What on earth should you do with your email when you’re away on holiday? Switch off and face returning to a bulging inbox? Stay connected and risk not having a proper break? Delegate access to a colleague?
Each option has pros and cons. But there’s a constant factor: taking a holiday gives you a unique opportunity to clean out your inbox. Done properly, this will substantially reduce your holiday backlog.
You should aim to leave an empty inbox and inoculate yourself from a severe attack of information overload on your return. Here’s what to do:
During the week leading up to your holiday, set time aside each day to spend clearing out your inbox.
Be absolutely ruthless. For example, delete multiple copies of the same email, retaining only the last message in the chain. Move emails that are no longer current into a folder. Flag emails that will need attention when you return.
Put newsletters, social media updates and so on in to a folder where they won’t be in the way when you return.
Remove yourself from all unnecessary email circulation lists, and flag up messages you need to deal with once you’re back.
Use automatic filters to de-prioritise unimportant emails and file messages automatically while you’re away.
For example, you can set up Outlook (or your preferred email client) to move all emails from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn into a specific folder. Or you can even delete them altogether.
If you’ve decided to give a colleague access to your inbox while you’re away, take the time to give them a rundown of what is and isn’t important.
They need to know which messages to prioritise in your absence, and who they should reply to quickly.
Think about what to say in your out of office message. Do your customers really want to know that you’ve ‘jetted off for a week of sun and sangria’?
Make sure your out of office message doesn’t give away any sensitive information, either.
If you do decide to stay connected, stay disciplined and check your email only once or twice a day. And remember: all the evidence suggests that disconnecting is good for our health and wellbeing.
Copyright © 2014 Monica Seeley, founder of Mesmo and a leading expert on email best practice.
As the popularity of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephone systems grows, more businesses are considering switching from their traditional telephone setups.
But if you’re considering taking the plunge and evaluating VoIP suppliers, how can you make sure you get a reliable, high-quality service?
Never heard of VoIP? Learn the basics of VoIP.
If you don’t have a decent internet connection, there’s no point in even considering VoIP.
To enjoy decent call quality, you really need a dedicated internet connection for your VoIP system. The number of people who can make calls at once depends on the speed of your connection, so some companies need more than one connection.
Determine out how many people are likely to be making calls at the same time and then check your broadband connection has enough capacity.
Some VoIP services — like Skype — work on slower connections by significantly compressing the data they send and receive. However, this can sometimes reduce the quality of calls dramatically.
Worried about call quality if you switch to VoIP? A large volume of regular phone calls already get routed over the internet, so there’s an excellent chance you have already experienced VoIP call quality without noticing the difference.
When you’re choosing a VoIP phone (or another device) to use with your connection, choosing the cheapest equipment is a false economy.
As with anything, you get what you pay for. If you spend a lot of time on the phone then it’s wise to spend a little extra for hardware that will perform consistently and stand the test of time.
One of the most attractive features of VoIP is that you can replace a traditional physical switchboard (often called a PBX) with a virtual switchboard. A virtual switchboard is basically software running on a server in the cloud.
This saves you a small fortune in purchasing, maintaining, repairing and ultimately replacing a physical unit.
When choosing a VoIP provider, make sure they offer a fully featured, reliable virtual switchboard. Many providers offer basic services, but not all have the advanced options your business may need as it grows.
It is also a good idea to look for a supplier that is an Ofcom registered SS7 carrier, rather than a reseller or VoIP only provider, as this ensures a direct connection to the UK network.
It pays to shop around when you’re choosing a VoIP supplier. When you do, be sure to compare the call rates you’re signing up to. Virtually all VoIP services will be cheaper than a traditional telephone system, but some are better value than others.
Watch for headline rates that seem too good to be true. Often there are hidden costs that will mount up. Some providers offer all-inclusive fixed priced deals. These can be worth investigating as they mean your costs are predictable.
With so many businesses already using it, it’s hard to argue that VoIP isn’t the future of telephony. If you’ve not yet taken the plunge, now is an excellent time to make the change from a traditional system.
Matthew Guise works for hosted telephony firm Callagenix.
This blog post sounds like it should be over on our sister website, Marketing Donut, along with the other information about marketing your business via email.
But actually, here we’re going to explain how a simple IT task can save money on your marketing budget. And that’s why this blog post is on IT Donut.
The data your business holds about current and prospective customers will gradually go out of date if you don’t make efforts to maintain it.
People change phone numbers, email and postal addresses and switch jobs. Businesses shut down, merge with others or get taken over.
If you don’t keep on top of these changes, you’ll end up wasting your marketing budget by mailing the wrong people at the wrong places.
