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Top tips for choosing the right telecoms package

As a small business, it may seem a lot easier and faster to choose a telecoms package based on price. As a business owner, you have hundreds of things to be getting on with and choosing a telecoms package is something which can be dealt with quickly.

However, there is a lot more to consider that just the price. All telecoms providers are different so there are certain things you must look out for when deciding which provider is right for you.

All telecoms providers are different. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a supplier that’s right for your business.

1. Is the supplier signed up to the Ombudsman scheme?

Make sure you check that the supplier has signed up to the Ombudsman scheme. If there is a dispute, this scheme gives free binding arbitration. You can find a list of members at http://www.ombudsman-services.org/memberlists/communications/. If they aren’t a member make sure you question why.

2. Don’t opt for a residential service

Whilst it may save you a small amount, a residential service will not prioritise you when something goes wrong. If you lose service for a day, how much business will you lose as a result? Don’t buy based on price because a residential service may be less, but it won’t necessarily be the quality you need.

3. False lowest price promises

Lowest price promises made by suppliers are often false. They may seem cheap on the surface, but that’s because there are hidden costs which will inflate your final bill. Some hidden costs may include:

  • Call set up fees
  • Call durations being rounded up to the nearest minute.
  • Minimum call charges.

4. Illegal automatic renewals

Make sure you check when the contract runs out. Auto-renewal of phone contracts for small businesses has been banned, but there are still some suppliers who will try and get away with it.

5. Price rises

Once the contract has started, make sure you keep an eye out for any price rises. As a small business, you should be given notice of price rises and the option to cancel within 30 days.

Many suppliers hide the notifications in bills or on their website so it is vital you check the bill against the contract regularly. Make sure you insist on an additional contract clause that states if you spot there has been a price rise, you have the right to cancel.

6. Avoid signing long-term deals

You don’t know where your business is going to be in a few years time so it’s best to avoid signing a long term contract even if it does seem like the cheaper option.

7. Mobile-only perceptions

Plenty of research has shown that having a landline makes consumers feel they can trust companies more than if they just had a mobile number.

Getting a landline is easy, cost-effective and makes your business seem bigger than it is. It also means as a business owner, you can separate your work and personal life more efficiently.

8. Check the reviews

Although supplier reviews can be a useful guide when making your decision, be aware that they are not as independent as they seem. There have also been instances where people have left negative reviews and later find they have disappeared from the site.

9. The cost of lost business

It’s a similar story with broadband. Don’t just buy on price. There are huge variations in contention ratios, network capacity, quality of ‘free’ routers and customer service between providers.

So you may be paying less, but if you lose internet or phone connection for a day and a provider takes longer to send someone to fix it, how much business are you going to lose?

By keeping all of these things in mind, you can find the right telecoms package for your business at the right price, with no hidden fees.

Are you prepared for MiFID II?

The implementation of MiFID II is approaching quickly, so it’s important that you know who is affected and how to make sure your business is compliant.

The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) regulates firms who provide services linked to ‘financial instruments’. This includes IFAs, mortgage brokers, credit institutions, corporate finance companies, investment firms and brokers/dealers.

MiFID has been applicable in the UK since 2007, but is now being revised to strengthen investor protection. The 3rd January 2018 will see MiFID II set in. The following must be recorded by financial service companies if they relate to an actual or possible transaction:

  • Telephone calls
  • Electronic communications
  • Face-to-face meetings

Records for these must be kept for 5 years (in some cases 7 years) or for the duration of the client relationship.

Commodities companies that were originally left outside the first MiFID will now be covered. This also applies to insurance brokers who take cover products with an ‘investment element’.

Customers who are affected by MiFID II may need to upgrade their telecoms systems to support recording of fixed and mobile calls. Affected firms have a number of options, depending on their existing set-up:

Landlines/SIP

Landlines – no system

You can now record phone calls via cloud-based providers. If firms choose this option, they may need to consider switching to an FCA-compliant VoIP provider, as it is the most cost-effective choice.

Phone system with landlines or SIP

  • Firms can add an on-premise call recorder. Some SIP providers offer cloud recording. But, firms would need to make sure that it’s FCA compliant and check storage costs.

