Given the global economic meltdown and the harsh economic conditions expected in 2009, small to medium enterprises (SMEs), more than ever, need to find a balance between cutting costs where possible and increasing productivity, so as to remain competitive and sustainable, says communications specialists Kathea Communications sales manager Scott Gilbert.
He explains that communication capability, in the shape of effective employee communication skills and in terms of appropriate communication technology, is one area SMEs cannot afford to cut back on. It is imperative that the right people within an organisation are available for contact when they are needed, whether by internal or external stakeholders. Perpetual unavailability could easily lead to lost sales or a tainted corporate image in the mind of frustrated stakeholders.
Effective and regular stakeholder engagement, from clients, to suppliers, to employees, is key in establishing lasting relationships and trust, as well as building the image and reputation of the organisation within the industry. To be effective in this arena, SMEs need to have the appropriate tools and facilities at their disposal.
Gilbert points out that spending on effective communication tools for employees can prove to be a highly valuable investment, provided that the business model is clearly established and properly adjusted to suit the tools, and that clear savings are unlocked when investments are made in communications.
Given the current technological climate, communication tools are fast becoming more adaptable to users' needs, the most important of which is mobility. Wireless connectivity is the fast growing trend in communications, allowing for concepts such as the mobile office, in which phonecalls, faxes, emails and more are possible from a single handheld unit, such as a BlackBerry device.
"Employees carrying a laptop or personal digital assistant can be far more responsive to clients," Gilbert says. "It has a dramatic effect on how those stakeholders view the business."
He says that if clear savings are unlocked elsewhere, communications spend can be well justified, in the short term and in the long term. An example would be to save money by foregoing expansion in terms of office space, and to instead invest a smaller amount on communication technologies that would allow employees to work from home. This scenario would require a specific set of management tools that would differ to those applied to in-office employees, however, with planning and vigilance, employee productivity and behaviour can be well monitored through the implementation of weekly reviews.
However, he says that this would require a fundamental shift in management mindset so as to give effect to the changes, as well as a fair amount of courage, as the change could alter the entire way that the organisation does business.
"Better communication systems do not necessarily mean large capital expenditure on communications tools, but rather a shift in mindset and organisational structure," says Gilbert.
New technologies for SMEs
New South African telecommunications operator Neotel has launched two services geared toward SMEs. Neoflex Voice and Neoflex Data are services that provide SMEs with highly flexible telephone and data connections. The flexibility comes in the form of wireless connectivity.
NeoFlex Data is a wireless, multiuser, high-speed, high capacity data service, which is best suited for a small home office or SME.
"We have been listening closely to the market feedback received since our launch last year," says Neotel head of marketing in consumer business unit Mala Suriah. "The launch of this service is our response to the feedback which asked for a data product for multiple users."
Neoflex Data can reach peak speeds of 3,1 Mb/s for downloads and 1,8 Mb/s for uploads, while the device has average data speeds of between 450 Kb/s to 900 Kb/s for downloads and 300 Kb/s to 700 Kb/s for uploads. Neoflex Data includes ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, which is especially suited to those with a multi-user data requirement.
The NeoFlex data service is available in three packages. NeoFlex 5G, which provides 5 Gb of data a month, Neoflex 10G, which provides the customer with 10 Gb of data a month, while NeoFlex 15G provides the customer with 15 Gb of data a month.
All three packages are inclusive of a recurring monthly device fee, payable over 24 months, with no upfront capital outlay. Should a subscriber wish to unsubscribe, then only the difference owed on the equipment is payable.
"The packages are designed to be cost effective and should easily cater for the Internet requirements of SMEs and high end consumers. If customers reach their data cap, our out-of-bundle rates are charged at a nominal fee of 8 c/Mb," says Neotel product manager Stephen Morony.
The Neoflex Voice service is served through a code division multiple access (CDMA) technology network, which is capable of connecting all new and most existing private branch exchange (PBX) systems, and can be used for making and receiving calls.
"Voice quality is equal to traditional fixed-line voice," says Morony. "As this is a wireless solution, there is no installation required and the service can be connected almost instantly."
Samsung Networking is the channel partner for the NeoFlex Voice solution, providing maintenance of the terminal equipment and an agreed upon service level agreement for efficient services to their equipment.
"The SME market plays an important role in the South African economy. With Neoflex Voice and Neoflex Data, SMEs will benefit from Neotel's higher voice quality and low call rates, as well as improved data rates.
"In addition, these services can be used anywhere within Neotel's defined coverage areas. This allows SMEs to open new offices and relocate existing offices without having to wait for new phone lines to be installed," says Morony.
Neotel has built its own network infrastructure. It has installed 12 000 km of fibre-optic cable throughout the country, and is a significant partner in the Seacom project, the new undersea cable connecting continents with a hard-line link. This project will facilitate true broadband connectivity and true broadband services.
Open Source Software
SME telecommunications provider Connection Telecom is determined to take advantage of the most dramatic technological advances seen in telecommunications.
Through the use of Asterisk PBX open source software (OSS) and the voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) platform, Connection Telecom delivers communication products and services that provide cost-effective communication solutions for businesses. Connection Telecom distributes specialised telephony hardware and provides a range of professional services.
Changing the climate of expensive proprietary telecom software, Asterisk is capable of solving a range of challenges, from common PBX and key system replacements, to highly-specialised applications at a lower cost than traditional systems.
"Combined with low-cost telephony hardware, Asterisk can be used to create a PBX at a lower cost than traditional PBX and key systems, while providing a level of functionality comparable to that of many of the most expensive systems available," says Connection Telecom CEO Rob Lith.
The OSS allows the user to take control of their phone system. Asterisk supplies the user fine-grained control over virtually every aspect of its operation, while its OSS nature gives even more flexibility.
Further, Asterisk allows PBXs and interactive voice response (IVR) applications to be rapidly created and deployed. Its powerful command-line interface and text configuration files allow both rapid configuration and real-time diagnostics.
Because Asterisk is OSS and is implemented through software, it provides features such as voicemail, voice menus, IVR, and conferencing, which are very expensive for proprietary systems, but it also allows new features to be added rapidly and with little effort.
"Through internationalised support, configuration files, and source code, every aspect of Asterisk can be tweaked. For example, Asterisk's codes for call features could be changed to match an existing system," says Lith.
In the same way that web servers allow a user to deploy dynamic content, such as account information, or movie show times on the web, Asterisk permits the deployment of such dynamic content over the telephone.
Asterisk's unusually flexible dialplan allows seamless integration of IVR and PBX functionality. Many of Asterisk's existing features and desired future features can be implemented using nothing more than extension logic.