Wednesday, 14 November 2012

VoIP Telephony And Your Business

As Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony advances it is not just a case of looking at the cost savings that can be made but at the features that come with a solution which traditional providers bolt on substantial premiums if you want to use them.

The decision to switch to VoIP is not a hard one to make as the cost savings are well known. The main problem that arises is which of the many suppliers do I choose and how?

To answer these questions there are some basic areas to consider when whittling down your list of potential suppliers.

How easy is the system to set-up?

Ease of use/installation should be a major consideration. How easy the system to set up and how easy is it to administer. Many providers offer a simple ‘plug and play’ solution that is quick to configure and roll out. Most VoIP systems are highly scalable, starting with a single user through to multi-site solutions. System flexibility is of paramount importance so that as you grow your phone system grows with you.

Expansion/Upgrading:

When the system has been installed and is working and your business changes, how flexible is the system and more importantly the supplier to make these changes for your business. So can the system respond and how quickly can the supplier enable the required changes and are they part of the agreement or are these costs hidden until you need to make a change?

Extensions:

When you are considering your switch to VoIP telephony it is crucial that you are clear about how many extensions you will need and what you want to use them for. Some employees may need to have direct dial numbers for ease of contact and for reducing the call load on the switchboards. Your business requirements may require the use of other services such as call queues or IVR’s (virtual assistants).

Contract Terms:

Review the contract terms offered by suppliers. Do they tie you into long inflexible terms or do they offer short duration contracts such as 30 rolling days where you can leave without penalty.

Call Charges:

There are many types of calling options/plans available ranging from pay for every call you make to unlimited calling plans. Before committing yourself to a calling plan it is vital that you ensure you are not going to pay for more then you use. If you are a high consumer of calling minutes and are considering an unlimited plan ask any potential supplier to provide an analysis of your calls. Furthermore ask them to demonstrate if there is a benefit in paying for an unlimited package or paying for every call you make (and any options in between).

Voice-mail:

The ability to have voice-mail messages sent to your email address either on a PC, smartphone or tablet is a very usual service that can improve business/client response times portraying the image of efficiency.

Fax to email/email to fax:

In the era of unified communications the ability to send and receive faxes via the internet enable employees to become more productive and responsive to client needs. Make sure your VoIP provider will allow you to continue to send faxes over the internet without the need for a dedicated land line.

Call Conferencing:

If you have staff working at various locations in the country or internationally and you need to have regular department or team catch ups, then the need for easy conference calls is especially useful. Conference calls can be held without the need for a conference bridge and because the calls are held via the VoIP telephone system they are free. If you have a need for conference calls with clients then the same service can be used by adding a dedicated direct dial number.

Smartphone integration:

With the continual advancement of smartphones and the roll out of high speed mobile internet, businesses with mobile workforce's can use the power of VoIP telephony to push the company phone system to the employee’s handset giving them access to voice-mail colleagues and clients while at the same time giving you control over quality by using call recording.

The right choice for your business:

When embarking on a replacement phone system, be it a premises based product or a hosted VoIP solution, it is imperative that you are clear about your requirements for what a new system will do for your business. By looking at your current call flows, how the existing system works and what you would like to achieve in the future, you should be able to find a suitable supplier that will assist in reducing your call costs, improve your business productivity and offer a better overall experience to your customers existing or new.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The 5 Critical Questions that will save your business money on telecoms

It’s fair to say that when setting up and running a veterinary practice, telecoms is recognised as essential, yet how much effort do you really make to find the best solution when there is so much else to do? Not only is this a business critical service, it’s an area that can cost dearly in the long run if not chosen wisely.

Unfortunately it’s still true that the major brands are the ones we turn to first, but although they have established reputations, they may not necessarily provide the most appropriate service and support. Major brands only sell their own products – whereas more agile companies like Merlin Telecom have access to the whole of the UK’s telecoms services and technology to offer the very best arrangement, cost-effectively tailored to each Practice.

We’ve been “conditioned” by the industry over many years that entering long term contracts is the way to access the best products and prices. Did you know that this arrangement serves your supplier much more than it serves your business?

In such a heavily regulated industry, all suppliers are regulated by Ofcom to protect customer interests and adhere to standards set by telecoms Ombudsman Otelo, to provide a continuous and reliable service. Here are some facts that will help you appreciate the telecoms landscape to help your business.

