Management Consulting and Customer Service: VoIP Business Telecommunications

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The most important factor in the success of a management consultant company isn’t necessarily results-based. Customer service, and the manner in which client calls are handled, can make up for a great deal of shortcomings, and conversely, can expose a great deal of shortcomings. Consultants typically spend a great deal of time and money investing in analytics software, databases, and other process-based tools. They scour data and understand how to recognize patterns and solve problems. They typically even consult with clients on improving their communications systems and customer experience.

But what about a consulting company’s own communications systems and customer experience?

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Efficient communication is critical to the success of any professional consulting firm. Clients are often scattered across the country and around the globe and consultants typically spend a great deal of time on the road. The ability to receive phone calls and messages is critical. One missed call can mean walking into a meeting with incomplete data or can lead to a fractured client relationship.  Old and outdated communications and collaboration systems can chip away at a consulting firm’s productivity and affect its ability to remain competitive.

The Traditional Communications Model

A Private Branch Exchange (PBX) is the traditional approach to business telephony.  This is the standard phone system model that delivers inbound calls to individual extensions.  Unfortunately, this type of system has become outdated and expensive.

With a traditional PBX setup, firms must operate one system per office. If you have locations in New York and Los Angeles, each location will have its own, traditional phone system. Employees who must interact by phone have to place long distances telephone calls to reach their colleagues.

Traditional PBX systems also have limited support for telecommuting and traveling staff members.  These workers must locate and operate separate phone, mobile, fax, and data lines. If a consultant is on-site with a client, she must use the client’s phone system or her own mobile phone to place a long distance call back to the office.

This model can get costly.  Firms must pay up front for the phone system, then pay monthly maintenance costs in addition to the cost of calls and network services. There is no way to predict the expense from month to month, and there is no way to expand your consulting business without incurring increased hardware and maintenances costs.

Online Communications Systems

Online phone systems overcome the limitations of the traditional model and give consulting firms far greater scalability and flexibility. Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP sends calls over the internet rather than over traditional phone lines.  These systems require less hardware than traditional phone systems and actually allow phone numbers to travel wherever you direct them, as long as there is an internet connection on the other end.

This technology has created more efficient PBX systems for business. With a hosted PBX system, calls are switched and routed not with a bulky switchboard, but through the VoIP system. Hosted PBX works with traditional and online phone systems, either in tandem with or in replacement of your current system.  With hosted PBX, a call comes in through your external telephone line, travels over the internet, and is routed to any endpoint you determine. That may be a desk extension, a mobile phone, or even a computer.

Online phone systems give management consulting firms far greater flexibility to conduct business through:

  • Advanced routing features: As individual consultants travel to visit clients and prospects, they can remain connected to the home office. VoIP systems allow users to route calls to any destination they choose. Through simultaneous and sequential ringing, they can send calls from their desk to their mobile phone, a client’s office, or even their laptop or tablet.

  • Every call to colleagues is in-network: Consultants visiting clients on-site will no longer have to place long distance calls from the client’s office or their own mobile phone in order to reach their colleagues at the home office. Instead, they can place calls directly from their laptop or tablet, and the call remains in network.

  • Connecting multiple locations: In the same way, colleagues working in different locations can reach one another by phone through a simple extension, rather than by placing an outbound call.

  • Voice and data integration: Traveling employees can receive voice messages and faxes in their email inbox, improving response time and eliminating missed client communications.

  • Resiliency: If the phone lines go down due to a power outage or natural disasters, calls can be routed to other phones with the click of a mouse, eliminating downtime.

  • Scalability: When the firm has to add phone lines or develops a need for advanced services, online phone systems can be instantly expanded to meet those needs without adding additional hardware.

Efficient Systems, Improved Service

Management consultants must be flexible and they must be mobile. And a firm’s communications system should be just as flexible and mobile as its consultants.  By adopting online systems, consulting firms can improve their response time and reduce costs. Key team members will always be “plugged in,” even if they are visiting a client halfway around the globe.  Traditional phone systems limited workflow and stymied collaboration. But online systems are scalable, adapting to the needs of the organization as well as the needs of the individual user. They provide unprecedented flexibility and mobility, and improve the way consultants deliver customer service.