For instance, Data HQ — the company I work for — recently saved a charity £1,500 in mailing costs by auditing and cleansing the organisation’s data.
Sending marketing messages using duff data can harm to your company’s image, too. You don’t want to make incorrect contact with customers and prospects when you’re looking to make a positive impression leading to a sale.
One of the most straightforward ways to weed our bad records from your marketing data is to regularly check it against industry suppression files.
These files contain ‘gone-aways’. These might be people who are deceased, businesses that have shut down and so on.
Data relating to businesses is more susceptible to decaying quickly than that relating to individuals, because people change jobs frequently and whole companies can change names.
The rate of decay for business data can be up to 40% per year.
This makes it even more important that you regularly check company and employee details, removing any that are no longer relevant.
Many industry suppression files are available to help you check and cleanse data. They include:
Ideally, you should cleanse your data against as many available files as possible, as regularly as possible.
Suppression files can also help you keep your database updated. If a customer has recently moved house, wouldn’t it be good to get their new address and maintain contact with them?
If you run telemarketing campaigns, there are some other suppression lists to be aware of too:
It is a legal requirement that organisations do not make sales or marketing calls to numbers registered with these services unless they have the contact’s consent to do so.
If you’re new to the idea of auditing your marketing data, it might be a good idea to speak to a reputable data solutions supplier.
They can help you determine the best way to compare your list to the most appropriate suppression files, showing what proportion of your data is inaccurate.
From there you can cleanse the data, updating details where possible or removing records entirely.
At the end of the process you’ll have cleaner, more accurate data for your marketing activities. And that means your marketing budget will go further.
This is a post by David Battson from Data HQ.
There’s always more you can do to protect your business from security threats. But there’s never quite enough time to do everything.
So, here are eight easy ways to give your company security a bit of a boost.
Unlike in the fashion industry, old tech rarely becomes cool again. You aren’t going to get any new customers because you run Windows 98.
Also, the latest operating systems have better security features, meaning you'll be better protected from web threats.
The same applies if you’re using Mac OS, or some other operating system. Stick with the latest version to be safest.
Internet Explorer is so 2004 and people using it tend to get targeted because hackers know they’re not likely to be very web-savvy.
Constant update notifications from your software can be really annoying, but ignoring them could end up causing you more problems.
Virtual bugs are just like real life ones — they’re constantly evolving to find different ways to infect you. Updates contain new info on how to swat the bugs. Unless you install them, you won't see the benefit.
If your password for something is 'password' then you're in for a bad time of it. Hopefully your passwords aren't this terrible, but it's likely they could be improved.
For maximum security, use a random combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. You can use a service like LastPass to help you remember them.
It sounds technical, but all two-factor authentication means is that logging in requires you to prove your identity in two ways. Usually, you need a password you know and a reference code that’s sent to your mobile phone.
We’ve all had one of those moments when your jaw drops, you stare blankly at the screen and think: ‘I've made a huge mistake.’ It’s at times like these that System Restore can be a lifesaver.
System Restore is a feature in Windows that allows you to roll your computer back to a previous point in time. The idea is that if something goes wrong, you can go back to the last ‘known good’ configuration.
Your computer will probably create restore points on its own, but you can do it yourself when you make major system changes, too.
Ok, here’s the worst case: your computer is so utterly cream-crackered that you need to wipe it and start again.
If you’ve been backing up your data regularly then the process of getting back to normal becomes much less painful.
To be honest, this point alone could make up a whole new tip sheet. But in a nutshell, try to stick to websites you trust.
Sites listed higher up in search results are more likely to be safe because more people have used them.
There are some dark and dingy corners of the internet. Try and avoid them.
Nick Chowdrey is a finance and accounting writer for Crunch, an online accountancy firm for freelancers and small businesses.
Here’s a good one for you. According to new data from digital marketing agency Alchemy Worx, brands could increase engagement and revenue by simply sending more email.
Before we examine this idea any further, let’s just recap where we are in the world of business email:
In short: email is out of control. And they reckon we should be sending more of it?
The business behind this research, Alchemy Worx, is an email marketing agency. Its conclusions are based on an analysis of its own client data, which consists of 2.2bn emails sent to 40.6m recipients over the last year.
This analysis found that if a brand with five million email subscribers sent one more email to that list every month, it could achieve an extra 1.9m email opens and an extra 175,000 clicks on links in the emails.
Alchemy Worx reckons that could equate to an extra £1.8m in revenue.
So: send more emails and you’ll get more business. Is it really that simple?
Well, no. Even if we disregard the wider issue of inbox overload and the mess that will ensue if every company decides to send emails more often, it’s clear different businesses will see different results.
