Navigating your way through the right telecommunication system to suit your business needs is becoming more complex and time-consuming. Brad Howarth simplifies the choice in telecommunication systems with advice in everything from network providers, manufacturers and which technology is right for your business.
Telecommunications is one of the basic requirements of almost any business. But finding the right equipment and supplier is anything but a basic proposition.
Selecting a telephony system means making a series of choices about increasingly sophisticated technologies, while also thinking about related services such as broadband and mobile communications, along with the myriad applications they enable.
Even when you know what you want, there are dozens of companies competing to sell it to you. Each supplier offers different features and pricing structures, and sometimes entirely different technologies. Some will offer fixed, predictable costs, while others offer structured pay-as-you-go services.
Whatever the case, it’s almost impossible to compare apples with apples. “It’s getting more confusing for small business, there is a real technology fog when they are looking at communications,” says Chris Jenney, general manager for the SME division at telecommunications services company, Commander.
“Providers are trying to target specific channels of the market with the specific proposition that’s right for those customers, but it does add choices to a decision-making process which makes it more complex.”
Jenney says an important consideration is ensuring the solution a company purchases today will give the flexibility it will need as it grows. This means not just avoiding getting into long fixed-term contracts, but also ensuring they are working with partners that will upgrade technology when required. “Whether you should buy outright, lease or rent the technology, think about the term of agreement you are committing to,” he says.
There are numerous approaches to navigating the minefield, but they all start with the need to perform a full assessment of requirements—telephone lines and extensions, fax service, mobile services and data—not just for today, but for the next three years. Failure to do so can leave a business locked into a technology or contract with limited flexibility and no room to grow.
One technology destined to remain a mainstay of business is the humble fax machine. Increasingly, however, smaller businesses are turning to computer-based solutions, allowing them to fax documents directly from their desktop. Services such as mBox also enable the receiving of faxes as email attachments, saving on printing costs and solving the storage issue.
If just a basic phone system is required, there is a wide range of solutions based on either simple analog technology or digital PABX systems that can efficiently connect up to 25 lines—sometimes more. NEC, for example, markets the XEN Topaz SME communications system that combines eight standard phone lines with eight ISDN data lines, with integrated voicemail and caller identification.
Often the solutions are based around carrier packages, bundling equipment and carriage into the same bill. Some include basic functions such as voicemail or a small call centre solution. It is important that businesses understand the true cost of such packages over the life of the contract, says product strategy and marketing manager for NEC, Mark Tatham-Thompson. “A lot of companies will buy a small system and end up paying a premium on the carriage because it has been bundled, or end up having to spend money on moves, additions and changes. It’s a case of trying to work out how they are going to get a return on investment, and whether they are considering the ongoing cost of their equipment.”
The IP Telephony System
For larger organisations, or smaller ones with aspirations of growth, sticking with a basic PABX may not be the best answer. Increasingly common in this segment is voice-over-internet-protocol technology (called VoIP, or sometimes just IP-based systems), which enables businesses to make calls over their data network or the internet.
Tatham-Thompson says that while IP-based telephony equipment is becoming more common in the market, understanding of its value by smaller businesses is still limited.
“A company that has only 25 employees is at the mercy of techno-speak,” Tatham-Thompson says.
Many companies are now selling hybrid IP/PABX systems that support both digital and IP-based phones, enabling companies to perform a staged migration from old to new technology.
“Some customers only need basic phone connectivity, and might find that a normal handset with two lines will suffice,” says Jerry Ng, Panasonic’s product marketing manager for business communications solutions. “The IP system is often more expensive up-front, but it all comes down to total cost of ownership. With the cost savings in call charges and improved productivity, it quickly becomes a lot cheaper than traditional systems.”
The benefits of IP telephony systems go far beyond cheap calls. For example, they can be integrated with the office computer network and linked to staff calendars, providing automated call routing based on where the person has said they will be.
Ng says in many cases businesses fall into the trap of continuing to use the same phone system for long periods without ever investigating what else is available. “They don’t know what they can do to improve productivity in their customer service operation. And that’s typical for small business–once they have something installed, they won’t look at it until it breaks.”
IP telephony systems can also be integrated with other devices such as digital video cameras, with Panasonic launching a new range of products that can be integrated into the phone system for remote monitoring. A camera can be set up near a door, and set to automatically send a live image to a user’s screen if someone presses the intercom.
But even once you’ve determined the technology and manufacturer you want, there is the question of whose network (or networks) you want to connect it to.
According to Jenney there are four basic questions a small business should ask when assessing their current provider: are they getting value for money; are problems fixed quickly; how much finger-pointing is there; and are they using the technology they have already invested in effectively.
If you do decide to change providers, it is worth considering whether you want to go with a single provider and a single invoice, or spread your needs across numerous so-called best-of-breed suppliers.
Business development manager at the telecommunications provider People Telecom, Brian Gore, believes the integrated service his business offers is strong, as People Telecom can bundle voice, mobile, data or internet services into a single bill.
Account management is something that Gore says many smaller businesses also take on. Some businesses fall into the habit of simply paying their bill each month without ever analysing whether they could get a better deal.
It’s also important that the business knows exactly what it is buying. Sometimes the provider is simply reselling someone else’s network, which can lead to headaches when things go awry.
“I have worked for a provider who used a number of different network providers for their long distance traffic and it always seemed to be a nightmare if a customer had a fault and it was on a long distance call,” Gore says.
There can be advantages in going for so-called best-of-breed suppliers. In mobile telecommunications for instance, Vodafone offers a service called Mobile Officer whereby employees within the same organisation can call each other free of charge for a set monthly fee. The company also offers a product called Business Cap, whereby numerous callers within a business can share the same cap plan, providing better cost control across the organisation.
Vodafone’s head of group business customer marketing, Dan Johnson, says the packages are a response to other carriers complicating matters with peak and off-peak pricing, or offering different rates for calling to different networks. And so, what looks like the best price may not be the best deal.
“If they’re just looking for the best price in the market, they could be cutting themselves short,” Johnson says.
There is help at hand, however, with a range of consultants who can provide advice about the various options to find one to match needs. Jenney says much of the work done by Commander starts with a discussion of needs. “If they want to go down the DIY route and piece it together themselves, that’s great,” he says. “But it may be best for them to call a provider and get a consultant to come in, sit down with them and work all that out and deliver one simple solution.”
Products for all Business Budgets
Mid-range: NEC IPKII PABX
Able to operate as a standard telephony system or in hybrid mode, the NEC IPKII PABX solution provides benefits of scalability to businesses with strong growth potential, with a large range of handsets to choose from.
Higher-end: Panasonic KX-TDE Pure IP-PBX System
With full connectivity for desktop computers and networks, the KX-TDE can integrate with a range of business applications to form a complete communications backbone. The system supports ‘hot-desking’, allowing staff to route calls to the nearest handset, regardless of where they are, with built-in call centre and messaging functions.
Mobile: LG Prada phone
While the Apple iPhone won’t be available on Australian networks until at least next year, the fashion conscious can take some comfort in the Prada phone by LG, a sleek silver device that sports a full touchscreen interface, designed by the famous European fashion house.
Accessories: Polaris Soundshield
Acoustic shock is a little known phenomenon affecting wearers of telephone headsets that can lead to permanent hearing damage. The Australian-designed Soundshield device from Polaris can detect and eliminate unexpected high-pitched tones (the acoustic shrieks that lead to hearing damage) in under 32 milliseconds, protecting headset wearers.