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
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.
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.