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Get the Most From Your VoIP Provider

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As small businesses continue to play a significant role in the changing economy, technologies addressing their unique requirements follow suit. One of the most compelling concepts at play in enterprise technology with profound implications for small businesses is hosted Voice over Internet Protocol, which enables smaller businesses to conduct national and even global communications with increased functionality and reduced cost.

With the promise of minimum hardware investment, lower phone bills and converged voice and data services, hosted VoIP holds the potential to set an efficiency standard for a powerful segment of the global economy. This is probably why analysts have pegged the VoIP industry to reach 79 percent of all U.S. businesses within the next three years.

But the promise of hosted VoIP--as with any promise--is only as good as its fulfillment. And some businesses have been turned off by what they've experienced as the true costs of VoIP.

The hard costs of purchasing new, VoIP-enabled phones are the most obvious financial hurdles, but the oft-overlooked soft costs can be even more expensive to a company's reputation, growth and survival. Ironically, most of these are related to VoIP's very backbone--the internet. Poor quality voice systems and dropped calls due to limited bandwidth or power--all of which can cause immediate damage to business relationships--are among potential soft costs companies must be aware of and protect against.

The good news? Companies have the power to sidestep each and every one of these VoIP drawbacks. A strong broadband connection, high-quality hardware and a reputable service provider are essential assets that empower small businesses to reap the many advantages of a VoIP system.

On the provider side, I've taken a look at Speakeasy, a hosted voice and data provider based in Seattle, Wash. The company grabbed my attention when it announced a promotion running through May offering free phones in an attempt to eliminate the upfront cost barrier for hosted VoIP service. Beyond giving phones away, Speakeasy actually has many of the qualities small businesses should look for in a VoIP service provider, including:

  • Strong financial backing. As it turns out, Speakeasy is owned by Best Buy, one of the largest big-box retailers in the U.S., and its funding--unlike Circuit City's--and consequently your service, won't be going away any time soon. In other words, no need to worry about purchasing a service that will be here one day, gone the next.

  • Reputation for strong customer service. Look for a good track record of customer service. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year is ideal, although admittedly rare these days. Continuity of care--with a single call center respondent handling an issue from start-to-resolution--might seem a luxury, but it's standard practice at some companies.

  • Proven Quality of Service standards. Regardless of bandwidth, VoIP works best when priorities regarding data types are established. These priorities will vary on a case-by-case basis, but it amounts to favoring certain types of traffic (for example, voice data), without killing others (for example, video). Look for a service that comes stamped with network QoS standards--it signifies voice data gets top priority, yet allows for other classes of traffic to flow, too. What this basically means is, you won't sound like you're under water or at a bad drive-thru while on the phone.

  • A network that works. "Works" means a dedicated, nationwide network for voice traffic that will enhance quality and grow with your business. Look for dedicated paths between major points of presence and multi-redundant connections to the internet; low latency and low packet loss to enable you to maximize your VoIP investment; and a flexible design to grow with your business needs as well as next-gen technologies. Again, this speaks to overall call quality and not ruining business relationships because calls keep dropping or you have to wait for the latency in the line to clear before speaking.
On the business side, Pace International is an example of a company that's realized both cost savings and customer service benefits from its hosted VoIP system. With corporate headquarters in Seattle, 100 employees spread across plants in two states, 11 warehouses throughout the country, eight international offices and mounting long distance telephone costs, the company needed a cheaper, better way to maintain contact (without sacrificing quality). Pace's true cost of VoIP? The company saved 10 to 20 percent of IT time each month after implementing a hosted VoIP service and it estimates savings of $65,000 in long distance, conference calling and phone system connectivity costs. Feedback from customers about an improved experience probably can't be ascertained, but that's perhaps the truest measure of VoIP success. The benefits of VoIP are fairly well known at this point--zero-cost domestic calls, ridiculously cheap long-distance rates, futuristic technology that will find you anywhere, at any number. However, there are still very real costs for small businesses to consider when evaluating a VoIP service. It's crucial to identify a provider committed to not only the technology, but also customer service and satisfaction. Without both, businesses may not have an optimal VoIP experience and may never fully realize its potential to greatly impact their bottom line.

Mikal E. Belicove is a market positioning, social media, and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging. His latest book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook, is now available at bookstores. For more information, visit MikalBelicove.com.

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