Google Voice is Google’s VoIP telecommunications application. Since its launch in 2009, the average number of users per day has grown to 3.5 million. This popularity is mainly a result of people wanting to make free and low-cost phone calls.
But Google Voice for business is also widely used. Though this app has a lot to offer business users, it also has some limitations. We spoke with small business owners to learn more about the pros and cons of using Google Voice as your company’s VoIP solution.
What Exactly Is Google Voice?
Google Voice is a hodgepodge of telecommunications services. It offers call-forwarding, messaging, voicemail and voicemail transcription, to name just a few. They’re all controlled through a Web-based platform similar to Gmail, Google’s hugely popular email service.
To use Google Voice, a user first needs to set up a Google account (if they don’t already have one for a Google service such as Gmail). After signing in to their account, they can go to www.google.com/voice and choose a phone number for their Voice account. Google offers a selection of numbers it has purchased in various area codes. Many area codes are unavailable, but new batches of numbers are added on occasion (and without notice).
Calls to a user’s Voice number will ring on whatever device—computer, tablet, smartphone—is signed in to the Google Voice account.
To receive calls, the user must remain signed in. (This usually means they need to keep a Web browser open.) That device can also be used to place outgoing calls. Calls within the U.S. and Canada are free, and international calls are charged at competitive rates.
Rather than always leaving a device turned on and signed in to their account, most users choose to have their Google Voice calls automatically forwarded to another of their phone numbers.
This call-forwarding function is typically how businesses that use Google Voice incorporate it into their telephony plans. For example, companies may publicize their Voice number as their official business number, and have the app forward all calls it receives to the mobile or landline phones of employees.
That’s just one basic example of how businesses use Voice. Now, we’ll look at the service in more detail and see how actual companies are using it.
How Are Businesses Using Google Voice?
As an Answering Service
Using Voice as an answering service is popular with businesses for which missed calls directly affect the bottom line. This includes real estate and insurance agencies, financial advisory and brokerage firms or any business for which missing a call can mean losing a client or a sale.
”We use Google Voice specifically as our answering service,” explains Jon Clark, founder of Fuze SEO.
”For us, we have discovered responding to Web leads is vital to closing deals. As a result, if we are… on the line or out of the office, the voicemail can be easily sent directly to a distribution e-mail address.”
Since Fuze SEO works hard to get more Web traffic, it wants to ensure the calls it gets from that traffic are answered or returned as soon as possible. Voice answers all their calls and emails transcriptions of the voicemails to Fuze SEO’s sales staff, who can then quickly return the call.
To Use a Different Area Code
When first signing up for a Google Voice account, users select their new number from a wide range of area codes. They do not need to choose their local area code—and in many cases, business users have good reason not to. Jennifer Martin explained how this flexibility helped her company, Zest Business Consulting.
”I was in the process of preparing to move from Bend, Oregon to San Francisco,” she says.
”Initially, what I appreciated about Google Voice was the ability to choose a new business phone number with a ‘415′ [San Francisco] area code before I actually arrived in the city. Existing clients could continue to reach me on my cell phone directly, and new clients could call [a local number] and reach me on the same cell phone through Google Voice.”
For Handling High Call Volumes
Too much of a good thing is usually still a good thing, but it can also present challenges. This is often the case with phone calls, especially for small businesses with rapidly-growing client bases. Peggy Farren, a working photographer who also runs the training center Understand Photography, found a clever solution to the problem of high call volume.
”We are a small office; it’s just me and a few part-time helpers. I can’t possibly answer the 20 to 45-plus phone calls I usually receive in one day,” she says.
”I changed my voicemail message, pleading with people to email me, since it’s so much quicker to respond via email. It didn’t work.”
So Farren started using Google Voice, and set up her account to send transcripts of each voicemail message straight to the company email address. Through this streamlined process, Farren reports, she now saves many hours a day. ”In fact, more than 75 percent of the phone calls I [receive, I] answer via email,” she says.
For Texting (SMS) and Customer Relationship Management
You might not think that businesses make use of text messaging, but they do—and they do so with increasing frequency. Google Voice users can send and receive SMS text messages through their account, either from the Google Voice Web page or from one of many smartphone and computer apps that serve as front-ends for messaging.
The Voice account saves all of these texts on the website in a searchable, well-organized format (just like Gmail).
A Google Voice phone number can even be integrated with some business applications, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Jeff Martin explains how texting and CRM integration work together for his business, Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park.
”Our reservation system sends text messages automatically to people who have reservations today using our Google Voice number,” he says.
”In our reservation system, we can also click on a customer number to be connected on one of our cell phones via Google Voice. We can also click to text in our reservation system. We have multiple greetings recorded and can easily switch between them as needed. And I use the texting feature to communicate with employees out in the yard when I’m inside.”
For Call Screening and Privacy
A Google Voice number can be used to hide a user’s personal number from their business contacts. By publicizing a business’ Voice number and having all calls to it automatically forwarded to personal phones, business owners and employees can answer business calls on their own devices, without ever revealing their personal numbers to customers.
