You would be hard-pressed to find someone that does not know what the internet is these days. In much the same way, it is rare that the concept of an internet-based telephone is a head-scratcher for business owners. Thanks to the popularity of programs like Skype, the idea has become well and truly mainstream.
While you still have business owners who are firmly stuck in their ways and won’t consider anything other than a rusted-on box of copper wires in the corner of the office, a large number of people have made the switch to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) based telephony. The main reason for this is usually cost. Before the rise in popularity of VoIP, when you were setting up a shopfront or a bit of office space, a call to your phone conglomerate of choice was usually the done thing.
Back in those days, the savings you could make on call costs by hurling your voice over the internet instead of via a fixed-line telephone were not so well known. Some of the early misconceptions about the technology are gone as well. People now understand that you can have a handset that is the same as the one that you would get with a traditional provider – only it connects to a router instead of a phone socket.
Plans and providers
What isn’t so clear cut is how to make the right choice about VoIP when it comes to providers and plans. It is easy to overestimate how much you really need from your telephony and sign up for a plan with a higher rate than you really need. By the same token, if you don’t put a little research time into what the various providers are like, then don’t be surprised if you feel let down by the one you randomly picked off a Google search.
Rene Sugo is the CEO of VoIP provider MyNetFone and he believes the most important thing is finding a reliable provider. In his view, there are a lot of small providers that are resellers, or have minimal infrastructure and support resources, which won’t benefit your business in the long-run. Even something as simple as taking the time to look at each of the provider’s websites will help you weed out the smaller providers.
“If you need certain features, ask if they’re available, and whether they’re included, or if it incurs an additional cost,” Rene says. “Find out exactly what is included in your plan, how much calls will cost, if there are connection fees, etc. If you’re a growing business, find out what your options are for upgrading and expanding.”
Another thing to watch out for is compatibility, according to Rene. Putting in a VoIP system doesn’t mean your existing private branch exchange (PBX) has to go if you don’t want it to. But it is important to find out if the provider can offer a solution that’s tested and certified to integrate with it.
“Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you need to in order to determine if they are the right fit for your business, not only for the present day, but for the longer term as well,” Rene adds. “Ultimately, the key things to look for in a reliable provider are a good reputation and service guarantees. You also want one that is willing to work with your needs to give you the best value.”
Making the switch
Andrew Marcroft runs Factor, an IT consultancy in Sydney, and he decided to make the move to VoIP back in 2006. For Andrew, VoIP was something that was already being discussed in information technology (IT) circles many years ago, and he had been exposed to the benefits back when he was a junior on the tech support desk for law firm Freehills 15 years ago.
He believes the really large savings come for small businesses with home-based workers and those working on multiple sites. Andrew stresses that you need to set it up correctly, and it’s probably going to be worth getting help with that if you aren’t a techie.
“My early trials of VOIP about six years ago were frustrating due to performance issues,” Andrew recalls. “These days the technology is better. I also know much more about how to set it up so that it works, and service providers are much better too.
“We’ve saved many thousands on infrastructure setup (from not having a PBX) and standards based/non-proprietary handsets and headsets for the business,” Andrew says. “Once we grew past one site, we realised massive infrastructure and internal call savings. Ongoing cost savings are huge because we have no monthly phone line rentals at home or in the office, but we have the equivalent of several phone lines. Calls are cheaper. Mobile calls can easily be routed through unlimited call gateways, and it just goes on.”
Andrew’s biggest suggestion for small businesses looking at VoIP is to not be stingy. He recommends giving it a trial if you are keen, but to make sure you have a good internet connection and to choose a solid service provider.
“It’s about saving big money through doing it properly, not about implementing a rinky-dink solution that doesn’t support the professional image and goals of your business,” adds Andrew.
Matthew Bywater is the founder of promotion products firm 4Promote and his company has been using VoIP for the last three years. The main motivation for the switch was cost, particularly for something that could be accessed anywhere in the world. While he is happy with the technology now, there were some hiccups at the start.
“We had some issues with getting the right advice on our internet modem, which gave us a few days of poor performance until we changed it for another one,” Matthew says.
While he finds it hard to put an exact number on it, Matthew estimates the cost savings to be around $3,000-$5,000 per year. His biggest suggestion is to get the right modem from the start.
Getting it right
Much like any decision in business, you should pay sharp attention to the price, but not to the exclusion of all else. Getting your VoIP implementation right, and with a reliable provider, may very well be worth a few extra bucks each month as opposed to just picking the cheapest you can find.
MyNetFone’s Rene points out that you should be firm about keeping the same phone number if you switch.
“It’s on your business cards, brochures, website, outdoor advertising and even saved in customers’ mobile phones,” he says. “It’s important to know that you won’t have to lose your phone number when you move to VoIP. Make sure your new VoIP provider has the ability to bring your number to their network easily – this is done through a process called ‘local number portability’ or ‘number porting’.”
The main thing when choosing to make the switch to VoIP is to do your research and shop around. Much like any decision in business, the more informed you are the better.
Choosing A VoIP Plan
MyNetFone’s Rene also has a number of tips for those trying to choose a VoIP plan for their business.
“Make a list of the features and capabilities that are essential for your business in a phone system as well as what you would like it to be able to do,” he suggests. “This will help you identify the most suitable VoIP plan or provider for your business.”
According to Rene, you should find out exactly what is included in your plan to avoid any unexpected surprises. This can often come in the form of extra charges for certain types of calls, features, and even connection or contract fees.
“Consider the whole package (features, functionality, ease of use, support, flexibility to grow with your business) in addition to price of the service.”
Rene explains that there are various VoIP solutions available depending on your needs (virtual PBX, SIP trunks, analog trunks, etc.), but he says there is no reason to be put off by the technical terminology.
“Just tell your provider exactly what your current business phone setup is and they’ll be able to recommend the most suitable solution for you.”
Number portability is another thing to keep in mind, Rene says. There should be nothing preventing you from keeping the same phone number when you make the switch to VoIP. You need to stress this to your provider from the outset though, so there can be no confusion on either end that the number is to remain the same.