When you are a small business owner looking to manage costs, business VoIP sounds like the magic pill. Flexible, full-featured and significantly cheaper than conventional telephone units – they seem like the perfect solution. Like any good buyer however, you need to be aware of the monetary payoffs, technology limitations and trappings of commercial VoIP services.
In the following section we put together a comprehensive business VoIP buyer’s guide to help you pick the best VoIP solution to support your small business, starting with justifying the investment towards a business phone system.
What are my business VoIP phone needs?
Needless to say, the first question you must ask yourself as a business owner is the need for particular solution. Scale of operations, financial investment and business domain are critical to evaluating whether a certain set of features are either too many or too little for your business to yield the best results.
Some of the questions you need to answer at the outset are:
- Do you need to invest in a full telephone unit: physical telephones, fax and multimedia units or could your business get by with a virtual service reliant on mobile phones? For example, a highly visible advertising agency might need the former, while a local handyman service might be better off relying on the latter.
- Traditional landline telephone services provided by regional/ local companies have their merits, especially with reliability of service in critical weather, power outage or remote locations where internet connectivity isn’t as robust. They are also expensive, with their dedicated hardware and installation costs for extra lines but offer greater security. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems by contrast have several providers who need not be in your geographical vicinity, rely on high-speed internet and electrical connectivity for the devices. While the latter is less expensive, it might not be your choice if you must have the best uptime (e.g. first responders, emergency health care, classified political office, etc.)
- What are your device compatibility needs? Do you need to lease ATA gateways, replace analog phones? Does your business rely on faxing (T.38 gateways can upgrade traditional fax machines to internet compatible ones)? Will your set up fly with 4G networks, Wi-Fi hotspots and all mobile operating systems? Vendors are often prone to selling the best features, but as a business owner you’d need to ask these questions.
- Hidden costs you’re dealing with? Several vendors would advertise a 30-day free trial, money-back guarantee, fixed price exchange or vanity numbers to test out the service without paying for them. Do not dismiss the contractual fine print lightly. If needed, ask them about the financial commitments and actual monthly bill you’d incur after the trial before you lock down a solution.
- Even if you choose VoIP – would you rather have a on-premise service unit or cloud based remote service providers? Perhaps you would you rather opt to rent a unit and test it out for a while before you finalize your choice.
- How many employees or users would be needing a dedicated telephone line? Could some of them realistically share a line in an office or a satellite location?
Simply put, VoIP is a great solution if you anticipate your business needs to lean more towards scalability, lower costs, international operations and so forth, trading a bit of emergency downtime and lower security needs for the bargain.
Why do I need a VoIP business phone?
- A professional first impression is critical to any small business. Having a dedicated contact number, staying connected to the clients and customers and maximizing the efficiency and connectivity of your business is reliant on having a good business telephone system at your disposal.
- Mobile phones are great as personal contacts. As a virtual telephony option however, they fall short of VoIP systems since they don’t offer nearly the same amount of enterprise level services like: directory listing of proper company contacts, information portals for hours and directions or virtual receptionist services to connect clients and customers.
- VoIP is in vogue. While that alone doesn’t (and shouldn’t) sway your call, it’s worth considering that traditional telephone service aren’t evolving. There is no R&D investment in that domain, as compared to VoIP where companies are continuously refining their software capabilities to fit the latest set of portable devices and other connectivity options like Google Voice, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber etc. And yes, cost of high-speed internet is always dropping.
- Attractive cost benefits. Internet Phone Service (VoIP) is less expensive when compared to traditional telephone systems, hardware installation and purchase costs or even renting options. They amount to lower operating costs even for multiple remote locations and connectivity requirements. The feature-set offered: virtual receptionist, caller ID blacklisting, identification, network security and scalability with minor setting changes and free company-wide or nation-wide call options mean huge savings for your business. From $4.99/ month unlimited nationwide calls, to $60 / month plans for multiple users with several features from Verizon, Vonage Business or Vocalocity, there’s really an entire range to pick from and save more!
So … is VoIP secure and reliable?
VoIP doesn’t lack security. It is more like a service where you have options. With high-speed internet and electrical power being your calling cards, you can choose to make it as secure as you wish. If your business has reasonably high security requirements, you may:
- Purchase a solid internet connection from a leading brand. Most top service providers have package deals which come with a security pack, anti-virus, hacker shields and network security options to protect you against any vulnerabilities.
- There are several back-up power options you may have to ensure your VoIP devices have minimal downtime.
- Several internet service and hosting companies have cloud-based providers with “Six Nine” (99.9999%) up-time guarantees, comparable with any traditional telephone service provider.
As a small business owner, it is up to you to weigh the advantages of opting for these features and paying a little more, versus opting for local services which might be less expensive initially. You always have the choice to upgrade as your business demands. Besides, you are likely to save significantly from traditional business telephone options even if you opt for higher initial investment.
