Imagine you are running a restaurant, you know just how to keep your business on top form; from offering the very best menu option, to creating the perfect dining environment. You are an expert at what you do. Now you need to look at setting up a business phone system, and internet to run both front and back of house. Does that mean you now need to become an expert in telecoms to successfully achieve this? We asked small business owners about their experience in doing just this.

In the private sector small businesses account for over 99% of the UK’s business population. They employ over 47% of the UK private sector workforce. These businesses will come in a great variety of formats and set-ups; from remote and field workers, through to small retail or office establishments. It is safe to say there is not a “one-size fits all” approach when it comes to small businesses.

What do small businesses think of the telecoms industry?

Financial resource and the sectors these businesses cover will also be relatively unique to each entity. Small businesses are well known for their diverse approach to innovation, and their often well executed agility. Now bring in one of the most business critical communication tools for these organisations, phone and broadband. Telecoms providers tend to take a single approach to marketing and selling their services. Small business owners are experts in their field, and should not be expected to become telecoms and technology experts. The telecoms industry typically talks in technical terms. Language that is far less accessible to the great many one-man bands and small business owners. After researching the range of communications solutions available to small businesses, a consistent thread of jargon and technical terms became apparent. What better way to examine the appropriateness of these communications offerings, than to ask the key decision makers within the small business sector?

What we did

In order to gain an understanding of the appropriateness of these communications offerings, a sample of small business owners were interviewed and asked various questions around their awareness and experience within the telecoms industry. Strikingly, the majority of small businesses offered similar responses, and the overall themes were hugely consistent.

The world of buzzwords

Try searching for ‘Business broadband’ or ‘Small business phone system’. You will be overwhelmed with the telecoms jargon and a surprising variety of suppliers. Some common buzzwords across most suppliers included terms such as “collaboration” and “unified communication”.

With all this terminology flying around, how much does this phraseology resonate with the end users, such as the businesses owners interviewed for this research piece?

Impossible to understand…

A product description from a popular VoIP communications provider was read out each business owner, questions were then asked as to what this description meant in the context of their own business. Each and every business interviewed as part of this research stated that the product description was difficult to almost impossible to understand, and did not sound as if it actually described what the product was set out to do, nor did it sound as if it resolved a specific business problem.

In addition to this, business owners were also asked to describe what collaboration meant in the context of their company. Collaboration within telecoms is, more often than not, not particularly well defined. Most of those interviewed described collaboration in terms of a partnership with another organisation, such as a partner or a supplier. None of the business owners felt that telecoms particularly supported ‘collaboration’ as it was felt this is far more relationship-led rather than technology-led.

Business need

Small businesses often have relatively straightforward and simple requirements for their phone and connectivity systems. Most simply just want the ability to:

  • take calls from anywhere,
  • be able to transfer calls between team members, and
  • also place customers on hold.

Some small businesses felt that staying afloat of telecoms innovations enables more business opportunities and provides a positive source of competitive advantage. The ability to appear to be working from the office, or to be available in any location instills customer confidence. However this occasionally presents a new challenge in itself. One business owner noted:

“Most of my clients respect conventional working hours and only make contact during these times. Although some know I have the ability to work anywhere at anytime, and have come to expect me to take their calls or answer their queries on the fly, including weekends and evenings.”

While this paints a largely positive picture, the majority of business owners referred to the need for telecoms, and staying up-to-date with the latest technologies as a “necessary evil”. Customers and suppliers expecting and wanting to communicate either by video conference or over the phone at any given time is not always good. One business owner referred to the many video conference options as being overwhelming and frustrating. People have different levels of knowledge, some are well equipped to use solutions such as Microsoft Teams whereas others are far less confident with unfamiliar technologies. This is not just owners but staff as well. Some team members feel comfortable arranging and attending video calls and conferences, but others would rather keep their cameras off and stick to the more traditional phone call.

Adaptability

Now businesses are being encouraged back to home-working once again, most of the businesses interviewed noted their ability to quickly and easily shift to remote and home working. Often with few IT loopholes to jump through, compared to larger organisations, small business owners were found it easy to get staff to use mobile phones and laptops again, to ensure business continuity. Most of those interviewed were already relying on VoIP solutions that allowed them to direct calls toward remote home-office locations.

Potential Challenges

Business owners noted the increased importance of staying connected with their own workforce during these periods, and were heavily reliant on their existing communications tools to enable this. However, none of the businesses were aware of the potential challenges they may face when enabling teams to work from home with SIP phones. We asked about awareness of protocols such as SIP ALG which can inhibit SIP and VoIP connections from working on home broadband networks. There was minimal awareness which is worrying as this can present problems if employees are sent home and asked to use their VoIP phones over their own broadband connection.

Protecting small pockets

You may have recently heard of Ofcom in the context of TV, and complaints around broadcast content. In their own words:

“Ofcom is the regulator for the communications services that we use and rely on each day.

We make sure people get the best from their broadband, home phone and mobile services, as well as keeping an eye on TV and radio.”

In summary, Ofcom, and the telecoms ombudsman, are there specifically to look out for you when it comes to your telecoms services. Ofcom is there to ensure providers are sticking to the rules and providing fair services for everyone.

Unfair Contracts are rife!

A large proportion of the interviews focused on how surprised business owners were at the prospect, and seemingly high likelihood, of being ‘duped’ by their provider. References to unfair contracts and hidden usage fees were common among those interviewed. However, none of these small businesses were previously aware of the protection offered by Ofcom rules and the telecoms ombudsmen and the arbitration services they offer to small businesses.

Questions should be asked as to how small businesses can be better safeguarded and prevented from falling into expensive contracts and becoming trapped by unfair terms.

Jargon used to confuse?

A lot of suppliers you jargon to try and set their product/service aside for the competition. However it appears this just confuses potential customers. For most businesses to survive they need to be communicating with their prospective customer base at a level that is accessible and easy to understand. Somehow, many telecoms providers manage to work past this by using a baffling array of terminology. They also tend to miss the fundamental needs of real businesses. Nearly every business interviewed said all they wanted from their phone system for example, was the ability to forward calls to their mobile, and transfer calls with ease.

How can you avoid falling into a potential trap with your telecoms contract?

  1. Make yourself aware of your rights as a business owner. The Ofcom website has these available to all here.
  2. Are sure you’re getting exactly what you want. There is no harm in asking a provider to simply confirm you are getting your exact business needs met. Like for a builder – make a list of what you need it to do and use it as a checklist. Don’t pay for things you don’t need.
  3. Ask around. Whether that’s on LinkedIn, other business owners, or a telecoms consultant. You might be surprised at the insight others have on the supplier you are considering.
  4. Get everything in writing.

If you do find yourself struggling, or your telecoms provider is trying to hold you to what you believe is an unfair contract, please get in touch. Call us on 020 8634 7318 or email using davemillett@drf.uk.com