The UC factor – Unified Communications – promises small and medium size businesses access to telecoms services that only large businesses could enjoy before. And it is this burgeoning SME sector that a restructured and enhanced North East specialist in communications, Activ Telecom, is setting out to win. Activ Telecom was originally part of Fone Logistics which serial business builder Ian Gillespie has sold twice over – on the last occasion, after his buyback, to Daisy last summer.
He retained Activ Telecom in the deal and is now chairman, with former finance director Michael Fitzpatrick now managing director taking the lead in day-to-day running, and Duncan Edward sales director. Fitzpatrick has worked for six years alongside Gillespie, and Edward, a friend of the chairman for 14 years, joined Activ Telecom last December, having worked in telecoms for 20 years or so before heading the London sales division of Canon photocopiers. Four months ago Activ Telecom moved to new premises at Balliol Business Park on Tyneside, from where the drive for SME customers is now under way.
Fitzpatrick explains: “Fone Logistics was a national business, a national distributor serving other resellers of mobile phones. Now we’re going back to Ian’s roots and selling direct into the SME market. Effectively, technology has been bringing more great advantages and changes in communication – in mobile, fixed line and computer. As their convergence advances, we see the need for a player like ourselves to bring all three together.
“Some of the products we’ve just launched would have been appropriate only to large enterprises one time. Now they can be offered to SMEs, promising much more efficient and cost-effective solutions to them too.” People running SMEs depend increasingly on their mobile and, suggests Fitzpatrick, as the technology moves on – iPads, iPhones, Smartphones etc – they may need more help and guidance. ”But you can’t ring a network and expect instant service,” he says, quoting the recent example of a frustrated Blackberry user who couldn’t connect instantly to his betting account until Activ Telecom intervened.
The firm describes itself also as rolling out a road map of products combining seamlessly fixed line and mobile communications. One consequence is greater flexibility in how a firm accepts calls. It can operate a single voice mailbox and terminate a landline number into a mobile, and vice versa, enabling incoming calls to be received anywhere and from everywhere. Numbers, voice mail and system features can be shared, with calls between the landline and mobile phones unlimited. Many different services have been available for some time on fixed line, and now mobiles sellers are descending on this area of the market.
“At the same time there’s innovation in how it’s tariffed,” Edward points out. “You can buy your communications in a bundle, enabling you to manage your costs a lot more. Your IT solutions too. Rather than customers buying their Microsoft products, we can rent them by the month. Investing in licensing is no longer necessary, you can run on hosted solutions. That’s the next stage of the product road map of our journey into offering IT services.” Duncan Edward says there’s a raft of information available to help small business benefit.
“For example, even the smallest business can gain an extra hour of productivity per person a day by arming them with a Blackberry,” he maintains.
“Also, Microsoft believes that by about 2015 half of all SMEs will be using hosted solutions rather than buying for themselves. It sounds feasible. It can be more efficient and you get all the updates. You don’t need IT infrastructure. You just plug in and it works. There’s no capital expenditure. Even the telephone system is hosted and needn’t be bought. As long as there’s a broadband line into one’s building all the other things are taken care of. Your entire phone system can be hosted, in effect.” The networks, whose voice revenues are falling, recognise the potential here and are moving in to add value and competition is growing from mobile and IT sources.
Activ Telecom remains particularly confident, however, since it has just been selected as a gold (key) partner of Vodafone in the North East, and is an approved partner also of O2.
“So we’ve a lot of strength behind the products we are selling,” says Gillespie, adding that what differentiates Activ Telecom from a network in the market place will be a service wrap around its products. “We’re local and building relations with customers on the ground. So we’ve a full understanding of their business. We can also step in quickly in emergencies, such as when a handset has been lost or mislaid just before a critical meeting or appointment. Also people get personalised service through an operation like ours, another SME.” The company plans breakfast seminars and clubs where customers can learn more for themselves about maximising the use of their equipment. It promises to deliver all that’s available, delivering locally and keeping customers updated.
“The mobile phones industry has a history of selling on price,” Fitzpatrick says.
“We’re confident we can improve people’s spend on their communications. At the same time imparting an understanding of the technology can guarantee further efficiency during a consultative sale. “With the sale of Fone Logistics to Daisy we’ve retained the direct selling division and, over six months, have invested heavily in infrastructure and people. We’re being really well received.”