How small businesses can increase sales and retain customers through communications


This week we are showing small businesses how to increase sales and retain customers  through better communications.

We constantly help our small business clients implement some basic technology to help them make the most out of one of their most critical business tools: the phone system.

Increasing sales while keeping the bottom line intact two things that all businesses, especially small businesses, struggle with on a daily basis.

As a small business, you constantly compete with larger businesses and other small businesses for customer share. Competition is fierce, as customers know they can look at many different options to purchase their goods and services.

So how do you attract new business without decreasing the level of support you currently provide your customers? Better yet, how can you improve your level of service to existing customers so they become repeat customers and “tell-a-friend” about the great service that they have received from you? How can your sales staff or mobile workers become better connected to the office so they can be on top of situations as they occur?

And perhaps most important of all, how can you control costs while doing all of this?

Imagine a potential customer who is calling in order to get hold of pricing information for a particular item of interest. The first hurdle they must overcome is getting someone to answer the phone. Unfortunately lunch hour, coffee or bathroom breaks, and office administrative tasks can interfere with this.

As a result phones can remain unanswered, ringing endlessly, or callers are dropped into the operator’s or admin’s voicemail. These days, people expect better. They demand a very high level of customer service, more than 9 to 5 support, and immediate resolutions to  queries.

Those callers who are used to instant answers hang up the phone and try the next company on the search engine page. The odds are you’ve lost a customer forever.

But what about those who do get past the first hurdle? The phone’s been answered. The admin may know to whom the call is routed, but then the same issue arises. Now, the phone on someone else’s desk rings and if they aren’t there it is dropped right back to voicemail. Again your customer more than likely has moved on to another company – looking for that immediate response.

If you have gone through the trouble of setting up a business to sell a product or service, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you make it as easy as possible for people to do business with you. Making it easy for people to contact your company is essential and puts you a step closer to selling your products and providing exceptional service.

What you need is to implement some basic technology to help your company make the most out of one of your most critical business tools: the phone system. And this is where Pinnacle can really help.

There are a whole range of areas that smaller businesses should look at to improve the customer experience through things such as call distribution, mobile communications, roaming, and innovative networking solutions.

To start with, when your phone rings, there is no reason why that call shouldn’t be immediately and automatically routed to the appropriate person or group, eliminating the time needed for someone to manually complete the task.

An easy way to determine the best routes for your automated system is to set up a simple chart. Write the date along the horizontal axis and leave space for the reason for the call on the vertical.

For a week or two have your front line staff quickly jot down the reason for each call: those answered and those dropped to the admin or operator voicemail. At the end of the monitoring period you should have a fairly good idea of what people are calling about. From there, you can develop your automated attendant by grouping and tallying the results.

It’s a very simple exercise, but now you have a situation where callers can bypass the endless ringing at the front desk and route themselves to their area of interest: be it customer-based or personal calls. If a caller does have a request that is out of the ordinary, they still have the option of speaking to a live operator by pressing “0”.

What this means for you is that the front line staff who was previously spending a significant portion of their day routing calls is now free to concentrate on other tasks. Essentially, you’ve gained a more productive employee with more time for other company business. This can only benefit your bottom line.

What if your needs are greater? Your auto attendant can forward to a department, but what if that department has more than one person who can respond to a call?

Call distribution solves this problem for you. Ring groups can be programmed to have termination points, such as if the call is not answered in a certain amount of rings it should be sent to voicemail or another answer point. This increases the chances of someone being available to answer the call.

Or there is ‘hunting’ where a call can search through a pre-programmed sequence of telephone extensions, terminating at the first free one it finds.

There are many such communications issues that especially small businesses struggle with on a daily basis. But the easiest and most cost-effective way to change is by unifying your communications. We offer numerous options for small businesses, allowing them to compete and excel in a competitive market.

