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Blog posts in Communications

Four things to look for from your VoIP provider

March 17, 2014 by Matthew Guise

Four things to look for from your VoIP provider/A typical VoIP phone{{}}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.

1. What sort of broadband connection do you have?

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.

2. What equipment do you need?

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.

3. Should you get a virtual switchboard?

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.

4. How much will calls cost?

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged VoIP | 0 comments

Make your marketing budget go further

February 26, 2014 by David Battson

Make your email marketing budget go further/Rolodex - Is your data up to date{{}}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 cost of out-of-date data

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.

Use industry suppression files

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.

Where to find suppression files

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.

Consider working with a data supplier

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.

Eight easy ways to boost your web security

February 19, 2014 by Guest Blogger

Eight easy ways to boost your web security/Security fence{{}}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.

1. Get the latest version of Windows

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.

2. Bin Internet Explorer

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.

More advanced browsers like Firefox and Chrome have additional useful features, are generally safer to use and cost absolutely nothing. Which means there’s no reason not to switch.

3. Keep all your software updated

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.

4. Improve your passwords

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.

Read more password tips >>

5. Use two-factor authentication

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.

You can easily set up two-factor authentication on many websites and online services, including Twitter, Gmail, iTunes, Facebook, Microsoft accounts and LinkedIn.

6. Maintain restore points

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.

7. Backup your data

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.

External hard drives for backups are pretty cheap these days. You can also use online storage, such as that offered by Dropbox and Google.

Learn more about backups >>

8. Be a vigilant browser

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged security | 0 comments

Apparently we need to send even more email

January 27, 2014 by John McGarvey

Apparently we need to send even more email/lady receiving lots of emails{{}}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?

More emails, more revenue?

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.

Every business is different

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.

You need to be more sophisticated

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged email | 0 comments

How to take control of your inbox

January 21, 2014 by Guest Blogger

How to take control of your inbox/mailslot{{}}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:

1. Keep it secure

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.

2. Start unsubscribing

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?

3. Don’t put off responding

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.

4. Be more organised

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.

5. Standardise replies

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged email | 0 comments

How to avoid five big email headaches

January 14, 2014 by Guest Blogger

How to avoid five big email headaches/man with headache{{}}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.

1. Finding and organising related files

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.

2. File loss and corruption

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.

3. Data security and downtime

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.

4. Switching between accounts

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.

5. Getting support when you need it

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged email | 0 comments

How to organise your email archive

December 09, 2013 by Guest Blogger

How to organise your email archive/archive botton{{}}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.

Organising 12,000 emails a year

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.

Outlook search is broken

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.

Email archive + keyword search

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

Posted in Communications | Tagged IT security | 0 comments

Google, please stop messing with things that work fine

April 08, 2013 by John McGarvey

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.

Making Gmail worse

But last October the search giant started testing a new interface for writing messages. Now it's decided to roll it out to all users. And, unfortunately, it's a backward step.

The old interface might look rather traditional, but it does the job well:

Old Gmail compose interface{{}}

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:

New Gmail interface{{}}

With icons stripped from the interface, it takes more clicks to find functions that were previously obvious:

  • To add bullets or change text formatting, you must click the underlined to show formatting options. A second click picks the option you want. That's twice the clicks it took before.
  • It works differently when you want to add a link or emoticon. There's no extra click, but you have to run the mouse over the + symbol to reveal the option you need.
  • The process for finding the spellcheck is different again. First, you have to click the non-descriptive down arrow at the bottom right. Then choose Check spelling from the list. Once again, what previously took one click now requires two.

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?

Looking for a deal?

See the latest business tech bargains we've found online.

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Your email matters

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged Google, email | 1 comment

TOTW: how to cut email replies down to size

March 01, 2013 by John McGarvey

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:

1. Highlight the text you want to quote in your reply

Click and drag with the mouse to highlight the key text:

Highlight text in Outlook{{}}

2. Click Reply or Reply All

Just click the Reply button as normal:

Reply button{{}}

3. Write your reply

Outlook will only quote the selected text, so you can write your message and hit Send:

Write and send email{{}}

That's all there is to it! Recipients will thank you for bringing the email back down to size.

Six of the best business collaboration tools

February 21, 2013 by Alexa Garthwaite

Collaboration tools for business{{}}

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:

1. Trello

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.

Learn more about Trello >>

2. Huddle

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.

Learn more about Huddle >>

3. MindMeister

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.

Learn more about MindMeister >>

4. Sync.in

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.