The best analysis I’ve found comes from MailChimp. If you’re re-evaluating your email marketing strategy then it’s worth reading the whole article, but the key point is that every business has an email sweet spot.
If you increase the frequency with which you email your customers, over time people engage with each individual email less.
This means that if you move from sending an email once a month to sending emails three times a month, you’ll almost certainly find your click through rate drops for each individual email.
As you’re now sending three times as many emails as you were before, the total number of clicks may still be higher. That means more engagement overall, and — potentially — more revenue.
But if you increase email frequency too much — say to five or six times a month — you could see lower engagement than with fewer messages.
Email marketing is a long-term effort. You don’t want to undo all your hard work of building a list of loyal customers by sending them so many emails that they start to think of your messages as spam.
But equally, you don’t want to email so infrequently that you drop out of people’s minds altogether.
Quite simply, you need to figure out what works for your company. Again, MailChimp has summarised it well:
“I’d highly recommend ignoring calls to ‘send send send,’ and find a comfortable middle ground that feels balanced between individual campaign engagement and overall periodic engagement.”
So, while using your data to make decisions is important, there might be other considerations too. For instance, it’s increasingly possible to send targeted emails to specific groups of customers, rather than hitting everyone with the same email.
Finally, next time you’re about to press ‘send’ on a marketing email, spare a thought for the state of your recipients’ inboxes. With email, as with many things, less really can be more.
Email is a massive drain on productivity for many businesses. It’s not hard to see why. An inbox stuffed with thousands of unread messages is par for the course, making it easy to get sucked into a spiral of doom that goes as you try to discern what’s important.
It’s tempting to hit the delete button to purge the lot and hope anything important will somehow make its way back to you.
But while it might be cathartic, wiping out your inbox will not help you gain control. Like a crash diet, it will all pile back on eventually.
Instead, here are five to put you in charge of your inbox, for good:
Email security should be top priority when managing your inbox. With so much valuable data in there around, it’s essential you’re confident that it’s secure.
Threats include malware, spam, phishing and data leaks. While they can seem complex, taking some basic IT security precautions will go a long way to keeping you safe. You can also purchase software and tools to boost your security.
Virtually every website you encounter will try to lure you into subscribing to updates and it’s very easy to forget just how many you’ve signed yourself up to.
Until, that is, your inbox is stuffed senseless with newsletters and promotions that you have no interest in. Be ruthless: do you really need to receive details of every promotion and special offer that’s going on?
While it might be easy to push aside emails and deal with them later, you know it will most likely never happen.
Instead, you end up with a growing pile of unread mail that seems to reproduce all by itself. Act on each email straight away and decide whether it needs a response or whether you can just delete it.
Nearly every email package allows you to create folders for your email, so make use of this feature.
It’s wise to create logical divisions based on your workflow or needs. For example, if you have several clients to manage, having a folder for each will help keep communication clear and organised. You can even categorise personal email into groups like family, friends and purchases.
A cookie cutter template email might seem like a horribly impersonal way of responding.
However, if you find yourself sending the same message over and over again to different people, it can be a good way to minimise the time you need to spend on email.
This is a guest post from Ben Williams, on behalf of Mimecast email security.
A flexible, modern email system can really make your life easier. Advanced email clients combine your email, calendar, address book and file management tools to make it easier to find the messages and files you need.
Here are some of the ways an advanced email system can help you avoid the most time-consuming, headache-inducing aspects of email.
We often store messages, documents and files relating to the same subject in different places. This means you need to waste time switching between different apps and windows to access them.
An advanced email system will help you keep all information about a particular subject in a single folder. You can assign categories to files and folders too, making it easier to identify what you need.
Most email systems store messages, attachments, calendar data and contacts within a single database file (in Microsoft Outlook, for example, data is stored in .pst files).
As the file grows in size, performance suffers. But more seriously, if it gets deleted or corrupted, you can lose everything. An advanced email client avoids this by processing and storing messages and documents as separate files in regular folders.
Even the very largest, most reputable email services can go down occasionally. This can leave you cut-off from crucial data.
An advanced email client will combine offline and online storage so that data is stored on your computer as well as on the email server. This means you can access it even if the email service goes down.
One big limitation of web-based email services like Google Mail is that it can be tricky to access more than one email account, address book or calendar without constantly logging in and out.
However, advanced email clients can connect to and work with several accounts at once, so you can use multiple mailboxes, calendars and address books more easily.
Modern email applications have become increasingly more sophisticated. That’s a good thing, until you run into a problem. Then it can feel like you’re on your own — especially if you’re using a free service.
