Thursday, 28 May 2015

Warning - new Ofcom rules - are you ready?


Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for UK communications have decided there must be clarity for consumers calling non-geographic numbers and new rules will come into force from 1st July 2015.

Merlin would like to make everyone aware of these new rules and warn of the responsibilities for owners of 084x, 087x ,09 and 118 numbers. Even if you do not use such numbers, we thought it would be of interest to you to see what the new regulations mean to those who do and how this might make call charges clearer in the future..

Non-geographic numbers are those numbers with are not linked to a specific location, i.e. numbers that start 03,05,07,08,09,116 and 118.  These are  widely used by business, central and local government, charities and statutory bodies for a variety of activities ranging from information and helplines to voting in TV game shows.
This is a large market which is regulated by Ofcom. In 2009, consumers paid around £1.9 billion for calls to these numbers and they accounted for 12% of the total call traffic volume. Currently, for most numbers there is a limit on how much BT can charge for calls. Other providers are not restricted as to how much they can charge but in many cases landline providers set their call charges around BT’s prices.
Although there is extensive use of these numbers, research by Ofcom has shown that many people are confused about what non-geographic numbers can be used for and particularly how much calls to them cost. This is partly because each phone company sets its own prices and information on pricing can be difficult to find and is complex. This complexity also means that it is difficult for the organisation being called to let consumers know how much they will be charged for contacting them.
One change, is that a call to a Freephone number (0800 or 0808) will be exactly that.  Currently, some calls to a Freephone number from a mobile are charged, so this will certainly be clearer and cheaper for mobile users.

From 1st July 2015 you will be required to advertise the cost of calling your non-geographic number in a particular fashion so that you do not fall foul of Ofcom, PhonePayPlus and Advertising Standards Agency.
The cost of calling 084x, 087x (Including 0845 and 0870), 09 and 118 numbers will be split into two parts:-
1. An access charge: This part of the call charge goes to your phone company, charged as pence per minute. They will tell you how much the access charge will be for calls to service numbers. It will be made clear on bills and when you take out a contract.
2.  A service charge: This is the rest of the call charge. The organisation you are calling decides this, and will tell you how much it is.
What you need to do
Check and change all of your marketing materials and advertising. When the new system comes into effect in July, companies and organisations that provide services using these numbers will be required to set out the charges clearly. Whenever you advertise or promote one of these services, you must ensure that your service charge is displayed in a prominent position, and in close proximity to the telephone number, in all cases.
Check the wording, as an example, a statement along the lines ‘Calls will cost 5p per minute plus your telephone company’s Access Charge’ is likely to be considered to be compliant – but we recommend you seek individual advice from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) at asa.org.uk/industry-advertisers.

These rules will apply to all consumer calls to 084, 087, 09 and 118 numbers across the UK, delivering clearer call rates for everyone.
The changes do not affect calls made to ordinary landline numbers (01, 02), 03 numbers or mobile (07) numbers. Neither do they affect calls made from payphones, international calls, or calls to the UK when roaming overseas.
Further information on the Ofcom changes is available on the dedicated website at http://www.ukcalling.info/ this is aimed mainly at consumers, however it gives a full breakdown of the upcoming transition should this be required.
The Merlin Team
Here to help you get the most out of your business

Thursday, 7 May 2015

10 questions you should ask before buying a phone system


How confusing can buying a phone system be?  It's all relatively simple isn't it?  The whole experience might look incredibly complex with talk of cloud v premises based systems, internet or copper wire and then there are all those acronyms to puzzle over; ISDN, ADSL, LAN, WAN, QoS, PBX  just to name a few!

Doing the right research is crucial if you want the best solution to suit you and your business.  So we thought it a great idea to list some of the fundamental questions you might want to ask yourself and a supplier before you step into the breach.

1.  Traditional phone system or VoIP phone system?

The very first thing you need to think about is whether to opt for a traditional premises based system or for the more technologically advanced, hosted voice over internet (VoIP = Voice over Internet Protocol).

There are many advantages of choosing a hosted VoIP system over a  legacy/premises based system and the first we should point out, is that the switch off of ISDN is rapidly approaching. 2025 is the date we are given and will be here before you know it.

The initial cost of ownership is cheaper as you don't have to purchase a (PBX) switch system or enter into a maintenance agreement that could cost up to 20% of the system value each year.  With a hosted VoIP phone system there is no additional cost to you, as the servers are cloud based.

