Economic Pressure Drives Telecommuting Trend

By Lauren Simonds | Posted August 11, 2008

If you're feeling the pinch of higher gas prices and the overall economic slowdown, you're by no means alone. But in the face of adversity, small businesses are doing what they've always done: getting creative. RingCentral, a self-described Internet phone service for small business, recently conducted an online survey of its customers to find out how they survive and succeed during tough times.

The main finding, said Praful Shah, RingCentral's vice president of marketing, revealed that 70 percent of respondents said that rising gas and energy prices have affected their business. In addition, 59 percent said that they have changed the way they do business.

"Two main trends emerged," said Shah. "The first is that small businesses are tightening their belts in the face of an economic slowdown. The second, is that the cost of commuting is driving change within these small businesses," he said.

Shah said that they're seeing more companies with employees working at home, with distributed, mobile workforces. "It's becoming increasingly rare to have all employees in one office," Shah said.

The survey also indicated the following:

  • Nearly 40 percent of responding SMBs are cutting back on office space and having employees work from home
  • Twenty-four percent are telecommuting rather than driving to work
  • Thirty-seven percent are reducing business travel due to the economic downturn

The challenge for small companies with increasingly distributed workforces – often relying on mobile phones as their primary phone ‑ is how to present a professional, unified front for the customers.

"In an office setting, a company has a phone system – press 1 for so-and-so – that's designed to connect a customer to who they need," said Shah. "But small businesses typically can't afford an infrastructure to support such a phone system.

Of course, RingCentral believes that its service – based on a hosted, SaaS model ‑ offers SMBs an affordable way to operate as a single company even with a geographically dispersed work force. The service provides a virtual phone system with an 800 number, and you can receive calls on your mobile, home and office phones. You can also automatically route calls to any employee no matter where they're located."

Some of the features include toll free numbers, local numbers, voicemail, call forwarding and virtual PBX. Click here for a full list of features, and click here for plans and pricing, which starts at $9.99 per month. The service also lets you set up rules to determine call routing. For example, a customer calls you but you're with another client, so it sends the call to whomever you designate.

Many factors can cause a small business to change the way it operates. The trick, said Shah, is responding to the changing needs of your customers. "Today, the work is going to the people rather than the people going to work. Products and services that enable that fact become increasingly valuable."

In the Real World: Matthew Allen Weddings

Matthew Strong, the owner of Matthew Allen Weddings, a wedding planning company with five employees in Sacramento Calif. and Reno, Nev., had a problem. Like many small business owners, he and his staff relied heavily on their cell phones to conduct business. "We couldn't always answer these calls, and they'd go straight to voicemail. And my customers do not like getting a machine," he said.

As with many companies, miss a call, lose an opportunity. "If we got the call, we got the client, Strong said. "If not, by the time we call them back, they're in a different place."

Strong wanted a system that could forward calls to his staff, and after testing the RingCentral free trial for 10 minutes Strong formalized the arrangement. "I like the online interface, I can create extensions and customize the call routing," he said. Strong even personalizes the calls to specific clients. "I can set it up so that he system recognizes who's calling, and if I'm unavailable the client hears, for example, 'Tony, I'm on the other line. I'll call you right back.'"

The service ensures that there's always someone to answer the call. "We have it set so that all of the phone rings at once if it's a new client. Before RingCentral we were able to answer about 70 percent of new client calls. Now, more than 90 percent of new clients reaches a live person on the first call," he said.

The service adds value to the business in a way Strong didn't foresee. For anniversary parties, they set up a special extension through RingCentral interface and guests can call in and leave a voice message for the honored couple. The calls are recorded as .WAV files and then edited. The DJ then plays the clips while the anniversary couple dances.

The other benefit, said Strong, is the cost. "We've realized a dramatic savings over what we were spending on cell phone bills," he said. "Ultimately, it's about client perception; we're all in the office every time a client calls. The system has increased our professionalism, and both our call volume and our close rate are up."

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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