VoIP/Skype for business

  • Firms will have to ask their supplier for written confirmation from their legal/operational teams that the call recordings are FCA-compliant.
  • Many VoIP providers only use Wav files and don’t offer FCA-compliant recordings. Firms will need to find out how long calls are stored for and the costs.

Mobiles

Mobiles are slightly more difficult. This is especially the case if the firm’s employees use SMS. There are still a number of options available.

  • Firms can ban mobiles. It’s a simple solution but it reduces productivity.
  • Mobile clients could be added. All recordings would be in one place, but SMS would not be recorded.
  • Firms could switch to recordable sims. This would allow the recording of calls and SMS. However, it would mean being out of contract on their current mobiles.

Financial services firms will have to make sure they assess how they are affected by MiFID II. This will also need to examine how they can comply with new regulations. But, suppliers will have to make sure they are meeting the new needs of affected customers.

 

Are you risking a fine from Ofcom?

ofcomTelecoms regulator Ofcom’s clear calling rules came into force on July 1 and they require companies that have 084, 087, 09 or 118 phone numbers to make consumers aware of how much it will cost to dial them. These numbers are used for customer information and complaint lines, directories and even to vote on TV talent shows. However, our research shows that 65 per cent of the firms that use these service numbers have no information on the cost of calls on their websites.

This potentially leaves them open to being fined by Ofcom.

Although the regulator acknowledged that printed material would take time to correct and for existing stocks to be used up, it wanted websites to be changed to show call charges immediately.

Our research made it quite clear that the majority of companies (that offer service numbers), particularly smaller ones have not made the necessary changes and as such are leaving themselves open to fines.

It could be argued that Ofcom could have done a better job in promoting the scope of the changes as could the telecom providers of the numbers themselves. However, ultimate responsibility lies with the companies themselves.

Of the more than 500 firms surveyed, the research found that only 100 used the costly numbers but 2/3rds of them were not following Ofcom’s rules.

This raises the question as to why some firms expect their customers to pay extra when calling to buy their products or services, when others use standard geographic or 0800 numbers, which are free to call from landlines or now also from mobiles.

According to Ofcom, consumers pay around £2 billion to use service and premium numbers, accounting for 12 per cent of all call traffic volumes.

If you are concerned about your use of premium rate numbers, give us a call and let’s make sure you aren’t risking a fine from Ofcom.

Reflection on 36 Years in The Telecoms Industry

On October 1st 2015 I completed 36 years in the Telecoms Industry. On that day in 1979 I turned up as a Trainee Accountant to start work with Post Office (Telecommunications). That predates BT, Buzby and Maureen Lipman adverts about ‘ologies.

At that time never mind no email, internet or mobile phones we had no voicemail, PCs or push button phones. Call transfer meant passing over the handset. They were just introducing electronic exchanges but there were still plenty of the old noisy Strowger exchanges housed in multi story buildings. There were thousands of operators manually connecting calls.

In a generation and a bit that has all changed or has it.

Mobile phones started as bricks, got so small you could barely read the screen and now are expanding again to a size they don’t fit in a top pocket. Although the days of your mobile lasting 5 days on a single charge seems to remain a dim and distant memory.

You can now buy phone lines from hundreds of companies but still have to wait for a BT engineer to turn up – maybe.

Fibre broadband is rapidly reducing the costs for businesses connectivity enabling the growth of technologies such as SIP and VoIP. Trouble is the priority areas are residential so people can watch Netflix. Large swathes of central London still only have slow bog standard ADSL.

Some things don’t change – I recall working on a project in the 1980s to use artificial intelligence (then called expert systems) to reduce telecom fraud and although the techniques may have changed it remains an issue of which many companies fall foul.

Sadly also the growth of suppliers and increase in technology complexity has inevitably led to the growth of scams and tricks that less scrupulous companies have used to fleece unsuspecting businesses. Ofcom has now started to levy some fines but still a lot to be done.

With the accelerating rate of change probably what has taken 36 years to occur will probably now be repeated in less than 10. Certainly that is when BT has announced ISDN will have ended and maybe just maybe my phone will last over a day on a single charge. But that might be expecting too much

Unicom Fined £200,000 by Ofcom For Misleading Customers

Really pleased to hear that Ofcom have just announced they are fining Unicom for misleading small business over telecoms deals.