  • Business calls last on average only 2 minutes in duration, with the vast majority being significantly less than this. By “capping” calls, suppliers can create perceived value, when genuine real value is rarely offered. Usually, contracts are cleverly constructed to make it look like you are getting a great deal, but over the duration of the contract, the supplier makes BIG profits from the way the deal is structured. Typically 95% of businesses are worse off from capping calls. 
  • In the traditional sense, vets are unattractive customers in telecoms because most calls are in-coming, so vets don’t represent revenue generating potential through calls, so suppliers are more interested in selling services to meet their needs not necessarily yours. 
  • Contracts are not needed to access the best prices and services. You can access really flexible, totally reliable services at a fraction of the cost of major brands if you look for them. 
  •  Contracts are not needed to ensure highly reliable service. The infrastructure is the infrastructure. A contract will not affect actual service performance, however it may determine the level of response you receive in the case of a service-interruption. 
  • You could save 40% or more by switching to a different supplier from the mainstream brands. 
  •  Most systems are not precisely tailor-made for your business, which means you’re possibly paying for services and lines that you really don’t need. 

Discussions with vets have shown that the profession generally doesn’t know what to look for when choosing a telecoms provider to serve their business.

Merlin Telecom provide 5 Key Questions to ask your Telecoms Supplier:

  1. Why do I have to have a 12/18/24+ month contract? (nb There is no requirement on your supplier to be contracted into their telecoms infrastructure supplier– which is the likely response you’ll receive). 
  2. How do I know if my line provision is adequate and I’m not missing business critical calls from customers? (This happens much more than you imagine – let us share how to prevent this happening to your practice). 
  3. How flexible is my system? What happens if my needs change over the next 12-24 months? Will I be paying for services I no longer need? How do I avoid overpaying? 
  4. What can you do to enable cost-effective call handling, to ensure that my-out-of-hours service works well for me and my customers? 
  5. What happens in the event of a power failure/system crisis? How quickly can you restore my business to full operation? (There are new ways that this can be solved very quickly but not all suppliers treat this as urgently as you will need in the event of it happening). 
The telecoms industry is undergoing dramatic change at the moment, with significant improvements in service and reliability all being possible at massively reduced cost. This is a win-win for all businesses involved. There is also an increasing migration to “cloud” telephony – which has significant benefits vs. traditional telecoms systems. It will almost certainly pay your business to find out more about this in the coming months.

www.merlin-telecom.co.uk/vets

Friday, 21 September 2012

Using VoIP on your mobile phone: Can it Really Save You Money

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology makes the use of smart phones much more flexible and cheaper to run VoIP applications.

Using VoIP on a smart phone requires the use of a SIP client or app that can be downloaded and run on the handset giving you an added tool in your communications arsenal. You may not be aware of how easy it is to integrate VoIP technology onto your mobile phone giving you added benefits and advantages.

Many users of modern smart phone do not realise is that they can use their handsets as a wireless VoIP handset. VoIP software has been available on smart phones running the Android or Apple operating systems for some time.

A good example of the ease of setting up a VoIP connection is the recent Samsung Galaxy S III handset that actually includes the VoIP software required to make and receive calls from your PBX (phone system). So how can you set this up to reap the benefits?

Setting up your Android smart phone:
  • First open the settings option
  • Press the call button 
  • Scroll down until you see ‘internet call Settings’. 

Next click the ‘Accounts’ button:
  • Check the ‘Receive incoming calls’ radio button 
  • Click on Add account button 
  • Enter your user name
  • Enter your password 
  • Add the server address as specified by your provider
    • Keep in mind that some services may require additional details, which usually can be found in the ‘Optional settings’ section.
Rather than use the built-in VoIP accounts available on smart phone platforms you may want to download a VoIP client application such as Bria by Counterpath.

Setting up a VoIP client on your smart phone is much easier than it may seem. What you need to remember is that using your smartphone is a tool rather than an end to end solution. However once you start to use the VoIP/mobile mix for your communications you need to consider saving yourself costs. It may be worthwhile considering reducing your monthly tariff to a lower value one and making a combination of calls i.e. when in the office use the VoIP option and when away from the office use your mobile.

Making calls over a VoIP network are considerably cheaper than mobile networks.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

UK businesses should seek insurance against cyberattacks, says expert

Senior managers in UK business should pay greater attention to the threat of cyber attacks, establish what the cost of such an incident would be to their firms and insure against it, an expert has advised.

Technology law specialist Luke Scanlon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the need to insure against the risk of cyber attacks was particularly important since firms could face huge costs for losing personal information via system breaches under proposed changes to the EU's data protection regime.

Scanlon was commenting after the Government published new cyber risk management guidance (2-page / 306KB PDF) for businesses on cyber security. The guidance stressed the "benefits" for business chief executives and other board-level managers in adopting a "risk management approach to cyber security".

