Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone services, especially those delivered via the cloud, have become the standard these days, especially for small to midsized businesses (SMBs). The choices are vast, the potential savings are great, and for many businesses, it turns out they can do things with VoIP they simply can't do any other way, especially around integrating it with other call-heavy back-end systems, like help desk, for example. But VoIP is also complex. As such, it can be finnicky, and it might not save you as much as you think it will. It could even cost you more than a plain old telephone service (POTS) after all is said and done.
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During the series of tests I just completed for an upcoming PCMag review roundup of business-grade VoIP providers and phone services, I found 10 potential pitfalls for people who have never implemented a new phone system. Some of these pitfalls should be obvious, but they may not be to everyone—and some might not be obvious at all. But they're all important, and watching out for them can save you some serious headaches down the road.
- Before you do anything else, decide exactly why you're moving to a VoIP phone system. There are lots of reasons it might be a good idea but, unless you know what those reasons are and how they might affect your business, you're not ready to make the actual purchase or migration. A vague idea that it might save money is not one of those reasons. Examples of good reasons include building out a call center, providing a means of collaboration between different office locations, retaining call data from your customer relationship management (CRM) platform for use in marketing or customer service, as well as preparing for a new location or expected growth.
- Decide who is going to be in charge of the important stages in your move to VoIP. These stages include the initial needs analysis and design, the procurement process, the implementation, and finally, the ongoing operation of the system. Note that usually this can't be the same person. An IT staffer may be the best choice for implementation and operation, but they're usually not the ones who design the IVR system your customers will use or decide just what calling data is most useful to the marketing department. So you need to designate who all your stakeholders will be; and, yes, some of them may well be a vendor or consultant if you don't have the in-house expertise.
- You'll need to find or hire an employee to represent the company's interests during the procurement and implementation processes. While there will be plenty of vendors that will offer to do the whole thing, they don't necessarily have the same interests. Typically, they're all about selling you as much as they can, getting it installed and signed off on quickly, and then charging extra for any subsequent "scope creep." Only someone from your side of the tracks will worry about long-term operational reliability and ancillary things like maintaining call data securely so your company can remain compliant with any industry data safety regulations, for instance. Note that, for a really small company, this might be a collateral duty, but someone needs to be the point person. This person needs to have enough understanding of VoIP technology to make decisions and to know how those decisions will affect the rest of the company. This is not the same person mentioned in the previous bullet point.
- Make sure that your current network infrastructure can support VoIP and has the capacity to handle the increase in network traffic. You also need to know whether your infrastructure can handle the specific requirements of voice and video traffic, including supporting any Quality of Service (QoS) or virtual LAN (VLAN) requirements. This may mean some infrastructure upgrades if your current routers or switches don't support these capabilities. You may also need to upgrade your Internet Service Provider (ISP) if your current provider can't support the bandwidth requirements of a lot of phone traffic. Estimating your how much your call volume will increase your bandwidth is something your VoIP vendor should be able to handle, but you can hire an outside specialist to do those calculations, too.
- Don't underestimate the cost of VoIP. Sure, those monthly rates look good but dig deeper. If all you get are softphones that run on cell phones, then you'll need to also buy everyone a cell phone, with lots of data minutes or more likely an Unlimited plan. If those softphones run on Windows or Mac machines, then everyone will have to have a computer with the hardware to support VoIP, access to the internet, and something internally to handle sound and a headset. If the VoIP choice uses (or at least supports) desk phones, then remember that those cost somewhere between $75 and $150 each plus the cost of a wired network connection to each phone. Few VoIP desk phones support Wi-Fi, but those that do will require you to upgrade your access points if you give everyone a Wi-Fi phone. Oh, and remember the personnel costs: Someone has to manage all of this and somebody has to provide support. And then there's ongoing maintenance and licensing; it all adds up, so make sure you walk through the whole implementation in detail so you're not surprised by new expenses as they crop up.
- Figure out a realistic timetable for the change over to VoIP. Despite what some vendors might say, it will not be immediate. Even if you're changing from one VoIP system to another, this isn't a one-day operation. Sit down and calculate the time for planning, acquisition, implementation, training, and switching over, and then double it. Maybe even triple it. This is a major change to your company's ability to communicate with itself and the outside world. Rushing it is simply foolish. Work in time for a pilot roll-out, testing and optimization, and then a final roll-out that comes in stages so your whole operation isn't in chaos if something goes wrong.
- Decide what you're going to do with your old phone system. If you have a bunch of analog phones that are in good condition, then you may be able to use them with your VoIP phone system for employees who don't need VoIP features. Or you may want them in areas where they're available to the public or where they are in difficult environments, such as an outdoor assembly area or on the factory floor. And you may want some for backup (more on that next).
- Realize that your contingency of operations and business continuity plans will have to change, and that you will have to plan for, and invest in, added reliability. Basically, how are you going to continue doing business if the network goes down or even just has trouble? Because your phone system will depend on the reliability and performance of both your local network and the internet, you need to think in terms of failsafes and alternatives. Backups to your primary internet service provider (ISP), and if voice is critical to your operation, a way to have phone service even if the internet outage is total. Yes, this could mean keeping some analog lines and compatible phones available. It will also mean planning for failover, network redundancy, and of course backup.
- Don't forget security. All of the things that can attack your IT network can also attack your VoIP network, plus there are things such as call tampering and call hijacking as well as bad guys using your VoIP phone system to make long-distance calls and using your in-house equipment as a host for malware attacks. This can be made worse if your VoIP system doesn't play well with your security, such as requiring that you turn off packet inspection (as I found in one phone system I tested). Additionally, data privacy regulations sometimes have their own requirements when it comes to protecting VoIP traffic in transit and at rest if you retain any call data for sales or service purposes. If your industry is regulated this way, make sure you understand exactly how VoIP fits into the rest of your data safety precautions.
- Finally, take the needs of your employees and your customers into account when choosing a VoIP phone system. This includes deciding what features your employees actually need and what they don't. Generally, this means assigning stakeholders who'll map out any processes that involve your phone system and also sit down with the front-line employees operating those processes to see how they can be made better. It also includes designing the system so that customers don't get lost in menus, suffer weird key choices, or hear endless choices from the auto-attendant. If you lack the expertise to do this in-house, it's something most VoIP consultancies are trained to handle; just remember to add them to your overall cost tally during planning.
You also need to keep your real priorities in mind when choosing a VoIP system. For example, if you want it to work well, then cost shouldn't be the primary factor. Instead, you want functionality. If your VoIP system functions as it should and doesn't have features you don't need, then it will probably also save you some money directly, and it should make your staff more productive, which will save money indirectly.