Doing your homework is always a wise move when it comes to the equipment used to run your business. Making a hasty choice without knowing all the facts beforehand can impact your bottom line, severely in some cases.
This guide has been written to help you understand the basics of business communications systems, the terminology, the options available, and most importantly, to help you, the business owner, make an educated, well informed decision when you purchase the most important piece of technology your company owns, it’s telephones.
Why is it important to choose the right business phone system?
Business phone systems are a crucial part of any business and should not be taken lightly; They are the main point of contact with your customers. Choosing a phone system that isn’t right for your needs can lead to inefficiency and frustration down the road, resulting in lost time and profits. Whether you run an office with 5 employees or 500 employees, the phone system is the piece of the puzzle that sees the most use.
Selecting the right vendor to install and service your phone system is equally important. While price is an important factor, it is not everything, the old cliche, “you get what you pay for,” rings true when it comes to your phone system; choosing the cheapest option available, more often than not, can lead to long term dissatisfaction and headaches. You want to be sure the vendor you deal with offers long term customer service, and a product that fulfills all of your current and long term requirements.
When you select a business phone system, you need to determine what features you need the system to have now, and what features you might need down the road as your business grows. If you address these needs now, you won’t have to replace the system later. Complete system replacement can be a costly endeavor, and is not something you want to face during a period of growth in your company, when things are hectic enough as it is.
VoIP, PRI, T1, What does it all mean?
We’ve all heard it, the salesman talking about the wonderful whatcha-ma-call-it, how easy it will make your life; the more information he gives you, the less you understand, and the more your head begins to hurt! This is not how you want to approach purchasing your business telephone system. There are so many unfamiliar and downright confusing terms associated with business telephone systems, you want to be sure you choose the right features to fit your company’s needs, and not just blindly say yes to something you don’t fully understand.
We’ve put together a list of terminology you will likely encounter when choosing a business telephone system:
Ports – This term is referring to the number of connections a phone system can handle simultaneously, more specifically, PBX style phone systems. This usually encompasses the total number of lines as well as extensions.
Lines – This term refers to the actual lines coming in from the telephone company, they can be digital, analog, or Voice over IP. Often referred to as “trunks.”
Cabinet – The cabinet is where the internal and external routing of calls takes place, the “brains” of your telephone system, it is also usually where the configuration is stored. Sometimes referred to as the “KSU” or “PBX,” it is the central control point of an office phone system.
Extension – These are the unique identification for each device or “end point” on a business telephone system. Extensions are essentially the devices “telephone number” on your internal telephone network. Fax machines, modems, and desk phones can all operate without the need of a dedicated line from the telephone company through the use of extensions.
Key Systems – Sometimes referred to as “key telephone systems,” these have been the entry level configuration for small businesses in the past, Each individual phone was equipped with buttons corresponding to each of the individual lines available on the system. Most systems offered today are “PBX” type but can emulate the older Key System style of operation.
VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP is a type of phone system which converts your voice into digital data packets, those data packets are then transmitted over a ethernet or other similar type of data connection, to be reassembled as audio on the far end. VoIP comes in various configurations, usually either hosted VoIP, where there is no Cabinet onsite, or on-premise, where the conversion from traditional telephone lines to VoIP happens within the cabinet in your office.
PBX – Short for “Private Branch eXchange,” a PBX is essentially a private telephone network, capable of having it’s own internal numbering system, or extensions. With a PBX, users are assigned extensions which are telephone numbers dialable by anyone on the local system, without the need to tie up an outside line. PBX systems are highly customizable, and usually have features such as voicemail, and auto-attendants which allow outside callers to call in to the system, and then dial the internal extension number to be connected directly to the party they are trying to reach. The difference between Key Systems and PBX Systems is generally the amount of features and options available, PBX systems are far more scalable and easier to upgrade and manage for a larger organization. Many PBX systems also offer the ability to tie multiple locations together, allowing the different offices to dial a user at a remote office using only the internal extension number, without the need to dial the remote office’s main telephone number first.
CTI – Computer Telephony Integration, CTI allows your business telephone system to be connected to your computer, an example of which would be the ability to have the number of the party calling you to be displayed on your computer screen, giving you the ability to know what customer is calling, and make notes in your customer database. There are far too many possible applications with CTI to list them all here.
Hybrid – Hybrid systems are business telephone systems that have features of both Key Systems and PBX Systems in one cabinet, in many cases giving you the ability to have dedicated keys for specific lines, as well as extensions, auto-attendant, voicemail, et cetera, that would normally only be found on a more expensive PBX platform.
Hosted – Hosted systems are almost exclusively VoIP based systems. With a Hosted system, the only equipment physically located in your office are the telephones themselves, the actual “cabinet” is located remotely, usually in a large data center, and the telephones in your office connect to it over your existing internet connection. The advantage of a hosted system is lower up front cost, the drawback is that the system is completely dependent on a stable, broadband internet connection. If your internet connection goes down, so do your phones.
PRI – Primary Rate Interface, a PRI is basically a all digital telephone line, capable of carrying up to 23 simultaneous calls, some of the advantages to a PRI include the ability to set your outgoing caller ID to one “main” number, as well as the ability to have a dedicated telephone number for each extension, even if you have more extensions than available channels on the PRI. A PRI is an ideal solution for a company with more than 40 users.
So Which Business Telephone System Is Right For My Business?
To ensure that you select the phone system that best fits your needs, you should make a list of the features that you’re looking for, after all, nobody knows your business like you do. When selecting the features you want in a system, think it through, for example, although fax to email gateways are a neat feature, will it really get used? The list of features available are endless, but your financial resources are finite, choose wisely.
Be sure to plan ahead, don’t make a decision based solely on your current needs, think about where your business will be 3-5 years from now. Changing out an entire system just to add a few users, or to change from analog lines to digitial or VoIP can be costly and time consuming, not to mention the lost productivity and profits, since a complete system change usually involves down time.
So, How Much is a Business Telephone System Going To Cost Me?
While features and ease of use are major factors in making a phone system decision, let’s face it, it usual comes down to “how much is this going to cost me?”
The cost of a business telephone system can vary greatly depending on the brand, the features required, and installation costs associated with the type of system selected. For example, if your company has run on simple multiline phones up until this point, and your office isn’t wired for Ethernet, if you choose a VoIP system, you would have additional charges for the cabling to be installed.
Most business telephone systems require at least some level of expertise to install, and in some instances, the labor cost of the installation can equal or even exceed the cost of the equipment itself. Bear in mind though, that while the installation costs may seem steep at times, it is a one time cost, and once a well thought out and planned system is installed, the associated costs for maintenance and changes down the road go down substantially. Generally speaking, you will recoup the upfront costs in the long run.
Another factor affecting cost is the features selected for your phone system, as a general rule of thumb, the more features you need, the more the system will cost. If you don’t really need a nice color screen on every phone, perhaps selecting a more basic desk phone for the average user would fit your budget better, reserve the big, feature-rich phones for the receptionist and the executive “power users.”
Who Should I Purchase My Business Telephone System From?
By far the most important piece of the business telephone system puzzle, the Vendor, you want to choose a vendor that not only will sell you the system, but will provide training on the use of the system, as well as be available for the ongoing maintenance, and any Moves, Adds, or Changes (Known is MAC’s in the telecom realm) down the road. Ask for references, most vendors are happy to provide you with examples of previous installs upon request.
We hope this guide has left you more “in the know” and a bit less confused about what your options are when it comes to purchasing a phone system.