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The increasingly powerful ‘Presence’ features in communications technology


‘Presence’ features in telephone systems are becoming increasingly more powerful. Knowing whether someone is available before you try to reach them dramatically improves communications effectiveness, and ‘presence’ is gradually spreading into messaging systems.

What isn’t always recognised is that a type of enterprise ‘presence’ functionality has existed for a long time in the form of traditional phone features. A busy lamp on a phone indicating that a colleague is engaged is a well established form of presence information that improves communications performance – you know up front to try someone else or that you’ll need to leave a message, for example.

Similarly call waiting tones, redirection to voicemail, do not disturb features, call forward, etc all represent communications functions influenced by what other users are doing at any given time. These capabilities – and more – are already embedded into standard telephone systems, but the exciting part is how the next generation of ‘presence’ information is being brought into a unified communications environment.

We are now looking at incredibly powerful features which, for example, can take information about a user’s availability from a variety of sources including electronic calendars, GPS or bluetooth enabled devices and even intelligent systems that recognise trends in behaviour.

This means that systems can see what you are doing, who you’re with, your location and your next scheduled activities, and intelligently decide on the best course of action for call or message actions, and provide confirmation feedback to people trying to reach you, for example giving a response indicating your next available calendar slot or an alternative way to reach you.

In addition to automatically updating call routing policy – for example, which device should receive calls or messages – certain unified communications applications can use presence information to optimise performance – for example ‘out of office’ presence information advises a unified messaging system to send the user an email if a voice message has been received.

A user’s presence status provides information to others about the ability or willingness to communicate and should also determine the preferred mode of communications. Even with rich presence information and the resulting sophistication in policies, the user still requires ultimate control to customise their communications. Our approach is to enable users to control both how their presence information is displayed and which communications modes are to be used.

The user’s preference settings determine which devices are contacted and how calls are handled – for example forwarded to another user, sent to voicemail, or delivered a custom greeting based on presence status, caller’s identity, time of day or calendar information.
The “3 Cs” of effective enterprise presence solutions are Context, Control and Confirmation:

  • ‘Context’ recognises that a user’s availability status really depends both on what they’re doing and on who is trying to contact them.
  • ‘Control’ refers to the ability of the user to maintain presence policies with the minimum of overhead and effort.
  • ‘Confirmation’ is the negotiation and acknowledgement process that is an inherent part of human interaction. When you’re behind closed doors, I peek through the window next to your office door and wave to get your attention. If you’re talking to someone else you give me the “just a minute” signal (or you wave me off). Regardless of the outcome, I know you received my request for communication and were able to make an informed decision about its relative importance in light of your current activities (context and control).

At the most basic level, presence information is a status indicator that conveys the ability and willingness to communicate. A user’s desktop client provides presence information which can be made available to other users to convey their availability for communication. The most common use of presence in an instant messaging client is to display an indicator icon along with a text description of the state. States exist in many variations across different clients but common ones are “free”, “busy”, “away”, “do not disturb” and “out to lunch”.

But we can now go one stage further and put these states in context for the user. For example, VIP lists, in which a caller is pre-authorised by the user to over-ride presence-driven policies, is particularly relevant to the fast-paced enterprise environment. Good teamwork is essential to most organisations. However, in today’s complex business environment, team members are often scattered around the world, working in different time zones, different departments and different offices, some working from home and others on the road.

Teams often extend beyond the boundaries of the business as part of a community of interest of partners, suppliers and other collaborators. Each individual team member may also work with several other teams and communities of interest. With unified communications and presence tools that let each individual indicate whether they are available to communicate at any given time and what device they can communicate with, team members can collaborate with their colleagues without wasting time with messages and telephone tag.

Our vision of unified communications provides a converged infrastructure that streamlines communications between people and organisations, regardless of the medium, mode, platform, device or location. This leads to improved productivity, enhanced customer service, reduced costs, and ultimately improved business process integration.

