Many small businesses contact us every day, looking for advice as they search for a new phone system. Some are new businesses just getting started, while others are looking to replace an old or problematic system. The most common reasons they have are that they're:
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While there’s a long list of reasons, there’s an even longer list of systems and features addressing these common challenges. However, we find most small businesses require one or more of these core phone system capabilities:
|PBX||The central component of every multi-line phone system, the PBX acts as the switchboard, transferring and routing calls. It’s also the component that lets users put callers on hold and have conference calls. It integrates most of the other features listed here.||Provides commonly used functions that allow many phone extensions to share lines and work together as one system.|
|Auto attendant||An Auto attendant greets inbound calls with basic information such as the the business’s name, location and hours, and also lets callers choose how their call will be connected. They often begin something like this: Thank you for calling Software Advice. Please choose from the following menu options...||Answers and directs inbound calls. Helps small businesses present a larger, more professional image.|
|IVR||The Interactive Voice Response feature is similar to, but more advanced than, Auto attendant. IVRs allow customers to access account information, schedule and make payments and complete other transactions requiring deeper interaction all without requiring an employee’s time.||Automates many basic call transactions, freeing employees from some repetitive and time-consuming tasks.|
|CTI||Computer-Telephone Integration is a broad term for a collection of functions offered primarily with VoIP systems. CTI allows customer-specific information from the company’s database to be automatically displayed on a computer whenever that customer is on the line.||Streamlines call processing, saves employees from having to repeatedly look up basic information when customers call.|
|FMFM||Find Me Follow Me is a feature that makes sure important calls get through to the right person, even if the right person isn’t at their desk. FMFM lets users program a sequence of alternate numbers, including external and mobile numbers, to dial in case their desk phone rings and is unanswered.||Ensures important calls are always answered. Valuable in sales-focused industries, where missing a call can mean missing a sale.|
|Softphone||Many VoIP systems include software telephones, or "softphones." These are programs that run on office computers and, when used with a headset, allow calls to be made and received directly from the computer.||Reduces equipment costs by letting offices purchase fewer desk phones.|
|Voicemail-to-email||Another feature common to VoIP systems, this is an automated transcription service. When callers leave voicemail, this service transcribes the audio to written text and sends it as an email.||Saves time listening to voicemail messages.|
|Conferencing||Some PBX systems only allow for three-way calling, whereas others offer true conference calling with dedicated dial-in numbers.||Facilitates internal and external collaboration.|
System complexity. Some businesses we speak with tell us they’re replacing their existing phone system because it’s too complicated and not user-friendly. Buying an overly complex system can be as bad as buying one that has too few features. Apart from paying for features that won’t be used, advanced systems can present usability issues.
So before you begin shopping, start with a clear assessment of exactly which functions you need. Don’t get caught up in a more-functions-is-necessarily-better mindset when comparing systems. Also, take advantage of the trials and demos offered by some companies to get a firsthand feel for exactly how user-friendly a system is.
VoIP or analog? Telephony technology is split between digital phone systems, which send voice calls over the Internet (Voice over IP, or VoIP), and older analog phone systems, which use traditional phone service. Though VoIP phones can call analog phones and vice versa, and there are hybrid systems that contain components of both, it’s best for a business that’s looking to start from scratch to choose one or the other. The vast majority of businesses are choosing VoIP.
But VoIP requires a reliable broadband Internet connection. So for businesses that don’t have access to broadband, an analog system may be the only option. If you’re unclear on how the two systems differ, this Guide to VoIP compares them in easy-to-understand language.
On-premise or hosted PBX? This isn’t a choice all businesses will face. Small analog phone systems usually come with a simple hardware PBX that’s kept on-site. And medium and large businesses often want the control of an on-site PBX, but they also have the IT budgets needed to maintain them.
Aside from these cases, most businesses should consider using an off-site or "hosted" PBX. It is an option on many small business VoIP systems and offered by many ITSPs. The big benefit with a hosted PBX is it can offer more advanced phone system functions, like auto-attendants and IVRs, without the expense of purchasing and managing an on-site hardware PBX.
Lines and extensions. With an analog phone system you might, for example, pay your telco for two or four lines to allow your business to have that many simultaneous phone calls. For that to work, you’d need a two- or four-line analog business phone system, which are some of the most common analog systems on the market.
With VoIP systems, extensions can be added by simply connecting the office’s internal computer network.
Hardware and special-use requirements. Businesses in certain industries or with unique workplace environments will have specific phone system requirements. Identifying which features are needed will help focus the search for the right phone system for your small business.
There are, for example, industry-specific systems for hotels, call centers and hospitals. Though most small businesses will not be looking for specialized industry systems, they often do have special hardware requirements. Some need wireless handsets that can operate outdoors or a long distance away from a base station. Others don’t use handsets, but instead require wireless headsets with long battery life. Knowing what’s needed before you begin will make the selection process easier.
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