An IP telephony (IPT) system can provide small businesses with many tangible benefits. One small-business owner I know said staff productivity went up 65 percent after installing an IPT system, because workers weren't wasting time tracking down colleagues or manually transferring calls from one desk to another.
If you're considering an upgrade to your phone system, read on. I'll be taking a look at which business functions you should consider in an IPT solution and how you can successfully and cost-effectively deploy such a system. For more background on IPT, check out last month's column, " Building a Better Communications System ," which provided an overview of small-business phone systems, including IPT solutions, with an eye toward helping you decide which one is right for your company.
Determining Your Objectives
Before making any changes to your existing phone system, you should answer two key questions:
1. What are the limitations and "pain points" of your current phone system? How does your existing phone system limit your employees and your business? For instance, are employees spending too much time transferring calls or playing voice-mail tag? Are you losing potential customers because they tire of being on hold?
2. What are your company's primary business goals, and is your phone system helping you achieve them? Does your phone system help you serve your customers better? Are you getting the best phone service at the lowest cost possible? Will your phone system grow as your business does?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you coordinate your needs and goals, both current and future, with your IPT system. You'll know what features and capabilities the phone system needs from the start, and what you'll likely need down the road. The inherent flexibility of an IP network means you can quickly add new functionality as needed. This will help prevent you from deploying more capabilities than you need--or not enough.
Phasing the Rollout
To ensure a smooth transition to an IPT system, it's best to phase the rollout. Here's the approach I suggest:
Phase 1: Build the foundation.
An IPT system requires a converged IP network at its foundation. On a converged IP network, phone calls travel over the internet as data, just like e-mail, instant messages, video and other traffic. Having one network for multiple purposes simplifies your administrative burden and reduces costs, because you no longer need to maintain multiple networks. You'll also save on telecommunications costs and long-distance charges.
An IP network connects a variety of equipment (including computers and phones) using intelligent network devices such as routers and switches. Your data network probably is already connected by routers and/or switches. You just have to make sure that your current network can support your new IPT system. Your routers and switches should have built-in security and the ability to support increased traffic and additional functionality as your company grows.
Your IP network also should have "high availability," meaning there's minimum downtime. Consider adding a second, redundant IPT server to provide continuity should your phone system's primary server go down. Your business goals will help you determine what level of redundancy your system needs.
Quality of service is important as well. QoS, as it's often called, simply means that voice and video traffic on the IP network are given a higher priority than data. No one cares if an e-mail message arrives a few seconds late. But frequent delays in relaying your voice after you finish speaking would certainly be noticeable. The more advanced routers for small businesses include QoS as a feature that can be turned on when needed. No equipment upgrade is necessary.
In phase 1, you'll likely have a basic IPT system that provides multiple direct-dial extensions along with voice mail that you can access using a phone, computer or other device. The system also will provide automated messaging and greeting services that perform tasks, such as routing incoming callers to the appropriate extensions.
To take full advantage of your IPT system, you should have IP phones. They look similar to traditional business phones, with buttons, handset and cradle. But they connect directly to the IP network, have large screens, and put many of an IP communications system's features and functionality at the user's fingertips.
Going Beyond the Basics
Phase 2: Add more functionality.
Once your basic IPT system is up and running smoothly, it may be time to consider enhancing its functionality with new tools and features. Some possibilities include the following:
- A virtual private network. VPN connectivity allows employees to connect securely over the internet to your business's IP network from home, a hotel room, a client's office or other location. With a VPN, workers have mobile, highly secure access to your company's network for all communications including data, voice, video and fax.
- Softphones. A softphone is software that allows you to make and receive voice calls on your computer using a connected headset and microphone. You can use your IPT system for voice on your laptop anywhere you've got a broadband internet connection.
- Wireless networking and wireless IP phones. Your IPT system could also include wireless access points, which create a wireless network. Together with wireless IP phones, mobile workers have secure anytime, anywhere access to the IPT system. For example, using a wireless IP phone, a store clerk assisting a customer on the floor could quickly access the store's database to see if an item the customer wants is in the stockroom, on order or discontinued.
- Video. On a converged IP network, it's easier and more affordable than you'd think to add video-enabled applications, because support for video is built into the network. Also, advanced routers for small businesses enable you to add video applications to the network without an expensive equipment upgrade. Even though you may assume you don't need video, you might be surprised how effective it can be at improving operations, sales, customer relations and other areas. With a video conference, for example, you could demonstrate a new product in development to the far-flung members of your remote sales force. Video on your IPT system could also allow you to monitor a remote site, such as a small store, to assess staff performance.
- Applications that support integrated voice and data. Some applications developed for IPT systems integrate applications, such as instant messaging, calendaring and presence (the ability to see if an individual in your organization is online) with audio or video conferencing. By quickly identifying which members of your team are at their desks through a presence application, you can easily set up ad hoc conference calls with remote staff and exchange information via instant messaging during the conference.
- Contact centers. An IPT system can provide the foundation for creating a contact center to streamline communications with customers. Contact center technology provides sophisticated call routing and the ability to have online chats with customers and to deliver messages to callers informing them of expected hold time, among other features.
- Advanced security. In phase 1, your IP network routers provide the security you need. But as you add functionality, you should also add security appliances, such as dedicated firewall devices that provide even more layers of protection.
Phase 3: Tie in business applications.
In phase 3, you might consider integrating business applications into your IPT system. It's easy and inexpensive to accomplish and can help make your small business look big to outsiders.
For example, you could tie integrated voice response (IVR) software to your IPT system. IVR technology provides voice prompts to incoming callers. A caller responds to the prompts either by speaking or using the telephone keypad. The responses provide valuable information about the caller's reasons for contacting the company, which is delivered to a contact center operator before he or she even answers the call.
Many small businesses have connected a customer relationship management (CRM) system to their IPT solution to better understand their customers' habits and needs. CRM software provides a database for capturing and analyzing information about your customers.
Linking CRM and IPT can enhance customer satisfaction--and that often leads to increased sales. For instance, when a call comes in, a pop-up window of the customer contact record appears on a contact center representative's IP phone screen, computer display or both. Before the second ring, the representative has access to information about the customer who's calling, such as orders pending and recent returns. Having instant access to an incoming caller's record can lead to faster problem resolution as well as increased sales. For instance, the call center representative may notice the caller hasn't ordered a particular product lately and could provide the caller with a discount on the spot.
As with phase 2, you should increase security on your network in phase 3--especially if you link a CRM solution to your IPT system. In fact, for some industries, such as health care, retail and financial services, there are strict regulations regarding the security of computerized customer records.
Managing the IPT System
If any of this seems daunting to you, don't worry. A small-business IPT system can provide plug-and-play functionality, which helps reduce setup time and optimize network settings. Look for a system with an intuitive interface that allows for quick configurations of telephony, messaging, switching, wireless LAN, firewall, security services and other elements. Many value-added resellers specializing in IPT systems can help you implement the system that's right for your business.
Also, keep in mind you don't need to spend thousands upfront or add an IPT specialist to your payroll. A hosted or managed IPT system will provide you with IPT equipment and expertise at affordable monthly rates.
The bottom line: An IPT system is easier than you might think to acquire, deploy and maintain. And it can go a long way toward making your small business look--and become--big.