This converged infrastructure brings together voice communications, presence and availability, instant messaging, conferencing, collaboration, unified messaging, mobility, and business applications into a seamless environment to enhance the user experience and the effectiveness of “in the moment” communications that is a critical element of business success.

A robust and flexible presence infrastructure, that leverages the strengths of IP Telephony call status information as well as presence information, presents dramatic opportunities for more effective enterprise communications.

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Call Management Reporting Can Slash Business Costs

service-pack-4668Organisations need to take a look at ‘call reporting’ as a way of bringing down their business costs by up to 15%. Logging and recording calls using cutting-edge but affordable software can show a telephone network’s cost, performance, capacity and quality of service.

The old maxim that ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’ has proved to be so true when it comes to communications. Retaining existing customers, controlling costs and seeking competitive advantage have always been difficult goals and a challenging economic environment only adds to that difficulty.

For smaller organisations, often without in-house technical skills and experience to determine which communications products and applications are best suited to their needs, the prospect of using technology for commercial advantage can be daunting.

Our telecoms systems are designed to manage and improve the use of telecommunications throughout an organisation by delivering a wide and flexible range of reports that show them exactly what is going on in a format that is easy to understand and tailored to their business.

As well as the immediate cost savings of up to 15% on calls can be realised as well as the associated savings in staff time, these reports can quickly highlight further immediate savings that can be made by terminating unused lines, redeploying unused extensions, and identifying and eliminating unnecessary and unauthorised private calls.

In addition, real-time call reporting will alert you quickly to any unusual telephone or trunk activity, thus potential telephone fraud can be recognised early and huge expense avoided.

Call Management reports can highlight such areas as:

  • Cost Control – cost of calls, cost of trunk lines, costs by department or individual extension, number of unused extensions, etc. Call logging software can also discover instances of Telephone fraud.
  • Performance Management – looks at how long it is taking an organisation to answer phone calls by operator, department or extension and demonstrates whether they meet acceptable target levels for that organisation.
  • Capacity Management – judges whether the system is being over or under used. It examines trunk usage and call patterns that show where extra capacity is required or where cost savings can be achieved.

Call Management software is a simple to use, yet highly sophisticated management tool that lets an organisation see what is happening within their business when it comes to telephone usage and much more. Quite simply, Call Management can help you run your business better, increase productivity and save you money.

With Call Management you can reconcile your phone bill by seeing reports that show the phone calls you actually made, by number, call duration, which extension made the call. More significantly, you can block calls to unauthorised numbers so you don’t get caught out again. It’s a sad fact that the hacking of phone systems is on the increase again.

Criminals can hijack un-protected systems – usually at night or over a weekend – and use them to redirect calls to overseas locations or very expensive premium rate numbers they own.

The first users general know about it is when they get the bill, often tens of thousands of pounds – and be warned, you are liable and you have to pay up. Call Management can protect you against this fraud by identifying any irregular call patterns and stopping the calls before damage is done.

With Call Management you can also list out your major accounts and identify calls to and from them in simple-to-read reports. How many calls did you miss last month from your biggest customers? Call Management can tell you.

And do you know which of your customers is tying up your expensive customer service desk? Are 80% of your service calls coming from just 20% of your customers? Worse still, are those 20% of customers really spending any money with your business? Once again, Call Management will identify the issues and provide the reports you need.

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Organisations need to look to the future of the way people work


Organisations should start looking at the future of the way their workforces operate in light of both cultural and technological changes. The differing needs of employees both now and in the future means that organisations should carefully weigh up their technological needs now to ensure they lead the process rather than be led by workers.

We currently have a workforce made up of many generations, but we also have a rapid pace of technological change. In just a few years, someone who used to be well versed on the latest email platforms and online collaboration tools is faced with a plethora of social media channels and smartphone apps.

Such a diverse workforce is divided by different personalities and personal preferences, and different ways of working. For example, research shows that women value flexible working hours and locations, whilst men value choice over tools and technology.

