours you can transfer the call to one number while in the evenings or weekends, you can change the greeting message and route the call to a different number, hunt group or answering service - all without employing a telephone receptionist. And if you make use of the mobile with a land line number, the cost of delivering the calls to mobile users is a fraction of the cost of diverting to traditional 07xxx mobile numbers.

Another optional feature of the new generation of mobile services is the capability to add call recording. Set to be always-on or on-demand, this will capture a call where a customer places an order, gives detailed instructions or asks a list of questions that may be difficult to write down while you are out and about. On demand call recording can be activated at any time during a call by pressing *5. The full recording, from the beginning, is then emailed to a pre-set address as an attachment to action or forward to a colleague.

Broadband and VoIP

The next area of business comms that can be a minefield is choice of broadband provider. In most cases it is true to say that you get what you pay for. Some low cost business packages look very inexpensive and attractive but the service is very variable if the connection at the exchange is shared by many others. When everyone else is busy on the internet, the capacity drops drastically and services such as broadband access or VoIP phones are disrupted or stop completely for a time. Most broadband contracts are for periods of up to two years so you have to take into account any growth in the number of users and PCs that will be sharing the connection over that period. What works well with one user may not work so well with 3 or 4 people using phones and PCs over a broadband connection.

Always ask a potential broadband supplier what the ‘contention ratio’ is. This sounds complex but it simply means how many other people will be sharing the connection to the internet at the exchange. If the answer is 50:1, that means one connection at the exchange shared by fifty people/businesses — so leave well alone. Also ask a potential supplier: “do you have access to the WLR3 portal?” In plain English this means that BT Openreach carries out all of the actual implementation of new lines and also does the troubleshooting for any faults that occur. A WLR3 portal gives a broadband supplier direct access into BT Openreach systems so that orders and fault reporting can be accessed without going through a third party. It also lets the broadband provider see the status of orders and faults at a glance and makes a big difference to the quality and speed of service that you will receive.

We do not realise the full value of good business communications until something goes wrong so making the right decisions from the outset will be a major factor in your success or failure. While it’s clear technology opens up exciting new opportunities for small businesses, it also makes it more confusing — so it’s well worth doing your homework first.