Virtual PBX Can Lead to Greater Productivity
Many small businesses considering investing in a traditional private branch exchange (PBX) system might be well served in looking into a virtual phone system as an alternative. With a virtual PBX - also known as a hosted phone system or hosted PBX -- the bulk of the call handling is done at the vendor's data center, not a telephone closet in your office.
Virtual phone systems provide all the features of a PBX without the need to install any hardware in your office: the hardware is run remotely, like the popular software as a service (SaaS) model. There are so many advantages to this setup, including significant cost savings and greater reliability, that many small businesses are deciding that virtual phone systems are the right answer for their needs.
Traditional or virtual PBX
Start your evaluation by understanding the difference between a traditional phone system and a virtual PBX. With a traditional PBX, calls come into your business and go to the back room or telecom closet where the PBX hardware and servers are located. That equipment provides all the necessary routing, voice mail, and then passes the call on to the right extension. Callers can leave messages, dial extensions directly, choose a name from a directory, or pick from a menu of departments and recorded messages. All of this is handled at the data center: the call does not reach your office until the call is routed to a live person.
Advantages of virtual over traditionalThere are several reasons for the increasing popularity of virtual PBX systems:
- A virtual PBX can bring multiple offices together, offering the same set of features to all your locations, no matter where they are.
- Traveling employees are able to get their calls just like they would at the office.
- Because there's no hardware to install, virtual PBX systems have much lower up-front costs than traditional PBX systems.
- Virtual PBX providers also make ease of management a priority, allowing you to make common changes through simple web-based interfaces.
The other side of virtual PBX
There are few special requirements for setting up a virtual PBX service. Because calls are sent from the data center to your office using VoIP technology, you'll need a broadband Internet connection. Not all connections are equal - cable modems won't suffice, and even low-end DSL can be problematic for supporting a busy virtual PBX.
This introduces the added drawback that if your Internet connection fails for any reason, you'll also lose access to your phone system. However, in most cases calls will still be answered and sent to voicemail as if nothing's wrong, since that initial call handling is done at the provider's data center. Those data centers have significant standby generators, multiple servers, and other precautions to offer outstanding reliability - almost always more than would be realized on a PBX located in your office.
While virtual PBX systems have few up-front costs for hardware, you will need phones that are IP capable. In the long run, though, virtual PBX services can provide lower total cost of ownership than on-premise systems: the burden for upgrading and expanding the system is on the provider, eliminating the need for buying a new phone system every five to seven years.
What to look for in a virtual PBX
The next challenge becomes choosing the right provider. There are many different features offered by numerous different vendors. It is up to you to sort through what each has to offer and figure out what works best for your business.
Regardless of which virtual office phone system your business is looking at, these features should be standard:
- Auto attendant. Also known as a virtual receptionist, the auto attendant allows customers to choose the extension or department they wish to be connected with, and allows employees to do the same -- without the need for a traditional switchboard or operator.
- Call screening. Whether you're in an important meeting, on a sales call, or you are just finishing up a quarterly report, call screening provided by most virtual phone systems enables you to choose the calls you want to receive, while forwarding the rest to voice mail. You can often set this up via your computer.
- Call routing/answering rules. If you have multiple phones at your disposal (office phone, home phone, and cell phone), you should be able to set up a "follow-me" chart, based on day, time, or special circumstances. This allows you to receive calls where you want, without constantly forwarding them manually.
- Messaging. There are many ways businesses communicate with customers in the 21st century including by phone, e-mail, and fax. Most standard virtual phone systems in use today will allow for all three to be combined into a central messaging point, for faster, more efficient communication.
Once you have determined that several virtual phone system vendors offer all the common features you want, you should look into specialty features that they may offer. Do not look for a laundry list of features if they are not going to be of specific use to your business: only focus on those that you'll really use.
- Virtual numbers. These virtual numbers are different from standard office extensions. If your business does most of its business in Cleveland, for example, it doesn't make sense to open branch offices in North Carolina and Utah. However, some vendors allow you to integrate virtual numbers (in other area codes), so potential customers in those areas can dial a local number and contact you as if you were close by (even though the number rings in a different state). This allows your business to be national, or even international, without physically expanding beyond your home office.
- Text voice mail. If you're away from the office, you might miss important messages left on your voice mail. But with the introduction of text voice mail, all your messages can be accessed as easily as e-mail. Text voice mail actually transcribes voice mails left on your virtual phone system. You are then sent a copy of that transcript, so you can read -- instead of listen to -- your messages. This is particularly useful for any road warriors in the office who are on sales calls more than in their cubicles.
- Voice mail interrupt. How often do you just miss an important call, only to have to sit and wait for the caller to leave a message, which then has to be listened to before calling back? With voice mail interrupt, you can see whose call you just missed, then listen in as the message is being left. If you decide it's important enough, you can break in and talk to the person.
- CTI. For more advanced calling features, such as connecting your phone service to a customer or partner database, you'll need a virtual phone system that includes computer telephony integration or CTI. And you'll have to look carefully at this feature: simply offering CTI isn't a guarantee that a given phone system will integrate smoothly with your existing technology. Installation support becomes critical.
Make sure you get the full service
There are other companies out there selling inexpensive software services that work with your existing phone system, adding some PBX features without replacing your current hardware. They may also refer to their product as a "virtual PBX," which can be confusing since the product isn't really the same. When talking to potential dealers, make sure you're clear on whether they're offering a complete phone system or something that overlays your existing equipment.
How to compare different deals and dealers
The perfect virtual phone system for you will include the features you need at a price you can afford, and will enable you to grow your business without necessitating upgrades at every turn. Some vendors will gladly ship and install your new system, but have to refer any training, maintenance and trouble-shooting to a third party.
Pricing is usually by line and goes down by the number of lines you have. For instance, ten lines or less may be $35 a month, but one hundred lines or more could be only $20 per month. Check with each vendor to see how their pricing works per line with the features you desire for your business.Ready to Compare Hosted PBX Phone Systems Price Quotes?