Today’s younger workforce, which has grown up using the web and advanced personal computing devices, appears to be more open to new ways of working, and find the prospect of a ‘portfolio career’ appealing.

Looking ahead, there will be no ‘traditional’ way of working, as organisations look to appeal to a diverse workforce that wants to pick and choose its projects, hours, devices and location. But organisations could be making a mistake if they simply roll out technology to appeal to this diversity.

Technology should not define a business, but become the enabler for a business to define its culture, its spaces and the kind of organisation it wants to be.

Many organisations make the mistake of giving employees all the tools they need to work flexibly, but how these are used needs to come from the leadership table. What culture do you want to create? What behaviour do you want to incite? It’s important that direction is given on how employees use this technology.

The emphasis for flexible working is often facilitating this outside of the office environment, but many workers still value the traditional office space for social interaction, sharing ideas and meeting with different parts of the organisation.

The value of flexible working is its inherent ‘flexible’ nature: an organisation cannot promote the idea of flexible working and merely cover the provision of a desk and a chair for their employees’ spare room, they need to look at connectivity, collaboration, and real-time communication.

Over the next twenty years, those workers who knew little beyond the nine to five culture will move into retirement and younger people entering the workplace will have grown up having seen their parents work flexibly.

The experience gained in the education system will be critical in shifting our culture and equipping young people with the skills they need to work in less structured ways. But there is little evidence of the education system adapting in order to prepare students for new ways of working.

The younger generation still struggles with independent work, even at university level, and this could lead to serious productivity issues in the future if our workers lack the discipline to work effectively of their own accord.

It is essential at this early stage in the virtual workplace evolution that we identify the best methods to engender a positive, binding working culture, through self-management skills, promoting ‘leaders’ over ‘managers’ and providing tools – through technology – to supplement this.

Ultimately, balance will be key.

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Crucial communications questions for at-risk companies


What would happen if your telephone system failed and you did not have a plan in place to deal with it? Would your business still be able to operate? Would you be able to contact your customers or suppliers? What alternatives could you arrange and how long would it take?

Incidents in recent years have illustrated all too clearly the affect that natural disasters can have on a business. For example, localised flooding has affected thousands of businesses, some of which never recover.

Without timely communication – when, where, and how your customer wants to communicate – there is no customer relationship. Despite all the innovations in self-service over the past decade, the most important connection is often the voice a company can put on the other end of a telephone.

Yet many companies underestimate how fragile that link to the customer is, how many different ways that connection to the customer can be jeopardised – and how broad their options are for ensuring that they never lose touch with a customer.

We help companies with the level of preparedness they need to achieve consistent customer communications through the role of remote technology to ensure continuity and an effective long-term strategy.

A communications continuity strategy is essential for maintaining customer relationships, but upgrading communications systems that increase flexibility have some side benefits as well:

  • IP telephony system upgrades, which are a key solution to the continuity issue, have produced overall communications systems savings of between 25 and 60 per cent.
  • Companies that have changed their communications systems to be more prepared for business disruptions have seen an average savings of up to 85 per cent a year when IP telephony is involved.
  • New systems enable access to voice messages and faxes even if – in the event of a power failure or severe weather, for example – phone systems are down and the office is closed.

To understand continuity, you need to think through your customer’s eyes. They are not tethered to a specific phone or location when they call you. They can reach out from a home or office desk, a cell phone, WiFi hotspot, or a IP Telephony link.

They have little sympathy for an accidentally severed fibre-optic cable, or a road accident causing a power disruption. All you know is that you are out of touch during crucial moments – moments when a customer wants to initiate a contact.

The effects of those service interruptions can ripple through your organisation with greater long-term effects than a major catastrophe.

When customers can research and switch suppliers and partners in a matter of minutes, during even a modest interruption, your company simply vanishes from the customer’s radar.

