It doesn't really matter what your company is using for a phone system right now because at some point you're going to need to find something that will scale to support your growing business. A more advanced cloud phone and Private Branch Exchange (PBX) provider will offer fancier features and a path to Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS). It will also provide better performance for a growing number of users, heightened security, and more thorough call accounting and reporting capabilities so you'll have a much better idea of what you're spending and where.
As we discussed in last week's column, your first consideration needs to be whether you want a phone system in the cloud or in your building. There are a number of reasons to choose one over the other, but in general, cloud-based phone systems have a lower upfront cost and are much more agile if your company's communications needs suddenly change or your users want to adopt a new, cutting-edge set of features. That said, in-house phone systems have a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and potentially better security.
But that's only the beginning. While you might just sign up with a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) provider and make do with whatever features it offers, it's probably a better idea to decide what you want the phone system to do, how you want it to interact with your existing business, and what features you think are necessary. To do that, you'll need to sit down with not only your senior leadership team, but also the business' frontline managers to determine exactly how your current phone system is being used. That's the only safe way to discover what features your workers absolutely need to keep and where there's room for improvement and new technology.
With that in mind, the following are 10 considerations and knowledge points you'll need to cover when choosing any new phone system:
- Do you have an existing phone system? If you do, whatever you choose next should be compatible, if only to make the switch over from plain old telephone service (POTS) to VoIP reasonably seamless. A working phone system is a mission-critical part of most businesses, and it's unlikely that your organization is going to welcome a week of downtime while you sort things out and return calls from the kids' phone at home.
- How many people will use the phone system now and how big do you think you'll grow in the next five years? Unless you're planning to limit your growth by limiting phone access for your staff, your phone system needs to be scalable. The plans for growth will affect a number of other considerations, from your network architecture to your ultimate choice of PBX provider or vendor. Fortunately, most IP PBX systems are pretty scalable.
- Do you need to support analog phones? You may want to avoid putting the Ethernet port for a VoIP phone in public areas as a security measure, but you may still want to provide a way for visitors to make phone calls. Likewise, you may not want to put a VoIP phone in some environments, such as an outdoor assembly area or on a manufacturing floor.
- Do you need to send faxes? Surprisingly, not every VoIP system supports fax. Some will require an adapter, some will require a fax gateway or a fax server, and some simply ignore faxing. In those cases, check out these online fax services for help, and then you can work with your VoIP provider's application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate a third-party fax service into your VoIP calling fabric.
- Cloud services can drop. Even billion dollar players such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) tend to go down a couple of times a year. If absolute call reliability is a necessity for your business, then your PBX, whether it's on-premises or in the cloud, will need a connection to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). (What's the PSTN? Think Ma Bell.) That network goes far beyond the five nines of reliability touted by cloud companies, but keeping such a connection ready as an option requires certain capabilities on the part of your PBX, especially if it's in the cloud. Make sure this kind of redundant connection is supported, and know exactly how it's supported to avoid potentially nasty surprises.
- What kind of advanced features do you want for your business? All systems these days can make and receive voice calls and put people on hold with many choices for objectionable hold music. Most VoIP systems will allow the use of softphones, which are applications that run on a desktop computer or perhaps on a cell phone. Other features may include video conferencing, collaboration calls, hot desking, or hoteling. If you need those, then you should check that they're available. You may also want instant messaging (IM), custom reporting, or data export, or tougher security capabilities such as auditing, encryption, and recording.
- Is your business organized so that you will have a receptionist or phone operator somewhere in the mix? If it is, then you'll need the ability to support some sort of operators' console, and you'll need to configure specific permissions and workflows for that person.
- Does your sales or support staff have a large call volume or are you running a call center in your operation? Both will require not only network optimizations but likely software support. Sales and support staff will need to integrate with your customer relationship management (CRM) and helpdesk apps, while a call center typically requires specific software other than a general UCaaS client from your voice provider.
- Is your network up to snuff? Voice calls either need a separate network or they need a virtual LAN (VLAN) with Quality of Service (QoS) support so that the voice calls remain intelligible. In addition, you need a gateway for VoIP calls that will be unencumbered by Windows Update or YouTube downloads. Small organizations can usually get by with a shared network and a properly configured VLAN, but more than that requires a separate network. And that network must be fast enough, which means if you're not running Gigabit Ethernet, then you're not fast enough.
- Is a significant percentage of your work force mobile or telecommuting? While related, these are actually separate considerations that will require you to think about refining your remote access infrastructure, integrating a variety of mobile devices into your management framework, and security considerations for road warriors that might include things such as call encryption or placing calls only via a virtual private network (VPN) service.
You'll notice that I haven't discussed these factors in terms of a PBX located on premises or in the cloud because most of the same considerations come into play either way. But it's worth noting that some factors, such as a need for analog phones or heavy fax use, may eliminate a number of options. In its testing of VoIP and UCaaS systems, PCMag has noted that cloud phone providers offer a number of benefits for practically any business, including lower overall costs, a deeper feature set, and integrated communications channels that include not only VoIP phone calls but also video conferencing, texting, and online collaboration tools. But, while most businesses can default to such VoIP-based solutions, there are still on-premises PBXes being sold to some organizations, due mainly to custom or legacy software and certain security requirements. That's research about your business you'll need to conduct before making any kind of selection.
A number of IP PBX hardware solutions are based on open-source software, such as Asterisk or FreePBX, which also feature appliances built specifically for them. Others, such as 3CX, support open standards, and there are PBX systems from some of the original proprietary powerhouses, such as Avaya. While these solutions are expensive and certainly don't offer all of the flexibility of a cloud-based system, they're still in business due to legacy customers and those with compliance issues that can't be solved any other way. Check with your legal team to find out where your company falls.
A couple of other things to think about: First, when it comes to the physical handsets your employees will use, you can usually pick the phones you like because nearly all VoIP phones will work on hardware based on the same standard: the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) protocol. However, a few vendors, especially older ones that focus on enterprise customers, still use their own, proprietary versions of SIP, so you'll need to check what your desired phones support before buying.
Last, don't skip the part of the provider's sales literature that talks about professional service offerings and support. As discussed earlier, voice traffic and other streaming communication channels are different animals when compared with managing a straight data-oriented network. You'll be faced with reconfiguring routers, switches, and likely a significant percentage of your apps in order to not only make room for a VoIP system but also make sure your calls retain a minimum level of audio quality. Being able to employ the services of a knowledgeable support staff (at least at the initial deployment stage) can be key when deciding between competing voice providers.