Whether you're moving from an old, plain old telephone system (POTS) or simply migrating your existing Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service to another provider, switching voice services is both difficult and potentially hazardous to your employees' productivity. It's crucial that you prepare. There are several important steps you need to take before your service is activated to ensure smooth operations. Bandwidth, call loads, and emergency contingencies are among the important factors to consider during the preparation process.
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We spoke with Jeff Valentine, Chief Marketing Officer at NetFortris Fonality, one of our Editors' Choice services for business VoIP, to discuss the steps your business should take prior to a VoIP upgrade to guarantee it's disruption-free. For the most part, the VoIP setup process is more science than art. This is good news for you because it means, if you follow Valentine's advice and that of your chosen VoIP service and internet service provider (ISP), then you should have an easy implementation.
1. Make Sure Your Internet Connection Is Ready for VoIP
If you've got decent internet speeds for an office without a VoIP setup, then you should contact your ISP and your VoIP vendor to determine whether or not it can handle the added load VoIP calls will put on it.
"The number one cause of problems is bad internet connections," Valentine said. He recommends you test your connection for speed and quality and, if you determine it won't be able to handle the strain of VoIP data, there are two things you can do to improve call quality without changing services. First, to find out whether your connection can handle VoIP, he advises you run a trial with your provider of choice.
"If it sounds good, you're more likely to have a good connection," he said. If you find that your connection causes disruptions, he suggests a private line between your business and your VoIP provider to create a private bandwidth connection that won't be disturbed by other office processes.
Second, Valentine advises his clients with poor connections to install a hybrid VoIP/analog system to keep workloads to an absolute minimum. The general rule of thumb for installing a VoIP system is that you should increase bandwidth by 100 Kbps. So, for every 10 users, you should have 1 Mbps of bandwidth transfer available on your network.
2. Buy a Router With Quality of Service Features
Some routers are capable of Quality of Service (QoS) traffic dispersal. This feature is designed to segment VoIP bandwidth from all of your other network bandwidth. Basically, it will let you pick specific applications that run on your network based on their traffic signature, and then let your IT administrator assign priorities or a guaranteed percentage of your overall pipe capacity to those apps based on how important they are to your business. This means your VoIP traffic always gets through so you're not interrupted on calls if someone decides to stream Netflix during lunch. Today, there are very few routers that aren't capable of QoS in some form, but you should talk to your provider to see if they have a preferred partner.
One thing to keep in mind is that routers won't be able to help you if your VoIP provider's network is congested. They will only help if your internal network is the issue, which leads us to our next important point.
3. Check Your Provider's Reliability
This one is a no-brainer because, if your VoIP service is disabled, it doesn't matter how cheap it is or how clear your calls are. Most cloud-based VoIP services allow you to see what their average uptime is to determine how often their entire system fails. If they don't publicize this information on their website, you should ask them directly.
If your preferred provider has a spotty record for managing uptime, you might lose phone service at the most important time of day or year. A service interruption like this can be crippling for phone-based businesses.
4. Separate VoIP Traffic via VLAN
In addition to QoS routers, you can use a Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) to segment voice traffic. You can think of a VLAN as a network within the network. VLANs can be based on several characteristics, including location, devices, user groups, and, yes, traffic type. In the case of VoIP, a VLAN will simply segment that traffic within your overall network capacity to provide more immediate responsiveness. This is particularly useful for companies with more than 50 employees using a VoIP service.
You also might want to try a Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN), which provides an internet connection that sits on top of your existing internet connection. For example, if you've got Time Warner internet, an SD-WAN router will funnel traffic through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) over your Time Warner traffic to make sure that traffic gets to the place where it's most needed. Or it will allow you to plug a second ISP's service into your VPN to determine which service is functioning best at the moment in order to direct traffic to that network.
5. Determine the Right Call Load
Valentine recommends a 1-to-1 ratio between the number of employees using VoIP and the total call load available on your system. This means your VoIP service should be able to handle every single employee taking a VoIP call at the exact same time.
This will require a bit of foresight on your part as you may need to expand or subtract the number of employees at your company. So, if you plan on a major hiring spree or if you're planning layoffs, factor that into what your maximum call load should be.
6. Evaluate More than One SIP Phone
The primary protocol that ties VoIP calls and peripherals together is the Session Initiated Protocol (SIP). Almost every VoIP device—including routers, switches, and handheld devices—will support SIP unless they're part of a proprietary solution that uses its own protocol. When you're looking for VoIP-capable handsets, SIP will be a protocol you will almost always see listed as "supported." But that's not all there is to a VoIP handset.
You should definitely test several different varieties of SIP phone to see how they work with your chosen VoIP provider. Your provider will usually have preferred hardware partners and may even have a service that will preconfigure those phones for your prior to shipping so you can just plug and play once they arrive. However, don't let that convenience sway you unnecessarily as there are other considerations.
For one, you should test your handsets to see how they work with your chosen routing platform as well as any apps you'll have running that sit on top of your VoIP network or connect to it—things such as your helpdesk platform, your customer relationship management (CRM) app, and certainly your IT management tools. Finally, if you're providing wireless VoIP calling to mobile devices and any of these are coming from your handset provider, then you should test them thoroughly, too. Voice is a critical communications platform and certainly a mature technology, but VoIP still has plenty of pitfalls for the untested or the unwary; make sure you're not among them.
7. Establish an Emergency Phone Plan
If you follow the steps laid out above, then you'll probably have an effortless transition. However, you should be prepared for disaster scenarios. One way of guaranteeing you'll have uptime at all times is to build a hybrid on-premises/cloud-based VoIP system. That way, if your provider's cloud goes down, then you can use your internal resources to transfer calls. Or if there's a flood in your neighborhood, then you can transfer all of your workload to your provider's cloud.
"This happens with increasing frequency," Valentine said. "If a building loses power, a business that relies on phones is out of business. If you move to the cloud, you can avoid the problem of local outages. But, if the cloud has an outage, your provider may be able to send calls over phone lines rather than the internet connection."
If the phone system is down on both the cloud and local level, then it's crucial that you direct phone traffic to other communication methods such as chat and email. Your customers will still be angry but they'll probably opt to voice their displeasure to your chat agents rather than venting on social media.