Switching to an advanced email client for which you pay a small amount each month should give you access to proper support channels, so you can search for help online or pick up the phone if you get stuck.
This is a guest post from Vladimir Spirin, managing director at EverDesk.
Companies are creating and keeping more data than ever — and some businesses are getting excited about what they can use all this ‘big data’ for.
Yet the reality for many companies is that the data explosion actually equals data frustration. For all but the most disturbingly-organised individuals, essential documents are hard to locate. Files get saved in the wrong folder — and email is often the most-disorganised data of all.
If you work in a typical office, there’s a good chance you use Microsoft Outlook to send and receive email. If you receive 50 emails a day, that’s over 12,000 emails hitting your inbox in a year.
If you decide to archive them all (after all, who knows when you might need a particular email in the future?) then finding a specific email soon becomes hard work.
In this sort of situation, the only option is to undertake an email search. And then wait. With email folders — especially the sent folder — extending into the tens or hundreds of thousands of emails, the standard Outlook search process is inadequate.
In addition to being incredibly slow, the way Outlook works makes it difficult to find any email if you can’t remember the entire recipient list — which is hardly helpful.
It’s not uncommon for it to take over 15 minutes to find an email. Sometimes you’ll fail completely and give the whole thing up as a bad job. What a ridiculous waste of what should be highly productive time.
The problem is that even if you have a proper email archive system in place, most of these solutions are about storage, not retrieval.
Yet in a world of exploding data, effective information retrieval is an essential business tool. Most email users would bite your hand off for fast, guaranteed access to email, like a Google-style keyword search that rapidly locates the right information.
By combining an archive of every email sent and received with keyword search, you get a faster way to locate messages and documents that have been misfiled.
With the right approach, there is no need for big data to constrain your productivity. You can keep all your emails and find the one you’re looking for, when you need it — enabling you to be more productive.
Blog by Andrew Millington of Exclaimer
I'm a long-time user of Google Mail. By and large, I think it's brilliant.
The enormous amount of storage space means my email archive contains thousands of messages going back over half a decade. I can log in from anywhere and find exactly what I need in moments.
The old interface might look rather traditional, but it does the job well:
The line of icons across the top ensures you're never more than one click away from inserting bullets or links, indenting text, changing formatting or running the spell check.
Contrast that with this new, cleaner interface. When you start writing an email, this pops up over your inbox:
With icons stripped from the interface, it takes more clicks to find functions that were previously obvious:
Google says the new interface is faster and more focused. I contend that having to think harder about how to insert a bulleted list or embolden text is almost certainly going to break your focus more effectively than the old icon toolbar did,
Besides, the new interface keeps your inbox visible behind it, so you can see new emails as they arrive. That won't be distracting in the slightest, will it?
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The way email works is important because we spend so much time using it (more than a quarter of the average day, according to some research).
When companies alter services like these that we're comfortable with and rely on, it can make us less efficient, change our working practices and make us feel uneasy.
That's the way I'm feeling at the moment. And that's why I'm irritated by Google's unneccessary tinkering and arbitrary changes. Maybe it's time I switched to Microsoft Outlook instead.
For this tip of the week, we show you how to cut quoted emails down to size.
It's easy for a long email chain to get out of control. Once a message has gone back and forth between two or more people a few times, replies start getting ridiculously long.
Typically, you'll have a few lines of the new message at the top, followed by pages and pages of older messages. Some email systems - including recent versions of Microsoft Outlook - make it really easy to cut this rubbish out of your replies.
Here are the instructions for Outlook. Many other email clients work in the same way:
Click and drag with the mouse to highlight the key text:
Just click the Reply button as normal:
Outlook will only quote the selected text, so you can write your message and hit Send:
That's all there is to it! Recipients will thank you for bringing the email back down to size.
Can you get everyone around the same table? (Image: Arne Hendricks on Flickr.)
There's a complete abundance of online tools to make collaboration easier, even when the people you're collaborating with are based in different locations.
In fact, there are so many collaboration tools available - both free and paid-for - that it's hard to settle on one that's right for you and your colleagues. To help you find a tool that works for you, here are some of the best on the market:
Trello allows teams to manage projects through a system of 'cards' that convey different ideas and concepts.
Extremely efficient, it's simple to navigate with a clear, logical interface. You can log in to Trello through your web browser, or download apps for Android and Apple mobile devices.
Huddle was founded in London, and this service allows you to send and share files quickly and easily, logging details and keeping projects organised.
It's a highly efficient collaboration tool which allows your team to manage everything across a series of 'whiteboards' where everyone can see what's going on. The free version of Huddle is rather limited, so you'll need a paid-for package for anything more than basic functions.