VoIP and Hosted PBX: Pros and Cons of Consolidating Expenses

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As the mobility, flexibility and cost effectiveness of VoIP technology gains familiarity, more and more chief communications officers and small-business owners alike are opting to make the switch from traditional telephony. VoIP — especially VoIP networks built on increasingly popular hosted PBX systems — is carving out a greater chunk of the telecom pie each year across several industries with no slowdown in sight.

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Voice Over Internet Protocol

Commonly called “Internet phone” or “Internet calling”, VoIP is defined by the FCC as a system that allows calls to be made over a broadband Internet connection, as opposed to over an analog phone line. It operates by converting the user’s voice into “packets” that contain digital signals, which travel over the Internet before being converted back to a regular telephone signal. Although rudimentary versions of the technology had been tinkered with for years leading up, companies such as Skype made VoIP familiar not just to businesses, but to the general public in the early- to mid-2000s.

VoIP Pros

There are good reasons that the popularity of VoIP escalates each year among both individuals and businesses. Virtually all upgrades are handled through simple software uploads rather than through buying, installing and maintaining phone lines and expensive, complicated hardware. VoIP requires less than one-sixth the bandwidth to transmit (10 kbps one way for VoIP vs 64 kbps for phones) and many VoIP providers offer extra services like call waiting and call forwarding at no extra charge. The biggest and most obvious incentive, however, is cost. VoIP-to-VoIP calling doesn’t cost anything, and fees for calling landlines or cellphones are minimal and charged by the minute. Standard lines, on the other hand, come with expensive contracts that require monthly payments, often with roaming or long-distance charges and international rates that vary by company and country.

VoIP Cons

As VoIP steams forward, however, there are contrarians who remain committed to the traditional public switched telephone network, or PSTN. A commonly cited reason for landline loyalty is connectivity. By the nature of how VoIP providers connect — converting analog waves or vibrations into digital “packets” — VoIP is open to issues with reception, clarity and stability. For enterprise businesses, this is, of course, unacceptable. Corrupted or missing packets, bandwidth limitations and digital compression used to limit bandwidth, can all result in echoes, delays, choppy or stuttered reception and even dropped calls. Advocates of PSTN extoll the virtues of the technology for a reason. Traditional wired telephones are incredibly reliable and provide unrivaled clarity and reception. A VoIP system reliable enough for businesses can require a significant investment in bandwidth, software and infrastructure.

VoIP Built on Hosted PBX

Private branch exchange, or PBX, was developed to allow companies to save money on internal phone calls by switching the circuits themselves locally at a time when human operators still ran switchboards by hand. Even though data networks and packet switching traveling over the Internet has replaced manual systems, the familiar acronym is still used — even when the branches aren’t private and nothing is being exchanged. Through hosted PBX, businesses can still handle internal calls locally, but take the onus off of themselves by outsourcing the systems management to a third-party “host.” The host owns, operates, secures and maintains the hardware, which is expensive and complicated. Instead of constructing their own PBX, businesses rent someone else’s so they can focus on their core competency.

Many businesses are realizing that by shedding the hardware requirements of both PSTN and PBX infrastructure at the same time, they can save money and dramatically dwindle their IT requirements. With a cheaper, more customizable VoIP network built on the framework of a hosted PBX system, voicemail, conference calling, touchtone menus, automated greetings, call waiting and call forwarding are all much cheaper or free. Both have very low startup costs and more than one person can be reached through a single number as PBX routes, holds and transfers VoIP calls.

 

Entrepreneurs: Launching your Startup with a Virtual Number

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Until fairly recently, the bounty of international business was limited to only the most sophisticated enterprises. When going global, many businesses found the hurdles of communication, supply-chain management and international legality to be overwhelming. That first hurdle of communication, however, no longer represents the unscalable logistical wall that it once did for smaller businesses. One of the first steps that even single-digit-employee companies can take on their march toward globalization in the digital age is also among the cheapest and easiest: establishing a virtual phone number.