We have reproduced the full text of the result below. But in short if you signed a deal with Unicom between 1 March 2013 to 8 July 2014 you can get out for free with no penalties.

We hope this is just the start and Ofcom will look at other suppliers who have used dubious practices and strengthened the rules to benefits customers who have been the victim of misleading sales tactics

Ofcom fines Unicom for misleading customer

Package of measures brought against small business telecoms provider
Ofcom has today fined Universal Utilities Ltd, trading as Unicom, £200,000 for mis-selling landline telephone services.

The decision also requires Unicom to take a number of steps to help compensate customers affected by the mis-selling and to guard against it happening again.

Ofcom launched the investigation into Unicom, which provides telephone and broadband services to around 100,000 small businesses, after receiving complaints from customers and having assessed evidence submitted by Unicom in the course of initial enquiries.

The investigation into Unicom is part of Ofcom’s wider monitoring and enforcement programme into the sales and marketing activities of communications providers.
Under Ofcom rules, communications providers must give prospective customers accurate information about the services they are providing.

Ofcom’s investigation found that, over the period investigated – from 1 March 2013 to 8 July 2014 – Unicom used sales processes that gave some prospective business customers a misleading impression about costs they could face.

Specifically, this related to Unicom giving a misleading impression about the payment of early termination charges if the prospective customer chose to leave their existing communications provider.

Over the same period, Unicom’s sales processes also misled some prospective business customers that transferring their landline telephone service to Unicom would not affect their existing broadband services.

As a result, Unicom has been found in breach of Ofcom rules, which state that providers must not engage in misleading conduct.

Ensuring compliance 
Ofcom has imposed a fine of £200,000 against Unicom and outlined steps the company must now take. These include:

• Compensating any customers who were misled in the relevant ways during the period investigated;
• Allowing those customers to exit their contract with Unicom penalty-free;
• Covering the cost of any reconnection charges for those customers where they choose to return to their previous provider;
• Making all necessary changes to its policies, procedures and marketing and sales materials to ensure it complies with the rules; and
• Providing appropriate training to sales staff, and introducing a system to monitor the conduct and compliance of Unicom agents.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer and Content Group Director, said: “Small businesses in the UK increasingly rely on high-quality communications services.

“Service interruptions and unexpected costs can cause a real concern for these customers. Ofcom does not accept misleading practices and we will take action against companies that break the rules.”

The £200,000 fine is payable to Ofcom and then passed on to HM Treasury. Unicom must pay it within 20 working days of receiving Ofcom’s decision.

Things to consider before choosing a VOIP supplier

More and more companies are considering changing to a cloud based or VOIP telephone system. This is shown by the fact that in 2014 sales of PBXs were down significantly whilst VOIP sales were up 10%. There are almost 100 suppliers in the UK. We have evaluated many of them over the last 6 years in order to decide which ones we would include on our brokerage panel.

To help you make your decision here are some key questions to ask and some advice on how to evaluate the answers.

What is the system built on?

In our experience the more successful suppliers have generally built their service on larger carrier grade platforms such as Broadsoft, Nortel CS2K (aka Genband), or Mitel. At the enterprise end there is also Cisco HCS. We have seen Asterix based-platforms struggle to scale and, as each system is developed differently, there can be difficulties if you wish to change suppliers

Is the Supplier part of the Telecoms Ombudsman scheme?

If they are, it shows they are sufficiently confident in their services to accept independent binding arbitration should customer disputes arise in companies of less than 10 employees. If not they may say they are part of ITSPA*. This does not offer the same protection, as it is more of a trade body. A list can be found at http://www.ombudsman-services.org/memberlists/communications/

Does any of the call traffic go over the public or private Internet?

If it goes over the public Internet it can affect call quality at peak usage times, so private is better.

Do you issue your own new numbers?

Does the company issue their own numbers or do they have to source them from another operator? This can impact porting in the future, particularly if numbers are bought in from multiple suppliers. It may mean that should you want more numbers in future these will be out of sequence. If the company is based in London, do they have access to new 0207 and 0208 numbers or do they just have 0203 numbers?

