Determining the Ideal Phone
Setup for Your VoIP System
UserView | 2015
One advantage of investing in a business VoIP phone system is the ability to connect a range of devices and software beyond traditional desk phones. But with so many options available for making and receiving calls, it can be tough to identify the optimal phone setup for your company’s needs.
To learn more, Software Advice surveyed employees who have experience using VoIP systems with both hardware and software phones (known as “softphones”) to identify the business value of each type.
The core of both traditional and contemporary business phone systems is a hardware or software Private Branch Exchange (PBX), which connects the extensions in an organization’s directory to the traditional phone network and/or the Internet.
Older PBXs were hard-wired switching systems that enabled multiple extensions to share an incoming line from a phone company (known as a “trunk” line). These phone systems tied employees to their desks, since desk phones had to be physically connected to the PBX system.
Modern IP PBXs, which connect to the Internet rather than the phone network, have evolved hand-in-hand with mobile devices. While businesses can still use IP desk phones or headsets with these systems, they also have the freedom to use mobile devices as PBX extensions.
Employees don’t even need a physical phone with an IP PBX or a cloud-based phone system—instead, they can link their extensions to softphones installed on desktops and laptops. Because softphones are applications, they’re often significantly cheaper than hardware IP phones, which are special desk phones designed for use with Internet connections rather than traditional phone lines.
However, both softphones and desk phones offer different sets of benefits and suffer from different limitations. Choosing the option that works best for the specific needs of your organization can be difficult: Adopting a solution that isn’t suited to employees’ work habits and needs may result in a poor return on investment (ROI).
Decisions about phone investments should factor in employees’ communication preferences, since different kinds of phones will impact how they communicate in the workplace. To help businesses make the right choice, we surveyed employees at organizations with VoIP service who rely on both software and hardware to make and receive calls.
While VoIP is slowly but surely killing off the copper phone network, desk phones (which may be either hard-wired or connected to the Internet) have proven to be somewhat more resilient. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of currently employed adults with Internet access, 35 percent say that landline phones are “very important” to their jobs, while only 24 percent say the same of cellular or smartphones.
We asked respondents if they use certain types of phones at their jobs, and our findings reinforce those of the Pew Research Center. (Note: While we screened our sample to eliminate respondents who don’t work at organizations with VoIP service, the below chart includes data from all initial respondents, in order to show overall adoption rates for different phones.)
While softphones and mobile apps are clearly catching up, this data suggests the desk phone will continue to be an important workplace tool for the foreseeable future.
Only 15 percent of employees we surveyed rely on traditional cellular phones in the workplace—while more than twice as many use mobile apps installed on smartphones and tablets. Generally, mobile apps and softphones offer far more call routing, messaging and communications functionality than a traditional cellphone does. The evolution of the smartphone as a PBX extension seems to have taken the place of the cellphone in business communications.
Businesses can also leverage mobile apps and softphones for “phoneless” deployments of VoIP systems (i.e., deployments that don’t involve desk phones).
Diana Chu, chief customer officer at Telzio (a cloud-based phone system provider), notes that only a small percentage of her company’s customers use a mobile-only strategy. Such a strategy “is popular among businesses consisting of one or two employees who are frequently on-the-go, or small businesses that don't make a high number of calls.”
Since we wanted to hear from employees who could evaluate the relative merits of each, we screened our sample to only include those respondents with experience using both softphones and desk phones. One interesting finding is that the majority of employees are equally comfortable using physical phones and software to make and receive calls:
While over half of our sample is equally comfortable with either option, those who do have a preference tend to be more comfortable with software—only 8 percent are “somewhat less comfortable” using software than hardware. Moreover, none of the respondents in our sample indicate that they are “much less comfortable” with software than hardware.
These findings suggest that even if employees aren’t used to softphones, most will be able to adapt fairly quickly. Additionally, most users will be able to switch easily between solutions if businesses have the purchasing power to offer both.
Mike Reinhart, senior product marketing manager at 8x8 (a provider of cloud-based unified communications and call center solutions), explains that using both solutions together can save organizations money:
“There are financial benefits to using a softphone together with a deskphone,” he says. “For instance, our mobile app allows you to send voice calls over Wi-Fi to avoid roaming fees when traveling in a foreign country.”
Softphones offer a number of operational benefits, in addition to their relatively low price point (compared to hardware IP phones) and how comfortable employees are with them. We asked respondents to identify, from a list we provided, the advantages they believe softphones have over desk phones (choosing all that apply). The ease of working remotely is the top advantage (72 percent).
Softphones are convenient for remote workers, because [the technology] enables them to take business calls from anywhere with an Internet-enabled computer or device. The majority of customers use both our mobile app and IP phones, so that even when they leave their desks, they are still connected to their phone system.Diana Chu, Telzio
Thus, while many PBX systems can be configured to route calls to mobile devices when employees don’t answer their desk phones, it may make more sense to have employees use softphones if they’ll be spending most of their time working remotely.
Aside from portability, employees appreciate the ease of integrating softphones with other types of software, which can help enhance business processes. If your processes require integrations with customer relationship management (CRM) systems, such as Salesforce or SugarCRM, office productivity suites, such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps, or some other system, softphones may be a better choice than desk phones.
One softphone functionality frequently involved in integrations is click-to-dial, which allows users to dial numbers simply by clicking on them. For example, a softphone can be integrated with an email client to enable click-to-dial for numbers contained in emails. Going back to the data in the chart above, respondents say click-to-dial functionality is almost as big an advantage as overall ease of integration.
