Small business phone systems used to be extremely basic. You'd have one or two phones, one or two lines and some notepads for taking messages. Things certainly have changed.
With VoIP and other types of IP-based telephony, your phone system can be integrated with your data network, providing advanced features. For example, if a store manager needs to replace a worker who's called in sick, software running on an IP phone system can automatically call every potential replacement employee, one at a time. An employee who wants to accept the extra work shift simply presses a button on his or her phone.
If your phone system doesn't offer much more than a dial tone, a few extensions and voice mail, it could be holding back your business. This month's column provides an overview of small business phone systems, with an eye toward helping you decide what's right for your company. Next month, I'll explain the business functionality to look for in IP telephony (IPT) solutions.
Your Phone System Options
Savvy small businesses have traditionally had either a key telephone system or a private branch exchange (PBX). Both systems allow businesses to connect their phones through a limited number of lines to the public phone network.
A key system is typically used in small offices that need only a few extensions. A PBX is a switching system that manages calls between internal users and shares external lines among them. Historically, you could access an outside line directly with a key system, but you had to dial 9 to get an outside line with a PBX.
The introduction of VoIP has changed the landscape completely, allowing small businesses to get phone service exclusively over the internet. When it comes to VoIP-based systems, you have a number of options. You can use a free or inexpensive service, such as Skype or Vonage, in which you make and receive calls over the internet using headset-equipped computers or traditional telephones. Typically, these services are used when only a couple of phone lines are required. Alternatively, you can have a complete IPT solution that integrates voice, video and data. Or you can use a hybrid system that incorporates VoIP capabilities into your existing phone system. All key system vendors have introduced product lines capable of supporting VoIP.
The internet voice phenomenon began with VoIP, which referred to the ability to obtain a dial tone over the internet. Now VoIP has evolved into more advanced IPT solutions, which include dial tone with basic services that lead to enhanced communications technologies, such as unified communications. Today people generally mean the same thing when they refer to VoIP and IPT, even though technically there's a difference.
Here's a quick rundown of the various options for IP-based phone systems:
- VoIP is the most basic IP voice system , in which phone calls are carried over the IP network you use for data. An IP network that carries data and voice is referred to as a "converged" network. You can get IPT service through such services as Skype or Vonage, as mentioned above. These VoIP services can offer advanced features, such as the ability to receive voice messages as audio file e-mail attachments, in addition to the usual conference, transfer, forward, hold and other functions. These are primarily for businesses with less than five employees.
- IPT solutions offer VoIP plus a number of features similar to those offered by traditional PBXs for both small and large businesses on a converged network. These solutions can be tailored based on your needs.
- IPT solutions can be extended to include additional business applications, such as unified messaging, integrated contact centers, and rich-media conferencing that combines voice, data and video.
- Unified communications can take IPT solutions a step further with technologies, such as presence--the ability to determine the best way to contact others within your company, including voice, e-mail or IM--as well as mobility solutions. A unified communications system unifies and simplifies all forms of communication, regardless of location, time or device. Imagine going to one mailbox to retrieve all your faxes, e-mails and voicemails.
Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.