If your business is like mine, Skype is your secret call-service weapon. It's free, easy to install and functions on nearly every computer on the planet. Skype says 37 percent of its customers use it for one small-business task or another.
But many Skype business users have found that a number of problems have kept Skype from being the first choice for business call service. These include substandard voice and video quality, quirks in user experience and network access, headset snafus and limited business features for small firms.
The company, which recently filed for an initial public offering with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, is trying to change that. Skype is rolling out a line of small-business-oriented products that offer big-company call-service options to small firms.
The most important of these new business-friendly products is called Skype Manager. It includes customizable numbers, voice mail, call forwarding, centralized administration, group video calling and even a feature that connects to some existing enterprise digital phone systems.
I have been giving Skype Manager a test drive in my six-person content-creation company. Here is what you need to know to see whether it might work for you.
What it is:
Skype Manager is a Web-based calling-service management tool. It centralizes phone features, your company's users, transaction costs and reports into an attractive, well-designed Web page -- not into a downloadable app like the consumer Skype software. Log into Skype Manager and you'll find an easy-to-navigate dashboard. And while the online service is free, the voice-communications products are mostly not.
Why you might like it:
Skype Manager can be powerful and easy to use. It can offer an attractive, relatively fast way to create and manage a professional phone presence online. I liked how I could log in from anywhere with Web access, create a set of accounts for all my employees and manage their phone identities on a simple dashboard. Most of the important features for keeping a phone system operational were clearly laid out: when and when user called, how many minutes those users spent calling, what features like conferencing and virtual numbers they uses and how much they spent calling. Its reports can offer a window into what your people are up to all day long.
No question, for small-business owners who have struggled with complex business call-service tools, Skype can be refreshing.
Why you might not like it:
- Integrating your business Skype identities with your personal Skype identities can be a struggle.
For reasons I don't understand, my employees' and my personal and business identities become blurred on Skype. In particular, the information in Web-based Skype Manager is often not reflected in the downloaded Skype application running on our desktops. This disconnect can cripple many services -- which means I paid for features that I could not easily use. It was difficult to hold group conference calls and to manage Skype Credit properly. The confusion between Skype business identities and Skype personal identities tried the patience of all the members of my team who touched it. It wasn't the tool we wanted to use for an important conference call.
The company is working to improve its online guides, according to Skype Manager product manager Mart "Tram" Abramov. The service is expected to make it easier to keep business and personal accounts unique.
- Customer service for Skype Manager can be less than impressive.
Skype Manager is supported by a mostly text-based customer service cadre. Agents tried hard, but service reps seemed to lack a firm grasp on our issues as a small-business customers. Eventually problems were solved, but getting there took time. And considering that managing call services is typically about the lowest thing on any business person's list, chances are good that you will have to pay someone to manage Skype Manager for you, which could drive up costs significantly.
The company said text-based chat support has become the standard for customer support for the small- business customer. In our experience, the chat-savvy smaller firm can receive excellent support.
- Using Skype may not save you as much as you might expect.
Many people still see Skype as a no-cost phone alternative. Skype Manager is anything but. The monthly charges can add up: Skype cost me $7 per person for group video calling, $2.10 per person for voice mail, $6.30 per person for a dedicated online number. For those services alone, that's $15.40 per person per month, without factoring in per-minute call rates for additional services like Skype Connect that link Skype to traditional PBX digital phone systems. The total is less costly compared with similar services, but Skype isn't likely to be a tool for primary phone service for the small business. Users will still need a mobile phone, a desk phone or both. Skype's costs are in addition to your existing phone systems. That can make Skype pricey.
Skype offers discounted monthly subscriptions and package deals that can lower the cost of monthly fees by about 30 percent, depending on use, according to the company.
What to do:
Skype Manager could enable some firms -- particularly tech-savvy companies that call overseas a lot -- to save money and manage their telephony. If your firm sees the company's mix of features and costs useful, consider giving it a try.
But for the average small-business owner who does not have an inclination to manage a Web-based business phone service -- or one that relies heavily on traditional phone or cell service -- the system probably still is in its too early stages to make it worth the investment.
The smart bet may be to wait a bit and let Skype manage the snarls of Skype Manager.