Malcolm Davenport, senior product manager at Digium (the developers of the popular Asterisk open-source phone system software as well as a line of IP phones), notes that softphones offer hassle-free configuration as well as integration: “A softphone on my mobile doesn’t require me to setup complex phone system rules to make my mobile easily reachable from others’ work phones; when configured properly, I’m a short extension dial away."
Finally, relatively few respondents view the graphical interface of softphones as significantly simpler than the manual interface of desk phones. This is likely because most respondents are comfortable using both software and hardware for voice calling.
Next, we asked employees in our sample to identify the advantages of desk phones over softphones. While they appreciate the flexibility of softphones, they tend to view desk phones as slightly more dependable.
Nearly 80 percent of respondents—all of whom also have experience using software for voice calling—say desk phones offer the benefit of being more reliable than softphones. Because hardware IP phones are stand-alone devices rather than applications, they can continue running even when an employee’s computer is down. If consistent access to phones is a priority for your business model (for instance, if you employ sales agents that need to be on the phone all day), hardware IP phones may be the best option.
In some cases, Chu says businesses “prefer IP phones because they have a steadier connection than mobile phones.”
Davenport adds that IP phones are also more reliable than mobile devices because they don’t depend on batteries: “The desk phone is always powered on, whereas sometimes my mobile’s low on battery, or dead.”
In addition to reliability, hardware IP phones can also offer a consistently high level of audio quality, thanks to dedicated chips that cancel out common audio problems on VoIP calls. Over half of our sample view this as a significant benefit of IP phones.
“The primary technological driver for IP phone purchases is audio quality, especially in customer-facing roles where you need to be able to hear the customer clearly,” Reinhart explains.
“You lose control over audio quality when using a softphone. This is because IP phones are hardware engineered for clear voice calls over IP, whereas softphones are applications that haven’t been specifically engineered for use with a given manufacturer’s headset or computer microphone and speakers.”
Only 43 percent of our sample considers the manual, button-based interface of IP phones an advantage, which is comparable to the 38 percent of our sample that appreciates the softphone interface. These findings suggest that the user interface of a phone is hardly all-important when evaluating solutions, being mostly a matter of personal preference.
While adoption rates reflect whether or not employees use different types of phones, usage rates reflect how often they use each phone type. When looking at these rates, however, desk phones still come out on top: 44 percent of our sample use them to make or receive more than five calls on a daily basis.
Given that the users in our sample have access to some combination of software phones (including both mobile and desktop/laptop apps) and hardware phones, the usage rates displayed in the above chart also represent users’ preferences. In other words, if an employee has access to both a softphone and a desk phone, we can infer that the solution used most often is most likely the preferred solution.
Perhaps the most striking conclusion to be drawn from the above chart, however, is that many employees use a wide range of devices to make and receive calls throughout their day. By cross-referencing this data on frequency of usage with data on the frequency of remote work for employees in our sample, we arrive at an even more detailed picture of employees’ reliance on different kinds of phones.
In all, 100 percent of employees who don’t work remotely use desk phones at their jobs, while 74 percent of this group use softphones. Among frequent remote workers—those who spend 50 percent or more of their time out of the office—desk phone usage drops to 69 percent. This is still a relatively high figure for this group, indicating that remote workers may be taking their desk phones home with them.
Indeed, Telzio’s Chu observes that “IP phones can be connected to a company’s phone system, regardless of [the phone’s] location. This capability enables remote workers to plug in an IP phone at their home office and maintain their business line.”
Reinhart explains that such a setup can help employees differentiate between their personal lives and their work lives:
“One reason why the IP phone adoption rate is high for remote workers is that remote workers in help desk or inbound sales frequently use their personal computers, and the business doesn’t want its applications running on them,” he says. “In other words, the business wants to create a separation between personal and business tools.”
Softphone adoption among frequent remote workers, on the other hand, has already surpassed desk phone adoption. Combining all usage levels from the charts above, we can see that 79 percent of frequent remote workers use softphones, while 84 percent use mobile apps with softphone functionality. Additionally, more than a third of our sample of frequent remote workers use softphones more than five times a day. We can thus see that the gap between desk phone and softphone adoption is closing more rapidly for remote workers than it is for office workers.
Our findings suggest that you should keep the following considerations in mind when deciding on a phone setup for your business:
Employees are comfortable with both types of phones. Desk phones are still the most widely adopted and frequently used phones, but employees who use them alongside softphones tend to be more comfortable with the latter.
More remote workers rely on softphones than on desk phones. The gap between softphone and desk phone adoption is closing, especially among remote workers. And employees overall say the portability of softphones is a primary advantage.
Employees value the ease of softphone integrations. If you plan to integrate your phones with other business applications, softphones may be the way to go. Our respondents particularly value the click-to-dial functionality that integrations can bring.
Employees view desk phones as more reliable than softphones. If you demand reliability and high audio quality from your phones, desk phones may be the optimal setup. They are able to function independently of computers, and offer dedicated chips for eliminating audio quality issues.
A phone isn’t just a user interface for your phone system. The user interface of a phone isn’t nearly as important to employees as other considerations. Employees value both extensive functionality and reliability above user interfaces.
Many of our respondents work in managerial or human resources roles. A significant number of them are IT professionals, and IT services is also the most common industry in our sample. This suggests IT professionals may be more comfortable using multiple phone options than employees in other roles and industries.
To collect the data in this report, we conducted a 1-day online survey of 11 questions, and gathered 151 responses from random employees. We screened our sample to only include respondents who work at organizations with VoIP service and who use both software and hardware phones to communicate at their jobs. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.