Most businesses today have networks in place and use e-mail, an intranet, or the public Internet to communicate. However, despite the various high-tech pipelines that are now available, the lowly fax machine remains a staple in many offices.
The fax is a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to send and receive documents. However, fax machines do have limitations (they are time consuming, potentially costly, and produce poor quality documents, etc.), and today there are several related products and services available that let small businesses send and receive documents more efficiently.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE "MACHINE"
In today's fast-paced digital age, traditional fax machines are somewhat inadequate. According to Maury Kauffman, managing partner of the Kauffman Firm, a fax-consulting company in Voorhees, N.J., every two-page fax sent from a standard fax machine can cost an employer up to a dollar in worker time and effort to send. Multiplied by hundreds of faxes a day, that can add up to a significant amount of money.
"What small businesses want to do is send faxes directly from their computers," says Kauffman. Depending on the type of information sent and the desired recipient(s), this can be accomplished in several ways, that once set up require little to no effort from employees.
Many firms use technology known as Fax-on-demand, which lets customers request specific documents be sent via fax. Automated software answers a phone and lets customers peruse and request information. After the caller makes a choice and punches in his fax number, the fax-on-demand system then automatically dials and sends the requested documents. With this inexpensive, automated technology, companies can offer information 24/7.
In the last few years, however, use of fax-on-demand has waned because of the Web. Businesses can post documents onto a site and anyone can download them, 24 hours a day.
Kauffman says that if a business has an international client base, a Web site may be best. However, if customers reside in less developed countries that may not have Web access, fax-on-demand is a better choice for reaching them.
Another technique, Fax broadcasting, is used as a sales and marketing tool. A single document can be sent to the fax machines of hundreds of recipients. With this kind of setup, fax software is configured with a database of all of the required fax numbers. The designated documents are sent to each number.
Another money-saving technology is Internet faxing. Since faxes travel through the phone system, companies are charged for long-distance fax calls. Instead of sending faxes over phone wires, this type of setup uses the Internet backbone instead. To set up an Internet fax system, businesses rely on Internet service bureaus, which usually charge for faxes on a per-page basis.
If a company is sending a fax from Los Angeles to Hong Kong for example, the information is first sent via e-mail to an Internet fax service bureau. It transfers it electronically to a location near the recipient's fax machine. The service pulls the document off the Web in a Hong Kong office, then makes a local call to the receiving fax machine.
The hottest thing in Internet faxing is fax to e-mail, which sends faxes directly to an e-mail box, bypassing the office fax machine. An employee gets a 10-digit telephone fax number assigned to her computer. When someone sends a fax, it is converted into an electronic e-mail attachment (usually an Adobe Acrobat or TIFF image file) and is sent to the recipient's e-mail box.
There are several advantages to e-mail faxes: Printouts from the computer are clearer than those sent to fax machines, users can send documents in color, and documents are more secure when sent to an e-mail account rather than an office fax machine. In addition, workers can receive faxes even when they're out of the office.
There are several ways to implement fax-to-e-mail capability: a service bureau, a fax server, or desktop software. These days, millions of small businesses are relying on Internet providers like eFax.com and jFax.com, which offer free and fee-based services.
For those times it's just not possible to send documents from the desktop, there's a new generation of fax-to-e-mail machines. These devices accept hard copy documents and send them as electronic attachments to the recipient's e-mail address.
Wealthsource, an insurance marketer in Clearwater, Florida, has used a Hewlett-Packard 9100C to transmit its documents. President Frank Berman comments that since they have started using the machine, they have cut company time and costs by more than 50 percent.
"It's just a more time-efficient and cost-effective way for us to do business," says Berman. The company couldn't use a conventional fax machine because of the poor quality on the receiving end, and it was relying on costly overnight and two-day deliveries.
If a company has five or fewer employees who use computers to send faxes an entry-level fax software program like Symantec's WinFax Pro is a good option. But, warns Kauffman, "Don't try to make it work for 25 employees. It's like using a motorcycle when you need a school bus." Users can send or forward faxes to e-mail addresses in a format that is readable regardless of whether recipients have the software on their systems or not.
A larger business must rely on a centralized fax server that manages modem connections across a network to efficiently send and receive faxes on its computers. This way, each computer won't need its own modem.
While any fax software can perform fax broadcasting, Kauffman recommends that businesses use a fax service bureau when they plan to transmit hundreds or thousands of faxes. "For the same reason you don't own the printing press," says Kauffman, "you don't own all of the telephones, lines, and equipment needed to send out high-volume fax broadcasts."
According to Kauffman, the future of the fax remains bright. The only place where fax use is diminishing, he says, is in large corporations, which rely more on e-mail than fax for internal communications. "I think that down the road, everyone will be using their e-mail box to receive their faxes," he says.
For now, small businesses have many faxing options available to them. If you're happy with a stand-alone fax machine, there's no reason to migrate to more sophisticated fax technology. But if you could use a more efficient method, the options are out there.