In separate guidance (20-page / 3.12MB PDF) the director of UK intelligence agency GCHQ said that businesses could repel about 80% of "known attacks" simply by "embedding basic information security practices for your people, processes and technology". The guidance identifies 10 steps firms can take to reduce their vulnerability to cyber attacks.

The Government has also published an 'advice sheet' that further details(22-page / 4.93MB PDF) the 10 steps that companies should take to address the threat of cyber attacks. Companies should "apply the same degree of rigour to assessing the risks to its information assets as it would to legal, regulatory, financial or operational risks," according to the advice.

For the full article 'UK businesses should seek insurance against cyber attacks, says expert' please visit Out-law.com

Friday, 17 August 2012

Next-generation telecoms for crisis management in Veterinary Practice

Client communications and effective telecoms are Practice essentials, but with many businesses being served by older phone systems, it’s easy to miss the latest technology developments which can make significant improvements to the Practice’s business continuity, efficiency and the quality of client contact.
   
A major shift in the provision of services via the internet brings many new possibilities in improved business performance.  With significantly more reliable infrastructure, so called “cloud telephony” (VoIP/Voice over Internet Protocol) heralds a new era in business systems where speed, reliability, reduced costs and enhanced services provide clear commercial advantages.  These latest developments present compelling alternatives to the traditional phone systems and are certainly worthy of investigation.

In the context of business protection, new improvements in telephony systems provide much greater security and flexibility.  Where quality may have previously been a concern, in the past 2-3 years internet based services have improved so much, they can now out perform traditional systems.  There are now some compelling reasons to take a closer look.

With “cloud” telephony calls are hosted via a chosen provider to deliver a faster, more efficient and reliable service, saving up to 84% off annual costs vs. traditional systems.

New technology brings major advantages:
  • Business protection – the capability to restore normal operations in the event of unexpected circumstances has never been so simple, and rapid resumption of normal trading has never been so simple.
  • Communications flexibility – because of the way the service is provided, you only pay for what you need, and you can scale your system very easily according to your requirements at the time. 
  • Low cost – there’s no system hardware, so you don’t have to invest in servers or equipment which requires maintenance, you only need internet-ready phones which you then connect directly into your network. There are also cost savings to daily operation. For example, a three site practice would normally pay standard call charges to communicate between each site, whereas with a VoIP system call costs between multi-site practices are wholly eliminated.
Protecting your business is easy and having a reliable back up plan in place means Practices can have complete confidence in any unforeseen event or crisis situation. This means your clients will still be able to make contact and your business communications can operate as normal in the shortest possible time and financial losses minimised.

So what exactly is Crisis Management?
Definition of a Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property,
seriously interrupt business, damage reputation and/or negatively impact share value. 

Having an effective Crisis Management plan in respect of telecoms enables you to minimise potential disruption to your business and customers. 

The BS 25999 standard sets out detailed advice on designing and implementing a business continuity plan and the actions necessary to obtain accreditation for the plan(s) that have been developed.

Also referred to as Crisis Management and Disaster Recovery, it involves the creation of policies and procedures which provide guidelines and instructions to be followed by employees and managers in the event of an emergency or business critical situation. It protects businesses from down-time and minimises the period where normal functions may be impossible, providing clear steps to be followed as priorities.  

As part of the overall planning process it is recommended to:
  • Identify potential crises that might affect you
  • Consider how you intend to minimise the risks of these disasters occurring
  • Consider how you'll react if a disaster occurs in a business continuity plan
  • Test the plan regularly
For example, where you’re reliant on computer information, there should be a back-up system in place so you have a copy of key data in the event of a system failure.

A disaster recovery or business continuity plan is ESSENTIAL to protect the well-being of any organization. Although this cannot really be over emphasized, many businesses still avoid the issue, or have plans which are unworkable.   There are a number of reasons for the lack of crisis management plans, including perceived complexity and denial that events could impact the business in question. Full business continuity planning incorporates many aspects of the operation; however, we shall focus on the communications aspect.

Business communications are very much taken for granted and we expect 100% reliability, however the reality is that each year many UK businesses suffer losses  or cease trading as a consequence of poor planning and management – yet it’s very simple and easy to provide for.

It seems many veterinary practices currently have insufficient planning for unexpected interruptions to business communications. Although exact figures are not available, it appears the majority of veterinary practices are under prepared.  In other professional industries such as legal and professional services there are clear recommendations to ensure that systems, data and processes are protected to ensure continuity of client service and normal business operation as quickly as possible.  It is usually a Director or Operations Manager’s responsibility to ensure an effective process is in place to minimise any risk and also that the process is clearly understood by everyone.