How many users do they have?

As a guide, the larger suppliers in the UK have at least 15,000 – 20,000 users. Whilst new entrants obviously will not have that amount it is a guide to levels of success.

Are they the supplier or are they reselling someone else’s solution?

Our experience is that it is always better to have a direct contract with the supplier as there are fewer steps in the support process should problems arise or should you need support.

What phones will be supplied?

It is interesting to note from our conversations with larger suppliers that they have largely standardised around Cisco, Polycom and Mitel. They have tried to work with other handsets but been unhappy with call quality or reliability. Also check that suppliers are using current phones; we have seen examples of companies supplying end of life phones, which could impact replacement if they break.

What are the call rates?

As a guide, UK landlines should be less than 1p per minute, UK mobiles should be less than 7p per minute. Anything higher and they are making excessive profits. There should be no minimum charges and no call set up fees. All calls should be billed per second.

What is the length of the contract?

Generally we don’t advise signing for more than 12 months unless there is a significant financial advantage in doing so. Some companies offer to rent or lease handsets if you take out a three-year deal. If you go for this option see if you can change suppliers before that date and reuse handsets with another supplier. On longer term deals check the flexibility and impact on costs of adding and removing users.

We would also recommend asking for a demo of their portal. This way you get to manage the solution. You can then judge how easy it is to use. Our free guide to VOIP can be downloaded from https://www.equinox.uat.3mil.co.ukbrochures/

Alternatively contact us for our free, independent advice. We have helped almost 200 organisations find the right solution for them.

 

*Internet Telephony Services Providers Association.

 

What Will the Telecoms Market Look Like in 2015

So we are just over one month into 2015 and it is already looking like it will be an interesting year in the telecoms market. Apple have managed to start two more law cases so no change there. They have also announced record profits. The CEO of Blackberry has demanded developers should be made to produce apps for his devices. Bit of a Stalinist approach to the market – you will build them even if no one wants them. This from a company that would never let anyone near their software – chickens coming home to roost.

Then it looks like all change in the UK mobile market with BT buying EE and O2 merging / being bought by 3. So what will this mean to consumers and businesses over the rest of the forthcoming year. It does always assume that Ofcom will allow there to be only three mobile operators in the UK when they have publicly stated they want four. An interesting challenge for the new head to find in her already bulging in-tray. I think she will allow it given the number of MVNOs that now exist who will be classed as quasi operators. After all you can pick up a mobile contract with your weekly shop in Tesco’s who often offer very cheap sim free phones with clubcard points thrown in.

It was all started by BT wanting to join the quad players (phone, broadband, mobile and TV) in the residential market. Following the launch of BT Sport they were just missing the mobile element having got rid of O2 many years ago. Having decided they didn’t want them back and EE were a better bet, they would be in a position to compete with Virgin. Sky have quickly responded with an announcement that it will launch a mobile service next – surprise surprise in conjunction with O2.

That leaves a few companies sitting on the edges of the dance floor looking at who’s left to partner up with before the evening is over. Most notably TalkTalk and Vodafone is that the next marriage made in heaven or would it be out of necessity?

That potentially would create four companies targeting the quad play domestic market in what is a price sensitive market and probably in a race to the bottom. The domestic broadband market is evidence of that where prices and one could argue service/product quality has fallen dramatically.

With all this focus on the domestic market both in terms of time and resources will the business consumer suffer. For the suppliers which will be the most lucrative to focus on – that will determine their priorities. For some businesses the potential of a single supplier may be attractive whilst others on principle do not like all their eggs in one basket. It should be noted that integration will take some time and businesses anticipating a single contact point for faults will be disappointed. BT do not offer it yet so expecting them to merge EE’s support into their existing centres quickly is being a tad optimistic.

Also of interest will be how the cultures and approaches of the combined companies in the various merging will work out. For example 3 have been ahead of the market in extending the mobile packages to overseas countries without charge. I am sure some companies with large roaming bills would welcome this change as the business providers continue to make large portions of their profits in this area.