MindMeister works on the basis of mind-mapping, adopting a visually-driven approach to collaboration. Your team can share their thoughts in a collaborative and visually stimulating manner across a number of 'whiteboards'.
There's a good mobile app for MindMeister too, which is helpful when ideas creep up on you while out and about. You have to use the paid package in order to get a version of MindMeister you can use without internet access, but even the free version has a lot to offer.
With a highly intuitive interface, Sync.in manages to be simple to navigate whilst also providing advanced functions. You can manage projects across various social media outlets, and sharing is quick and easy.
Sync.in tends to be text-driven, and there are no visual tools whatsoever. Still, that means it's focused, driving projects forward along a single track.
Basecamp is one of the most well-respected collaboration tools out there. With an intuitive dashboard, it's an effective management system that operates through emails and can also connect to a number of external technologies.
It's a good beginner's tool because it's simple, but it has deep technical features that you can explore as you get to grips with it. The downside? Many of the extra features come at a price, leaving you with minimal resources initially.
Skype might have started out as a tool for socialising, but these days many businesses find it essential for discussions and collaboration.
You can talk face-to-face via webcams, allowing for easy sharing of ideas when back-and-forth messages won't cut it. It might be no good for document sharing or project management, but it's perfect for instant messaging and voice chats. (It's also a cheap way to get a landline number.)
Do you rely on a collaboration tool that isn’t listed here? Leave a comment to let us know about it.
This article was written by Alexa Garthwaite, Business Development Manager at Executive Offices, who offer virtual offices, serviced offices and meeting room hire in prestigious locations across the UK.
Image: Flickr user opopododo.
Have you noticed how frequently the term 'disruptive' is used to refer to technology? I often think it's off-putting for many businesses. After all, the last thing that any of us want is more disruption.
Cloud telephony services are often described as being disruptive. But in reality, cloud telephony can be much less disruptive to businesses than other types of telephone system.
However, cloud telephony certainly is disruptive to traditional telecoms service providers and carriers, because it offers features that they cannot provide.
Let's take a closer look at how cloud telephony compares with traditional on-site telephone systems.
Cloud telephony can offer significant cost savings over traditional digital lines or even VoIP telephone systems. As with other cloud services, you eliminate many of the infrastructure and maintenance costs of an on-site system.
You can either introduce cloud telephony alongside your existing telephone system or as a complete replacement. Either way, you will almost certainly save on line rental and call costs. Expect to pay as little as 0.75p per minute for calls to landlines, or 2p per minute to call mobiles.
In addition, you should get the flexibility of a per-user, per-month pricing plan, without a lengthy contract. The cost can start from around £10 per person per month.
Cloud telephony is inherently scalable, making it ideal for growing businesses. This means you never have to pay for more services than you need at any given time.
Because cloud telephony is delivered over the web, it's easier to bring branch offices and remote workers onto a single phone system. You can scale up and down easily and economically without the headaches of changing or merging lines.
Furthermore, employee mobile phones can be integrated with your cloud telephony system, enabling business calls to be logged and even recorded in the cloud.
Employees can be given a business phone number which routes to and from their mobile, meaning they don't have to use their personal number for business. It's a great way to allow staff to bring their own device, without revealing their personal numbers or running up unnecessary call charges.
Overall, you'll get more control over mobile call costs (which can be a significant proportion of your total telecomms bill) and be able to manage employee mobiles more effectively.
Cloud telephony can give your business access to sophisticated features that were once the preserve of large companies.
You may be able to integrate your email, CRM or other business systems with a cloud telephony system. This will allow you to click-to-dial, or display information about a caller on screen before your telephone agent answers the phone.
In contrast, it's usually much harder to integrate traditional phone systems into your other business systems.
A cloud telephony system also provides flexible call recording. You can choose to record every call, or just those that fit criteria you set.
Call recordings are stored in the cloud, meaning you can access and play them from any internet-connected computer. Recordings can also be linked to customer records in your software.
Combined with comprehensive reporting, you'll get a complete, detailed insight into your company's sales processes, from initial enquiry to closing the deal.
So, with its inherent flexibility, lower costs, and business-enhancing features, cloud telephony can be compelling for almost every company. Since when has this kind of good business sense been disruptive?
This piece was written by Mark Seemann, CEO of SYNETY, a cloud telephony firm.
Regardless of the size of your business, a telephone system is one of the most important tools that you have when it comes to communicating with your staff and your clients.
The effectiveness of your telephone system can make or break a business. In many cases it’s the first point of contact a client may have with you, so remember first impressions last.
I know how frustrated I get when I’m trying to contact a business and I am constantly passed from person to person or put on hold while they find the right contact. It can be incredibly annoying!
