Communications technology helps businesses of all sizes to become more productive, cost effective and flexible, as well as competitive. Over the years, the adoption of the internet, mobile phones, wireless laptops and email have all been driven by such demands and expectations.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are often at the forefront of new technology adoption and find it can give them a lead on their larger competitors. However, what can start as a useful extra tool for a few soon becomes the accepted norm for all, at which point, an SME can find itself becoming highly dependent on multiple forms of digital communications, facing technology choices that are increasingly complex.

My company recently sponsored research and analysis company Quocirca to produce a report that would help companies to assess what best fits their needs, and avoid paying too much to keep communication flowing. Among the conclusions of the research was the fact that some SMEs can lack a full understanding of their communication requirements, which mars their ability to prioritise the tools they use. The report highlights the full extent of the challenges faced by small businesses when choosing their communications suppliers, finding that complexity and cost are the main barriers to efficient communication.

SMEs are being bombarded from all angles with new technologies and trends that, for companies often without dedicated IT managers, can become a potential minefield. SMEs also have to navigate through the minefield of jargon used by providers to be able to differentiate between the services on offer and those that actually fulfil the needs of the business.

In addition, businesses are having to carefully manage the influx of ‘shadow IT’ – where employees run tools and applications on company networks which they use outside of work, such as Skype, Instant Messenger or personal laptops and smartphones, rather than using ‘standard issue’ tools and appliances that are specifically deployed by the business IT function. The increase in business use of these communication tools has meant that IT managers are having to spend time dealing with the associated issues.

For example, laptops and smartphones used by employees on the company network may not have the necessary current software to work succinctly, costing time and money in upgrades. Employees using ulterior instant messaging and online tools different to those that are company security protected and internally approved, also run the risk of causing further problems if they interfere with the company system and take up valuable bandwidth.

Here are my Top 10 expert tips which I hope will help SMEs looking to get the best value for money from their IT and communications investments:

  1.  Assess your current use of communications

Conduct an audit of what you’re paying for in terms of communications and who you are paying, and consider also what is on the roadmap. Match these costs against usage, and rationalise and consolidate your services where possible. However, do not blindly cut back on items bringing in value or that are saving costs elsewhere. Make ongoing assessments; the asset mix shifts as employees come and go, or services and suppliers change. For example, you could find you are paying subscriptions for 20 employees to be using a service, when in fact only half that amount is using it. Avoid paying unnecessary bills or for those who have left by keeping record of who is using what.

  1.  Prioritise shared or limited resources

Internet and data connections will often run many services. Are the business-critical ones that rely on them being protected and provided sufficient capacity or resources? Can these be easily scaled in an incremental way? Low cost connectivity can be a false economy, especially when applications such as e-commerce and conferencing save other costs such as transport, energy and rent.

  1.  Investigate supplier alternatives 

Could existing suppliers offer a better discount, or could a new one offer a bundled service to reduce overall costs? Short-term deals, while welcome, do little to address underlying problems. Take a broader view of total communications needs and potential solutions rather than item-by-item savings.

  1.  Incremental outsourcing

Equipping your staff with the skills to run the wide range of communication technologies required for even the smallest business can be expensive. Find out whether you can outsource some elements. For example, to avoid needing in-house support you may be able to outsource device management, security or billing, and thus ensure costs stay predictable.

  1.  Disconnect usage from cost

Whilst they may be tempting, Seek out flat rate tariffs so that usage is not discouraged and recurring operating costs are predictable. Investigate fixed per user per month services for software as a service (SaaS), voice over IP telephony, and other communications needs.

  1.  Converge budgets

Different technologies— mobile phones, fixed lines, laptops, data cards—may have been the responsibility of different groups or individuals in IT, procurement, finance and facilities. Move this into one place so that decisions are more strategic and less territorial. As technology converges, make sure budgets do too.

  1.  Get outside help

If your telecoms costs are large or complex enough—e.g. 50+ employees with mobile phones, or 100+ employees using a mix of internet, telephony and mobiles—consider engaging outside independent help, such as from a telecoms expenses management specialist.

  1.  Device discrimination 

Not everyone needs every technology. Assess and match what the business supplies to employee need. Support employees’ personal choices as far as possible—many may believe they have access to better PCs, phones or technology at home—rather than forcing an expensive and unproductive ‘standard issue for everyone’. Services delivered over the internet can help with this. For example, hosted e-mail servers can enable all employees to access their business communications from any devices they wish to, meaning they can use their own devices if they prefer to.

  1.  Manage devices 

This helps with security and consistency, and avoids unexpected costs e.g. from former employees, and can be as simple as a database tracking who has what and where it is. It can be run and managed in-house, outsourced, or provided as part of a carrier contract, but is generally better if a single platform, service or solution manages across all devices and all users with all types of connections.

  1.  Face up to personal usage

Do you charge employees for personal usage? What restrictions are appropriate for international calls, using the internet in the office, Wi-Fi hotspots, or premium rate numbers? Employees need to be aware of their personal use, and managers must responsibly enforce controls based on a well-communicated company policy.

For SMEs the problem is not one of converging technologies, but simplifying the way they communicate and the technologies they use. Their core need is one of capable and robust connectivity. One overriding development is that the internet has moved from something “nice to have” to a way to extend the business, to an integral and critical component. This has to be borne in mind when seeking suppliers and validating their offerings. Simply looking for lower cost or higher bandwidth at the same price will be false economy if the service fails. The reliability of the service you receive should therefore be your absolute top priority when choosing your communications provider.