Switching a small business phone system to a VoIP phone system can be made more effective with careful planning. Learn how to optimize your transition to VoIP phone service with these simple tips.
Choosing to embrace the future — and a smaller phone bill — with a small business VoIP solution definitely highlights your business acumen. VoIP for business is growing at a phenomenal rate — research company In-Stat projects that by 2013, 79% of US businesses will be using VoIP. (That's an increase of 37% over the number of businesses using VoIP phone service in 2009).
A small business VoIP PBX can significantly reduce your company's phone bill and offer more features than a traditional phone system — including the flexibility of making calls from your laptop or cell phone. Still, there are many decisions to be made such as whether to use a premises-based IP PBX (which supports converged data, further reducing operating costs) or a hosted small business VoIP PBX.
Before you make any big decisions (or sign any contracts), here's a brief checklist of things to evaluate when choosing a small business VoIP solution.
1. Optimize Your Network Load Capacity
Voice traffic is vulnerable. It's also greedy — it takes up a significant amount of bandwidth. When using small business VoIP solutions to manage and distribute your business telephony traffic, you should understand that your phone calls are digitized and turned into data packets — and those packets are highly susceptible to network interference or (more likely) overload. Packet loss in VoIP phone calls results in choppy conversations and dropped calls — neither of which is good for business.
Before setting up a small business VoIP PBX — on premises or hosted — be sure to analyze your voice traffic patterns and evaluate your network's ability to handle (and prioritize) VoIP phone calls. For one thing, you'll want to determine the baseline for your bandwidth upload speed.
You might consider reading a book like this to understand more about the fundamentals of a properly designed network for successful VoIP phone service (or give it to your IT Director). If you're leaning toward a fully converged voice and data network with an IP PBX, you may also consider investing in VoIP testing and monitoring software (see our software directory for more information).
Hiring a consultant who can do this for you — as well as evaluate your choices for a small business VoIP PBX; negotiate contracts; procure hardware; coordinate the transition with your ISP, phone company and IT department; and install, configure, monitor, and maintain the system — is another option you may wish to consider. Many VoIP consultants specialize in small business solutions, and can be very helpful even if you choose a cloud-based small business VoIP solution. VoIPSupply.com can recommend certified network experts who can conduct a needs assessment, system design, configuration and/or install for your small business VoIP PBX, or you can find a VoIP consultant who is local to your area. Check our city-specific lists of VoIP providers and consultants at VoIPReview.org for a VoIP expert near you.
2. Evaluate the Pros and Cons of an IP PBX vs. a Hosted VoIP PBX
A cloud-based PBX can take a lot of the work out of the transition from the public switched telephone network to a small business VoIP PBX. The question of maintenance — of hardware, as well as patching and upgrading software — is taken entirely out of your hands, for one thing, and that can certainly be a relief. Additionally, you will free up space on site and let your IT department get back to the networking tasks they'd probably prefer to do.
On the other hand, an IP PBX offers a lot of advantages — such as eliminating a twisted pair network altogether. An IP PBX can make adds, moves, and changes of extensions easy and inexpensive (whereas cross-wiring a PSTN based extension can cost $100 or more per incident). An IP PBX using IP phones or softphones also offers a single, converged network and hot desking capabilities. However, an IP PBX needs to be managed — either by your IT department, or an outside vendor.
Of course, one of the most basic criteria for a decision like this is how big your company is. If your business has fewer than 15 employees, a hosted VoIP PBX may be the smartest option. An IP PBX is a more costly choice with significant hardware expenditures upfront, although cost-savings will be larger over the long term.
3. Make Sure Your Network Is Secure
Using a VoIP PBX for your small business offers a lot of advantages — especially in cost savings — but it also introduces greater security risks. Because it uses the Internet and transmits your phone calls as data, your VoIP phone calls are subject to all the traditional threats to your data network — worms, viruses, Trojans, and phishing.
If your business is in the finance or health industry, your VoIP network's security may even be mandated by various federal regulations. Make sure you take the steps to lock it down. This may once again be a good reason for hiring a VoIP expert to help design a system with both performance QoS and rock solid integrity.
