No matter what type of business you do, email is an integral part of your communications strategy. Vendors, suppliers, customers and employees all use your business email to stay in touch, deliver important information and nurture your sales efforts. In fact, on any given day, your employees may spend more time corresponding via email than through telephone, social media or other real-time communications combined.
But when is it necessary to upgrade from free email to a hosted service?
You may have started your company from your home office, and so using gmail, hotmail or yahoo was just fine. As you grow your enterprise and take on more staff, the need arises to professionalize appearances, and hosting your email from your company’s domain is a great place to start.
Having your own custom domain helps to present the appearance of an established company – very important if you are in the process of obtaining new business. It makes the statement that you are in it for keeps, your brand is trustworthy and that you’re not just going to disappear tomorrow. The more established your company is, the more important this becomes, as these days, appearances count for a lot, and you never get a second chance to make that all-important first impression.
Securing your Domain Name
Having a good domain name is a key first step. Use your company’s name if at all possible, but if somehow your name is popular, try to get as close to it as you possibly can. Exploring different options for domain extensions is a way to keep things on track. For instance, if you can’t get ‘dot com’ then try for a country-specific extension such as ‘.co.uk’, or perhaps something like ‘.biz’ or ‘.co’. There are several other new domain extensions currently on offer, and perhaps there is one that is close to your type of business. For instance, a company that does graphic design could choose ‘.design’, a retailer could choose ‘.shop’ or an IT company could decide on ‘.tech’. These days, there are plenty of options to consider. The important thing is that your domain adequately represents who you are and what you do. Having a good domain name says that you mean business, and that is generally the message that you want to project.
In-House vs. Hosted Email Solutions
Once you have nailed down your domain name and web hosting, it’s time to think about how you are going to host your email, as the two don’t always go together. Most domain hosting companies have the ability to host your email as well, and some offer attractive packages when you purchase your domain. Be sure to read the fine print, as you want to make sure you are getting what you need.
For many small businesses, a hosted solution eliminates a lot of extra labour and maintenance costs associated with managing email in-house. An in-house solution will require dedicated servers and will need to be maintained by you or somebody on staff. Backups must be performed regularly, and a security system should ideally protect your data from hacking or malicious attacks.
Drawbacks of an in-house email system can include:
- Lack of storage
- No remote access
- Outages or downtime
- No integration with your CRM or other office systems
- Inability to sync data between devices
- Risk of lost data if backups and archiving is not performed regularly
- Added expense of in-house servers and IT manpower to maintain them
The cost of running your own email servers alone can be daunting. The investment in server infrastructure, firewalls and other security hardware and software, licenses and IT labour to set up and maintain the whole shebang can run into tens of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the size of your company and how many users are on the system.
Comparatively speaking, a hosted email solution may be your best option. In a company with 100 users or thereabouts, it can represent savings of anywhere between 70% – 95% over a self-managed system.
Other advantages to a hosted system include regular and automatic updates and upgrades, easy deployment, access from any device in any location, secure cloud storage, convenient web-based interfaces and the all-important ability to scale as needed.
Free vs. Professional Email Hosting
Free email hosting is a tempting road to travel, and while it was fine when you were a sole contractor, it’s not going to cut it for business purposes. Some of the drawbacks of free email hosting include:
- Limited or no integration with calendars and other productivity applications
- Inconsistent and non-flexible spam filtering
- Customer support may be limited
- Functionality is geared towards consumers and light use
- Data protection is not assured
- No guarantees of service or system upgrades
- It is unlikely that you can use your own domain
Your free email platform may also be serving you ads and marketing other products or services that your provider actually makes money on – if you keep in mind that nothing is really ‘free’, you’ll understand why this little annoyance will probably never go away.
Understanding your Business and Technology Needs
Your email hosting is essentially an IT initiative, and the planning process should include a full evaluation of your current infrastructure as well as a comprehensive appraisal of your business requirements. This should take into account your expectations of performance, security and reliability.
The systems you use on a daily basis may need to be integrated into your email; systems such as your CRM, shared calendars, task management systems and mobile platforms that your employees use on a regular basis should be considered, as should your service level expectations from whatever provider you decide to go with.
Prepare for the New Deployment
Prior to migration, check on the status of any pending email campaigns. Additionally, if there are any technologies that you currently use that will disappear with the new deployment, be sure that the information they hold is backed up so that your productivity is not compromised in the process. Make a list of any web forms or other components that may need to be changed, updated or re-linked to the new software so that neither your workforce nor your clients notice a change.
Ultimately, your migration to a professionally hosted email should be a positive change. However, be sure to consider how your upgrade will affect other departments in the organization. Meet with key department heads to discuss any issues that they might anticipate as a result; key players may have suggestions as to functionality or features they would like to see, and can also outline a set of requirements that is specific to their role.
