Sarah Holtrup, owner of Sarah Holtrup Insurance Agency in Indianapolis, told us she loves the flexibility of hosted voice-over-IP but can't live with the lack of reliability and call quality. So we asked a geek: How can small-business owners get better hosted VoIP services?
A: For starters, stay away from the big brands. Many large telecom operators offer hosted VoIP services, but a small business may find it difficult to get the time of day from a large national brand. Instead, says Ed Gubbins, senior analyst with New Paradigm Resources Group in Chicago, go with someone from the community of hosted VoIP service providers that has sprouted to target the small-business market in particular.
"Those companies will be more responsive than the large incumbents," he says. "Some of them are very young, so you would be right to be skeptical of their capabilities and technology prowess, but the market is maturing and many providers who target the small-business segment have found ways to make the service robust."
Small businesses should not make the common mistake of buying a mainstream consumer service if they consider their voice traffic to be mission-critical, Gubbins says.
"When it's free and it goes down," he says, "you are getting what you paid for."
Instead, look for carriers with business market experience and service features your company might need, like auto attendant or smartphone support.
To sort further through the crowd of options, Gubbins suggests deciding whether you want to buy a broadband connection and a hosted VoIP service from the same provider, from two different providers or from a cloud-based service on an existing broadband connection. Going with a single provider for everything will limit the list of possible providers, but "you are probably going to get better prices overall, and if there's a problem with the service you only have one throat to choke," Gubbins says. "A service problem could be anywhere--in the servers, on the line, even in the phone, so it could be harder to figure out if you have more than one provider."
If your business is large enough, you may be able to get a service-level agreement--basically, a guarantee that the services will stay above a minimum threshold of quality. If it drops below the guaranteed level, you may not have to pay for the service. However, many small businesses may not qualify for such an agreement, and therefore, Gubbins says, it would be worth asking service providers for customer testimonials that demonstrate a legacy of strong service.
"You also might want to ask what sort of disaster-recovery plan they have in the event of a service outage," he says. "A cloud-based service may have better backup because you can access it from anywhere."
Ultimately, Gubbins advises, small-business owners would be wise to remember that even with the most robust VoIP service, they still must expect some trade-off in quality for pricing and service flexibility that puts Old Ma Bell to shame.
Dan O'Shea is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering telecom, mobile and other high-tech topics for nearly 20 years.