Derek is the busy Vice President of Sales for a company based in Los Angeles. He has chosen to tap into the flexibility and mobility that VoIP phone service (also called hosted PBX service, I-PBX, or virtual PBX) offers in order to work from his home in another city several days a week. When his office phone rings, his home or cell phone rings simultaneously. Derek picks up the line, and his clients have no idea that their call is being answered away from his office since he is fully connected to his office network.
This flexibility and mobility, along with reduced long distance bills, has caused many businesses to either make the switch or consider switching to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone system in the near future. In 2006, McKinsey consulting published the results of a survey of 77 corporate CIOs. In the study, 53 percent of the executives stated that they plan to make their greatest capital expenditures in the near future on an improved information technology infrastructure. Their plans included incorporating VoIP phone service.
Why the Growing Interest in Business VoIP Phone Service?
One of the initial draws of VoIP for businesses has been attractive long distance rates, with fee reductions of up to 75% over traditional phone services. “The real beneficiaries of rate reductions are businesses with multiple employees in different locations,” says John Scarborough, a former Vice President of Marketing at Qwest Communications who co-founded IP5280 Communications, a Denver-based firm specializing in business VoIP hosting solutions. “If employees are in different locations, calling one another is as simple as dialing a four-digit extension, and there’s no long-distance fee for domestic calls.”
This savings is due to the fact that business VoIP service is a digital-based technology that views users on the same network as ‘local’, regardless of their physical location. VoIP service providers don’t have aging equipment infrastructure to maintain, such as seen with traditional phone service. As a result, service providers can pass on extra savings to their customers. For instance, most VoIP service provider offer features such as follow-me roaming, voice mail, voice mail to email, caller ID and simultaneous ringing of cell phones and home phones, which can cost quite a bit with traditional phone service, at no extra charge.
VoIP Makes “Reach Out and Touch Someone” a Reality
Cost reductions are only the beginning of the advantages a “plugged in” business can begin to enjoy with VoIP PBX services. Once hosted PBX service is in place, moving an employee phone is as simple as unplugging the IP phone and plugging it in at the new location. The phone number moves with the user and, with a minimum of hardware and no costly reconfiguration of circuits required.
This mobility isn’t limited to the office, though. Business VoIP phone systems are a good choice for companies with employees who travel and or work from multiple offices. With VoIP telephone service, individuals can answer the office phone from their IP phone or laptop, even if they are sitting at a hotel in another country.
Work from Home – and Nobody Knows
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this mobility allows employees to receive calls from work at home – just as if they were at the office. An IP phone can be programmed with business rules, such as “From 5 pm to 7 pm in the current time zone, calls to the office phone will be routed to my cell phone.’ Customers never need to know that the person answering their call is not still in the office unless they choose to disclose this fact.
Some providers will allow businesses to purchase “virtual” numbers with area codes for another city or state or country, for a small monthly charge. For instance, calls from an office located in California can originate in Texas, but be charged as a local call, by using the pre-programmed California number assigned. Using this same feature, businesses located outside the U.S. can obtain a local number for business purposes. But be aware that some VoIP service providers charge for long-distance calls that terminate off the network, as compared to unlimited calling within the same network, or to a local region for that area code.
Greater Interconnectivity with other Data Technologies
Because VoIP is a data-based technology, it allows greater interconnectivity with the company data network. These capabilities will vary with the VoIP hosting provider, who provides templates that allow the customer to integrate voice with other data sources. Some will even create a custom application if a business requires it.
For example, a business may choose to place a “Click and Call” feature that allows instant access to customer support from the company website. With Web and video conferencing, they can even see who they’re talking with, for a more personalized experience. An application can also be designed that allows customer service representatives to see a pop-up when customers call which provides customer account and contact information for improved service quality.
A VoIP system can be used to screen where calls are routed. Calls can be routed to an automated attendant, even for employees in multiple cities. This lets a small company appear larger. When customers call, they will hear, “To reach Jim Smith, enter 4111, to reach John Jones, enter 4122,” etc. The customer never realizes that each employee is in another city, state, or country. VoIP can also be programmed to block certain phone numbers, or place them on “virtual ring”, where the call never comes through.
