Communication tools for small business
Communication is necessary to any business success. In this session, we will review the basic forms of communication and equipment available for your business.
- Types of Communication
- Basic Communication Tools
- Landline telephones
- Cell phones
- Video and web conferencing
- Social networking sites
- Online chat tools
- Auxiliary Products
- Communicating and creating leads
- Technology Planning
- Top Ten Do's and Don'ts
- Business Plan
Types of Communication
External and Internal Communication
Communication is key to any business success. Unless potential clients and customers are aware of your business, they will not have the information to contact you or to purchase your products. When they are aware of your business, they must be able to contact it easily.
Two types of communication are essential - external and internal.
- External communication reaches out to the customer to make him or her aware of your product or service and to give the customer a reason to buy. This type of communication includes your brochures, various forms of advertising, contact letters, telephone calls, Web sites and anything else that makes the public aware of what you do.
Image is extremely important in external communication! Your logo should represent who you are; your letterhead should be a selling tool; your telephone message should reflect your professionalism.
- Internal communication is essential to attracting and retaining a talented staff. You must provide the direction for the company by consistently communicating that message; you must motivate your staff through various forms of communication, which can include awards, newsletters, meetings, telephone calls and formal and informal discussions. Periodic meeting with top management groups including your board of directors and advisory board should be planned for regular intervals over each upcoming year. The importance of an advisory board is covered in session two of Business Expansion.
Effective communication requires tools and planning. In this session, we will discuss those tools, as well as planning guidelines, to facilitate this key element of your business, communication. The following discussion will be grouped into:
- Basic communication tools
- The Internet
Basic Communication Tools
Specific tools that can be used for communication include landline telephones, cell phones, smartphones, iPads and fax machines. The lines between the devices are blurring. For example, an advanced cell phone (the smartphone) can contain many of the functions of a computer including Internet, email, text messaging, faxing, word processing and more. For this discussion, however, each device will be presented as a separate entity.
Even with all the modern methods of communication, regular postal mail is still one of the most powerful tools for a business. It adds a personal touch, it's used for delivering secure documents, contracts, and shipping items. A convenient way to handle mail from your own home or office is through a Stamps.com account, which allows you to print postage from your own computer.
There are many types of telephones, and only you can decide which type(s) or combinations of types are right for you. Even the standard telephone (landline) that is installed in your office has many options. You should start with at least one line that is unique to your business. This line should have the capability to take messages in case it is not answered personally. Here are some telephone tips:
- It is important to treat the telephone as an important business tool. Record a voice mail message that indicates when you will return the call and then continually check your voice mail to return calls promptly.
- Have a separate line for your business phone and your personal phone. Don't have family members pick up or use the business phone. Get any required extra telephone lines installed before you start.
- A remote (voice mail) answering system is usually more desirable than using an answering machine. Voice mail is reliable, reasonable in cost, accessible from anywhere and projects a more business-like image.
- The need for an 800 number is becoming less important because long-distance rates are much more affordable.
- Consider using either a wireless or corded headset for both landline phones and cell phones. It is clearer, safer and you can move about with free arms.
- When leaving phone messages, clearly state your name and phone number at the beginning and the end of the message.
- Be polite in cell phone use! Good business courtesy includes avoiding being interrupted by telephone calls when in a meeting or during a business lunch.
Cell Phones/Mobile Phones
The cell phone, also called a mobile phone, is used for mobile communications over a cellular network of cell sites. There are numerous plans and carriers. Many carriers have plans tailored for small businesses including options that bundle popular features and usage patterns, making them very cost effective. Be sure to ask questions about your specific needs before selecting a carrier and a plan.
When your usage or needs change, do not hesitate to request information on plans that more closely meet your new set of requirements. Most cell phone companies allow you to return the phone within 15 to 30 days after activation if you are not happy. Use this time to check if the cell phone has acceptable reception at your home and work place. Basic cell phones are offered free by many carriers for a specific length of time, usually two years. But be aware there are hefty fees for canceling early.
Growth in demand for advanced mobile devices boasting powerful memory, larger screens, and open operating systems has outpaced the rest of the mobile phone market for several years. A smartphone is a cell phone offering advanced capabilities with computer-like functionality. A smartphone incorporates advanced features like e-mail, Internet, and e-book reader capabilities and include a full keyboard or an external keyboard. In other words, a smartphone is a miniature computer that has phone capability.
Smartphones are also capable of text messaging and may include a camera and video recorder. Some models are capable of "Push to Talk" which is a feature similar to a walkie-talkie. Outside your office, a smartphone can become a valuable tool for e-mail, web browsing and the ability to review and edit documents. Several models have global positioning system (GPS) capability and many other available applications. The most popular are the iPhone, Samsung, Blackberry, Droid and Google's Nexus. Each has different strengths you will need to factor into your business needs.
Video and Web Conferencing
Video conferencing transmits and receives images and voice in real-time. Web conferencing adds another dimension - it allows you to share documents and applications. For more details on Webinar conferencing with customers visit Session 2 in the Business Expansion course.