Learn more about Sync.in >>

5. Basecamp

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.

Learn more about Basecamp >>

6. Skype

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.)

Learn more about Skype >>

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged collaboration | 2 comments

Cloud telephony: when disruption is a good thing

February 14, 2013 by Context PR

Cloud telephony{{}}

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.

Cost savings

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.

Scalable and flexible

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.

Enable, don’t disrupt

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.

Reporting for business

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.

Posted in Communications | Tagged VoIP, telecomms | 0 comments

Four ways to save money and improve your telephone system

February 06, 2013 by Paul James

Red phone box{{}}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.

Telephone frustrations

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.

Four steps to a better phone system

In most cases, simple changes can create big improvements. So, here's how to get the most from your telephone system:

  • Look at new technology. Even if you are stuck in the Stone Age, eventually time will come where you have to embrace new technology. With innovations such as VoIP widely available, there are many ways to cut down your business expenditure. Keep on top of new innovations and you could save a substantial amount of money.
  • Ensure your network is appropriate. Cables running all over the office are an accident just waiting to happen. But your office doesn’t have to look this way. By taking the time to sort out your networking you could increase the efficiency of your communications and tidy your office at the same time.
  • Look at bundled packages. Many companies offer bundles which allow you to combine your landline phone, broadband and services like voicemail into one package. You only have a single bill to worry about, and often it's more cost-effective to get everything from a single supplier.
  • Look at the tariffs available to you. Many telephone providers offer different tariffs depending on the way that you use their telephone service. If you aren’t currently on a business tariff then you could consider making the switch. Business tariffs are generally cheaper for high volume users and come with a range of additional benefits.

Paul James writes for AdaptiveComms, a firm offering business telephone system services.

(Image: Flickr user Tim Green.)

The new BlackBerry aims to bring Balance to your business

February 05, 2013 by John McGarvey

BlackBerry Z10{{}}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.

The BlackBerry Z10 does personal too

There are lots of reviews that'll tell you about the BlackBerry Z10's tech specs and performance. Check engadget, TechCrunch and The Telegraph. Overall, it seems like a decent handset.

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.

Will BlackBerry Z10 work with BYOD?

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?

Posted in Communications | Tagged smart phones | 0 comments

Create the right impression with a virtual office

January 30, 2013 by Paul James

Street sign - virtual office{{}}

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.

What is a virtual office?

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:

  • A professional call answering service, so calls get answered even when you're busy.
  • An official business address, which looks professional and could even be in a prestigious location.
  • A post forwarding service, so mail is sent on to your home in good time.
  • A telephone divert facility, allowing you to divert calls to your mobile or another location when you're aware from home.
  • Secretarial and administrative support, which enables you to focus on building your business.
  • A voicemail service, to take messages when your phone rings out.

Making the most of a virtual office

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.

Freelancers: get a business landline without a landline

January 22, 2013 by John McGarvey

Telephone sign{{}}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.

The price of a landline

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.

Other advantages of Skype

Price aside, there are other advantages to this approach too:

  • Flexibility. Unlike a normal landline, your number isn't linked to a location. Callers can dial the same number and reach you anywhere. If you're out and about you can automatically divert calls to your mobile or use Skype's mobile apps to stay in touch.
  • More choice. Skype lets you choose which area code you want your number to have. This means you can get a London number even if you're based in Leicester, or an Edinburgh code even though you live in Essex.
  • Cross borders. You can also get a number for a different country, if you choose - it's a nice way to let international clients call you at local rates. Dialing international numbers through Skype is often cheaper too.

How to get started

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:

  1. Scroll to the Manage features heading and click Skype Number.
  2. Click Get a Skype Number
  3. Click the country for your Skype number
  4. Click the dropdown menu to choose your area code
  5. Skype wlll give you a list of numbers to choose from. Choose the one you want and click Continue.
  6. Choose whether you want to buy for 1, 3 or 12 months.
  7. Enter your payment details and follow the instructions to complete your purchase.

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.)

How to sort your email out once and for all

January 21, 2013 by John McGarvey

Overloaded hand cart{{}}

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.

Daily email tactics

Useful books

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.

Tools can help too

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.

Communication and administration: a business nightmare?

January 14, 2013 by John McGarvey

Clock hands{{}}

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?

A study conducted by Dynamic Markets on behalf of Google has found that even in this age of webcams, collaboration software and instant messaging, many workers struggle to work together effectively.