Rapid credit card machine authorizations are another business benefit of VoIP phone service with the low-cost option of adding additional lines as data lines. “The credit card machine line can be ‘on’ all the time, and provides lightening-fast validations,” says Scarborough. “It’s also a very cost-effective solution for point of sale systems. Instead of a cash register dialing into the network, it can be kept on 24/7, at little charge.”
Centralized Communications Management
The main benefit for many businesses is that VoIP telephone systems improve employee productivity. Using a VoIP service, a person can click into their Outlook contacts and ring a customer directly, cutting down on the time required to look up the phone number. Derek* has noted that he has become so used to these features, that, “I feel ‘naked’ when I’m without my IP phone,” he says.
VoIP phone systems also allow truly centralized communications, with voice, email, and faxes managed via Outlook and an IP phone. Calls received can be programmed to ring simultaneously on both a cell phone and landline phone before being forwarded to voice mail. The voice mail can also be forwarded via email in a sound file. And to make responding to messages easier, IP phones allow employees to instantly look up contact information within the company’s customer database.
VoIP phone system also makes it easier to hold virtual employee conferences, even if employees are at different locations. An icon similar to the “available” and “busy” alerts on instant messaging let others know when an individual is free to talk. If their line is busy, you can send them a voice mail that also goes to their email box, letting them know when you want to confer. And during a virtual conference call, documents can be shared, since everyone is online. “The collaborative and productivity possibilities with VoIP are almost limitless,” says Scarborough, “and will only grow over time.”
Say Goodbye to the Phone Guy
Many businesses staff employees to support maintaining their phone service, and IT services. Because business VoIP telephone systems are IP based, maintenance and system support can often be transferred to the IT Department.
In addition, having voice and other network data on one merged system reduces the cost of maintenance and support significantly.
Are there Drawbacks to Using VoIP Phone Services?
VoIP technology is improving rapidly, but there are still issues that must be taken into consideration. Concerns about voice quality have been raised by those who remember the early days of VoIP telephony, but these have been resolved in recent years. “With business-grade VoIP, the voice quality is often better than that seen with Ma Bell,” says Scarborough. “This is because the equipment for business grade VoIP is much better than that normally used for consumer service. Instead of the voice signal going through an adaptor to convert an analog signal into digital form, business IP phones have an Ethernet jack that plugs directly into the network, resulting in much better voice quality.”
The security of VoIP is another concern raised. But in reality, an IP phone system is no less secure than the rest of the network. “A hacker cannot access your voice traffic any more easily than they could access your other company data,” says Scarborough. “In essence, your company network security level will determine how protected your voice data is. If your network supports encryption, then VoIP traffic will also be encrypted.”
For businesses without an encrypted network that would like extra security, a growing number of software companies are specializing in providing VoIP security features. But in the end, VoIP is no less secure than traditional phones. “What most people don’t realize is that it’s actually easier for someone to tap in and listen to a traditional phone line,” says one VoIP provider executive. “It’s harder to ‘listen’ in on VoIP calls, because of the nature of the technology, where they have to pick up on each packet transmitted.”
Service Options for Businesses
Most small businesses will want to choose a hosted VoIP service, where the equipment and maintenance are handled by the hosting service provider. This allows for extremely rapid installation of a new system in most cases, normally within weeks (“But it can take up to a month if the existing business number is to be ported to a VoIP service provider,’ notes Scarborough).
The number of providers offering hosted VoIP phone services is growing rapidly. Their competition for your business lets you find the best possible rates and features. VoIP makes sense for businesses that are exploring ways to reduce their telecommunications fees. The technology has gotten better; it’s cheaper, and can be implemented relatively rapidly. But beyond cost savings, it allows businesses to access a large number of features that are unavailable to them with traditional phone services.
“I believe that the greatest advantage of VoIP phone services is that it allows a business to ‘future proof’ its phone system,” says Scarborough. “All too often, a company will invest $30,000 (or more) into a traditional system that works for them for a few years, and then they discover they’ve outgrown it. You don’t outgrow your VoIP service, because it’s simple to add new lines and phones, and to align features to communication needs of the individual user. Businesses that use it know they have access to the latest features, since these are always being upgraded with the latest VoIP hosting software.”
For many businesses, the future will be leveraging VoIP services, with reduced costs and the ability to integrate voice with other data-based technologies. The bottom line is improved customer service and higher productivity, and VoIP service is proving that it delivers both to a greater degree than was possible before.
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