Certainly I think businesses should be wary of making long term commitments until the dust has settled and they know what and more importantly who they are signing up with. The company they sign with may look very different by the end of the year.

Why do Telecoms Suppliers always compare their Prices with BT?

 

It is interesting to notice that in many industries everyone compares themselves to the market leader.  Whilst the telecoms industry is like many others in this respect, it also takes the opportunity to make some great marketing claims, which often do not stand up to reality.

For example on their website Unicom show a 57% saving for BT customers.  There is however a small asterisk that reveals the following when you click on the footnote tab: –

*Percentage saving based on a typical customer spending £500 with BT on their standard business rates, correct as published on 1 March 2013

It is important to note that BT’s standard business rates are effectively their price list and bear no comparison to what is offered in their normal deals.  We recently moved a client away from Unicom to another supplier saving them about 70%.  While I think we are good, I would never claim to get savings of 87% over BT.  In that instance Unicom also tried to claim penalty charges even though the contract had expired.  We soon put them right on that point. It is interesting to note that Ofcom are now investigating

A second favourite marketing ploy is that which compares on just one element, such as the line rental or UK calls.  For example XLN advertise 77% savings on landline rentals.  This example was taken from the XLN website on 10/9/2013.

xln

 You will note that their comparison with BT is based on BT data that is 10 months old and does not reflect the current BT offer.  They also show the comparison on the 1st year rental only, despite the fact that it is a two-year contract.  In the detail it highlights the fact that this price is for 6 months only.  The saving then drops to 25%, which is still not bad, but still only on a par with most other business providers.

Another supplier, Chess Telecom, has a similar table. This example is taken on the same day as the XLN table.

chess 

On the XLN table the prices shown for each supplier are different from those on the Chess table.   Also it is not clear that Chess have set-up charges for calls.  This enables them to make a price promise on the actual call rates and yet they often end up more expensive than ours as none of the contracts we negotiate ever have a call set-up fee.  We recently analysed a bill from Chess to a client.  With the set-up fee, the effective cost per minute of a local UK call was 2.64p not the 1p they claimed.  We placed the client on a contract with a genuine rate of 0.85p per minute with no call setup – almost 2/3rds of Chess’s rate.

So, as with most marketing, there is an element of truth but it is not always the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  If you would like to understand what you are really paying and a get genuine set of comparison tables to see what you could be paying, contact us on 020 9012 0845.

Telecoms Issues to consider when Moving Office

Telecoms Issues to consider when Moving Office

With the ongoing upturn in economic indicators we have noticed that there has been an increase in enquiries from new and existing clients who are considering moving office.  So we thought it might be useful to produce a checklist for anyone else considering such a move.
Your Existing Numbers

Companies often underestimate the costs of changing phone numbers, for there are hidden factors they may not have reckoned with. How many people may have your current brochures and business cards? Or be looking at websites and blogs that also have your current number on them? Whilst you can advise the customers and suppliers you already know, what about potential customers?

If you are staying with traditional landlines, it is easy to check to see whether the new offices are on the same BT exchange. If not then there are ways around it, such as moving numbers to virtual inbound – though this can be expensive if you have a lot of DDIs.  Alternatively you could consider installing SIP instead of ISDNs, which means you can take your numbers anywhere.  However it’s worth noting that, despite the marketing done by the SIP providers, this can cost more than ISDN to set up, in some parts of the country.

If you already are on SIP or have a cloud based (VOIP) system then you have no worries.

Move the System or Replace it?

How old is your existing phone system?  Is there life or money left in it?  What is the cost of removal and re-installation?  As you will still want to use the phones whilst in the old office any move is likely to have to be done at the weekend – thus costing more.

If you are thinking of going to SIP it is best to check well in advance, because some older systems will not support it.  You may be able to reuse the handsets. These often account for a third of the cost of the new system, although we regularly see examples of other people quoting for everything new.  Again this is something we check for our clients.

You may want to consider VOIP as a means of keeping your numbers and reducing Capex costs.  Our earlier blog highlights things to consider before going VOIP.

You may also be interested in our blog on how PBX companies are fighting back.