”I’ve used Google Voice for the past year for my business,” says Virginia Roberts of The Heartographer.
”I started using it because as I started to grow and advertise, I had more unsolicited calls, and calls at inappropriate times. I didn’t want my personal cell or my home landline numbers printed so visibly. (I work out of my home office and occasionally see clients there.)”
Robert’s solution was to publish the Voice number as her business number, and have those calls forwarded to her cell and landline numbers. Google also lets users set restrictions on when calls get forwarded.
For example, calls between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. get forwarded to a cell phone; calls outside these times go straight to voicemail.
For Instant Messaging and Video
In September 2014, Google Voice was integrated with Google Hangouts, which is Google’s instant messaging/video chat client. Google Hangouts now offers free voice calling in some countries, with certain restrictions. For instance, calls to some numbers may incur a $0.01 per minute charge.
Hangouts users can also make free video calls to other Hangouts users and can set up 10-participant video conferences for free. With a Google Apps for Work account, the participant limit increases to 15.
These capabilities make Hangouts one of the best freemium communications clients out there for smaller businesses, though it’s still a far cry from a true unified communications solution.
What’s the Catch?
With all these useful call features—all provided for free—you might be wondering if there are any downsides. As with most things, there are. Here we look at some of the more common complaints of businesses that use (or tried to use) Google Voice.
Call Quality Isn’t Always Perfect
Google Voice is a VoIP technology, meaning it sends calls over the Internet. Call quality can be hit-or-miss, depending on the speed and quality of the Internet connection being used to make the call. Calls made from wired (as opposed to WiFi), high-speed connections have the best chance of getting a high-quality connection.
But call quality is also affected by how—that is, over which networks—Google Voice chooses to route the call. Since it’s a free service, calls sometimes come in choppy or with delays. Professional services are largely free of these problems, as they spend resources to secure better routes for their VoIP traffic. And when call quality problems occur with a paid VoIP service, they can usually be fixed easily.
Phone Numbers Are Recycled
Google buys phone numbers from tier 1 network providers. In 2009, for example, it bought 1 million numbers from network provider Level 3 Communications. Since the numbers aren’t free and are a limited resource, Google reuses numbers when former users give them up. This can have repercussions for later users. Clark explains:
”One number that we signed up for was consistently being called from a ‘dating site.’ (I use the term ‘dating’ loosely.) We’ve had other scenarios where we were [constantly] getting calls for another business. I would say the number selection can be hit-or-miss as there is no way to guarantee the last usage of the number.”
Since Voice makes it very easy to screen calls, a problem like this would probably be more an inconvenience than a deal-breaker for most users. Still, it would be smart to use a Voice number for a few weeks before publicizing it, just to make sure it won’t be bombarded with calls for someone else.
Voice Might Confuse Some Callers
Wanda Anglin of SEO Buzz, an Internet marketing company, explains an issue some of her callers experienced, particularly when needing to leave voicemail.
”There is an option to announce the caller before answering, and you can choose to send the call to voicemail or answer it,” Anglin says.
”I thought this feature was handy, but the pauses the caller experiences were problematic for some of my more technically-challenged clients. After having a couple clients be totally stumped and leave half-messages because they began talking too soon, I disabled that feature.”
We tried to replicate this exact issue when experimenting with one of our own Google Voice accounts. Though we weren’t able to re-create it exactly, we did notice that there was often a delay—up to about five seconds—between the final ring and the voicemail message starting.
An online search reveals others have experienced similar problems. Keep in mind that feature-rich solutions such as Voice often have configuration options which could end up inadvertently deterring callers who are less tech-savvy.
There’s No Real Tech Support
The product is used by many millions of people and businesses, yet nobody can say if it will still be around six months from now. So why can’t someone just get clarification straight from Google? That brings us to the final—and perhaps largest—downside to Google Voice, which is one common to most Google services. Despite its ubiquity, Google, the company, is essentially unreachable.
There are no help numbers to call, there are no direct email addresses for Voice tech support and there certainly aren’t any Google branch offices you can stroll into asking for help. However, Google does provide some in-depth documentation so users can learn about Voice and try to address any problems that arise.
Beyond that, Google relies on a crowdsourced tech support model: discussions in their online forums for Voice users are where most Google Voice problems get resolved. This could be a problem for businesses who rely on high call volume and can’t afford any downtime.
What’s the Verdict?
Implementing a new phone system for your business is a decision that should be researched and well-planned. There’s a long list of business VoIP providers to consider, many offering great service at reasonable and competitive prices.
Google Voice is, we’ll say, a very interesting option. It clearly has a lot to offer. It gives away, for free, a range of telecom services that other companies charge for.
But the saying that ”you get what you pay for” does apply to Google Voice. It’s not perfect, there’s little support and its future is uncertain. For all that it offers, many businesses find a great deal of value in Voice—it just may not be the right choice for your business.
To learn more about small business VoIP solutions, check out our helpful buyer’s guide.