Networkiing – Insight: e-commerce – Bright Sparks.

All small businesses need to get email. But sooner or later they’ll have to pay for a ‘business class’ internet if they want to step up to e-commerce. So says Grant Broster, head of internet for business in BT Ignite’s application services division.

Broster sees a collision course threatening between consumer demand for internet access and business demand. ‘The demand from the consumer side is for access to be cheaper, and from the business side for it to be more reliable. Ultimately, there is a ‘business class’ internet developing here.

‘If you want the 99 per cent up time on your email infrastructure, then you’ll have to pay more for that. Small businesses shouldn’t mind that in the long run, but they’ll probably need an economy class service to begin with.’

Broster admits ‘we are not doing what rising customer expectations demand. On the website we are delivering, and on internet access we are close. But on the email infrastructure service we still have some way to go.’

BT’s portal for SMEs, ‘BT Click for’, has won praise from vnunet’s Manage IT site, but Broster confesses to reservations. ‘I’m not happy for us to become a media company. Moreover, I don’t want to subsidise the content industry. The internet is a struggle as it is without our doing that!’ In talking to small business directors, Broster insists BT keep its message simple enough for a child to understand.

The first thing Broster did after joining BT from the Mitel Corporation, a Canadian telecommunications products company, was to ‘simplify our message, reducing all communication to essentials. Instead of trying to get twelve things through, we go for just one or two. And we make those things principles, not arty-farty marketing messages. I tell small businesses: ‘Get connected and get email’.’

Broster maintains the relationship between a small business and its partners is ‘the inverse of the situation of big companies’.

‘Small businesses are only interested in dealing with companies with a long track record. They don’t take split second decisions on the basis of a name they’ve just heard. They are conservative with a small ‘c’,’ he says.

‘Big companies are readier to engage with trendy start-ups. After all, they’re not going to get hurt if things go wrong.’

He insists: ‘BT is good at supplying services to small businesses on the basis of track record. We’re always going to be there.’ Small business directors are wary of IT, and Broster says he appreciates why. ‘Their scepticism of IT is quite well placed, in my view.

‘Cash is king when running a small business, and so spending cash on stuff that doesn’t bring in money or reduce costs is a total waste.’

Broster describes the target for BT Ignite’s application services as ‘the general owner-manager who knows nothing about IT, but does know everything about their business’.

Not that Broster sees the internet as a subset of the IT industry. ‘In the mid-nineties, Andy Grove and Bill Gates were admitting that 75 per cent of their profitability was coming from email. Previously, computing had been about word processing and doing Excel spreadsheets. Now it has to be about communication.’

But it’s not all rosy. For small companies, the internet, he warns, is ‘a two-edged sword. It enables big companies to pretend they are small at the same time as it enables small companies to pretend they are bigger.

‘All of the SMEs I talk to have recognised that. For example, the high street food outlets realise that Tesco is encroaching on their space to appear more local. We are at a point where the decision to get onto the internet is a no-brainer for SMEs. Ninety five per cent of small businesses are going to end up online, and the only ones who won’t will capitalise their businesses and get out altogether.’

Broster is optimistic about the future of UK small businesses, despite the gathering economic storm in the US. He believes many conditions that generated ten years of high growth among American hi-tech small businesses, are being replicated here.

‘The VCs are getting into it, and there is now a good pool of talented managers who have, like me, come from North America, and there are more to come. About one-fifth of the managers I met in North America were not from there. Those guys are taking their fortunes back – to India, Eastern Europe, or, indeed, to the UK.

‘We’ll have to see just exactly where this marriage of conservatism and entrepreneurialism in the small business sector heads,’ concludes Broster.

– Brian McKenna writes for

BT’s internet portal for SMEs is at

Vnunet’s review of the site is at


I have a friend who does marketing for a national accounting group.

She confessed to me that if her email system is down, she might as well not come to work. In fact, she admitted she spends her entire day sending and receiving emails.

You must keep in mind that my friend is good at her job, and is successful in bringing together members of the group who are spread across the United States.

Our conversation brought to mind more than one story in which countless practitioners and professionals told me they are totally consumed by email, and receive so many during the day they cannot begin to scratch the surface on reading, let alone answering, all the messages.

Thank goodness for filters that come with email. Filters allow the user to automatically get rid of junk email, place any mail sent by certain persons into separate folders, and even colour-code incoming mail by specific subjects or importance.

While filters help organise email, they are a weak substitute for getting at the heart of the longer-range problem. We have become a society too dependent on electronic correspondence. Whatever happened to picking up the phone? I laughed when I heard some of the staff at the American Institute of Chartered Public Accountants had downloaded AOL and Yahoo’s free instant messenger. I use it myself, but they are using it like an intranet of sorts to be able to buzz in and talk with one another – within the same company – at any given moment.

While I find instant message programmes effective, they are a nuisance if you are working on something and are constantly interrupted. The solution rests in one-on-one communications. email has its place, and is welcome in my office and even more so while travelling. However, a personal phone call to a client, customer and even employee is even more necessary in our digital economy.

I recently finished a term as president of my local communicators group, and was stunned last spring when the two, 25-year-old co-chairs of our awards/recognition programme – our highest profile event of the year – were having a hard time soliciting entries from past winners. When I asked them how many phone calls they had both made, they looked at me strangely.

It turned out they hadn’t made any calls, and instead sent one email to each previous winner. I may be showing my age, but Generation-X came screaming into my ears loud and clear.

They hadn’t even thought about calling, which is sad. As professionals, accountants should take a more personal approach by soliciting more one-on-one communications.

I’m not advising getting rid of email and electronic communications but it does mean making an effort to making a call instead of sending a note. Better yet, schedule a meeting to talk in person.

The benefits? Start with improved communications skills by practising them more often. Add in the respect you’ll gain from your customers, peers and others because you ‘broke the mould’ on always communicating by email.

Finally, you’ll achieve personal satisfaction in knowing you have one less email message to handle. That leaves room for all sorts of pursuits!

– Scott Cytron is a Dallas-based consultant advising chartered public accountants and other professionals on marketing, public relations and communications. This article first appeared on

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