Posted: 28 Jun 2019 12:00 AM PDT
Today's business phone systems have a tough job. They have to provide voice communications with employees at their desks; they have to support a call center for sales, customer service, and support; and they need to connect with and through a host of other communications channels, such as fax machines, video conferencing, conference calling, mobile communications, wireless handsets, and text messaging. On top of that, they're often expected to provide more advanced functionality through software, like shared meeting collaboration, voicemail to email transcription, and call recording. And lest we forget, many businesses still need a service that will connect to public switched telephone network (PSTN).
Because they're working across such a multitude of channels, many of today's phone systems are adopting the moniker of Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS). These are generally cloud-based, virtual PBXes (private branch exchanges) that include at least one, usually multiple, software clients to enhance their functionality on the web, desktop, and a variety of mobile devices. UCaaS systems have a wide variety of feature sets based on the tried and true Voice-over-IP (VoIP).
A key attraction of VoIP is that it gives these systems the flexibility to work in a wide variety of environments ranging from analog desk phones to softphones piggy-backing on a cell phone. These systems can often also integrate all or part of their softphone clients into other back-office applications, like your customer relationship management (CRM) or help desk platforms. Simply picture the standard interface of such an app that suddenly sports a dial pad and some function buttons as a pop-up screen and you'll have a very basic idea of how some of this works. In addition, these cloud based systems can have a variety of phone numbers in global locations, so that your customers can have free access to your phone at little or no charge.
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Beginning Your Selection Process
Before you can start considering a phone system, you need to figure out what it's going to be used for, and how much of your business will be involved. You also need to look at your existing phone system and decide whether you're going to simply keep all of it and bolt some VoIP functionality on top, retain only part of it, or replace the whole thing. Frequently, a total replacement isn't in the cards if only because some parts of your existing phone system can't be easily changed over to softphones or even desktop VoIP phones. For example, if you have a heavy manufacturing environment with outdoor activities, such as a steel fabrication yard or even a landscaping company, your old outdoor phones may be exactly what you need. You also need to decide what features of the existing phone system are required, and what features of a future phone system you feel are necessary to carry into the future.
When you're considering a new VoIP phone system for your business, it's important to include stakeholders from all of the key parts of your business in the planning and decision making process. Yes, this especially includes the IT staff and the data security folks since your voice communications will now be data. But it also needs to include folks who will be using the system to get work done, especially the work that drives revenue and engages customers. These people have invaluable insights into what's really needed versus what's simply cool and new. Plus, you'll need their input to select a phone system that will actually move your business forward as well as fit into your IT environment.
A critical part of the discussion with your IT staff will be whether your existing data network can handle the extra load that will be placed on it by the new phone system. You'll need a network that can handle more advanced network management capabilities, including tools to fight jitter and latency as well as to provide Quality of Service (QoS) and different kinds of network segmentation, especially virtual LANs (VLANs). Only tools like these can help free up your network from too much congestion, which can cause your call quality to decrease or even crash the VoIP system entirely.
On the physical side, you'll also need to plan for providing Ethernet drops to any new desktop phones you'll be placing on user desks, or even adding capacity to your Wi-Fi network should you decide to use wireless calling. For many organizations a separate network is often winds up being the preferred solution. If that's what happens in your case, you'll need a separate VoIP gateway. You'll also need security that understands voice protocols, and you'll need to have switches and routers that understand VoIP, too. By the time you've covered all those bases, a separate network is often the more effective solution rather than attempting to not only install but also integrate that much new equipment into an existing LAN.
Your IT staff will understand the basics of what needs to be done before a VoIP system can be selected and installed. That will include capacity testing on your current pipes and a thorough audit of your organization's network management capabilities to make sure they can support and secure the new flow of VoIP data. But for business-level users, selecting a phone system that will help them keep their various processes moving forward, especially the customer-facing ones, starts with understanding what VoIP really is.
Click image to expand full infographic. Image credit: Green.ch
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