FAX and e-mail integration… convergence for the small business

Frustratred woman at desk surrounded by paper.“Convergence” is essentially the joining of multiple information and media streams into one seamless integrated work environment. The integration of customer data/relationship management systems with the telephone system and operator workstation is one example of “convergence” that is taking place on the desktop. It’s often believed that convergence is only for the well- established large company… but there are many forms of convergence that can take place… and integrating them into your operations is easier, and less expensive, than you might think.

This is an article that I actually wrote a long time ago, but the lessons here apply just as readily today as they did when I originally published it.

What is intriguing is that many of the new small office/home office printers produced today have the same electronic fax services similar to those of a dedicated/on-line FAX services and are a great solution for those who have a phone line available to dedicate to the machine and work in the same network environment.

For the hardened road warriors like myself however, where you change networks and work locations as often (or more often) than you change socks, a dedicated 3rd party eFAX service (like J2.com) remains the solution of choice – and has been mine for the past 10 years or more.

* * * *

Like many businesses, you’ve probably come to realize that having a web site and e-mail is an essential part of your customer relationship management strategy; especially if you offer any type of operations/call centre or helpdesk.

While its usually not too difficult to keep electronic copies of outgoing documents (whether those are letter, e-mails or even the “original” versions of FAXes) incoming FAXes are often a challenge.

FAXes that are requesting service, information, or advising of a problem can be lost or misfiled; someone may be required to re-type the information (introducing the possibility of human error) when they send an internal company e-mail to have someone look into the problem, or get back to the customer.

Likewise, a FAX that is a signed “authorization” to bill, or engage in some activity, could be critical to maintain for billing or legal purposes in the future.

Obviously you could use a scanner to capture these documents in electronic format… but at the cost of the time and effort for someone to actually do this (and lets be honest, that “hot potato” from an irate client is going to be copied and around the office before anyone has the time to scan the original).

The ideal solution, of course, is for the FAX to be scanned in as its arrives.

Solutions

There are two main solutions that you can consider:

  • establish your own FAX server
  • subscribe to an on-line FAX-mail service (a “virtual” FAX server)

Establishing Your Own FAX Server

This would be in the form of a computer* that would quite literally replace your FAX machine, and operate its own FAX management software.

* note that as I said at the beginning of this article, you no longer need a computer/dedicated server; many of the new multi-function printers today have this capability built in

Advantages

  • you control your own service
  • many packages also permit outgoing FAX management
  • retain your existing FAX line
  • can automate FAX broadcast to multiple customers – sending out mass “FAXings” to clients/leads on services

Disadvantages

  • hardware/software purchase, set-up and configuration
  • you may need to manually integrate with office e-mail system (it may not automatically mail to your operations desk, or receptionist)
  • not quickly or easily replaced in the event of a failure (unless you keep the old paper FAX machine handy)

This would be a largely dedicated PC** that would be running 24/7 for this service, and require regular backups, surge-suppressors (both on the power and telephone line), UPS (battery backup systems), etc.

** once again – less of an issue now that multi-function printers do this, but you still should have a backup power supply and surge supressors.

Subscription to a FAX-mail Service

With this solution, you would essentially be “outsourcing” your FAX server service.

Advantages

  • quick set-up; no initial capital outlay
  • redundancy is the responsibility of the service provider (remember to check those service level agreements, and research their performance/outage records)
  • FAXes are automatically forwarded to an e-mail address that you specify (to your receptionist, or helpdesk/operations centre for instance)
  • it can be relatively simple and quick to set up additional FAX numbers for special/VIP clients, promotions, etc.
  • some services also include out-going FAX capability (but be careful of outgoing fees – especially when sending a FAX broadcast to multiple receivers)

Disadvantages

  • you don’t own/control the receiving number (however, you could auto-forward your old number to the new one through your telephone company… this would also provide a fallback plan if you should need to go back to your old FAX, or change service providers)
  • carefully evaluate the overall cost of the service (monthly fee) as well as any incoming/outgoing charges per page, against (1) the total cost of ownership of your existing FAX system and (2) the value added by receiving documents electronically (or, not having someone within your company manage the incoming FAXes and scanning them); these services can be expensive if you receive a lot of documents, or if you want to make FAX broadcasts (you may wish to be selective about which incoming FAX lines/customers you broadcast the number/service to)

Method of Operation

Ideally, you want to capture all incoming FAXes (using either method) and have them immediately sent to a central reviewing/dispatch point (once again, either your receptionist, admin assistant, helpdesk, etc.). This person would review their content and:

  1. Automatically forward the incoming FAX to the appropriate team(s) for review.
  2. File the FAXes in some sort of log (ideally sorted by customer and/or issue) or into a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

This would provide you with the electronic document that you could store with all your other electronic documents for that customer/issue (such as e-mails, letters, etc). As these would be stored on your computer system, all information could be backed up (because we know you all back-up your office computers – right?) on the same media for long term retention/storage.

Other Advantages, Tips and Tricks

Quick document scanning. I personally like to use my FAX-mail service as a “quick” scanning service. I generally don’t like taking the time to set up my scanner, play about with the image and quality, just to capture a single document in electronic format for filing. If the document fits info a nearby FAX machine, then I just send it to myself. Actually, this works equally well with multi-page documents that, once again, would be a real pain to scan one by one (although many multi-function printers now provide multi-page scanning).

FAX-screening. One of my clients was receiving a mountain of unwanted FAXes… and no amount of unsubscription requests to these various broadcast services/marketing companies seemed to do him any good. As a result, he was spending a small fortune in FAX paper and (worse) FAX-print cartridges. Establishing his own server gave him the ability to screen his incoming messages and only print those that were of interest; the others were easily deleted.

Extra value for small businesses. As a small business owner, using a FAX-mail service allows me to eliminate the cost of maintaining a second telephone line for incoming FAXes (admittedly, I still use my own – or my client’s FAX machine for outgoing FAXes), and I receive my FAXes immediately after they are sent… I don’t need to return to my home office, or have an administrative assistant process them and alert me to any immediate problems or issues.

This service also proved invaluable when I was working overseas… as my FAX-mail service provider could also be configured for voice mail.

All I needed to do was to change the service from FAX only to FAX/voice mail, and forward my cell phone and office line to the FAX-mail service while I was working in South America.  All my incoming FAXes and voice mails arrived on my laptop computer – allowing me to keep in contact with my customers (and not miss out on future contract opportunities).

FAX management is one of those little, annoying, but incredibly important issues that affect anyone with a small business or consulting practice (especially if you work from home) – and finding a solution that “converges” multiple services together (such as fax, printing and email) you can easily leverage the benefits of a conjoined solution that is stable and supports you wherever you may happen to be.

Author: Stephen Holton, PMP, CISSP, SSGB, ITIL, CD

After completing over twelve years service in the Canadian Armed Forces, Stephen moved to private industry where he was employed as a Director of Information Technology, Director of Operations and CIO for a number of private sector companies before finally electing to become an independent consultant in 2000. Since then he’s served as a management consultant, project/program manager and business analyst/solution architect in a number of industries and organizations - including a big-5 consulting firm. These industries and organizations have included the airline, railway, telecommunications and banking industries, the Canadian and US Governments, as well as mandates in Brazil and Bermuda. Presently Steve lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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