Many of the 3,500 small companies surveyed cited specific problems with communications and admin. They'll probably be familiar to your company too:

  • Over half of respondents said they run into email problems on a weekly basis. The biggest single issue was mailbox size. It's common for some email systems to block incoming and outgoing messages when your mailbox fills up. No word on whether any respondents are secretly pleased for the breathing space they get when this happens.
  • Arranging meetings eats chunks of employee time. The survey found that on average, a meeting takes one-and-a-half hours to arrange. Regardless of whether you accept that faintly ludicrous figure, it's clear meetings drain productivity. You can use a shared calendar system to book meetings efficiently (both Microsoft Office and Google Apps offer this function), but I'm not convinced that gets to the root of the problem. It would be far better simply to pledge to hold fewer meetings.
  • Another big headache is collating feedback. On average, the people surveyed do this seven times a month, taking two hours each time to combine all the comments into a single master document.

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.

Skype's version of online dating for business

November 23, 2012 by John McGarvey

Skype screenshot{{}}

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.

Make new connections

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.

Not much happening

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?

The business risks of smart phone apps

November 12, 2012 by Paul Ridden

The business risks of smart phone apps{{}}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.

Read the terms and conditions

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.

Minimise app risks

To minimise these risks, your business and its employees should consider some simple steps:

  • Only use apps from credible sources. Check the app's website to see who created it. Search online for the name to see if anyone else has reported problems with it.
  • Ask if you really need each app. The fewer new apps you install, the lower the risk.
  • Check the developer behind the app. Are they established and trustworthy? Do they have something to lose?
  • Check what permissions the app is asking for. Are these what you'd expect? For instance, a collaboration tool might need access to the phone functions or the internet, but would a standalone game?
  • If in doubt, say no to the download or modify the permissions (if you can) to only let it access the features you'd expect it to need.
  • If you are unsure about anything, seek advice from someone who knows what it all means - such as your IT manager, your IT supplier or an expert.

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.

TOTW: Control yourself (and your emails)

September 28, 2012 by Imanuel Votteler

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'.

Smart socks take technology to new levels of ridiculousness

September 26, 2012 by John McGarvey

Smarter socks{{}}

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?

Posted in Communications | Tagged mobile app, apps | 1 comment

Does Samsung care about its older customers?

September 20, 2012 by John McGarvey

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)

For a phone on a new contract, both handsets are available from networks like Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

Friday Donut tip: Digging for gold in your inbox

August 31, 2012 by Imanuel Votteler

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:

  1. Right click on the email you want to trace the history of
  2. Select 'Find related'
  3. Chose 'Messages in this conversation' for related emails by subject
  4. Chose 'Messages from sender' for related emails from the same sender
  5. To get back to your un-filtered inbox, simply click the X on the search bar in Outlook

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:

  1. Right click on the email you want to categorise
  2. Select 'Categorize'
  3. Select your colour
  4. From there you can also select ‘All categories’ to add more or change the labels

Getting hold of Microsoft Outlook

You can buy Outlook 2010 from these retailers:

Friday Donut tip: keeping on top of your Outlook inbox

August 10, 2012 by Imanuel Votteler

A bulging Microsoft Outlook inbox can be a fact of life. The more emails you send, the more you receive - and that makes it all-too-easy to forget to follow up important messages. So, to help you keep track of what's in your inbox, here are three key Microsoft Outlook tips:

1. Use coloured flags

All recent versions of Microsoft Outlook (since Outlook 2002) allow you to flag messages as they come in. There are lots of different coloured flags available (so you can use them to indicated different things) and flagging a message turns it into a task, which then appears on your task list.

Just click the grey flag by each message to set a flag. What's more, when you right-click a flag you've set, you can add a deadline, helping you prioritise tasks.

2. Use folders

Folders are a great way to group emails about a particular project or subject, or from a particular person. For example, I have an IT folder, with a Projects subfolder, and then subfolders within that for individual projects.

Getting into the habit of filing emails in the correct folder makes life a lot easier when you need to find an email quickly. And if you're feeling confident, you can also use rules to automatically move emails to folders based on who they were sent from, the text in their subject, or a number of other factors.

3. Search and you'll find

The search option in Outlook has improved considerably with recent versions, and it's often now the fastest way to find a message. In the latest version (Outlook 2010), the search happens as you start typing.

Outlook search bar{{}}

Just enter someone's name, a keyword, or another word you know will help identify the email. Results should start appearing as you type. If you are having trouble finding what you need, try some of the more advanced search options.

Getting hold of Microsoft Outlook

You can buy Outlook 2010 from these retailers:

Previous Friday Donut tips:

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