Lead times

This is the area most often forgotten about.   At the moment, for example, BT Openreach is quoting 6 – 8 weeks to install ISDN30. For smaller companies considering VOIP or SIP, the lead time for an ordinary analogue line and broadband is about 7-10 working days.

Larger data connections, such as EFM take, traditionally, 40 working days and some leased lines are even 60+ working days, assuming there are no issues with wayleaves.   So it is essential to start planning early. All too often telecoms and data get left until last when they can become the factor that determines the earliest moving date.

We offer free independent advice, so if you are not sure which is the right approach for your business call us on 020 8912 0845.

Common Telecoms Mistakes Made By Business Start-Ups

Around 500,000 new businesses are started each year. (Source: Startup Britain).  However, far too many of those businesses make mistakes with their telecoms. Telecoms mistakes that can cost money and result in a loss of business. 

Here are nine of the most common, easily avoidable, mistakes new business owners make with their telecoms:

Only having a mobile number.

Research shows over 30% of people do not trust and therefore will not contact mobile numbers.  Plus, you’ll only have a single voicemail for personal and business calls.  A mobile number can create the wrong impression.

Using your home number

How will you know if it’s your mother calling or an important new customer?  Also, you can’t turn your business off in the evening and weekends, there is limited functionality for handling a second call and personalising voicemails, and you might not be able to take the number with you if you move.

Long term contracts

It’s tempting to accept offers of free installation if you sign three or five year contracts, but if you expand and / or move the business you could face penalties for cancelling the contract, and you are locking yourself into prices in an environment where prices are generally going down.

084 numbers

Using inbound numbers such as 0800, 0844 or 0845 creates two problems. First, the rules on using 0845 for post sales service change on June 14th 2014 when they become illegal. See: https://www.equinox.uat.3mil.co.ukdo-you-use-0800-0844-0845-or-0870-numbers-if-so-you-may-need-to-change-them/  Second, if most of your customers call you from their mobile then, until next year, they’ll get a warning telling them it will cost a lot of money, at which point 40% hang up. From next year the calls will be free for the caller but more expensive for the owner of the number.

Not reading the small print

Check contract lengths, notice periods and penalty clauses, and ensure your supplier is signed up to the Telecoms Ombudsman.  A list of participating companies can be found at http://www.ombudsman-services.org/memberlists/communications/

Planning for the future

How might the business develop in the first two to three years? Are the telecoms in place on day one flexible and scalable should you expand? If you are working from home is the number portable should you move into offices?

Using numbers provided by your serviced office

This can be very expensive compared to organising your own telecoms and they may not release the number should you move out. Some business centres offer to forward calls but this can be costly. Always ask if you can bring your own and if not are the numbers portable if you leave.

Skype

Skype certainly offers some useful features but not everyone in business uses Skype, particularly larger businesses.  Also, Skype phone numbers are not portable, so when you have outgrown Skype you’ll lose the use of that number.

Call Answering Services

The key question is; what do you want them to do? If it is just to take a message you need to ask yourself what value is that adding.  However, if they can handle certain queries, then that can enhance your offering.

So what are the options?  For micro businesses, a simple inbound geographic number can be set up for circa £7 a month. For a little extra it can have a voicemail and a whisper facility to tell you that it is a business call.  This can help you utilise a single device for business and leisure. For those worried about presenting a mobile number when dialling out then it’s possible to have a landline on your mobile as an app.

Beyond that, businesses wanting a little more sophistication, or for larger start-ups, the choice is VOIP or traditional telecoms solutions. Generally, as a guide, the more sites and the greater the likelihood of growth in numbers of users then the more likely it is that VOIP, with its flexibility and scalability, is the best solution.   If you are looking for more sophisticated features and are communications intensive then a PBX may be a better solution. The guides here may help: https://www.equinox.uat.3mil.co.ukis-the-pbx-making-a-comeback-or-have-hosted-companies-lost-the-marketing-plot/ and https://www.equinox.uat.3mil.co.ukthings-to-consider-before-choosing-a-voip-supplier/

Overall our advice to any new business owner is to be careful. Think about your business, not just now, but in the future too.  Look at the points above and ask the relevant questions of your potential providers, and ensure your telecoms align with your plans for the business.  If in doubt, we are happy to advise for free