Your current system analytics can tell you a lot about how you are currently using your email. Knowing more about this data may help you to define requirements for message or attachment size limits and storage.
Identify the platforms you and your employees currently use: calendars, task management software, your CRM system or contact lists will help you define the baseline of functionality required from your hosted email platform.
With feedback from your key players, outline the features and functionality they would most like to see, elements that will help them be more productive and efficient going forward.
Lastly, determine whether you foresee any significant growth in the near or distant future, and apply that knowledge to your email needs. Scalability is key, as once you’ve made this change you won’t want to have to repeat the process simply because you’ve outgrown your system.
Email Hosting Options
Business email hosting falls into three main categories, each with their own set of capabilities and benefits. Choosing the one that works best for you will depend on the features and functionality you require.
Business webmail services operate through a browser interface, but offer much more powerful capabilities than your standard free webmail. Expect more robust security as well as features that include collaborative tools like shared calendars, mobile capabilities and more, depending on the provider. Plusses include the ability to get up and running quickly, and the cost-effective aspect can be quite attractive to smaller businesses looking to save.
Microsoft Exchange is probably the most popular business email platform available in 2016, and with it come rich features and integrations that are as powerful as they are reliable. One advantage to using Exchange is that for businesses who already use applications like Outlook and the Microsoft Office Suite, it offers a familiar interface while providing access to powerful collaborative tools. Going with an Exchange hosting solution is a great decision for companies using Microsoft applications as the transition is virtually seamless. It also adds more robust security features and lots of custom options to enhance your communications.
Hybrid solutions are also a possibility with Exchange, combining the powerful features of Exchange with the ease and accessibility of webmail. A hybrid solution may make sense, for instance, to provide the upper executive management and sales team with Exchange features, while using webmail accounts for customer service and administrative functionaries.
Exchange provides support for hosted or dedicated systems. With a hosted system, you are sharing a physical server with other users, also known as a multi-tenant configuration. As well as being a much more economical solution, it is simplified in comparison to the dedicated version. You still have access to Exchange’s security, reliability and performance, but you will have less control over its application level features. It is fully integrated with Skype for Business and compatible with Outlook web app and mobile with the addition of business-level security features and the industry’s most reliable network uptime guarantee.
A dedicated hosting solution is a more expensive proposition as you will be using dedicated servers that are maintained by the hosting company. This will give you the option of customizing the Exchange environment to your liking, but as it is an enterprise solution, it may not be cost-effective for smaller businesses.
Ask yourself these questions when trying to decide between a hybrid and dedicated hosting solution:
- How much control do I need over my Exchange settings? Customizable options include being able to configure mailbox size, data limits, deleted item retention, enhanced filtering and backups. If the needs you define are much different from your hosting providers standard options, then a dedicated server might be a good choice for you.
- How much control do I need over security settings? While most providers’ Exchange security is more than adequate for most businesses, some may require additional control over specific settings – for instance, if there are regulatory or compliance issues to be addressed. If this is the case, a dedicated Exchange server would be appropriate.
- Do you expect to experience significant growth in the near future? If you are poised for rapid growth, a multi-tenant option is probably the better choice. With the ability to scale easily and seamlessly, you don’t really have to do a lot of advance planning in order to upgrade your email capabilities.
Once you have answered these basic questions, you can begin to look at your provider options and start planning your migration.
When choosing a provider, look for one who has experience with Exchange, has employees that are dedicated to email, and will provide good technical support through the process.
Consider you disaster recovery needs as well: find out how the provider can deliver data restorations and whether you have to pay extra for them. While nobody anticipates a widespread disaster to strike, it’s always a good idea to be prepared and know what their protocol is so that you can fit it into yours.
Planning your Migration
While your new provider will provide the right mix of tools and technical support resources to help get you through the migration, there are several things you should do on your end to ensure all bases are covered.
Training is essential for all users: there may be a learning curve when it comes to using the new control panel or dashboard, and it’s best to schedule training sessions in advance to make sure everybody is up to speed. While many of the same functions will still exist, there may be new features and capabilities that your employees will need to be familiar with in order to make the most of them.
Plan your migration for a time when it will cause the least disruption to your business processes. Consider your vendors, suppliers, customers and anybody else who might be affected if they can’t reach you via email for even a short period of time. Any email marketing campaigns, new site launches or any other major initiatives should be put on hold until after the migration is complete.
How Mustard IT can Help
Like any other IT investment, hosted email can give you the competitive advantage that you need to succeed in today’s marketplace. The long-term benefits include increased productivity, more effective communications and a financial edge over your competitors, who may still be maintaining in-house systems. With the right planning and a seamless migration process, you will be able to reap the benefits immediately, both fiscal and otherwise.
Mustard IT has been providing hosted email solutions for businesses in the UK for over a decade, and is a trusted source of IT support for companies large and small. If you would like to learn more about hosted business email, contact us today.