One of the most important decisions a small business has to make is how they are going to manage their communications. After all, communications are the back bone of any small business. If they cannot communicate clearly and efficiently with potential and current customers, they will not be in business long. It can be very stressful trying to determine which communications system is going to be best for your business. Adding to the confusion and stress of making the decision is the number of options available when it comes to telecommunications. There are standard hard line PBX systems, standard POTS lines from the local carrier, virtual PBX systems, local numbers, toll free numbers, virtual fax, standard VoIP and hosted VoIP PBX systems... and you could probably find at least a hundred providers for each. It's enough to make you crazy.
One of the biggest mistakes that small business owners make as they wade through all the choices available to them is that they start at the end and work their way back. Usually they will do an Internet search for "phone systems" and from the thousands upon thousands of results choose a provider. Then they will go and see what systems and features are available. The problem with finding your telecom provider in this way is that you are trying to fit your small business communications needs into a cookie cutter phone system. As well, there is a dirty little secret in the telecom industry that perpetuates this problem.
Small businesses end up finding a provider and then trying to fit their needs into the phone systems that the provider has to offer. Sometimes they fit and sometimes they don't and that is when the small business loses out. The dirty little secret that these telecom providers are keeping from you is that it doesn't have to be that way. You do not have to try to squeeze your small business communications into one of their pre- designed, one size fits all solutions.
Instead of finding a provider first and then trying to fit your needs into their solutions, you need to start at the beginning. The beginning is you and your small business. Before you even start looking for a phone system you should know exactly what it is that you want. Finish this sentence, "If I could have everything I wanted in a phone system, it would include...." Then start making your list. Here is a list of questions to help you get started:
1. How many employees will have extensions?
2. Would I like to be able to have a dispersed workforce taking calls?
3. Do I want to incorporate my Internet and phones together?
4. Do I need my phone system to grow with me?
5. Do I want to combine my fax and phone system together?
6. Do I want to be able to do inter-office/inter-extension transfers?
7. Do I want an automated attendant to answer and direct calls?
8. Do I want voicemail accessible by email and/or over the Internet?
9. Do I want to be able to monitor all calls on the system either live or through reports?
10. Do I want to be able to create forwarding groups so that calls can be forwarded to all extensions within a group of employees?
Once you decide what your small business needs, you can then search for a provider to fulfill those needs instead of finding a provider that you can try to fit your needs into. Having even just a basic understanding of the options available will help you understand your choices and not allow a provider to mold your needs into what they offer. Here is a breakdown of the most popular options:
** POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone Service) can be a simple solution for a one man band that does not need an automated attendant to route calls nor any enhanced features such as voicemail to email, virtual fax, follow me call forwarding, etc. Start up costs will depend on if you already have lines established on site or if you are starting from scratch but, you can expect to pay about $200 to get started.
** A standard PBX (Private Branch eXchange) includes onsite equipment to route calls between employees. These systems are usually cost prohibitive for small businesses due to their large up front costs, they have maintenance requirements, and they are not very flexible in their ability to grow with the business. Your start up costs will depend on how many users you have but expect to pay around $6500 for a 5 users system.
** Virtual PBX systems include all the features of a standard PBX, but without the initial cost of the switching equipment, ongoing costs of maintenance and will allow for growth. Many small business owners like the virtual PBX set up because it allows them the flexibility that a small business needs and features that help them maintain a professional image. Specific features that benefit small businesses include the follow me call forwarding, automated attendant, multiple extensions/voicemail boxes, and online administration and retrieval of voice and fax messages. Virtual PBX solutions are usually only efficient for inbound calling only. Start up costs range between $10 - $50.
** Hosted VoIP PBX systems take the virtual PBX a couple steps further with the addition of VoIP technology and IP (Internet Protocol) phones so that you have inbound as well as outbound calling happening on one system. It will use your current Internet connection so an increase in bandwidth may be necessary. A hosted VoIP PBX also allows you all of the flexibility of a virtual system because it is scalable and can be used with a dispersed work force whether they are across town or across the country. The start up costs will be a little bit higher than a virtual PBX because you also have to buy the phones. You can probably expect your start up costs to be between $200-$500.
When it comes to choosing the communications for your small business don't be intimidated into trying to squeeze your needs into a cookie cutter phone system. Your small business is not like anyone else's and only you know what it needs. So first sit down and write down everything that you would like your phone system to do, learn the basics about what is available, and then find the provider that can fulfill those needs. Don't allow the telecom providers dirty little secret force you into a phone system that isn't a perfect fit for your business.