Managing Messaging

By Phil Albinus

When you started your company, you imagined a dedicated staff working at your company’s headquarters. Now, in this hectic world of chasing clients, closing deals, and staying ahead of the competition, your staff isn’t always where you can find them.

Just because they’re on a sales call or working from home doesn’t mean they’re unreachable. Thanks to an array of timesaving, accessible new technologies, you can stay in touch with your staffers whether they’re across town or across the country.

Short and Sweet
Two-way messaging is a savior for Bobby Solipuram; without it he couldn’t reach his staff of 60 coworkers. As IT manager for Covigo, a wireless platform company in Belmont, Calif., Solipuram uses the Motorola TalkAbout T900 2-way pager for exchanging short text messages with his staff and his clients.

The text messages are short and to the point, just the way Solipuram likes it. ‘We use it to keep in touch in case someone has a technical problem,’ he says. ‘It’s usually a message like, Where are you?’ or Can we meet?’ or The server’s down.”

If you want to try out text paging with your staff, the economical Motorola TalkAbout T900s are worth a look. Along with two-way messaging, The TalkAbouts also let you send preprogrammed replies, store messages up to 70,000 characters, add an automatic signature, and more.

Everywhere You Are
When CEO Jonathan Silvan is away from the office, he can still send e-mails to his staffers back at the Manhattan office of Global Strategy Group, a small research and consulting firm.

‘The first thing I use to keep in touch with the office is my BlackBerry,’ Silvan says, referring to his RIM BlackBerry PDA. ‘It allows us to be incredibly efficient, to take downtime in a taxi, in an airline terminal, or while we’re waiting for a meeting to start, and keep up to speed with e-mail,’ Silvan says.

The BlackBerry’s small size doesn’t limit the scope of Silvan’s messages. ‘I can use it like my keyboard on my PC,’ he said. ‘We gave BlackBerries to senior management and we all send lengthy messages.’

The BlackBerry wireless Internet device comes in two sizes: The RIM 950 Wireless Handheld unit is the size of a pager and the larger RIM 857 Wireless Handheld model is the size of a traditional handheld device. In addition to the price of the BlackBerry, you’ll need to pay a flat monthly rate for the wireless service for every user, and more for the optional paging services (an enterprise plan is available). Along with a built-in personal organizer, the software in the BlackBerry integrates your e-mail mailbox and address book, and you can choose optional wireless Internet and paging services as well.

An In-box That’s Never Full
Randy Reynolds travels between 18 factories across the country as an independent lubrication consultant for the glass container industry, and he’s always on the go. If it weren’t for Webley, a universal messaging service, he’d be missing calls and plenty of business.

‘I have daily contact with my clients and probably 250 people have my phone number,’ says Reynolds, owner and operator of R. Lubeman of Wabash, Ind. ‘I answer my phone when it rings, and I can take the call, send that person to voice mail, listen to a readout of e-mail messages, and respond to pages.’ Reynolds, who has contracts with General Motors and Texaco, calls this system his personal assistant.

Webley acts as a universal contact number. All voice mail, e-mail, and faxes are forwarded to one place where a Webley subscriber can listen to voice messages, forward faxes to a nearby fax machine or have them sent as Adobe Acrobat or GIF attachments, or have e-mail messages read over a cell phone.

Reynolds, who’s been using the communication service for four years, often has to explain to people how he’s able to work while he’s at the beach or at a NASCAR rally. ‘I often tell them that they don’t want to know where I am. They’ll get jealous,’ he muses.

Keep the Peace with a Policy
Before you decide on which technology to use, you need to create guidelines for what’s expected, says Denise O’Berry, president and CEO of Small Business Edge Corp. of Tampa, Fla. O’Berry has seen several small businesses founder because management failed to lay out clear goals for its employees. Here are some things to consider before setting up an effective communications policy:

Express expectations with staff. Many owners expect their employees to be in constant contact. ‘This isn’t a one-way street,’ says O’Berry. Nor is it realistic. Managers must acknowledge that even when a teleworker can’t be reached immediately, they may still be working.

Establish business hours. Allow employees to turn off their phones at night and on weekends unless their job is mission critical. ‘People assume that when they’re working or thinking about work, everyone else is,’ says O’Berry.

Recognize time zones. Just because the East Coast manager likes to meet with his staff early doesn’t mean the West Coast business traveler should have to get up at four in the morning. Likewise, the West Coast supervisor shouldn’t be calling with non-urgent questions that can wait while you’re giving the kids a bath.

Form a communication chain of command. If there is a true emergency, not everyone on staff has to be alerted immediately. Call the person or tiny circle of people who can correct the problem with as little fuss as possible. ‘Establish authority and autonomy among your staff. If no one besides the boss can make a decision, then nothing will get done,’ says O’Berry.

Parse personal calls. Owners aren’t responsible for personal calls made on company cell phones. Tell your employees that they should pay for all personal calls or personal calls after a certain amount has been reached. Likewise, reimburse staff members who make business calls from their home office and personal lines.

Keep a phone directory. Keep a centralized list of e-mail addresses, phone and beeper numbers, and fax numbers, and don’t forget to update it!

Keep a record of equipment. Keep a log of all serial and account numbers for every laptop, cell phone, pager, and handheld device you hand out to your staff. In case they resign or are terminated, you have a record of what’s theirs and what rightly belongs to you.

Making the Right Choice
So which is the right combination of keep-in-touch technology and communications policy for you? That’s up to your budget, your staff, and your needs. If you need to be in constant contact, look into cell phones with a built-in beeper or two-way text message pagers. If you need to send and receive e-mail messages seamlessly, portable e-mail solutions are for you. And if your office is anywhere you hang your hat, check out the universal in-box services like Webley. Staying in touch with your small business has never been easier; the only hard parts are setting rules and choosing which technology to use.

• TalkAbout text pagers
Motorola TalkAbout T900
2-way pager, $149

• BlackBerry handhelds
Research in Motion Ltd.
RIM 950 Handheld, $399
RIM 857 Handheld, $499
$40 monthly for wireless service, $6 monthly for pager services (enterprise plans are available)

• Webley universal inboxes
Webley Systems
Webley Virtual Assistant, $14.95 monthly, plus cost of calls
Webley Corporate Assistant, $30 monthly, plus cost of calls
Webley MD answering service, $60 monthly, plus 10 cents per minute
Webley Hear My Mail, Free

Phil Albinus is a freelance journalist and former editor at Home Office Computing.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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