Telepresence takes video and web conferencing to new levels. A telepresence conference room includes ultra-high-definition video cameras, large screens displaying life-size images, and spatially discrete audio to create an "in person" experience. Facial expressions for crucial business discussions and negotiations can be discerned across the "virtual table." Telepresence solutions can be deployed to support your business' need from one-on-one conferencing in private offices to stadium seating for larger meetings.
All these solutions allow you to communicate as if you were face-to-face with customers anywhere in the world. Time and money that would be spent on traveling can be used to conduct meetings. You can share documents, make presentations and conduct meetings on short notice. For example, without leaving your office, you can collaborate with employees who work from home or from other company locations.
Social Networking Sites
A social network is a social structure made of individuals or organizations that are tied together by common interests, often like a community. Internet-based social networking occurs through a variety of websites that allow users to share content and interact with similar interests. It has expanded to include a company's customers, celebrity's fans and a politician's constituents. This has created a great opportunity for businesses to generate interaction with present and potential customers through Web-based sites established for that purpose. To be successful requires a steady effort and participation over time. With an ongoing commitment of effort you can create a niche market through sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. A note of caution on Internet social networking: once you put something out there it's hard to take it back, so you have to be careful.
Online Chat Tools
Wikipedia describes chat tools best: "Online chat can refer to any kind of communication over the Internet, but is primarily meant to refer to direct one-on-one chat or text-based group chat using tools such as instant messengers." It is commonly used in place of email when there is a need to communicate live. Chat tools can be used both for internal and external communication and can be placed on a website so customers can talk to a customer service person in real-time. Utilizing chat tools usually requires a free software download. There are many options available including GoogleTalk and Skype. Features can vary from simple one-on-one messaging to highly developed tools for group chat, file transfers, video and document collaboration.
The decision must be made as to whether to buy a stand alone fax machine or an "all-in-one" model. All-in-ones function as a printer, scanner, copier and fax. (Not all models have the fax or scanner capability). If you plan on sending and receiving lots of faxes you might consider the stand-alone. For less frequent use the all-in-one can cost less. They are also compact and more energy efficient. Consideration should be given to your budget and your space constraints. Generally, the simpler the machine, the fewer problems you will have with it. If your business will rely heavily on faxing, it is important to get as much memory as possible to speed up the printing of documents.
Some phone vendors can provide you with a fax number that works with your e-mail system. Receiving a fax works just like it does when the fax is being received by another machine but you receive it as an attachment to an e-mail. This can be very handy for those who travel on a frequent basis and are not always near a fax machine. Here are tips:
- Use a cover page that is appropriate for your company. Remember, this is an external communication that reflects your business and your image.
- Use a separate dedicated phone line for your fax machine.
A computer is so affordable that it should be included as a key tool in your business. Computers can be purchased for a wide range of prices. For basic word processing, e-mail, accounting, and spreadsheet work, you will not require a top-of-the-line computer. While what you buy today may soon become obsolete, this does not mean that the computer you purchase will not meet your business requirements for a much longer period of time. The following discussion will focus on the growing number of options that are available:
- Notebook (or netbook)
This is the most common type of computer: one that is set up to operate in your office. The computer system should include:
- A basic processing unit: either a PC (Personal Computer) or a Mac (Apple). PC's are more common in usage and are lower in cost. Most businesses work in a PC format. However, for many users and applications including graphic arts, the Mac enjoys very steadfast supporters.
- A flat-panel monitor.
- Internet connectivity, a CD/DVD drive and USB ports.
- A printer. Laser printers cost more up front but are less expensive over the long run when taking printing costs into account. If you have a small space to work with, consider an all-in-one printer.
- Some type of backup storage should also be considered, such as a USB Flash Drive, External Hard Drive or a writable CD or DVD.
- An antivirus program is essential. You can purchase one or use a free program; however the free programs will not afford you as much security as the paid versions.
A laptop computer offers portability with many of the features offered by a desktop which make it ideal for meetings or if you travel frequently. Drawbacks for laptops include: they are higher in price than desktops, have smaller keyboards and monitors and are subject to theft. Traditional and wireless printers, keyboards and even the traditional mouse are options available for laptops. If you travel and need computing capability, it is worth the extra expense.
Notebooks and Netbooks
Since their recent appearance, netbooks have grown in size and features. At the same time, notebooks have become smaller and lighter. The result is that for practical purposes we are going to use the two words interchangeably since there is no longer a significant distinction between them. They both can be described as rapidly evolving categories of small, light and inexpensive laptop computers suited for general computing and accessing web-based applications. They are gaining in popularity especially with students, bloggers, and even some businesses.
While generally less expensive than laptops, manufacturers are starting to beef up notebooks, which is increasing their cost. A caution: their compact size makes them attractive for traveling but if you are considering one to save on the cost of a laptop, you probably will be getting less memory and many do not have full applications or compatibility with your other business applications.
Things to keep in mind if getting a desktop, laptop or netbook:
- Get as much capability as you can afford. Laptops are not typically as easy to upgrade as desktop computers because of the nature of their construction.
- Be sure you get all the features you need when you purchase.
