By Philippos Nikiforou, founder, MailQuatro

Good communication is essential in any organisation, but it is especially critical in small businesses where not responding quickly to an email could mean missing a crucial sale - or even losing a client. In addition to replying promptly, having all the necessary customer data to hand to generate a more informed response can be as beneficial to the business as a thoughtless, hurried response is damaging.

Many large organisations devote a lot of time and money to ensure that staff have the right tools and training to create good customer service. For small firms this can be more challenging, but the ability to generate a positive client experience is just as important — if not more so. Naturally, to achieve this, the onus is on staff at all level of the business need to respond in a timely way and think carefully about what information and response they give to an existing or potential client.

Technology too has an important role to play in effective communication. For this reason, enterprises spend vast sums of money on customer relationship management tools that enable them to have relevant information to hand at the touch of a button.

Yet for small businesses, where these tools are financially and logistically less viable and workers are often working on the move, many workers are forced to rely on their memories when responding to a call or email — or must wait until they return home or to the office to access the information needed to form a reply.

It was a problem I experienced first-hand when launching a new business. As a small business user with a lot of clients who was constantly on the move, I needed a more flexible email solution than Outlook/Exchange and a more professional alternative to some of the free web-based systems.

In particular, I wanted full visibility within the system and, with one click, quickly and easily see all the emails exchanged with a client in one place, without the need to search through different folders - which inspired me to build a new system which could do just that.

The flexibility that web-based email gives is attracting a rapidly growing number of users. The market is expected to soar in the next three years — with technology market research firms such as The Radicati Group, Inc predicting that hosted email could grow to a staggering £3.1 billion worldwide by 2014.

Now, as the boundaries start to blur between work technology and hand-held devices, cloud based systems are being used more and more to facilitate on-the-go working wherever and whenever; be it in the office, at home or at a conference or meeting — enabling frantic workers to finish reports on their iPhones while on a train home, or pull together a PowerPoint presentation together on a tablet while waiting to board a flight. Yet whenever you synchronise your phone or tablet with your home desktop computer or utilise cloud services and forward your corporate e-mail to your Gmail account, you expose sensitive work information to systems your company’s IT department has no control over.

In this scenario, a single, dedicated hosted business system is a particularly viable alternative option for the small business user. Data is stored on secure servers, enabling messages and data to be retrieved quickly and easily anywhere and at any time — and without an additional influx of spam to deal with. Unlike free services, web-based business email strikes a happy balance between flexiblity and professionalism.

Additionally, rather than give the burden of all sales leads or customer queries going to one person, an effective strategy might be to use business email to grant colleagues access to the account to review or assist with replies, or to share access to a generic address amongst more than one employee.

Whatever strategy works for your business - and however you choose to manage your communication - professionalism is more critical now than ever before. Just as you would expect to get a polite, helpful and personal response over the phone, getting it right on email is just as essential for attracting and retaining customers. Sending an inappropriate or ill-informed communication — whatever the circumstances — could result in your customer going straight to the competition.

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