The cornerstone of any customer communication strategy is accessibility. Know how your customers will access your company during a disruption of services or locations. On the other hand companies are not structured properly to provide to give employees accessibility to their jobs.

If you are having a conversation with a customer and you are told to evacuate the building for a fire or a drill, the technology exists today to switch that call to your wireless handset, allowing you to walk right out of the building and keep talking, and it will be seamless to the customer.

Relationship continuity is subject to pressures great and small, old and new. Much of the high-profile effort put into relationship continuity planning revolves around high-profile threats – threats of terrorist attacks, pandemics, and devastating, wide-ranging natural disasters of flood, earthquake, and fire.

Although substantial, by their very nature these are not the threats most companies face most of the time. Companies must seek modern strategies to deal with a varied range of continuity threats.

Outdated continuity plans fail to account for modern threats and vulnerabilities. They fail to take an updated view of the importance of ongoing customer relationships.

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Leading the way with ‘Hosted Telephony’


Hosted telephony services are changing how small, medium and large businesses use voice communications. They can deliver an extraordinary range of business, financial and technical benefits – making business voice communications more resilient, saving money and making it easy to adapt to change.

Office phone systems are often called PBXs – Private Branch Exchanges – or PABXs – private automatic branch exchanges. In the simplest terms, they connect any two or more phone users in the same organisation together.

Of course they can do a vast amount more, providing facilities such as voice mail, conferencing, call forwarding and so on to make life easier. PBXs are sited at the business’ site, and connect to the outside world via analogue and digital circuits, with cabling around the business location to which handsets are connected. The intelligence to make the components work together is within the PABX itself.

Hosted phone systems, by contrast, take most of the switching and intelligence of the conventional on-site system and move it off-site to a remote location where it is managed by a service provider, such as Pinnacle. Equipment at the business’ site is limited to the phones themselves, a switch, and broadband routers.

As a result, hosted systems are usually quicker, cheaper and easier to install and set up than conventional phone systems. As they are hosted remotely, there is less need for on-site expertise or maintenance.

In contrast, premise-based PBXs require equipment to be located on site. The organisation will be responsible for installing, managing and, when required, upgrading the equipment, as needs change.

Hosted telephony services are good for:

  • Small and medium-size businesses.
  • Organisations with multiple offices or remote users, and those that anticipate rapid changes in size.
  • Any organisation wishing to avoid the significant capital cost of acquiring an on site phone system.
  • Organisations with limited on-site knowledge of managing a phone system.

On-site or premise-based systems are best for large, stable businesses with a predictable number of users that need custom features or to integrate their phone system into their business applications.

Hosted phone systems provide small- to medium-sized businesses with abilities and features that are available to larger organisations, while providing the potential to reduce long-term operating costs considerably.

As with any rapidly growing technology, there is a wide variety of providers and a range of features at widely varying prices. Key benefits include: basic operating cost reductions due to lower call charges, the need for only one communications network, and lower maintenance costs.

There is a minimal investment risk, because no significant upfront investment is needed, and straightforward installation costs are based on tested, reliable components connecting to a system which IT personnel already understand.

It is important to make sure that your system has the basic features that you require now for the operation of your business and for its future growth than to drive the cost to the absolute bare minimum. Be clear about your initial and ongoing costs, contract terms and additional costs you may be committing to.

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Unifying The Worlds Of Voice And Data Key To Business Success

imagesCompanies embracing the merging of voice and data technologies will be the ones which prove most successful.

The worlds of data and voice have evolved separately in recent years, but those organisations which marry them together using current technologies will see substantial benefits in the form of capital and operational cost savings, lower cost of ownership for hardware, reduced risk associated with continuity and disaster recovery, and new opportunities for innovation.

First, there is the world of the data centre. Its servers and other hardware components, and the business applications that run on them, are the backbone of the organisation. They turn the reams of data that companies generate and collect into the information they need to understand and operate the business.