Sometimes I even hang up and look at what a competitor is offering. As a business you definitely don’t want this to happen.
An efficient telephone system allows your customer to reach their required destination quickly, saving both their time and that of your staff. Taking a few simple steps to improve the efficiency of your business telephone system can go a long way to improving the image of your business.
In most cases, simple changes can create big improvements. So, here's how to get the most from your telephone system:
(Image: Flickr user Tim Green.)
It's make or break time for RIM, manufacturer of the BlackBerry.
Once dominant in the world of business smart phones, the BlackBerry's market share has been steadily eroded by Apple's iPhone and Android handsets from the likes of Samsung and HTC.
But now RIM is fighting back with the BlackBerry Z10, which looks like ... well, it looks like every other smart phone that's hit the market in recent years.
It's a black slab with a big touch screen. Original.
But there's one feature that sets the BlackBerry Z10 apart from its competitors. It's called Balance. According to RIM, it's the 'simplest and most user-friendly way to balance your personal and work life on a single device.'
Balance means that instead of carrying two phones (one for work and one for business), the BlackBerry Z10 can do both. It keeps company data secure and separate from personal photos, games and other distractions. You switch between the two modes by swiping the screen.
Buy the BlackBerry
BlackBerry Z10 is available from major mobile networks:
While Balance sounds like a really useful feature, for your business to take advantage of it you need to have bought into the BlackBerry platform, and be using BlackBerry Enterprise Server.
And that's where the BlackBerry Z10 is going to hit problems for smaller companies. The current trend is to bring your own device (BYOD) and give staff incentives to use their own smart phones for work.
There's no point in going to the trouble of implementing Balance if only a few staff members have chosen to buy the Z10.
Does that means the BlackBerry Z10 is set to fail? Not necessarily. It's just that the strings attached to Balance make that particular feature less useful for companies that don't have the budget to buy a phone for every employee and set up a BlackBerry-based infrastructure.
What's left is still a very capable smart phone. But given the dominance of Apple and Android, is that enough?
Get a prestigious address with a virtual office. (Image: Flickr user ell brown.)
In recent years working from home has become more popular. It can give you access to a good work/life balance, and keep your costs down. One result of this is an increase in the number of virtual offices.
A virtual office gives you all the features and functionality of a full office, but from the comfort of your own home. Designed for small businesses, a virtual office can offer a range of services to help promote your business and provide a professional service to your clients.
A typical virtual office service might include:
If you currently work from home then you may find a virtual office can give you the professional image you need to impress existing clients and attract new ones.
Virtual offices are very flexible. You can pick and choose which features you want and which you don’t, selecting a package that suits your needs and your budget.
A virtual office can give the appearance of a big business, even if you are working from the comfort of your own home. In turn, you may reap the benefits of appearing this way to your clients.
Paul James writes for Anvic, a firm offering virtual office services.
It can be a challenge for freelancers working from home to keep their business and personal lives separate.
The humble telephone number is a great example of this. Many freelancers end up using the same landline for personal and business calls. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, like your kids answering when your most important client calls.
But landlines are expensive, costing as much as £15 a month from BT. Getting a second one installed hardly seems worthwhile, especially if you mostly use your mobile for outgoing calls.
Well, here's a cheaper, more flexible alternative. Skype - the internet telephony and instant messaging service that's now owned by Microsoft - can give you a landline number for a fraction of that cost.
It works really well - I've been using it to take business calls for the last few months.
You need to have a Skype account to buy a number (it's free to sign up). Once you have a number, the Skype app on your computer will 'ring' when someone calls it. You can answer and speak to the caller using a headset connected to your computer.
If you'd prefer to have a separate phone on your desk, you can buy a Skype phone instead.
Price aside, there are other advantages to this approach too:
If you have a Skype account, it's easy to add a number to your package. Just go to the Skype website and sign in. Then:
That's it. Now when you're signed in to Skype, people will be able to call you on your landline number. And they'll never know that you're not using a normal telephone.
(Image: Flickr user dno1967b.)
Your inbox is probably as overloaded as this. (Image: Flickr user Mr Thinktank.)
Is the end of email in sight? Er, no, not if current research from Mesmo is anything to go by. It has found that 46% of business users receive a new email every nine minutes. No wonder it's hard to keep on top of your incoming email.
To try and tackle this scourge of modern business life, Mesmo is running its annual Clean Out Your Inbox week. Starting today, you can join forces with Dr Monica Seeley of Mesmo and Marsha Egan of InboxDetox to get on top of your email for 2013.
Struggling to stay on top of your email?
