Businesses have never had more ways to communicate. Whether by voice, video or data, on handsets, headsets, pagers or cell phones, the telecommunications industry offers more choices to reach out and touch someone, and promises even more in the future.
Yet a 1998 survey by administrative staffing company OfficeTeam found that the average executive spends 17 minutes a day on hold-up from 15 minutes a day in 1993. With the myriad of services offered to growing companies, some phone bills have begun to resemble tax returns. The pressure from customers for instant response round-the-clock means that high-tech multifunction communications systems are being transformed from a competitive advantage to just another cost of doing business.
"Customer expectations are changing based on the technology and what the competition is offering," observes Jeffrey Kagan, author of Winning Communications Strategies and a telecommunications consultant to Fortune 500 firms. Your system should be at least the equal of your most advanced competitors, Kagan advises. "It's not a question of choice. You either do what the customer wants, or the customer will find a competitor who will."
It takes the work of a professional telecommunications consultant to select a phone system that will grow with your business, given the variety of products and prices available. Fred Voit, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology market-research consultancy, says, "It's something you can't afford to gamble on." Smaller companies may rely on referrals from friends, Voit notes, but a growing company can't afford the luxury of buying or leasing a system that will be out of date in two years. Kagan agrees: "Most businesses don't have a clue; I don't have a clue. If I had to go out and buy a phone system now, I'd get some professional help."
Whether or not you hire a consultant, the experts agree there are some basic considerations:
- Scalability. Your system should be tailored to your business plan, plus some, says Joseph Villarosa, director of the small and medium business practice at the Yankee Group. PBX, or private branch exchange, is the heart of the modern business phone system, and usually is expandable, says Voit. Find out from your consultant or your value-added reseller, also known as VAR, just how much functionality is built in, and how much may need to be added as your company grows. Plan on establishing and building a relationship with a reliable phone product and service provider that can install, repair, maintain and expand your system as needed.
- Usability. Your phone system should be easy for your customers to use, even if it's not as easy as you'd like it to be for you. "How many customers do you have to lose before you realize that saving Mary Jane's salary wasn't worth it?" Kagan asks. Too many businesses install elaborate voice-mail directories that frustrate buyers who wind up looking elsewhere for their purchase. Offer callers an "escape hatch" from voice- mail to a human operator. Consider your other phone services from the customers' point of view.
- Price. Often the most daunting factor for smaller companies, this is becoming less so with the advent of PCS-personal communications services-and cell phones bundled with hundreds of free minutes per month. It won't be long before individuals use personal, lifelong phone numbers that reach them anywhere, anytime. Companies that employ the telecommunications advantages appropriate to outdoing their competition will see the earliest returns. "It's not a matter of how much the technology is costing you," Kagan says, "but how much business you're losing by not having it."