Skype’s cheap rates might tempt businesses to move all their calls onto the service. Although Skype does offer a useful credit manager, the limitations of this consumer program make it unsuitable to replace a phone system for even small businesses.
Skype is one of the most successful applications in history. In 2012 it carried 34 percent of all international phone calls and by 2013 had more than 50 million concurrent users online.
All those calls aren’t only to distant relatives. The program is a staple tool for businesses making long-distance and international calls. Although not as cheap as it once was, it’s still remarkably cost effective.
An annual subscription of US$120 (AU$116.49) gives you unlimited calls to mobiles and landlines in 50 countries including the US, UK, most of Europe, China, Singapore and other parts of Asia.
Compared to local phone plans, it’s an astonishingly good deal. Try finding a mobile phone plan that gives you unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles for $12 a month.
Skype’s popularity means that it has become the world’s biggest global phone book. Everyone has a Skype account, even your grandparents. If you call contacts through Skype it doesn’t cost you a cent.
So why bother paying for your own telephone system with its monthly expensive call plans? Should small businesses just move their phone numbers to Skype?
In most cases it’s probably not a good idea. Skype is a consumer-grade program with clear limitations that will frustrate business owners. And don’t expect this to change any time soon.
Skype is unlikely to become a business-grade program because it would compete with Lync Online, an enterprise program very similar to Skype which is also owned by Microsoft (Microsoft bought Skype in 2011).
Before we examine Skype’s limitations, it’s worth noting the several features that make it useful for business. Let’s take a look at the Skype business plan.
Skype Call Manager
The Skype for Business webpage is much simpler than it used to be. A key element, Call Manager, creates a Skype administrator who can dole out credit to other Skype accounts. Skype advertises this for families as well as business.
It’s telling that since the Microsoft acquisition the Skype Call Manager page which explains how the feature works has disappeared. The link on the Business page goes straight to a sign-up or login form instead.
The Skype Manager dashboard shows the credit status of your account and a list of the services allocated to the members attached to Skype Manager.
On the members page you can create business accounts for employees by importing a CSV list of emails or typing them in individually, or you can send invites to existing personal Skype accounts.
It might be worth the hassle of setting up Skype accounts for employees for business use only. These are the advantages of a managed Skype account, which is the best option for employees, according to Skype.
- Managed accounts are owned and managed by your company.
- You can choose the Skype Name for your employees and when an employee leaves the company, you can close his account.
- You can access and monitor all detailed usage reports for business members.
The Skype administrator can also edit personal descriptions in managed Skype accounts, which are displayed in a company directory available to all employees.
Skype recommends inviting existing Skype accounts for contractors who are working with your company on a project basis. This way the contractor maintains their own Skype name and contact list, and can manage additional products such as subscription or voicemail themselves from their personal account. Unfortunately you can’t assign administrator status to other users.
The features tab is where the action happens. It’s split into six sections.
Credit allocations. Once the administrator has added a chunk of credit to Skype Manager, this tab can be used to allocate the credit to individual accounts. One option lets you add or remove credit, or you can set up an auto-recharge facility. The administrator can specify the minimum amount of credit for an auto-recharge and the size of the recharge. All employees automatically appear in this section.
Subscriptions. Allocate a subscription to each member for 60, 120 or 400 minutes a month or go unlimited (US$13.99 or AU$13.49). The
Voicemail. Turn voicemail on or off for each employee. It’s free.
Skype Numbers. Allocate a standard landline number to a Skype username. You can buy a number for each employee for under US$10 (AU$9) a month. The landline numbers have a country and area code, so you could have one Skype business account with a local phone number for the UK, USA, Germany and New Zealand. Skype Numbers are only available in 23 countries, a much shorter list than the places Skype can call. More information is on the Skype business page.
Call Forwarding. Forward Skype calls to mobiles, landlines or other Skype accounts. This might be useful if employees leave who were using a Skype business account set up for a specific role, eg. @Company support. Forwarding calls to Skype accounts is free; it costs Skype credit to forward to a mobile or landline.
Skype Connect. This is Skype Manager’s most interesting feature – it connects Skype to your office phone system so you can receive calls from Skype addresses through your desktop handset. You can also direct outgoing calls through Skype to save on your overseas phone bills. Only certain phone systems (or PBXes) can use Skype Connect. Here’s a list of companies that make compatible systems.
Aside from Skype Manager, it’s worth noting that Mac laptops and desktops have had a very useful long-standing integration with Skype. The Contacts app in OSX lets you call phone numbers directly from Skype by right-clicking on the work/home label to the left of the phone number and selecting Call with Skype or Send SMS with Skype.
Skype Manager does give a small business the ability to control spending and allocate numbers without having to buy an expensive office phone system. However, the service is hobbled by frustratingly limited software. Here are some of the biggest failings.
Poor mobile experience. Skype fails miserably on the iPhone. If a Skype call rings on the phone while the screen is locked, it’s impossible to unlock the phone without hanging up on the call. Given how important the mobile experience is to running a business these days, this failure is a show-stopper for many businesses. A workaround: divert your Skype calls to your mobile number so it rings like a normal phone (this costs, though).
Basic voicemail. The voicemail feature is very crude. It’s not possible to pause or scroll through the audio to a certain point in the message – you just have to play it again from the beginning. It’s not possible to set up other types of messages such as vacation or busy messages.
No emergency calls. It’s worth noting that Skype still can’t be used for emergency calling. This might not be a concern when every employee has a mobile phone which they are more likely to use in an emergency.
Fixed – chat history. Skype has fixed one of the poorer design flaws – storing chat history locally. Once it wasn’t possible to continue a chat session a with another Skype user when moving from a desktop app to a mobile app without losing the immediate history of the conversation. The mobile app now syncs up voicemails and chats with the desktop app when it is launched.
No centralised interface. Skype needs a web app that records all message history, call history and voicemails. It’s too difficult to search back through your history on the mobile or desktop app to find a conversation you had a month or more ago. Tracking conversations is vitally important in business to ensure you are meeting customers’ expectations or checking agreements.
Skype’s ubiquity has seen off challengers such as Facebook and Google which introduced their own messaging and video communications platforms for consumers. While Skype Manager includes useful options for micro-businesses but it’s worth weighing up the value of moving to a communications tool attached to a productivity suite such as Lync Online (in Microsoft Office 365) or Google Apps’ Hangouts.
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