Your business's phone system determines how convenient it is to communicate with clients and colleagues. Find out how to choose the best for you.
A good phone system is a critical for business. In addition to making you available to your clients and potential customers, business phone lines, whether landline or VoIP, offer features make your job easier. In addition, having a dedicated system instead of letting employees use their private phones protects your company brand, allows greater communication between departments and lets you integrate your system with common CMS software.
Nearly 100 companies provide phone services to small businesses. Here are some tips for narrowing down your choices and selecting the best.
Editor's Note: Looking for a for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:
VoIP or landline?
Landline: This is the traditional phone system most people are familiar with, where you plug the phone into the wall and work with a phone company like AT&T. These phones are reliable and provide a clear signal, but they are usually more expensive and don't offer as many features as VoIP.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP): This technology has come a long way, rivaling landlines in quality and reliability. It's cheaper and offers more features, making it the most popular choice for businesses. VoIP systems also work with computers, and some integrate with other programs. The quality of the calls depends on your bandwidth, so you should have excellent internet service before choosing this option.
VoIP: On-premise or cloud?
If you select VoIP, you must decide if you want the system hosted at your business or in the cloud. If you host on premise, you need to install the equipment, and your IT team will maintain it. However, you have complete control over the system, including protection of the data. If security is a big concern, on-premise VoIP is the way to go.
Most businesses are comfortable with cloud-based systems, where the VoIP provider hosts the equipment on its site and rents a portion of the bandwidth to you. These systems offer plug-and-play installation, and the provider handles repairs and upgrades. If one data center goes down, another will pick up the slack so you don't lose connectivity. Most cloud-based systems secure the calls and equipment, charge by the month, and are generally cheaper.
Virtual Phone System?
There are two kinds of virtual systems. One does not require a physical phone, but connects to a smartphone or computer for calls. (Think Skype.) The other essentially forwards calls to a home or mobile phone. Hosted on the cloud, a virtual phone system is a good choice when your employees work from home or travel frequently. These plans charge a monthly per-user fee and may restrict minutes.
What to look for
Landline systems cost around $60 to $80 per line per month, depending on if you need long distance and certain features. Some landline providers have packages for businesses.
Cloud-based VoIP runs $15 to $50 per user monthly. These prices vary depending on the features and number of users.
On-premises VoIP systems cost a one-time fee of $500 to $1,250 per user, plus an installation fee that can be thousands of dollars.
In addition to the service, you may need to purchase phones. Some providers include basic phones with the service. If not, desktop phones cost $50 to $500 each, while conference phones range from $500 to $1,000.
Reliability: Consider uptime, number of data centers and redundancy, how many call carriers the provider works with, and how it ensures you don't lose service (or, in an emergency, get service back quickly).
Ease of use: The best way to see how easy a system is to use is to get a free trial, but barring that, check out its tutorial videos and how-to documents.
Security: This is especially important for a cloud-based system. Look for data encryption during transmission as well as at the physical security of the data centers.
Mobility: In addition to the option for an employee to call in to get messages, ask about mobile options. For example, some providers have mobile apps that let the user make calls on their smartphone through the service.
Support: If you don't have an IT staff, then 24/7 support is a must. Also look at how many ways there are to contact support and how quickly you can expect a response. User reviews can alert you to the most common complaints.
Employee access: Employees should be able to get to their voicemail, enable call forwarding, and record out-of-office messages.
Most phone systems come with a basic feature set, then charge for additional features, either through a high-tier plan or add-on charges. Features include the following:
Integrations with programs like Outlook and Salesforce
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