Rare occurrences such as power outages, adverse weather conditions, personnel unavailability, accidents and infrastructure failures etc DO happen.  The resulting impact on the unprepared business can be enormous, from clients not being able to make contact, data losses to systems failures which can result in significant financial losses.

With traditional analogue systems, Service Level Agreements for repair and maintenance can involve days of waiting, meaning businesses can suffer paralysing inconveniences for prolonged periods – which spells disaster and frustration all-round.  As new technology “cloud telephony” is offered in a completely different way, it can provide business continuity much more comprehensively and efficiently. Calls can be re-directed and diverted so that downtime would almost be unnoticeable.    

For traditional systems an industry standard Service Level Agreement can mean repair in up to 5 working days. With new technology systems, a major fault would be fixed within a 6 hour full fix SLA.

Utilising new technology, back up occurs constantly so that in the event of an unexpected circumstance, nothing is lost and importantly, the SLA response commitment is such that the maximum duration without service would ordinarily be minutes. Indeed, the future trend for IT services and everyday business computing is increasingly moving towards cloud computing where benefits of security, back up, space saving and significant cost savings can be made.  When considered altogether, an integrated system of Internet based IT and Telephony provides veterinary practices with powerful resources to move forward into a new era of highly versatile company infrastructure. 

Service Integrity and Business Continuity

Source: Pingdom
It goes without saying that service continuity is critical.  Where in the past there may have been cause for concern over reliability, internet technology has progressed and become highly sophisticated and reliable.  The ability to safeguard connection integrity and provide a first class service; with clarity and voice quality being equivalent or better than analogue phones is now an expectation and is indeed the common experience.

As we have described earlier, VoIP is provided through third party, off-site systems which are monitored and maintained constantly to deliver maximum reliability of service and continuous connectivity.  The images below are examples of server monitoring, showing one of the servers and its state. Real-time monitoring and alert screens are provided to systems  managers, whose primary responsibility is ensuring that any server problems are totally resolved within the shortest time, often minutes, compared to waiting for an engineer to call sometimes hours or days later as with traditional systems.  In this case, the server shows 100% uptime over the 31 day period being monitored.

Call Recording

With the best intentions, there can be occasions when things go wrong with clients or suppliers, disagreements occur and it’s perhaps necessary to refer to a prior client or supplier conversation to establish the facts about exactly what has been communicated. Previously this would have been impossible, expensive or certainly very difficult.  Another benefit is that it is much easier to train staff and colleagues.

With a VoIP system the ability to record and recall specific calls is easy as the information is stored on the server and can be held for an agreed duration to suit practice requirements.  There are guidelines for the use of call recording systems however, and this has proven to be a helpful source of recall/redress for many Practices where evidence has been required to be produced to support a claim or resolve a dispute.

Call data is held securely on the remote server and is accessible on demand, subject to agreed storage durations.

Telecoms are often underestimated in their capacity to protect businesses from abnormal occurrences and unplanned events. This is why it’s important for Practice owners and managers to avail themselves of information about the latest telecoms technology developments, which can help enhance services, increase protection and also significantly reduce costs, boosting bottom-line profits.


Hidden savings

We generally expect new technology or enhanced services to cost us more. Not so in this case.

Here’s where some of the major advantages of VoIP are initially less apparent, however they become significant when you consider that there is no server hardware to invest in (just phones), no maintenance contracts and no electricity cost of operating an on-site switch. Over a period of time these sums can add up to a significant budget-saving.  Include the no-cost inter-site communication and you’ve got an efficient and effective solution that can benefit the vast majority of veterinary practices.

More flexible Practice management, communications back up and space saving

Hosted systems are fully maintained and continuously monitored for business continuity purposes. They also benefit from saving space in the Practice, removing the requirement to possess an on-site system.  

In a crisis situation, Cloud (VoIP) telephony enables call diverting and remote-working to be managed by the Practice as required, and this flexibility is one of the major advantages of the latest telecoms technology.  This is not only essential in a crisis but is helpful in everyday operation.  With an IP phone, it’s possible to connect from anywhere and deliver seamless uninterrupted telephone service with the knowledge that no calls have been missed. 
   
VoIP is delivered via an IP handset or smartphone which is allocated its own identity, and once connected to the phone server, the handset receives the user profile and attributes can be used from anywhere, whether it’s in the Practice office, from home or from a completely different location.  This means that you can connect it the internet at a location of your choosing, to provide a seamless client interface, providing flexibility for you, your practice and ensuring client access at all times.  You can of course also divert to other third party back up services if you choose.

