Communication and the right equipment to do it with is absolutely vital to the running of most every business. Today's communication services include phone systems (both landlines and wireless) and mail and package delivery.
Among your first tasks in meeting your communication equipment needs will likely be setting up a phone system for your business. This process will involve selecting both equipment features and services. The more common of these features and services include:
- call waiting
- multiple telephone lines
- conference and hands-free (speaker and headset) calling
- speed dialing and automatic redialing
- caller ID
- long-distance plans
- toll-free telephone numbers
- voice mail
- number blocking (limits outgoing calls to specified exchanges or area codes)
- wireless phone services
You may be able to select a customized bundle of services that offers more bang for your buck.
If you don't need a sophisticated telephone system, various phone companies can provide a variety of services on "regular" phone lines. These include capabilities like conferencing and voice mail.
On the other hand, depending on the company that provides your service and the particular law in the state where you reside, you may be required to list your home telephone as a business telephone if you do any work out of your home. If this happens, you should expect to see your telephone bill rise because the rates for business phone services are generally higher than those for residential services.
While the likely higher rates of a business listing are the downside, such a listing can also help grow your business. It gives your business higher visibility in the "white pages" and allows you to gain access to the yellow pages, which can be an excellent marketing tool for your business.
Most importantly, although cost must be considered, don't discount the quality and reliability of a provider's services. A great rate won't be much good if your calls don't go through, if the lines are garbled, or if you can't get good and quick customer service should you need assistance.
Leasing phone equipment
An attractive alternative to purchasing your own phone system particularly if you need sophisticated equipment or want to try out various features for your business, is leasing equipment from companies offering special services (such as Centrex) for businesses. In general, these services allow you to lease equipment with the features you want, with a phone company assuming the responsibility for maintaining your overall system.
Wireless and smart phones
Chances are you have a wireless or "smart" phone such as an iPhone or a Blackberry (a phone that also allows you to access the Internet, download applications, etc.) that you use in your personal life. For many small business owners, their personal phones can do double duty for their business needs. However, for certain industries or perhaps once your business has employees, a wireless phone dedicated to your business might become a necessity.
Smart phones can offer almost unlimited connectivity for the mobile worker. Make sure that you chose the type of phone and wireless service plan that best fit your daily business mobility requirements.
Telephone, wireless, and internet service is offered as a "bundle" by several service providers, which can provide real cost savings while meeting your communication needs.
Voice mail, answering service and mail and package delivery options for businesses
Voice mail, answering services, facsimile services, and mail and package delivery are all necessary means of communication for businesses of all sizes.
Voice mail and answering services
Unless you can afford to miss telephone calls and the potential business they may represent, you must have some kind of telephone answering service in place at your business.
Even for the smallest of businesses, call waiting, while useful, is not a complete substitute for an answering service because there will be times when you're not around to pick up the phone or when you'll decide it's inappropriate to interrupt a conversation to take another incoming call.
Voice mail. Voice mail is a standard part of almost every phone system and is a sufficient answering solution for many businesses, particularly if you have only one phone line. A very handy voice mail feature is that you can set it up so that remote access enables you to listen to your messages from any phone, computer or mobile device. And you may want messages forwarded to your email account.
You should personalize your voice mail message so that it identifies your business and clearly instructs callers on when they should start their message.
The human alternative. Some business owners find that they prefer to have a live human being answer their phones. You don't need to hire a full-time receptionist — you can contract with a telephone answering service that will answer your phones in the way you specify, and then forward the calls on to you. This is especially useful for businesses that want to be able to respond to emergency calls 24 hours a day, or that want to screen calls by some objective criteria.
Facsimile (fax) machines
The ability of facsimile (fax) machines to instantly send and receive documents have made them fixtures in the modern office. Contracts, orders, letters, and other time-sensitive documents that businesses previously sent by courier or next-day delivery services can now be transmitted over the telephone lines at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.
And while email is arguably the most common method used to transmit information, some documents are still best sent or must be sent by fax.
Of course, whether you in fact need a fax machine is really dependent on the nature of your business. Fax machines are available as part of printer/scanner devices and are not cost-prohibitive even for the smallest of businesses. If you expect that you'll primarily be faxing documents created on your computer, a fax/modem may adequately meet your needs.
If you plan on a large volume of fax activity, you probably should have a two-line telephone system. This is because if you have only one line, no one will be able to get through to speak to you while the fax machine is sending or receiving.
Mail and package delivery
For many businesses, mail and package delivery services are important business tools. If you plan to make use of such services, you'll want to consider both how you should receive deliveries (P.O. box or street address) and how you should send them (via U.S. Postal Service or private companies).
P.O. box or street address. This issue is of particular concern if you run your business out of your home. If you list your business address as a post Office box, you make it impossible for your customers or suppliers to send packages to you using certain private carriers (for example, Federal Express) because such carriers are not allowed to deliver to a U.S. Postal Service box. Thus, it might be a good idea to list a street address even if you have a P.O. box.
Another reason to consider using a street address, even if you also list a P.O. box, relates to public perceptions. Because some unscrupulous people have run fraudulent mail order operations from P.O. box addresses, some people continue to view a business that only lists a P.O. box address with suspicion. If you give them a street address, they may have some measure of comfort that you actually can be found if they have a future problem with a product or service that you provided.
Another option is finding a commercial establishment whose mail box services include receiving shipments from private carriers.
Choosing a carrier. This choice relates to availability, speed, and cost. Delivery by the U.S. Postal Service is available to all P.O. boxes and to most street addresses. Private carriers can't deliver to every address or post office boxes and may not offer all levels of service and delivery guarantees in all areas. However, for fees that sometimes exceed those charged by the Postal Service, they may be able to guarantee a faster delivery.
Private carriers do offer competitive rates, particularly for customers with volume needs. Additionally, some people feel that some private carriers offer more reliable service than the U.S. Postal Service.