10 Tips for Picking the Perfect Vanity Numbers

Virtual Phone Numbers

Virtual phone numbers — also called DID for “direct inward dialing” or DDI for “direct dial-in” in Europe — are telephone numbers that aren’t associated with a direct phone line, but instead redirect incoming calls to any quantity of lines established by the virtual phone number’s owner. Virtual phone numbers can be associated with local or toll-free exchanges, and route calls that originated from the public switched telephone network (PSTN), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) networks or mobile phones. This means that even basic systems can route calls originating from landlines, cell phones and the Internet.

Desired Features

There are a litany of companies that provide businesses and even individuals with virtual numbers, each with different features and pricing plans. Although each individual business’s needs, of course, are unique, there are some universal traits all providers should posses. There shouldn’t be an activation or setup fee. Business owners should try to choose a provider that allows at least some unused minutes to roll over from month to month. Beware of high overage costs, ask for at least a 30-day free trial and insist upon 24/7 tech support for problems that will inevitably arise. No matter who provides the service, the desired end result is that a call originating from Macon, Georgia, Mumbai, India or anywhere in between can be smoothly routed to essentially anywhere without tipping off the caller.

Instant International Presence

Virtual numbers can camouflage themselves with local area codes or advertise themselves with toll-free exchanges or even vanity numbers. Either way, they are customizable, and provide business owners with the ability to reach customers overseas without asking them to dial unfamiliar or expensive international numbers. Take for example, the case of a businessman in England who imports confectionary items from the United States. Aware that his niche business was missing out on potential customers in a wider demographic almost exclusively because of his geographic location, he established a series of virtual numbers. By choosing several local numbers in several different geographic regions, he could now advertise in local directories.

Virtual phone numbers can quickly and cheaply provide a small businesses with a big-business communications system. For a small-business owner, the office can be a living room, a booth in a diner or a Bluetooth connection in a moving car. Entrepreneurs now have a plausible, practical and affordable alternative to employing a company operator or constructing an expensive, complicated private-branch exchange. Virtual phone numbers allow domestic enterprises to establish a global presence almost out of the box with limited overhead. A business’s website can reach the entire world, and so now can its phone system.

VoIP: Helping Health Clinics Adapt to a Changing Market

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Sweeping changes to healthcare laws and regulations over the last several years have left consumers with a virtually unlimited number of questions. 48 Million uninsured Americans now have access to healthcare plans. These formerly uninsured patients – many who haven’t visited a physician in years – are scrambling to make appointments and understand the scope and limitations of their new coverage. And insured patients are caught up in shopping around for new plans and understating new coverage regulations. In order to get these questions answered and secure important appointments, they are taking to the phone to get answers to those questions.

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Healthcare providers and clinics all over the country may suddenly find themselves flooded with inbound calls. And this influx of calls can expose limitations in both customer service processes and hardline phone systems. In order to accommodate these calls and inquiries while serving patients, health clinics should consider moving from traditional to online phone systems.

Differences Between Hardline and Online Phone Systems

By now, most people have at least casually heard of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems.  Rather than using hardline phone lines, these systems transmit calls over the internet, giving businesses almost unlimited flexibility in phone system design. These systems also markedly reduce telephony costs and provide more options in terms of customer service interaction.

With a VoIP system, healthcare providers can reduce the need for multiple telephone lines. Many clinics have to advertise several numbers in order to route inbound calls and not jam the lines. With each of these numbers comes a separate phone bill.  But with online systems, health clinics can consolidate numbers, or conversely, add multiple lines, without an exponential increase to the monthly telecommunications bill.

Landlines provide limited accessibility and mobility. Even with cordless phone and headsets, users can’t move to far from the base unit without losing the signal. Online systems utilize web applications, which means users don’t even need a handset to place or receive a call – they can use mobile devices and computers. As long as there is an internet connections, users can  place and receive calls. VoIP systems can also be integrated with email, text-based messaging, and web applications, giving users and administrators the flexibility to connect with callers in a variety of ways.

But how do these differences benefit a busy healthcare clinic?

Manage Call Response During Peak Hours

VoIP systems give health clinics the ability to route calls to ensure timely response. During periods of high volume, calls can be routed away from the front desk to dedicated customer service agents, freeing up onsite personnel to attend to their office duties. Patients still dial the published clinic number, but those inbound calls are sent to on or off-site agents. Clinics can reroute the calls back to the office during slower times.