4. Have a Backup Plan
Whether it's call forwarding, an emergency generator, or a cloud-based VoIP PBX service with redundancies, contingency plans, and a disaster recovery strategy, you need to prepare for the worst. It's advisable to have at least one PSTN connection to ensure that the outside world can be reached if the power goes out. Again, a VoIP consultant can help to ensure that, even in dire circumstances, any losses can be mitigated and business continuity maintained.
5. What Kinds of Calls Do You Make?
Do you make a lot of long distance calls? How about international calls? Perhaps your business doesn't make many outbound calls at all, but does receive a lot of incoming calls (or vice versa).
If you are using a hosted PBX service, these are factors that will influence your decision about the calling plans they offer. For instance, will you need unlimited calling or a plan that only allows 500 long distance minutes, with a low per-minute charge once you've exceeded the allotment? There are also many business VoIP plans that offer free international long distance calls to specific countries (be sure to check whether that applies to landlines only).
Similarly, you may need to make decisions about various extensions — whether some will only be able to dial internal extensions (such as in a break room). You may also wish to block some or all extensions from making international long distance calls (some VoIP service providers offer international call blocking as a feature).
6. What Kinds of Calling Features Do You Need?
Call waiting, caller ID, 3-way calling and many other features that your traditional telco charges extra for are generally included as standard features with a hosted small business VoIP solution.
However, there are many additional features offered by VoIP service providers that you may also be interested in that are sometimes available as add-ons, such as:
- A conference bridge
- Toll free numbers
- Ring groups
- Call recording or other call center functions
Small business VoIP providers also offer direct inward dialing (DID) provisioning, which means that you can get 'virtual numbers' in other locations — even international ones — that will allow your clients to call a local number to reach you.
Another VoIP feature is the ability to add remote extensions to your system, whether you've got another branch location or employees who work at home. Additionally, many small business VoIP service providers offer mobile VoIP services or softphones that will help your business integrate telecommuters as well as extended functions such as inventory and order tracking, customer service records, and other enterprise resource planning (ERP) modules. Small business VoIP providers such as M5 specialize in providing an all-in-one turnkey solution with ERP support.
Before deciding on a small business VoIP solution, you'll need to identify the calling features that are critical to your business.
7. VoIP Hardware
Depending on the VoIP PBX system you choose — a hosted PBX or an on-site IP PBX — there will be various hardware components you'll need to get the most out of your small business VoIP solution.
With a hosted PBX, even though it's in the cloud, you'll probably need a VoIP gateway that will convert the signal to digital and packetize the data. You may also choose to invest in IP phones (which may also mean you'll need a Power over Ethernet device, or PoE).
Choosing an IP PBX system will require a significant investment in hardware — for the system server (and perhaps the individual components, such as the PCI cards), gateway, switch, router, IP phones, and possibly a PoE device. There are many well-known brands to choose from for each of these major components, from entry level Grandstream phones to Sangoma cards to Cisco systems. When buying a communications system or a preloaded appliance, you will also need to know how many FXO, FXS, and T1 ports you need (or might need in the future), as well as how many expansion slots.
You will also need to make decisions about the type of PBX system — proprietary (such as a Bicom Systems solution) or open source (such as Asterisk) — that you will want to use on your small business VoIP PBX.
In both cases — but especially when considering an IP PBX — hiring a VoIP expert may prove to be a wise decision. A VoIP professional can help perform a needs assessment, analyze and optimize your network, recommend and install the hardware, and manage the entire transition for you.
8. What's Your Budget?
We've put this last, but obviously it's a very important consideration when making a decision about your small business VoIP PBX. Aside from figuring out how much you can afford for your small business VoIP solution, you will need to consider payment terms and service contracts.
Are you comfortable with a 2-year contract that some providers such as Phone Power require? Or would you prefer a month-to-month plan like what RingCentral offers? Some VoIP providers such as Vonage offer monthly plans, but offer a significant discount if you pay for a year in advance.
Because an IP PBX requires a larger initial expenditure, companies that will help with your small business VoIP IP PBX solution often have a number of financing options. For example, VoIP Supply offers everything you need to build your own IP PBX, and a variety of payment plans. Bicom Systems also has multiple payment options for its complete, turnkey IP PBX systems.
Whether you're looking for hosted PBX or IP PBX solutions for your transition to a small business VoIP PBX, check our VoIP provider directory or try our comparison table.