These books could help you get organised:
Every day this week, you can view tips and hints to help you and your business take control of your bulging, time-wasting inbox.
Each day covers a different tactic to conquer your email, and there are prizes for the people who manage to downsize their inboxes the most.
To learn more, hop on over to the Mesmo blog where you'll find an outline of the week's activities and instructions explaining how to get involved.
If you're grappling with an inbox full of email newsletters, you might also want to check out Unroll.me, a clever tool that can combines all your email subscriptions into a single 'rollup'. We covered it a couple of weeks back.
However, if you decide to use this - or other tools - to sort out your inbox, do take note of Monica's advice: "Using software is an option but it is rather like prescribing a drug when you know only the symptoms of the illness and not what is the real illness."
In other words, it's no good applying the sticking plaster of an inbox tool without addressing the cause of your email overload too.
Tick-tock: time is precious in business. (Image: Flickr user blue2likeyou.)
Are communication and administration tasks diverting resources in your business that could be better used for other things?
Many of the 3,500 small companies surveyed cited specific problems with communications and admin. They'll probably be familiar to your company too:
Even when faced with these issues, many workers are still clinging to traditional methods of communication, relying on the phone, email and meetings.
However, some businesses are seeking alternative ways to communicate, with 39% increasing their use of online collaboration tools. The study found that these are more commonly used by organisations which saw an increase in profits or turnover in 2012.
This could suggest that more forward-thinking, tech-savvy small businesses are using collaborative technology to gain a competitive advantage.
Do you use any great collaboration tools in your business? Or is it better to pick up the phone and have a chat? Leave a comment to let us know.
The Skype in the Workspace homepage.
Skype recently announced a new service, Skype in the Workspace. The online communications firm - which was bought by Microsoft in 2011 - reckons its platform is an ideal way for small businesses and entrepreneurs to find potential partners and suppliers.
Signing up is easy and takes less than five minutes. You just need to enter a little information about yourself and your business. You can then create opportunities for people to connect with you by saying what subject you want to talk about. Alternatively, you can search for interesting opportunities yourself.
It seems a bit like online dating for business - you search for what you're looking for, and then you can use Skype to chat to people who offer it. Being able to make instant contact is a big part of the service's appeal, because it encourages new connections and communication.
Indeed, Skype believes firms can use the service to demonstrate products to a wider audience. Users can also book appointments with potential customers or suppliers, and keep track of these with a meeting notification service. When an opportunity is over, users can instantly give testimonials on the product or service offered.
At least, that's the theory. At the moment, Skype in the Workspace seems somewhat sparsely populated. My search for 'accountant' returned one result, while 'lawyer' returned three, all located in the US. Searches for things like 'web development', 'marketing' or 'design' return lots more possibilities, although the quality varies quite considerably.
It's early days for Skype in the Workspace yet, and businesses who've had success in finding partners and customers through channels like Twitter and Facebook might well appreciate it as another string to their bow.
The international dimension is interesting too. Alison Coward is owner of the London creative collaboration agency, Bracket, and reckons the service has extended her reach considerably.
She says: "With Skype in the workspace, I am visible to quality leads without even leaving the office. With no travel time to contend with, it’s also now far more feasible for me to grow my business outside of the UK into Europe and the US."
It's too early to say whether Skype in the Workspace is really going to take off. My gut feeling is it's more likely to become a niche channel than a broad tool like Facebook. But as it only takes a couple of minutes to create an opportunity, what's to stop you trying it?
Smart phone applications could pose a significant threat to your company’s IT system in terms of security, availability or mobile data costs if left unchecked.
In a worst-case scenario, valuable and sensitive data could be at risk if you allow employees to download and install apps at will to their personal and work devices.
While smart phone settings can vary from device to device, all potentially leave a company open to abuse. Every time you install an app, it's important to check what resources and data the app is requesting permission to use.
At some point, everyone has skipped through lengthy terms and conditions to save time. It's these terms and conditions which often explain what data the app will use and how it will use it - so not reading them could mean unwittingly giving an app control over sensitive data, or even the phone itself.
Although an app may appear to be a harmless game or a useful productivity tool, there is nothing to stop it from including code to send a text message, make a phone call or even read data stored on the phone and upload it to an external server.
To minimise these risks, your business and its employees should consider some simple steps:
How sure can you be that a company promoting an app has not included hidden features or a developer has not included some malicious code? Software vendors with a track record of delivering solutions to businesses generally have the development disciplines in place to protect you from these risks, so beware the unproven startup or one man band developer.
Smart phone apps are extremely attractive, but it’s important not to forget that under the veneer of simplicity, IT is extremely complex. Your systems can be manipulated by people who understand that complexity, if they are left unchecked.
