Confused? Here’s Answers: Virtual Telephone (Receptionists) Systems

my1voice.gifVirtual Telephone Systems or Virtual PBX services were highlighted a few weeks ago with Google’s launch of Voice.
However, there are several companies such as my1Voice, RingCentral, VirtualPBX, OneBox which provide competing, fee based services. How in the world can you decide what’s best for YOUR business?
steve-adamas-protus.jpgSteve Adams, Vice President, Protus, which owns my1Voice (and email marketing company Campaigner and myFax) answers some questions about choosing a virtual telephone system.
Google has taken the media by storm with its new Voice service, bought from Grand Central. However, there are so many other companies on the market that offer similar services – most are for fee, and let’s not forget fee based Vonage. How should a business owner decide which virtual PBX system is right for them?
The first thing to look at is whether you are trying to organize your own life or improve a business. Google Voice is really for individuals, a way to simplify your personal phone use by combining your mobile, home and/or other phones into a single place to check. Virtual PBX systems such as our my1voice are designed for use by a small business. They offer business-related features such as a professional voice greeting, call routing to multiple extensions, call queues and other features a consumer doesn’t require.
Once you’ve made the decision that you want a business system, the next step is to determine how you want it delivered. There are two choices: over conventional phone lines or Voice over IP (VoIP), which sends your calls across the Internet and your data network. While VoIP has received a lot of media hype in the last few years, it’s still largely unproven for any but those with a dedicated IT department. Small businesses need to be aware that a VoIP system can overwhelm their data networks because voice takes up a lot more bandwidth than data. And it’s less reliable than phone lines. There’s a reason Internet providers aspire to “dial tone reliability.” A virtual PBX that uses conventional phone lines provides the best combination of features, cost and reliability.

Once you’ve made the decision to go with a phone line-based virtual PBX, you need to look at the various plans, especially any charges for exceeding the allotted minutes. It’s kind of like a car lease – you can wind up paying big penalties if you don’t choose the right plan. It’s important to be sure you have complete independence as well. You shouldn’t need to purchase additional hardware or software to make the phone system operate – not even special phones. It should use the phones you already own. It’s also important to understand which features are included with the base service and which ones cost extra. Things like caller ID, call forwarding, scheduling, etc. are important functions, so you want to be sure that’s what you’re getting. The ability to get professionally recorded, customized greetings is important to giving a professional impression. You don’t want someone to call your company and get a message that sounds like your home answering machine. In the end, it’s all about the features, functionality and pricing.
When does a business know they need a traditional, on-premise system like Microsoft’s Response Point, Avaya or others?
There are three key indicators, really. The first is whether everyone in your organization works out of the same building. A traditional, on-premise system is restricted to the four walls of the building. If you have telecommuters, or a virtual company where everyone works out of different locations, a virtual PBX is the answer. It allows your customers to use one phone number to reach anyone in the company, regardless of location.
Second, there’s the size of the company. Equipment-based PBX systems and VoIP systems tend to be very expensive – much more costly than the typical small business can afford, especially in these times. VoIP systems in particular can become very expensive if you find you have to upgrade your entire network before you can install the phone system (as often happens). You’re then tied to that supplier for any additional equipment you may need as you grow. Because it doesn’t require special equipment or network upgrades and operates on a monthly service charge basis, a virtual PBX’s costs are much lower and are very predictable. That being said, most virtual PBX systems have limitations on the number of users they can support, so if by “small” you mean 150 people need phone service, you’re probably stuck with a traditional phone system.
The third part of the equation is the number of features you get for the money. One of the initial attractions of VoIP was a feature called “find me/follow me” that allows you to forward your office calls to another phone, such as your mobile or home phone. Virtual PBX users can get that same capability without all the expense or requirement to maintain and administer equipment. Depending on the supplier, a virtual PBX also offers most or all of the other popular phone features, such as caller ID, forwarding voicemail messages to your email, unlimited conference calling, the ability to tag certain phone numbers to either ring directly to your phone, go immediately to voicemail or be blocked entirely, forward outside calls to a mobile or home phone in the middle of a call, and much more.
One concern many businesses have is on the security and sustainability of hosted systems. How secure are hosted PBX systems? What can businesses do to increase security?
First, let’s differentiate between hosted and virtual PBX systems. Hosted systems use VoIP technology to distribute the calls, while virtual PBX systems (like our my1voice) use regular phone lines. We believe phone line-based systems are more stable, and they’re certainly more secure – there’s nothing for hackers to get into.
Should businesses be concerned that they have built an entire business around a virtual phone system and one morning the company is A) out of business or B) has an outage that lasts for many hours or days?
Absolutely. That is a huge potential issue, which is why you want to choose your virtual PBX provider on more than price alone. You want to be sure the company is well-established, stable, and has a good reputation in the marketplace. You want one that’s willing to spend the time with you to help you select the right plan, and that has a quality customer service department that’s available 24 x 7 to help you if there’s an issue, whether it’s technical or something else. A great way to learn the level of service the company offers is to spend some quality time searching on the Internet, reading product reviews, blog posts, and online forums. Also look for other users and ask them what they think. Failure to do your due diligence in this area can lead to a costly mistake.
What other things should businesses know about virtual PBX phone systems?
Think about the ways you typically use the phone and then determine whether the phone system will help or hinder you. Take conference calling, for example. Is there a limit to the number of people you can conference in, or can you bring whoever you want into a call whenever you want? Having your voicemail forwarded to your email account is another great feature, especially if you have people who are out of the office a lot. A new, hot feature is call routing, which allows you to pre-select what happens to certain calls when they come in. For example, you can have your best customers ring directly to your phone when they call instead of having to go through the auto-attendant first. Or you can route certain calls directly to voicemail, or even block them if you don’t want to speak with them. As far as the general set-up goes, the whole plain old telephone service (POTS) line v. calls over the Internet is a big issue. If your phones are Internet-based and your Internet connection goes down, you have no contact at all with the outside world. If your Internet connection goes down and you’re using virtual PBX, your phones will still work.