On Premise VoIP vs Cloud Based VoIP
Now that you’ve decided to take the cord-cutting from Netflix on your iPad to your small business, there are choices to be made regarding the hosting service. We take a look at the side-by-side comparison:
On Premises VoIP
Cloud Based VoIP
|All the hardware, including the private branch exchange (PBX) is housed within your business space.|
No hardware or maintenance barring the IP phones.
|Upfront capital expenses are high owing to purchase of equipment and installations.|
Scales with businesses by easily adding new lines and quick access to new features
|Monthly fee only for SIP trunking or PRI circuit (to transmit or receive VoIP calls). No fee for hardware after initial costs of self-hosted unit.|
Flat monthly fee on a per-user basis. Additional users or services are simple to add-ons.
|Your IT staff is responsible for handling maintenance, repairs and upgrades of the system.|
The service provider houses, maintains and upgrades all of the PBX technology for you.
|You control your service – up-time, configuration, operative details and available features. Despite the upfront hardware cost, the monthly costs of services are lower. The downside is potential additional costs incurred in paying for someone to maintain and service the unit.|
No PBX hardware or dial-tone services to purchase and maintain. Set up and configuration is a simple software-guided process from your computer. The downside is you’re not in control of the hardware. You have to rely on the provider to take care of repair, recovery, upgrades etc.
|Privacy and security are better with you controlling the communication first hand|
Quick access to new system features and connectivity to multiple satellite locations on a single platform.
What do I need to implement VoIP?
As mentioned above, implementing a VoIP as a business solution can vary in terms of complexity, time and set-up costs. It is up to you to determine the best solution to fit your domain. That being said, there are some things you’d need regardless.
- Broadband connection – High-speed internet is the first investment. The costs are pretty low and forever dropping (thanks to fiercely competitive services).
- Spare Bandwidth – The more the numbers of users working simultaneously, the more the bandwidth you’d need. That’s a simple math equation. What isn’t obvious to many small business or home office owners, is that you do not need to invest in a 120 mbps enterprise plan. With a 25 mbps home connection, you can easily handle 15 simultaneous calls even with Slack instant messages, streaming music from Spotify and Netflix running at the same time. Enterprise level providers use G.711 codec communication options (64kbps/ minute of talk time) allowing for plenty of leeway before you hit the bandwidth cap.
- Adjustable service quality – One of the most under-rated features offered by VoIP service providers, is the ability to adjust your settings for service quality so you can route the peak traffic or high priority calls without clogging up the normal service.
- Capable internal network – In addition to your VoIP solution, your internal IT network, routers and switches need to be up to the task. It’s always worth having a backup power and routing option, fallback lines, additional bandwidth options and some amount of dedicated resources to handle VoIP disaster recovery. Internet speed tests against peak call volume is never a bad idea.
- Ensure that you have phones you can use over VoIP – The VoIP session-initiation protocol technology to assign each phone or software client a specific IP address (something the IP-PBX uses to route calls to specific locations). So you’d need a SIP or H.323 enabled phone (the latter being relatively rare) to communicate. Your analog phone plugged into the ATA wouldn’t be able to avail the advanced VoIP features on offer for advanced units like the Cisco CP-7921 unit.
- Backup/ failover power supply – A battery or power source substitute is essential in case of a power outage or disaster recovery time lag.
- Budget estimates – For all the good things a VoIP phone unit brings, there are costs associated. They may save a lot when compared to traditional units, but does your business need a solution for 50 people or for 10 people? Does your business survive on a hundred calls made per day or needs less than twenty calls per day. Your budget must be aligned to support these questions you ask of your business investment. The good part? Most VoIP plans and service providers are not bound by contracts.
Are there drawbacks to VoIP?
VoIP does seem like a win-win for most situations, but there are a couple of kinks buyers should be prepared for:
Internet or Power failover options – given the complete reliance on internet speed and power for PBX units, it’s best to have an alternative like “straight-to-voicemail” or virtual receptionist pre-recorded messages in case of such eventualities.
International calling – Unlike traditional telephone units which offer country-wise plans by linking up with major local service providers, VoIP is reliant on internet service provider (ISP) partnerships, which needless to say, could be sketchy for some of the more unconventional or remote geographical locations. Hence, the call quality to Swaziland or Latvia might not match that of Mexico or India. They mostly have unlimited calls to US and Canada though!
E911 Services – Here’s one area where high base subscription fees or extra plan charges are commonplace. Most service providers don’t cover it as part of their basic package. The risk of spotty, crowded or slow network speed causing bad audio quality or call drop-off during emergency magnifies the threat.
A Final Word On Business VoIP
With several service providers, brands, plans and frequent offers, it could be a bit overwhelming to pick the business VoIP phone service of your choice. Typically, it’s a good idea to look at your custom needs as a business rather than the feature set you procure for a price point. VoIP is the future and the now of small business telephone service, increasingly buttressed by a sturdy feature-set, security and disaster recovery to lend your business a professional, approachable impression at a fraction of your traditional communication costs.