The telecoms industry is rapidly changing 

With changes in the telecoms market bringing significant new benefits plus a shake up to pricing and contracts, the next generation of telecoms brings so many reasons to review your existing telecoms arrangements:
  • More secure business operations
  • Great cost  savings
  • Flexible, shorter agreements
  • More efficient practice management
  • Enhanced customer experience
The benefits of new telecoms to veterinary practices are clear. If vets and Practice Managers seize the initiative and challenge existing thinking and habits, they can bring about powerful change for their own businesses.

Crisis Management and Business Continuity are specific areas where Practices are advised to ensure they are protected for unforeseen events and as a result they can also introduce a host of additional benefits which can also bring savings every month. New technology has much to offer the forward thinking Practice in ways which were previously unimagined.

For more information of next generation business telecoms and telecoms for crisis management, please refer to www.merlin-telecom.co.uk/vets/ or call the Merlin Telecom team on 0800 877 8810

Thanks to Jerry Crick of Boness Veterinary Practice, London and Will Blackburn of Minster Vets York for sharing insights on their Practice telecoms.


Thursday, 2 February 2012

Ofcom update: Ofcom research reveals 22 per cent increase in UK broadband speeds

Ofcom today published its sixth report of UK broadband speeds which reveals that UK consumers are achieving 22 per cent faster broadband speeds at home than they were 12 months ago.

In November 2011, the average actual UK residential broadband speed was 7.6Mbit/s, compared with 6.2Mbit/s in November/December 2010, and 6.8Mbit/s in May 2011.

This increase was mainly as a result of consumers moving onto higher speed packages. In November 2011, for the first time more than half (58 per cent) of UK residential broadband connections had a headline, or advertised speed of above 10Mbit/s, up from 48 per cent in May 2011.

However, more than 4 in 10 broadband consumers remain on packages with speeds of 10Mbit/s or less even though many of them would be able to get a higher speed at little or no extra cost if they switched package or provider.

The full news release can be found here.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Merlin Telecoms systems made recruitment easier and more efficient for Accountancy Practice.

A client of Merlin Telecom for several years, this busy firm of Accountants recently embarked on a recruitment process at a time of year that was especially busy for them and so were looking for a method that would streamline the initial candidate selection process.

Merlin Telecom proposed a solution that would utilise the technological capability inherent in the telephone system to conduct first stage candidate screening via a voice-recorded process. Using this functionality of the phone system enabled the candidates to initially present their skills over the phone.

This initial pre-screening was highly successful and time-efficient; and the clients were delighted with the scope and flexibility of their phone technology to improve their business operation in a simple, yet effective way.

When considering a telecoms partner look for a supplier whose approach is to firstly understand your business so that they can provide the most appropriate and cost effective solutions for your business as it grows. Do not take everything at face value and ask searching questions about the products and proposals delivered.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Ofcom update: Second consultation on 4G spectrum award

Ofcom has today published a second consultation on its assessment of future mobile competition and proposals for the award of 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum and related issues. The consultation sets out a number of new proposals for making 4G mobile spectrum available in the UK. This includes proposals to extend coverage to at least 98% of the UK population and revised plans to promote competition.

News release: http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2012/01/12/proposals-to-extend-4g-mobile-coverage/

Consultation: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/award-800mhz-2.6ghz

Friday, 6 January 2012

VoIP Telephony in the Catering Industry

In the competitive world of the catering industry and with the current squeeze on margins, business owners are continually looking for options to streamline costs without sacrificing the quality and delivery of their services. Telephones are vital to the success of any restaurant, as they offer customers a direct line of communication to make bookings and for staff to contact customers and suppliers alike. By using VoIP telephony, restaurant owners can reduce their monthly phone expenditure while at the same time improve their communication capabilities.

For busy restaurants a VoIP telephone solution can be configured to direct enquiries regarding business hours, locations and bookings to certain phones, and other types of calls such as purchasing or account enquiries to other phones. By using call routing the customer facing phone(s) will only receive calls related to the taking of bookings, handling advanced orders and customer care. Using call routing helps to reduce the barrage of phone calls to the reservation phone, and can also help to reduce the noise levels and distractions for restaurant customers.

Multi-site restaurants can benefit from VoIP telephony systems because they include free calls between locations, free conference calling and the ability to switch inbound calls to different locations if needed free of charge. The flexibility of VoIP telephony makes it easier for managers at different locations to plan events and promotions together, go over stock requirements and even share ideas without running up large call charges.


For businesses operating at a national level, the ability to choose geographical numbers from anywhere in the UK means that a restaurant chain operating in several counties can have one centre to answer calls and by routing the different numbers to the same centre, restaurant owners can provide customer focussed services from a central location while maintaining a local feel.