In order to plan call routing, administrators can utilize call reports to determine the days and times that experience highest volume. But even when planning is close to perfect, there will be moments of unforeseen chaos. In those cases, administrators can reroute calls with one click, instantly lightening the load for clinic employees.

Customize Your VoIP System to Meet the Needs of the Clinic

Health clinics may find that a VoIP Private Branch Exchange (PBX) systems, also known as IP PBX,can provide the usability and flexibility needed to operate busy practices with multiple locations.  A PBX system is a private telephone network for business. Users share outside lines without requiring an individual line for each desk phone.

VoIP PBX allows administrators to customize communications systems based on the needs of the organization, and online phone systems are scalable, growing and adapting as the size and needs of the clinic change. VoIP PBX systems are also able to be designed to meet the constantly changing regulatory requirements of the healthcare industry.

VoIP PBX can unite clinics with multiple locations. On a traditional phone system, Inbound callers who may have dialed the wrong location, or who may require a call transfer, would have to hang up and dial again. But when all offices are on the same online system, calls can be seamlessly transferred between offices, improving customer satisfaction.

The Right Phone System Can Improve Patient Relations

As more consumers purchase new health insurance policies, providers may find themselves with a continuous onslaught of inbound calls. In order to accommodate this volume while maintaining customer service, clinics may find themselves outgrowing their current traditional phone systems. Scalable VoIP and VoIP PBX systems can help administrators plan for and manage this new workload while maintaining a high level of patient service and care.

 

The Advantages of a Virtual Phone Number for Business

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First thing’s first: what exactly is a virtual phone number? In simple terms, a virtual phone number allows you to have an office presence virtually anywhere. Whether you’re in the United States, the U.K. or anywhere else in the world, virtual phone numbers give you the opportunity to have a telephone number without having a physical location directly associated. Needless to say, there are plenty of advantages to gaining a virtual number as a business number.

When it comes to saving money for small business, one of the most overlooked things is your telephone system. With more competition in the telephone business, it may now actually be cheaper for you as a business owner to invest in a new phone system to replace your current service. Even if you are working from your home office, adding a more sophisticated phone system may cost far less than you may initially think.

Establish a virtual office in a remote location

Say your office is based in Southern California, but you want to reach out to establish your presence on the East Coast. A virtual phone number can do that for you! In fact, it’s not an uncommon practice for virtual numbers to be utilized along with a mail forwarding service to establish a virtual office in a remote location.

Overall, virtual phone numbers are primarily used to manage the number of a business’s incoming calls, and they are designed to work in conjunction with a telephone line– not to replace an existing one. Think of it as an extension to your home, cell or home office phone system.

Other advantages to getting virtual phone numbers include:

Call forwarding– Wherever you are and whatever time it is, your customers will be able to reach you with a phone number that they are familiar with, and that call is then forwarded to your business, office or any other device you choose.

Improve business profitability– This may be a no-brainer, but the more often your customers are able to reach you with orders, your business will be that much more profitable. With a virtual phone number, you’ll be able to manage business communications wherever you are without missing a call.

Project a professional image– You don’t have to take on new employees or spend a fortune on fancy phone systems to make your small business look bigger. Whether you are a one-person consultancy or a several-employee shop, virtual phone numbers come with some very powerful features that can help your business convey that your business has a wide area of coverage, which, in turn, can attract some new customers.

Furthermore, with virtual phone numbers, you’ll also have the added benefit of more security, no long-distance charges, detailed reporting on call activity and much more.

With a virtual phone number, you’ll also have growth opportunities that can extend beyond your neighborhood, city, state or even national borders. So whether you are looking to connect with the other side of the country or reach out to a foreign market, having a virtual phone number is a smart move for your business.