Hosted Voip  based servers are  monitored constantly by your service provider, so the risk  to you is minimised and any updates to the system are carried out automatically instead of being manually added at each location, as with a premises based system.

Call capacity is far superior with VoIP systems as you can have multiple calls per extension whereas you are limited to a number of shared lines with a legacy system. This means that further capacity requirements could cost a lot of money, as well as the increase in monthly charges for additional line rentals.

Installation is incredibly quick and simple with hosted VoIP phone systems, simply plug and play instead of the complex and labour intensive setting up of a premises based systems.

Overall VoIP systems really do come out on top - providing  small and medium sized businesses with new and better calling features, more flexibility and functionality and best of all, far lower pricing.

2.  What features will I need for my business?

Once you have made your mind up to embrace a hosted VoIP system you will need to find out exactly what calling features your company will benefit from the most.  You should think about call recording and reporting features which will help you evaluate trends and employee activity as well as help with training and compliance requirements.  You should think about business continuity needs as part of your disaster recovery plan. Can calls be diverted to other lines or mobiles as part of the standard service? If they can, how quickly can they be diverted and to how many users?  Hosted VoIP can be set up to call multiple mobiles or additional landlines should a problem arise. Totally brilliant.  Your supplier should carry out an audit or ask pertinent questions about your business so they can provide you with a bespoke system to enable your business to operate to maximum efficiency.

3.  How much can I save?

Well less hardware costs to start with!  A good quality I P phone can be purchased relatively cheaply starting from £55.00 upwards (April 2015)  Find out if your provider is selling you phones or are they happy for you to purchase your own.  You will need to find out how much per month each extension will cost and whether there are any initial set up costs.  Also ask if there are any other recurring monthly charges, particularly  for any special features you require.  Ask about international calling rates and mobile rates too.  Ask about entering into a contract.  Merlin certainly do not believe in tying people into lengthy contracts (we operate on 30 days only) so do take this into account and don't forget to ask about exit fees. If  you are not happy with the system or support 6 months down the line, it could be incredibly expensive to swap your provider.

4.  What about support?

Check the level of service on offer as this may vary wildly.  Some providers will point you to self help tools on a website so you are more self sufficient, but would you prefer to be able to pick up the phone and speak to a technician?   Will you have to  pay separately for your support if you have any issues that cannot be resolved quickly? Checking any service level agreements carefully should be a priority.

5.  What about initial stages and training?

You need to ensure that your provider will deal with the porting of your number, once you have given written permission to do so. Ask about user guides and any virtual or on site training and whether there is any additional cost for this. Is there a self management platform available so you can make certain changes to your system yourself.  This will ultimately put you in control to make changes as and when you need them.

6.  How long will it take to set up?

Find out how long it will take to set up your new system and establish exactly what equipment you need.  Some suppliers will add on a high percentage to the cost of hardware, which is readily available to purchase on the internet.   If you are able to buy the IP phones yourself, ask if the provider will make a charge to configure these or any old IP phones you may have. Find out which phones, routers and modems will offer best reliability.  As always you get what you pay for!

7.  What about security?

You will want to know what protocols are in place to offer you total security.  It is usual for most hosted VoIP systems to be even more secure than traditional copper wire systems.  

8.  How reliable will the system be?

Hosted VoIP systems beat legacy systems hands down in terms of reliability when disaster strikes, as cloud data systems operate redundant power and cooling so continue when your premises are unusable.  With Merlin, our servers consistently show an uptime of 99.99%.  So do ask that question.

9.  What happens if my business grows?

A traditional premises based system is certainly inflexible in the sense you would need to organise and pay for a technician to upgrade the system or add additional  phone lines. It may not even be possible to upgrade at all.  With hosted VoIP systems, extensions and features can be added virtually and very quickly, saving time and money.  A total necessity for a growing company, so ask this question too.

10.  What happens if I work away from the office?

A great feature of hosted VoIP is the total flexibility it allows -  from  presenting your office number on a mobile phone via an app or plugging in a phone at home so that you can work. Another brilliant feature is voicemail to e-mail, so you can pick up any missed messages on the go.

Hopefully these questions will help you choose the best system and provider for you.  

If you need any impartial guidance, please ring our friendly team on 08008778810 - we are here to help you get the most out of your business.

The Merlin Team