Then, there is the world of telephony. Here, voice applications ensure that the people whose performance determines how well the organisation does, how effectively it competes, and whether it succeeds or fails, communicate with one another in myriad ways to ensure that information is understood and acted on. Even in today’s high-tech world, voice communication is the beating heart of the business.

Managing those worlds is not easy. It means having two of everything. Two budgets. Two groups of personnel with different sets of specialised skills. And two technology infrastructures to buy, deploy, and support, because data applications and voice applications have very different needs when it comes to the hardware they run on and the ways in which they can be managed.

At least, they did until now, and we can help those organisations which want to take this next big leap forward.

Reducing the overall number of physical servers in a data centre has the obvious benefits of capital cost savings. And server consolidation also leads to immediate operational savings, because office space is needed to house hardware, and less energy is needed to power and cool the fewer servers that do the job.

And organisations used to labouring over two plans for business continuity and disaster recovery – one for data, the other for voice – can now encompass their entire IT infrastructure with a single plan. And they can have a common set of service level agreements (SLAs), processes, and tools for their single infrastructure.

In short, companies can now fundamentally change the way they think about their IT infrastructures and their resources. Instead of managing individual boxes, they can manage overall IT services. Instead of devoting most of their budgets to maintenance, they can focus on innovation.

And, for the business people who depend on data and voice applications, it means a better quality of service at considerably less cost.

Uniting the worlds of data and voice on a single infrastructure means:

  • Reduced capital expenditures. Running telephony and data applications on the same servers means fewer servers are needed, so the total cost of ownership for the information infrastructure drops dramatically.
  • Reduced operations and maintenance costs. Managing communication solutions along with other business applications does away with the costs of duplicate maintenance tasks.
  • Reduced power consumption. The power savings inherent in data environments can also be applied to voice applications.
  • Improved application availability. Applications are no longer subject to prolonged downtime for physical server maintenance.
  • Integrated business continuity. Consolidated disaster recovery management means that management methodologies and best practices can be applied consistently across all applications in the data centre, including business communication applications.
  • Increased business innovation. Freed from having to maintain two separate infrastructures, IT can devote resources to developing new applications and services that build competitive advantage.

The world of the data centre have been around since the days of mainframe computers. These were huge and expensive, and organisations had to use every ounce of power they offered and squeeze every bit of potential out of them.

One problem to realising their potential was that different software applications can require different operating systems. Unless a way could be found to run more than one operating system on a mainframe, different computers would be needed to run different software – something too expensive to be practical.

The solution to the problem was called ‘virtualisation’ – dividing a mainframe into partitions capable of running different operating systems and applications – in other words, turning one ‘real’ computer into two or more ‘virtual’ computers – and this made it possible to slice and dice resources and put the pieces to their best use.

Today, virtual computers can be created and modified at will. Applications and databases can be moved from one virtual machine to another without disrupting the work of the business people who depend on them. Deploying new software and maintaining hardware has become much easier, and the cost of running data centres has decreased significantly. Virtualised data centres deliver huge cost savings and operational advantages to today’s organisations.

But just as the data centre world has evolved since the era of the mainframe, communications technology has evolved through a series of exciting changes into the unified voice communications of today.

VoIP made it possible to run voice applications over the Internet, and to centralise many of the maintenance tasks associated with keeping a voice infrastructure running. It also enabled unified messaging capabilities, such as the integration of voice mail and email.

Control of voice technology has become software-based, and the advances in telephony have enabled the reliable, flexible, capability rich, internet-based telephony systems that today enable teleconferencing, web and audio conferencing, centralised global call centre operation, and other technologies that organisations depend on to keep communication flowing.

Pinnacle can help organisations unite their business data and voice applications on a single infrastructure. All of the benefits of the data centre and VoIP telephony can be realised with less capital spending, lower operational and maintenance costs, reduced power consumption, and easier and more dependable business continuity and disaster recovery. What used to exist in two different worlds can now, for the first time, be united in one.

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