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.
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.