How Toll-Free Numbers Work

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Whether you’re watching an infomercial on weight loss supplements or an amazing new kitchen tool that can “do it all,” you’ve likely been encouraged to call a toll-free number, also known as 800-numbers in the U.S. So what does “toll-free” actually mean? Let’s go into a bit of detail:

When you dial a toll-free number, the Service Switch Point (SSP) of the telephone network knows that the call is toll-free because of the “800” series prefix. The SSP then asks the Service Control Point (SCP) for routing instructions, which specify where to route the call and what number to charge for the call, instead of making the caller pay.

Some companies also have vanity numbers, which work the same way in which a typical toll-free number would work, only their number usually spells a word (usually the company or a related phrase). A few well-known vanity numbers include 1-800-Flowers, 1-800-Go-FedEx and 1-800-Microsoft.

The first toll-free numbers rolled out in the U.S. in 1967 by AT&T, but to the rest of the world, they were known as “freephone numbers.” And ever since they were introduced, the demand of the service immediately skyrocketed. In fact, it was so immensely popular that by 1996, the supply of 1-800 numbers actually became exhausted in North America, and it was at that time 1-888 numbers came into the picture. Today, toll-free numbers can have a number of different prefixes, including 800, 888, 877 and 866, and all of them work in the same way. When the 866 prefix becomes depleted, we will then start to see the 855 prefix, and so on.

Many businesses opt to use a toll-free number service because of its value. If the number is memorable enough, such as 1-800-Flowers, it can be a primary source of advertising and marketing, potentially reducing annual advertising costs by thousands of dollars.

The Benefits of Global Expansion

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When asking the question “Is it worth the trouble to make my business go global?”, the answer is a simple one: Yes! If you really want your business to remain competitive, you must expand internationally. If not, your competitors certainly will and you’ll be missing out on much more than profitability. By expanding globally, you’ll be able to increase your cash-on-hand, acquire better employees, improve their production efficiency and iterate faster.

There is no doubt that we live in a global village. Teenagers and young adults are texting nearly 24/7, and you bet they all have an opinion on which phone is the best. McDonalds, Starbucks and Levi jeans can be found everywhere, and you would likely be hard-pressed, even in the most remote, 2nd-world countries, to find someone who has never used the internet.

Each day, more and more products are being shipped around the world, landing in the hands of consumers who have never visited the country of origin. For example, many of the products in the U.S. are manufactured in different countries, with one of the most well-known being China.

If your plan is to grow your business, you must have a plan for international expansion and really consider the opportunities you’ll have when you do ultimately reach a global market:

1) Get more customers

Like it or not, the United States roughly has about 4% of the world’s population, and that number is decreasing each day. China is in the lead with 19%, India with 17% and Southeast Asia with 9%– and these statistics are growing every day. Furthermore, not only are the populations of these regions rising, their GDP per capita is as well. While the U.S. does hole nearly one-third of the world’s purchasing power, that number (as you might have already guessed) is falling quickly.

2) Get access to a larger talent pool

When you’re in the need of a specific talent, such as skilled engineers, you will only be limiting yourself and the potential of your business if you only stick to your region. However, when you expand nationally, you’ll no doubt have access to greater numbers of skilled workers and highly-educated professionals.

3) Make your business more profitable and efficient

This should go without saying, but taking your business to a global level will certainly increase the number of potential consumers of your product or service. Not only that, but you may also be able to extract higher margins.

There is no question that when exporting products your costs will change; however, you should also consider the fact that it’s been shown that consumers in developing countries will pay the higher cost for access to higher quality products that are well-branded.

When we first think of companies like Apple and Walmart, no doubt the two largest companies of the era, we must keep in mind that it’s the economies of scale that helped make these companies. Many assume that once they increase their output through international expansion, they can do so with much lower variable costs– and this is certainly true. With lower variable costs, you will be able to increase margins, offset exporting costs with reduced production costs and you’ll be able to keep your prices more competitive within your home country.

4) Iterate at a faster pace and make better products

Regardless of consumers’ different tastes and opinions, once you export your products, you will instantly have the opportunity to gain new insights about your current domestic offerings, as well as encourage new ideas for products that may serve both markets.

It is no secret that international expansion will soon be standard operating procedure for nearly all business ventures. Just look back 15 years ago, when it was a rare thing to have an online presence. Now it is almost unheard of not to be active online. Global expansion is definitely the next wave of commerce.