Boosting SME connectivity

“High quality, widespread communications, fixed and mobile, are an engine of our economy and the pulse of our society.”

These words used by Ofcom to introduce their Connected Nations 2015 report highlights the importance of strong communication links in an ‘always connected’ society. But for SMEs the report was a bit of good news, bad news story.

The good news was that 68% of SMEs are now able to receive superfast broadband, a considerable increase on the 54% reported in 2014. The bad news is that half of SMEs in business parks and rural areas are still receiving speeds of less than10Mbit/s. Worse still, Ofcom estimates that by 2017 although 95% of homes will be connected to a superfast service, 18% of SMEs will still be struggling with slow broadband connectivity.

Why does this matter? Quite simply, because increasingly slow broadband speeds hamper the ability of businesses to attract, retain and communicate with customers. One of the benefits of the global internet age is that fast connectivity has enabled small businesses to establish a global presence online, thereby enabling them to compete on near-level terms with larger and more established organisations. But if upload and download speeds are slow then the way in which a business can interact with its customers is inhibited. Areas such as uploading and downloading files and videos, the provision of online help desks, and the ability to save money and improve communications through VoIP are all dependent on having a fast and reliable broadband connection.

Whilst Ofcom say they are working closely with the government in order to improve internet coverage for all users; for those small and medium businesses who are at the end of the connectivity chain the lack of fast broadband coverage can be frustrating as they see their ability to grow their businesses hampered by being excluded from the internet revolution. Particularly so, in the case of those rural businesses who may find that even the option of Wi-Fi connectivity is denied to them thanks to a scarcity of masts in some areas.

But if broadband is slow, businesses should not simply dismiss the chance of communicating with their customers in the most effective way possible. They may not be able to communicate directly online but that does not mean that they can’t make the most of business telephony options. Simply by choosing a range of business telephone numbers which best suit customers’ needs, a business can make it easy for current and future customers to get in touch.

For example, opting for a freephone number means that those getting in touch can do so without a cost to them. For a small business looking to communicate with customers abroad international freephone numbers are also available, including a China 401 number which enables businesses to advertise a single phone number right across China. SMEs which are looking towards a more local market may decide they want to advertise a regional number, which for most customers will form part of their contract minutes.

Irrespective of the business telephone number mix chosen, SMEs can also maximise their connection opportunities simply by taking some time to design a telephone system which best meets their current needs. For example, if the business requires a considerable amount of ‘out of office’ time then it is really important to ensure that telephone message and divert options are well designed. So whilst some businesses may simply require a straight divert to mobile or alternative landline, others may need to consider whether the use of an answerphone is sufficient or whether they should be transferring calls to a virtual assistant service.

Whatever the mix, the closer it is designed to match the needs of the individual business, the more that the connectivity matrix will be improved. But it’s also important to ensure that the system can flex and grow as the business grows and builds towards the future. Hopefully Ofcom’s work with the government will speed up the introduction of fast broadband connectivity across the country; but fast or slow having a well-designed telephone system is an essential part of SME business development.

Written by Alison