Communication has always been an integral part of international relationships. Here are some ways to make the communication process easier and more affordable. Lamenting the size of your business’ overseas phone bill? Tightening the business travel budget? If your business deals with overseas suppliers or clients, it’s important to maintain clear communication channels. Fortunately there are now ways of doing this without breaking the bank. Voice of the internet If you’ve ever used an international phone card, you’d be familiar with voice over internet protocol (VoIP). VoIP has been around for a while, but thanks to services such as Skype and Engin, it’s a more popular business communication tool than it was a decade ago. VoIP allows you to use your existing connection to the internet to make calls. Broadband is preferred for better call quality, but other than that, all you require is the apparatus to listen and speak, which may just be the speaker and microphone on your computer, or a headset. Skype also has video calling, which means if you’re after one-on-one face time, all you need is a webcam and you can make video calls for the cost of your broadband bill. Other tools using the internet include conference call systems, such as Citrix GoToMeeting. The service operates on a flat fee basis, which means you can meet often and control your spend. Look for a service that enables parties to meet without requiring complex equipment or set-up, as this will ensure your counterpart finds it easy to communicate with you. A good conferencing system should allow you to make presentations or run demonstrations, which means you can pitch for new business without the expense of travel, and discuss and collaborate on documents online.
United nations Collaborating with a team scattered across an office building can be difficult, so imagine what it’s like to work with a team spread across the globe. Fortunately technology provides a few solutions to assist international teams. One tool is web collaboration system Aconex, which enables businesses to look after complex projects by providing a platform for businesses to manage projects in real time, maintaining a full record of all revisions, which means you can see who did what, when. "Any project will have a lot of documents but it becomes harder to manage when you have everybody spread around the world. You simply can’t manage it using email. Hard copy is out of the question. You need a system that follows that 24/7 mentality, that gives people immediate access to that information," says Aconex managing director Leigh Jasper. "We’re not saying this replaces face-to-face communication but it does enable the relationship to go a lot smoother because you have a record of that relationship." Another piece of technology that allows international collaboration is QSR International’s software, NVivo. Up to its eighth version, NVivo is designed to aid organisations analyse qualitative data in the field of social science. Originally for academia, NVivo has since found other users. "Now it’s across a broad range of disciplines: management, health, journalism, urban planning," says QSR chief executive John Owen. "More than 80 percent of data is unstructured, according to the Gartner Group, so there’s an increasing need to manage that type of information. We’re seeing more government and commercial organisations use it." Language was also an important consideration for the software. Not only does QSR sell most of its product overseas, localisation enables global researchers to analyse data together. "It works if you have teams in different countries and then the results are consolidated in one project," says Owen. "It’s a massive barrier for researchers to get to grips with a tool if they have to first of all learn another language. We’ve seen that’s made a dramatic difference, that we’re able to offer a product in their own language." And if your business conducts research overseas, such as for marketing purposes, the software can help you manage that. "The source information would be in the language it was originally collected in, but if you had a team of researchers around the world and you were collecting information in different languages you can effectively swap from one language to another," explains Owen. "For example, you could start using it in Spanish but then decide to use it in English, then you could change the language but the data remains the same." Currently available in English, Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish-with French and German coming soon-Owen says they will look to cover as much linguistic ground as possible in the future, with Russian and Portuguese on the cards. As for QSR’s experience working internationally, Owen says they’ve seen the product take off. "There’s a probably a pretty strong argument, given the current times, that there’s a need for greater research not less so we’ve seen this market grow rapidly," he observes.
Smart traveller There’s a lot to be said about meeting your overseas supplier or customer in person and for some people, this is the only way they operate. The cost of flights, accommodation and travel insurance can be substantial, but your phone bills needn’t be. If you’ll be spending a fair chunk of time making calls from your hotel, make arrangements so your bill only includes the cost of the call, without any additional fees that may come with hotel telephone service. Ask for the call charges to be itemised, and keep a record of the numbers you’ve dialled and the approximate duration of the calls to check that against their records. On the go you may prefer to use your mobile. Ensure your provider has global roaming and check out their rates before you go so you know exactly what you’re paying for. It may be worth upgrading to a new plan if it gives you cheaper rates. An alternative is a new service called TravelSIM, which is a prepaid SIM card designed specifically for international travellers. TravelSIM has its own number and country code, and the service uses a callback system, which means you dial the number you wish to call, then the system calls you back to connect you. Check for compatible handsets and countries available on the service at www.travelsim.net.au; you may even consider using their language interpretation service if you’re struggling with the local tongue.
CASE STUDY: Network Dynamics Network Dynamics is a Sydney-based online technology consultancy, currently employing a team of four staff who service around 100 clients across the country. Client needs range from website design, development and maintenance to IT support and training. The high costs of making interstate and overseas phone calls, combined with frequent travel, motivated company director Alan Harris to find a cheaper solution. "I discovered Skype almost 12 months ago and we have since seen our phone bills cut by nearly 50 percent a year. The savings are being experienced by our clients as well." Network Dynamics uses Skype daily to communicate with its clients as well as conduct conference calls with consultants and developers in Canada. Using the software also saves their consultants around $800 a month on travelling costs. Harris believes that there are some major differences that set Skype apart from other computer-based communications programs, such as the ability to send an SMS to business contacts directly from Skype, voicemail, and a call forwarding service to ensure users never miss a call. Skype will be integral to Network Dynamics in achieving its goals, with financial savings just the beginning, says Harris. "Ultimately, we would like Skype to be our primary voice and video communication tool both in and out of the office."