The Next Generation of Office Phone Systems

By Harprit Singh

We rarely think twice about picking up the phone and hearing a dial tone on the other end. Yet behind this simple technology is a massive infrastructure and decades of technology investments to ensure you can communicate as clearly and as efficiently as possible. However, office phone systems were largely ignored by the industry for a number of years, but today, the concept of such a system is beginning to go through a dramatic transformation.

Hosted phone systems, also referred to as hosted PBX (Private Branch eXchange) services, are just beginning to get the attention of businesses. It has the potential to assist businesses and business growth in previously unimaginable ways. It’s especially important for small businesses. With this new phone in place, businesses can now acquire a system that’s professional sounding and immensely scalable at an affordable price. As recent as a few years ago, this was relegated to larger businesses.

Hosted phone systems are grounded in a simple concept: outsource the phone system to the experts and utilize the phone system as a service available on demand. These services can be implemented along two different paths. The first is where you employ a service provider that supplies hosted PBX services over IP (Internet Protocol), which allows both VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and a PBX (phone system) service. This permits IP phones (or traditional analog phones connected via an analog telephone adaptor) to use VOIP calling plans that often offer flat rate calling plans.

Although VoIP based hosted PBX services offer business grade features, VoIP has typically been associated with inferior quality audio. However, VoIP technology has improved the quality of sound over the years and is well on its way to becoming a mainstay in the telecom network. When looking for a VoIP based provider, you will want to pay attention to QoS (Quality of Service) issues and flexibility when adding or removing add-ons as your business grows or scales down.

The second approach is a hosted PBX service that will work with landlines, cell phones, and VoIP phones, and will provide phone switch management in place of a dial tone. In such a service, inbound calls are handled by the provider, usually through a virtual phone number given by the service provider. In this case, the caller is presented with a professional sounding auto-attendant describing various options, and the call is then routed to the appropriate destination (be it your desktop phone or cell phone). This system is beneficial in its flexibility, ease of use, affordability, and quick implementation. On the other hand, you will have to work with multiple providers—one for the PBX service and another for the dial tone (whether it is a landline, mobile, or VoIP carrier).

When considering hosted phone systems, look for features such as: auto-attendant, multiple mailboxes call routing, find me-follow me, music-on-hold, call screening, call transfer, find by name and full listing directory assistance, voicemail to email, and fax to email. These features facilitate small businesses in leveling the playing field with their larger counterparts. Small businesses are at an inherent disadvantage because of their size, but by using hosted phone systems, you can send a message to customers and prospects that you are just as efficient and capable as some of the larger enterprises in the industry.

With a mobile workforce becoming more common, hosted phone systems play a major role in promoting both mobility and flexibility. This, in turn, contributes to a higher satisfaction level among your customer base. With features such as find me-follow me, the system can be directed to reach you at the office, on your cell, or at any other number of your choice based on the order and routing rules specified. Small businesses find this feature especially useful when it forwards customer calls to the right employees, regardless of their location.

Hosted phone systems may also be used in conjunction with call center activity. For a support voicemail line, systems can collect all voicemails via email and feed them to an email response queue. This eliminates the time-consuming task of constantly checking voicemails. You can also forward a voicemail to someone else via email—something that is convenient, but non-existent, in most phone systems. Similarly, you can also route all incoming faxes to email and avoid the wait and unpredictability associated with waiting for a fax.

In addition, most hosted phone systems allow you to control and manage features online through a web interface. Not only is this convenient, but it also makes it easy for businesses to seamlessly incorporate additional capabilities as they become available.

You don’t need to be a telecom expert to program an office phone system anymore and the affordability, flexibility, and versatility of these systems can certainly be used as a competitive advantage.

Harprit Singh is the founder, President, and CEO of Intellicomm Inc., an enhanced communications service provider. Intellicomm is the developer of Innoport® mobility enhancing unified communications service.

[From the December 2007/January 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]