- If you do not normally have access to an electrical outlet, get a laptop or netbook with extended battery life.
- Keep all documentation, software, and accessories that come with your device.
A tablet computer is equipped with a touch screen or stylus rather than a keyboard to operate the computer. The advantages include using when it is not convenient to use a keyboard and mouse, recording diagrams and symbols, and easier navigation than a keyboard and mouse or touch pad. Disadvantages include higher cost, slower input speed, and risk of damage to the tablet screen.
Handheld computers, or Personal Digital Assistants, are still popular despite the growing sales of smartphones. There are basically two versions of these units: 1) those using the Palm Pilot operating system and 2) those using the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. These units allow synchronizing your key organizational elements with your computer. Functions of a PDA and smartphone have become almost indistinguishable; however PDAs generally perform faster and can synchronize data to your PC. The capabilities of PDAs are not built around a cell phone whereas a smartphone is a cell phone with other capabilities built into the phone. More and more features are being built into these units, integrating them as a powerful tool in the business world.
The software you purchase is key to making your computer productive. The operating system, whether it is a PC or a Macintosh, should be preloaded onto the system. Many software packages are often bundled with the system at the time of purchase and some in the form of trial software. At the bare minimum, you should have the capability to do word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.
Additionally, you should consider financial and accounting software that is appropriate for your business. Keep in mind that many accounting/bookkeeping software packages are not double-entry systems and care must be taken in making the entries correctly. Keep in mind that home and professional versions of accounting software may not be compatible or may not be appropriate for your operating system. Be sure to read specifications before you purchase.
Many products can be used in conjunction with your computer to enhance the functionality and image of your business. These also require software specifically designed to facilitate its usage.
- Digital Camera - a picture taken by this type of camera can be directly loaded onto your computer for a variety of uses. Usage ideas include pictures of properties, product catalogs, pictures accompanying résumés and many more.
Digital cameras come in various shapes and sizes, but what really sets them apart in price is image quality.
- Scanner - when you have a printed copy of something that you would like to include as part of a digital document, you can create a digital image by scanning the printed copy with this type of equipment.
- Wireless Transmission - this feature allows you to communicate with other devices equipped with the same feature. Most office equipment is available in a wireless version and without all the cords. Ease of set up is appealing and has many productive implications
- Don't overlook the importance of making regular external backups to the individual programs used in your business. Backups are commonly stored on CD's DVDs, USB Flash Drives and External Hard Drives. There are also services provided on the Web to facilitate this process.
The Internet an essential marketing and communication tool.
Utilizing your ability to register on search engines and crowd-source business review sites is an essential marking tool to communicate with potential customers and creating leads.
To learn more, see the links below:
- Google My Business: https://www.google.com/business/
- Bing Places for Business: https://www.bingplaces.com/
Crowd-sourced business review sites (U.S. based):
- yelp: https://biz.yelp.com/
How you use the Internet in your business is up to you. Perhaps you are not ready to sell your products online, but you are interested in developing a website that lets people know what you do. At the other extreme, you may want to use the Internet as your main sales channel. Just remember, the basics are still on the ground - you need products and services that people need; you need to attract people to your Internet site so that they have the option of purchasing these products and services from you; you need to convince them to buy; you need a place to store your products; and you need a way to get them to the purchaser.
Session 12 of this course will furnish you with detailed information about the Internet and E-commerce.
Before you start, plan for the technology that you will need. Get those extra telephone lines; purchase and learn how to use the computer; decide how you will and will not use the Internet.
Keep in mind that the monitoring of employees' use of the Internet while at work is not a violation of their rights to privacy. Your policy should be in writing and signed by your employees.
Remember, appropriate use of technology can make your business look established and successful from the very beginning!
Top Ten Do's and Don'ts
THE TOP TEN DO'S
- Gain the capability to do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and e-mail.
- Gain the capability to use a smartphone.
- Consider a laptop computer if your business requires mobility.
- Learn digital technology including use of pictures for marketing purposes.
- Consider using a headset for cordless and cell phones.
- Plan ongoing internal communications including awards, newsletters, and discussions.
- When leaving messages, clearly and slowly repeat your name and number.
- Use a remote Voice Mail answering system rather than an answering machine.
- Use separate dedicated phone lines for your business and fax lines.
- Develop a logo to represent who you are: for stationery, signs, cards and Web site.
THE TOP TEN DON'TS
- Start your business without knowledge about and possession of computer tools.
- Overlook making regular external back-ups to computer programs.
- Overlook the Internet and smartphones as important business tools.
- Purchase more equipment than will meet your need for the next two years.
- Spend for a top-of-line computer unless it is required in your business.
- Sign up for extended time periods on any service including phone and mobile.
- Neglect requesting information on communication plans that more closely meet your new requirements.
- Fail to exercise your rights on return policies within time limits allowed.
- Neglect the importance of an 800 number.
- Sign up for long term plans with Internet Service Providers.
Business Plan for Session 8: Communication Tools
You can continue to assemble your business plan. We provided Microsoft Word templates for this section below:
Section 8: Communication Tools
The full template for all sessions can be downloaded as one document: