IT offers many ways to communicate, both within your business and externally. Choosing the right communication tools can improve productivity and help with marketing.
1. Using email
Email remains a convenient and fast way of keeping in touch with colleagues, customers and other contacts anywhere in the world.
Delivery is almost instantaneous
- With smartphones and other mobile devices, recipients can pick up messages wherever they are.
Email is versatile
- You can attach images, files and embed rich content.
- Your staff can log in to their email even when away from the office.
- When someone is unavailable, a quick email is often better than a voicemail message, especially when the message involves detailed information.
You can use email for many things in your business
- Email is a cost-effective marketing channel. Information of all kinds can be distributed to your customers (providing they have opted in to receive such communications).
- Email enables you to be more responsive. For instance, you can change the prices in your newsletter quickly because there is no printed material involved.
- Dealing with customer queries by email instead of telephone may reduce your costs and retain a valuable paper trail.
- Automated emails can keep your customers updated with the status of their orders.
- Attaching files is a good way of transferring important information.
2. Getting email
There are several ways your business can implement email.
Use a free online email service
- Online email services are accessed through a standard web browser (like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Safari).
- Popular online email services include Google's Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft's Outlook.com.
- Using a free address can look unprofessional. You are almost certainly better off purchasing email addresses to use with your own company domain name.
Purchase mailboxes from your web host
- If your business does not have a network server, this is probably the best way to get email for your company.
- The company which hosts your website should be able to supply email addresses too. These are often called mailboxes.
- To look professional, ensure your email addresses end in your company domain name. For instance, each member of staff could have [email protected]
- Mailboxes can cost as little as £1 a month, but they are often included when you buy hosting space for your business website.
- Mailboxes should be accessible using common email software like Microsoft Outlook and on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Use cloud-hosted email
- Services such as Office 365 enable businesses to store their entire email infrastructure in the cloud.
- All data is stored on the service provider’s servers.
- New users can be added quickly and conveniently, without any software installation and minimal configuration.
- Email can be accessed from virtually any device with an internet connection.
Use your network server to set up and manage email addresses within your business
- If your business has a network server, you can use it to manage all company email internally.
- Your network server acts as a mail server, storing all emails coming into your business.
- Each employee then connects to the server to send and receive their emails.
- You will need to install mail server software onto your network server.
- Setting up a mail server is a complex task. Your IT supplier or a consultant can help if you lack the necessary experience in house.
Check key points when purchasing mailboxes or setting up your server
- Make sure you have spam protection installed. Without this, your mailboxes will quickly fill with junk email.
- You should also scan all messages for security threats like viruses and ransomware.
- Ensure each mailbox is big enough to hold a large number of messages. Cheaper email services commonly offer smaller mailboxes.
- Make sure you can log in and access from locations and devices other than office computers. This can be invaluable when out of the office.
3. Email management, security and privacy
There are a number of management, security and privacy issues you should be aware of when using email in your business.
Emails are usually sent across the internet in plain text
- This means they could be intercepted and read.
- The risk is small, but you should use end-to-end encryption (when available) to scramble sensitive data before you send it by email.
- Many email packages allow you to encrypt emails.
- Never ask customers to send sensitive details (like credit card numbers) by email.
Email is a common source of computer virus infections
- You should scan all incoming and outgoing emails for security threats.
- Be particularly wary of emails with attachments, if the attachment was unexpected. Do not open suspect attachments.
Although it is an excellent communication medium, email can be a distraction
- Make sure employees do not feel they have to reply to every email as soon as it arrives.
- Encourage employees to close down their email software when they have an important task to complete.
- If there is a long or complex message that needs investigation before you can give a proper answer, do not just leave it. Take a few seconds to acknowledge receipt and let the sender know you will reply as soon as possible.
Employees may use the email you provide for personal or inappropriate messages
- Set clear boundaries for what level of personal use is acceptable. For instance, you may permit employees to send personal messages when they are on breaks.
- Some emails contain objectionable content which could offend members of staff. Make sure you have clear guidelines covering the forwarding of messages with questionable content.
- Set up and enforce an email policy.
Email and the law
When you send an email, you are liable for its content
- If your employees make libellous remarks in a private email, you could face legal action.
- Emails can be retrieved from the system long after they have been deleted and forgotten.
It is a good idea to add a disclaimer to your emails
- These state that information in your emails is confidential. The legal standing of email disclaimers is debated, but they may deter lawsuits relating to your emails and will provide evidence of your good practice in this area.
Regulations cover an employer's right to monitor employees' communications
- Generally, you can monitor email traffic.
- You can inspect individual emails for 'specific business purposes'.
The use of email for marketing is subject to tight regulation
- All unsolicited commercial emails must be clearly identified as such.
- You cannot send marketing emails to consumers, unincorporated partnerships and sole traders without their prior consent.
- You must provide clear and simple methods for people to unsubscribe from your mailings.
- It is unadvisable to send mass email campaigns from your business email server, wherever it is hosted. Instead, use dedicated email marketing software, such as Mailchimp.
4. Shared calendars
Shared calendars make it easier to arrange meetings and plan ahead
- A shared calendar system gives everyone in your business an online diary.
- Each of your employees can record their appointments in their calendar, just like using a normal diary.
- Because the calendars are shared, everyone in your business can see when their colleagues are busy or free.
- Booking meetings is much easier, because there is no need to confirm with each person. Meeting requests can simply be sent and accepted or declined by email or via notifications on mobile devices.
You can run a shared calendar system on your network server
- Most shared calendar systems come as part of a complete mail solution.
- The most common shared calendar system for network servers is Microsoft Exchange.
- Other systems are available too, including IBM Notes and Zimbra.
- Your IT administrator or supplier will need to set up these systems.
Alternatively, you can use an online calendar service
- This option is ideal if you do not have a server in your business.
- Free calendar services such as Google Calendar are available. They are generally accessed through a web browser but can also be used via the built-in calendar tools in most operating systems.
- Subscription shared calendars are generally paid for monthly. The price depends on the number of users you have.
- With a subscription service, all your diary information is hosted on servers owned by another company. You pay them to access your calendars across the Internet.
- The most common subscription shared calendar is hosted Office 365. The calendar usually comes as part of a complete hosted email service, which is charged monthly, per user.
Switching to a shared calendar can be difficult at first
- People may be nervous of making their schedules more public. Most calendars have a 'private appointment' option for personal appointments.
5. Instant messaging
Instant messaging (IM) platforms allow you to hold real-time conversations online
- Each person using the system can log in and show themselves as available or busy.
- Everyone has a contact list of other people on the system they know.
- Conversations are usually conducted by typing messages into a window on the screen.
- Messages are sent instantly. Some platforms also allow you to hold audio and video conversations too.
- Most IM platforms feature end-to-end encryption, preventing the ability for hackers to ‘listen in’ on conversations,
IM platforms are widely available
- Most IM systems work over the internet. These include Skype, WhatsApp and Slack are generally free.
- Certain business software will include IM features. For example, your project management app might offer the ability for staff members to communicate with each other directly within the software itself.
- Other systems can be installed on your network for internal use such as IBM Sametime. You may have to purchase these solutions.
- If you intend to install an internal IM system, you will need a network server.
Your company will see a number of benefits from using IM software
- IM software allows your staff to get answers to simple questions quickly.
- It is an excellent way of keeping in touch with staff who are offsite.
- It may decrease the reliance on email communication.
- You may even be able to use IM software as a customer service tool. For instance, you could offer online chat as an alternative to a telephone helpline.
- Chatbots are growing in popularity and enable businesses to offer human-like chat sessions with artificially intelligent software, potentially decreasing customer support overheads.
You need to carefully consider which IM system you use and how you implement it
- Some of your employees may already use IM for personal communication. If you use the same system in your business, it may be hard to tell the difference between personal and business use. See Management and business policies.
- IM can be disruptive, interrupting employees with trivial questions while they are trying to concentrate. You can avoid this to some extent with the software's 'busy' or 'do not disturb' functions.
- Audio and video conversations use considerable bandwidth which might slow down the internet connection for everyone else.
6. Management and business policies
When you adopt new communication tools into your business, it is important you communicate how they are to be used.
Personal use of business communication systems can be a real problem
- Ensure your employees understand when personal use is acceptable.
- For instance, you may allow personal use of email and IM systems during breaks only.
Security is another key issue
- Most communication systems like email and IM are not guaranteed to be secure.
- Employees may use the IM platforms your business has implemented on their smartphones, potentially mobilising confidential conversations and data.
- You should ensure your employees understand that sensitive information should never be sent unencrypted.
You may want to control how employees communicate in some situations
- For instance, it may not be acceptable for employees to use email to tell their line manager that they are on sick leave.
- You should communicate any such situations clearly to your employees, through training and business policies.
Make sure any new systems are included in your company's guidelines and policies
"Not enough time is the number one enemy of the business owner. Make sure you make good use of IT and software so that you can work as efficiently as possible" - Sean McPheat, MTD Sales Training