There’s a lot to consider when choosing a phone system for your business and, unfortunately, many people wind up locked into a service that isn’t ideal. We wrote this article to help simplify the process of finding a system that will meet all of your business needs now, and as you grow.
Even if you’re not ready to use them all in the beginning, you want to make sure your system’s feature capabilities will meet your needs in the future. Some of the features you’ll want from your phone solution include voicemail, call forwarding, call recording, automated attendants, toll-free numbers, and conference bridges. Consult with any prospective solution provider for a list of features supported by any system you consider.
Let’s start by describing the three different types of solutions available to you.
This is traditional phone service from your local or regional telephone company. Up until 2003, when companies like Vonage, VoicePulse, and 8x8 started offering Internet telephony services, landlines were the only choice available to businesses, and many continue to use them. Using landlines, also known as public switched telephone network (PSTN) lines, is still a viable option, but, as we’ll describe in the “How to Decide” section below, some of the other options listed here are likely to be a smarter choice for you.
Voice over IP (VoIP)
VoIP technology takes phone conversations off the analog copper infrastructure used by landlines and moves them to the Internet. This might sound like new technology, but it’s not. As early as 2003, companies like VoicePulse, Vonage, and 8x8 began offering VoIP based telephony to residential customers. The technology has caught on quickly because it offers enormous cost-savings, advanced feature capabilities, and audio quality that is often better than that on landlines.
VoIP does, however, have a few caveats (we’ll go over them in the “How to Decide” section below) that you need to consider before deciding whether or not it’s suitable for your business.
In any VoIP deployment, you use IP phones to make and receive calls. These are telephones that look and feel like any other business telephone, but they have one important difference: they’re fully digital, and plug into the same local-area network (LAN) as your computers. The IP phones communicate with a digital “PBX” which, in turn, relays calls to and from a VoIP service provider.
There are two different ways to implement a VoIP system, and the difference has to do with where the PBX, described above, is located and who maintains it. So we’ll divide the general VoIP category into two choices because this difference is important to note when you decide on a system for your company:
In this model, the PBX is located at your office. This means you will purchase, configure and maintain it. Although most PBXs are no larger than a desktop computer, note that you’ll also be responsible for finding a suitable place for it to live -- preferably one where it has reliable power, doesn’t get too warm, and is out of the way (next to the water cooler isn’t recommended).
Hosted VoIP takes the PBX out of your office, and moves it to the cloud. You won’t be purchasing or maintaining it, but you’ll be depending on the capability of your service provider to ensure that things run smoothly. An added benefit of the hosted VoIP solution is that since the PBX is in the cloud, your IP phones can be anywhere. If you have employees working from various locations around the globe, this can be a huge benefit because they’ll all be able to transfer calls, dial each other, and move their phones around just as if they were in one office.
How to Decide
Landline Pros and Cons
Landlines are a good choice when you already own an analog PBX that you’re satisfied with, and know how to maintain. This is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, and it is appropriate in certain situations. Another reason to stick with landlines is if you can’t get reliable Internet connectivity at your business location. This is much less of an issue in 2015 than it was just a few years ago, but still something to keep in mind.
Sticking with landlines usually means you’ll be foregoing the cost savings available to VoIP customers, though. Many businesses save up to 40% on their total telecom infrastructure by switching to VoIP. This is because your local or regional telephone company often charges plan and toll rates that are significantly higher than VoIP providers. You’ll also be missing out on many advanced features (voicemail to email, SMS notifications, find-me/follow-me, to name a few) that are available to VoIP customers. Each provider’s feature list varies, so check some of the provider sites listed at the end of this article to see if there are any “must-have” features listed.
On-site VoIP Pros and Cons
Sometimes you just want total control. If that’s the case, then maintaining your own PBX and connecting it with a VoIP service provider is for you. You’ll get the cost savings on the service side, but will still maintain complete control of the PBX. If your business has compliance requirements that prevent you from moving to a cloud-based model, then on-site VoIP may be the best choice.
The downside of on-site VoIP is that you’ll be responsible for maintaining the PBX. Often, this means you’ll need to hire someone trained for the task. In addition, you’ll be missing out on some of the added mobility capabilities that a cloud-based solution will provide to employees working from remote locations.
Hosted VoIP Pros and Cons
Cloud-based VoIP has reached maturity in recent years, and offers businesses advanced mobility features at a low, fixed per-user cost. It removes the burden of purchasing and maintaining costly PBX hardware, and scales easily as your business grows. Employees located around the world can work as if they are on one intra-office phone system, easily transferring calls and calling between extensions.
The downside of cloud-based VoIP is that you’ll need to find a vendor you have confidence in. They’ll be responsible for maintaining the virtual PBX, and you need to be sure that the vendor has a proven track record. Support is going to be important, so find out how easily you’ll be able to get in touch with them in the event that something isn’t working.
For most startup and growing companies, our recommendation is to consider Hosted VoIP first. If you choose a provider who has been in the space for more than a few years, and their feature set suits you, then you’re likely to end up with a powerful business phone system with minimal hassle, predictably low costs, and scalability. I recommend taking a look at top solution VoIP providers like VoicePulse, 8x8, Vonage and RingCentral.