Paul Ridden is Managing Director of Skillweb, a privately owned, UK based business that provides technology solutions designed to help organisations manage their mobile workforces and track the movement of their goods.
This week's Friday tip is about a couple of overlooked features in Outlook 2010 that could save your bacon. Please note that some of these features may only work if Outlook is connected to a Microsoft Exchange server.
When editing a message in Outlook, have a look under the File > Info menu. The first option, 'Restrict permissions to this item' allows you to control whether the email you send can be forwarded to other recipients. This is handy for anything confidential, including HR and salary related emails.
The second option of interest is the message delivery report. If the message you're looking at has already been sent, selecting this option will take you to a web based service that shows you if the email was delivered or not. Sometimes this might prove useful with clients that aren't receiving your emails but don't check their spam folders.
Next we have 'message resend and recall'. As the name suggests, this allows you to resend or recall emails. Resending an email this way is different from just sending it again, as it will delete your previous email from the recipient's inbox, and replace it with this updated version. Very useful for correcting mistakes you noticed after the email was sent. Recalling an email works in a similar way, where the email is removed from the recipients inbox. (Note: you can only recall an email if the recipient has not already read it, but I suppose in that case it's too late anyway.)
The last button on the info page brings up properties of the message. Here you can control any flags, such as 'high importance' or 'sensitive', as well as controlling message expiry date (if desired). This will notify the recipient that the message is out of date if they read it after the date you specify.
Bonus tip: Many of these features can be added to your Outlook ribbon toolbar, by right-clicking on it and selecting 'Customise the ribbon'.
Too busy running your business to worry about what's on your feet? A new app from Blacksocks - pioneers in the world of sock subscriptions (honestly, I had no idea - whatever happened to just buying them in John Lewis?) - helps you keep track of all your socks.
When you buy the company's starter kit (just £119 - bargain!), you'll get ten pairs of chipped socks and a Sock Sorter, which can communicate with your iPhone.
When you hold the Sock Sorter over each sock, an app on your iPhone will identify it, then show you a whole raft of statistics. See when each sock was manufactured, and when you bought it. View the number of times you've washed it, and make sure you always put the same socks together in pairs.
You can even measure how black your black socks are using your iPhone's camera. It uses a simple traffic light system to warn when your socks are so faded that they need replacing. No need to use your eyes, like ordinary people.
Your troubles are over. No more mismatched pairs. No more lone socks. If there's a better use for a brand new £600 iPhone than this, I've yet to see it.
Coming next, an app that reminds you to shave?
Over the last day or so a Samsung video has emerged that pokes fun at Apple and its customers.
It shows a bunch of people waiting in line outside a shop to buy a new mobile phone. To pass the time, they discuss the phone's exciting new features, like a connector that's 'all digital' and 'the coolest adaptors'.
The ad is clearly aimed at Apple, the tone is of friendly mockery, and it makes some good points. Many new iPhone features have been standard on Samsung phones for some time.
But around a minute in, one member of the queue reveals that - shock, horror! - he's not there to buy a phone himself. He's just saving a spot for his parents.
"Thanks for holding our spot," says his coffee-cup-clutching mum, while a bearded, grey-haired chap (dad, presumably) looks on with a benevolent smile.
The implication is clear: the iPhone is for oldsters. If you're hip, with it and under 30, a Samsung phone is way cooler.
Just a bit of lighthearted fun, or casual ageism? I can't quite decide, but in this day and age it seems patronising to suggest older people are behind the times with technology and have a tendency to make poor purchasing decisions.
We've mentioned before how research shows the stereotypical view of older computer users isn't very fair or accurate. Yet in the process of having a dig at its biggest rival, isn't Samsung needlessly reinforcing those stereotypes?
Watch the video here and decide for yourself:
Buying an Apple or Samsung phone
If you want to buy a new phone without a contract, you can order iPhone 5 on the Apple website (from £529). Samsung's Galaxy SIII is available from online retailers like Simply Electronics and Misco (£400 - £500)
A very handy feature I’ve started using this week is finding related messages. This is extremely handy if you have a long thread of emails and want to go back to check something. You can find related messages (based on subject), or related messages based on the sender. In Outlook 2010 this is as simple as:
Another feature I’ve been missing out on is categorisation. This lets you simply assign a colour to an email, task, contact or calendar appointment. You can also assign labels to each colour. This makes it really easy to find contacts, tasks and appointments relating to one project as you can give different projects different colours and see at a glance what's related. Again in Outlook 2010, it's as simple as:
Getting hold of Microsoft Outlook
You can buy Outlook 2010 from these retailers: