It's good to talk - Geoff Tyler looks at the ways that different phone systems can help publicans communicate with their suppliers and customers.
At its most basic, getting the best from telecoms sounds simple enough - all you have to do is decide which equipment you will buy and which service supplier you will connect to.
However, before you can make those decisions, you have to know what you want from telecoms. Do you just need to make and receive voice calls from and to family, friends and the brewery? Do you need constant internet access for the bar cyber-kiosk, guest bedroom TVs and your own business use such as email, on-line supplies ordering and links to your own website? Or are you, as most licensees will be, somewhere between those two extremes?
A smaller pub may need only one exchange line. However if, for example, you are worried about diners being unable to get through to book a table because the kids are on the internet, then a second line makes sense.
Just putting one phone on your end of each of those lines may be restrictive. You may need extensions so that you can answer from the bar, back-office, your own accommodation, and even the cellar. For the kind of flexibility publicans and their key staff need, consider using cordless phones. Today's digital cordless phones are immune to interference and have a good range - about 200 yards in open air. Although causing signals to pass through several brick walls will reduce this, it should be sufficient for most pubs.
The digital cordless phone you choose should adhere to the approved standard known as DECT. The base unit connects to the phone line and a power socket, and the handset will program itself to that base unit. You can program up to six handsets to one base unit.
What few people realise, though, is that you can program each handset to more than one base station - up to four, in fact - so wherever you are on the premises you can make/take calls on any phone line.
You can also use the handsets as intercoms, calling each other around the premises.
Mini phone systems
That method is good for the smaller pub but it will get cumbersome if you have more than two or three lines and/or more than half a dozen or so handsets. It could also work out more expensive than the next possibility, a small phone network called a PBX system. DECT phones cost from about £70 to £150 each. A PBX phone system with half a dozen extensions and two exchange lines could start at £1,000 with basic handsets.
In addition to making and taking calls, small business phone systems allow extensions to call each other, have bigger libraries of stored numbers, can operate ring-groups for those occasions when you need to tell all staff about some unexpected development, can take voice mail messages, allow you to transfer calls to another extension, allow you to designate one person as the first to answer incoming calls, and can provide a record of outgoing calls to check on staff usage or to bill any overnight guests for their calls.
Virtually all such systems also offer more efficiency when connected to an ISDN line, BT's fast combined data/voice service. The Duo system from Tenovis, for example, can send credit card details over an ISDN connection even though that line may be in use for a voice call at the time. This saves having a dedicated phone line for the credit card reader, called a PDQ.
For comparison, moving somewhat upmarket, Mitel's Kontact system, starting at just under £2,000, works as an internal network on which several PCs as well as phones can be connected, with voice and data traffic combined. It can validate credit cards two at a time every six seconds and provides other data links, such as email to suppliers and to your own website. It can also connect to on-site alarms, meters and thermostats.
However, it is easy to get carried away by IT for its own sake. If your internal calls between staff are only of the usual "come and get it" variety, pagers may suffice.
These have an extra advantage - the recipient of the call can feel the device vibrate rather than have it sounding off and interrupting their conversation with a customer.
Call Systems Technology also have a clever little unit for customers - it is a pager inside a drinks coaster and flashes at them when you signal that their table or meal is ready. This saves paying staff to wander around the bars and garden looking for people.
Another feature of telephone systems is "least cost routing". Software recognises the call you are dialling and sends it to the carrier of your choice for that type of call. In most cases, local calls go via BT but national and international calls go via a cheaper service supplier. If you can connect directly to a service other than BT - Cable & Wireless for instance - it may make sense to use them for local calls as well.
Plenty of telecom service suppliers claim to make savings over BT for national calls. You do not have to change your phone number or existing BT contract because these calls go first to BT's local exchange and transfer to the other service from there. But beware, services invariably compare their best rates with BT's standard rates. It does not take much effort to get a 25 to 30 per cent discount from BT itself.
The way to compare prices is to have the newcomer price your last few quarters' phone bills and show what it would have cost had you been using them - and get it in writing.
There may be other incentives, too. The Restaurant Game claims to save on BT rates and offer lower credit card commission rates, cheaper electricity bills and a staff recruitment service.
If you are in a cable TV company area, both the major UK cable TV companies have small business phone/TV packages. NTL's Business Essentials bundles a telephone line, email and a website for £12 per month, compared to £13.15 a month for a standard BT business line. Calls cost 3p a minute for national daytime, 2p a minute for local daytime or 1p a minute at any other time. Internet access is 1p a minute at all times.
Broadband always-on services are the next big step forward, although they have been a long time coming. BT's ADSL service is becoming available in some areas but BT has been dragging its heels. ADSL provides high speeds for internet access and emails, and is always on. There is no need to dial up a number to make the call, just transmit the data from any connected PC, PDQ, etc. The result is a speed at least 20 times faster than conventional dial-up.
Cable TV companies are also exploiting this potential demand. NTL's costs £90 or £125 a month depending on speed chosen. There is also a £220 installation fee. Telewest's version is Blueyonder Workwise at £125 per month for the multi-user service and £55 per month for a single-user connection.
This may sound too highly specified and pricey, but like all technology it probably won't be long before we're wondering how we ever managed without it.
The sharpest of phone systems will not work if the phone line is out of order. OFTEL can provide information about suppliers' service standards.
Watch out, though, for the small print. BT's commitment to restore the line within four working days sounds reasonable. But remember it means BT's working days, not yours. A fault on Wednesday could mean you have no phone service until well beyond the busy weekend. Publicans need better than that.
The telecom industry website www.phonebills.org.uk, although primarily intended for residential customers, is of equal value for small businesses like pubs