By Steve Smith, Founding Director, Virtual Landline
Sole traders are the backbone of the UK economy – with a 91% growth in these non-employing businesses since 2000. Reputation and trust are critical issues for these companies – with many joining local trade bodies and working hard to gain word of mouth recommendations to build a strong local business.
And yet far too many sole traders remain oblivious to one area of business practice that is fundamentally undermining customer confidence: the phone number. When offered a choice, just 6% of UK consumers would call a mobile number, as opposed to 50% opting to call a landline and 41% an 0800 number. From a perception of less reliability and longevity to a lack of professionalism, those sole traders operating with a mobile only number are clearly giving the wrong impression.
Business success is far from a given – and no company can afford to undermine its reputation, for any reason. I will explain the value of a virtual number that combines the flexibility of mobile with the business credibility of a landline.
Over the past few years the number of sole traders in the UK has grown dramatically, fuelled by a combination of recession driven redundancy and new Internet enabled business models that have reduced start-up costs. Many of these new businesses are incredibly innovative, exploiting social media to build brands and creating virtual partnerships with colleagues across the world. They are also using web enabled business models to improve the work/life balance and take control of the time and location of hours worked. Yet for the vast majority there is one area of innovation that sole traders overlook; the critical aspect of customer and supplier contact – the phone number.
It is simply too easy for sole traders to assume that a mobile phone number is good enough. It certainly provides flexibility, which is essential for most small businesses. However, the negative perception regarding a mobile only business not only remains but is actually more significant that most companies would realise. In recent research, 67% of respondents would think a business was a sole trader or small business when offered a mobile number – as opposed to just 3% of those dialling an 0330 number, 8% an 0800 and 19% a standard geographical landline. Critically when there is a choice, 50% would call the landline, 41% the 0800 number and just 6% the mobile number.
Over half (51%) of individuals think that a business whose main contact number is a mobile is a sole trader; while 35% would think it was a less established business, 31% would worry about stability and permanence and 31% about the company’s reliability. These are crushing figures for any mobile only business that is looking to build a strong local reputation.
Nor can any business assume that the phone has less relevance as a contact point in today’s web enabled society. While email has just nudged ahead as the preferred way to employ a business’ service or purchase a product (33%), 30% would still prefer to make a call. Yet when calling a sole trader 42% do not get an answer to one in ten calls made – despite holding on for an average 11.65 rings before hanging up. Patience is also in short supply, with one fifth (20%) only calling a sole trader that didn’t answer once before looking for another business to call.
Cost is also a concern for customers, with mobile perceived as more expensive than 0330, 0800 or 0845 numbers. It is clear that from lack of response and less reliability to concerns about longevity and cost, those businesses relying solely on a mobile phone number are fundamentally undermining customer perception.
Flexible Landline/ Mobile Option
Many sole traders are actively looking to build a strong local reputation and proximity is revealed to be a key issue according to this research – but, once again, a mobile number undermines credibility by providing no guidance as to just where the sole trader is located.
So what is the option? Sole traders do not want the cost of adding a local landline number to the mobile number; and this approach doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with accessibility and call answering. However, it is a simple process today to combine a local number with the flexibility of a mobile by opting for a dedicated virtual business phone number that provides a consistent contact point from any location.
The cloud based service leverages Internet access - via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G network – to offer businesses the option of one local number to reflect business location, several local numbers to cover a wider area, or an 03 national number - whatever suits the business model. Critically from the reputation building perspective, a customer call to the landline number can be automatically transferred to the mobile; the trader knows it is a business call and can answer appropriately.
Ensuring a call is answered first time clearly increases the likelihood of securing a new customer. While this is obviously an issue for any sole trader already out on a job or in a customer meeting, there is the option to use a virtual PA service as part of the solution. Furthermore, using an App, when the trader makes or returns a call to the customer it is the landline number that comes up, not the mobile, reinforcing the reliability and professionalism value of the landline number.
With minimal monthly cost to rent the each landline number, the return on investment through increased customer acquisition is clear. Furthermore, as and when the sole trader looks to expand, it is a simple process to extend this model to support a fully fledged phone system with employees using multiple mobile phones – and no need to change the established landline number.
When even the smallest companies have invested in excellent web sites and branding to create the right image, why compromise that investment with the somewhat down market, small and less credible impression presented by a mobile contact number?
The fact is that despite the ubiquity of the mobile phone, sole traders cannot afford to apply consumer thinking to a business environment. For any company looking to build a strong local reputation and present a professional image, offering only a mobile number is a fast track to losing credibility. In an era of Internet enabled flexible and low cost telecommunications, it is time to think again.