New internet technology means small businesses never have to miss a customer's call again. Photograph: Alamy
No business can afford to miss customer calls but that can be easier said than done when owners are on the move and busy running the business.
Fortunately, advances in broadband technology are now allowing companies of any size to utilise the kinds of call forwarding, multiple extension and answer phone services which would previously have only been available to a large enterprise. Technology can now even allow a business to have a virtual receptionist in another location taking and forwarding calls, appearing to the outsider as if they are in the room next door to the busy founder.
At its simplest level, internet telephony allows someone such as Kate Bendix to run her My Itchy Dog website from wherever she needs to be. When she set up her site for dog skin remedies and healthy snacks, like many budding entrepreneurs, she had a day job which led her to rely on an 0845 number as well as taking the odd call on a mobile. With growth allowing her to go full time she has since switched to an internet telephone package from Vonage which allows her site's customer telephone number to follow her around, wherever she needs to be.
"I've got a little box I plug in to the broadband in my office which I can disconnect and take anywhere with me and the phone number will follow me," she says.
"It's ideal if you work between home and an office and need to move around with work. With this system I'm always contactable, which is absolutely vital because my typical customers want to discuss their dog and see what I recommend. I've got a local dialling code, which is great because when I relied on the 0845 number people were loathe to ring it because they didn't know what they would be charged. Also, if I was forwarding the call to my mobile, they'd pick up the price of the call. Now if I set up my phone to forward calls to my mobile, I pay for it so that's better for customers. My phone certainly rings an awful lot more now than my 0845 days."
One potential downside here is that when the office phone does not get answered it forwards to Kate's mobile phone. While this can be controlled some entrepreneurs may prefer an answering system that does not directly allow customers to ring through to their mobile.
This is certainly an important requirement for Niamh Stephenson, co-founder of Event In A Tent, a business that rents out large tepees for corporate functions, music festivals and weddings. She and her co-founder husband both had the same issue of having to hold down a day job while they launched the business and so mainly used their mobile phones to discuss tepee bookings. Now in their fourth year the business is thriving and they have started a young family and are keen to keep their evenings private.
"Customers will call you at any time if your work number forwards to a mobile or if you've given out your mobile number," Stephenson cautions.
"So we've gone for a virtual receptionist service from a company called Moneypenny and of all our expenses it's the best £150 we spend each month. Our work number goes through to a receptionist who answers calls and then forwards them to the office. Crucially we can tell her if we're out and about and she can see from our online calendars where we're going to be. She can put a call through to a mobile without giving out the mobile number and if we can't be reached she'll take a message, which is then emailed to us. Not missing a call is extremely important because you don't want to lose business. But you can't just give out your mobile to everyone and not expect it to ring when you're trying to have some quiet family time."
For a small company which wants the big company feel of multiple extensions following founders and staff around different offices, there is now a wide choice of cloud-based telephony systems. Rather than locating an exchange box in the office, having the technology housed and maintained by a provider offers advanced features without the hassle and at a lower cost.
This was very important to Roger Coleman, founder of Theatre Sites, which provides support to theatres to ensure their web services work well and, in particular, do not fall over during peak demand periods. When starting out he simply wanted the same number to work in his home and work offices, and since those early days has now added 10 extensions through provider Foehn.
"When I needed to go to a bigger phone network we expanded this system by adding extensions which we allotted to individuals, so we have a main number but then also some direct dial numbers too," says Roger.
"That's why I picked a system that could grow with us because my original need was setting up an office but not wanting to change the number I'd been using at home. We can log on and set up extensions to ring specific phones or go through to different people at different times. One support number, for example, needs to go through to one guy during the week but then another on a Saturday. With the technology, however, you just set that up online.
"One of the biggest benefits is we can set up "softphones" on laptops and smartphones so they become part of the network but, crucially, we have it programmed to only ever give out our standard office number when making calls. That way clients know it's us, so we have consistency and people don't end giving out mobile phone numbers which they might be called back on at any time for a support query."
While the solutions selected by an SME owner will change from one business to another and then change again as each business grows, the big lesson each company has learned is that quality is not universal. The main advice is to research providers and the feedback they receive from customers.
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