To pick a new telephone system or to improve my existing one?
The world of telephone systems is changing dramatically, with more and more companies using subscription programs to deliver their products and services to consumers.
Many customers move away from their current telephone system because they have somehow been convinced that emerging offerings are more affordable. The reality? You get what you pay for.
As a telephone engineer who has been building out telephone networks, phone systems, and call centres for over a decade, I have seen it all and wish to help you understand what to look for and how to get the best out of your current system (whether that entails upgrades or full replacements).
If you’re stuck on whether to replace or update your current telephone system, let’s walk through some of the considerations you will need to make when approaching this topic.
The vendor: who are you turning to for help?
I recently encountered a customer who was upgrading from their Avaya telephone system to a Comcast VoiceEdge phone system. For those of you who do not know Comcast, think of them like the cable TV provider Foxtel. Comcast is a cable internet company providing television and data internet.
When purchasing a phone system, you want to do your research on the vendor providing the telephone system. Continuing with the above example, Comcast is not a telephone systems manufacturer. They are not a phone company either.
That alone tells me that if I have any problems with my service or phones, they will have to open a ticket with the actual phone company or open a ticket with another (unknown) company who can actually help me fix my phone system problem, which means a delay in resolution.
If you are a small (25 staff and below) company, then spending that extra time dealing with all the hassles may not bother you (but it is something to keep in mind).
The next issue I discovered was that VoiceEdge is using Polycom handsets, which is a big red flag. I love Polycom equipment, do not get me wrong, but I would never roll out a full phone system using Polycom handsets.
This is because those handsets are designed to be add-ons for those who need lobby phones, lunch room phones, or even conference phones. Purchasing these handsets for your telephone system would be like buying an off-brand car for your fleet of Mercedes; It fills a gap in an emergency or provides immediate need, but it does not integrate with the rest of the phone system.
Why? One of the big features you get when using a proper phone system is the ability to have a directory or to see when people are on the phone or not. To provide a directory for a Polycom phone, you must manually import (for each phone) excel .CSV files to see the company directory.
Additionally, because the phone is not part of the full solution, you lose all of the extra features that accompany a vendor-specific phone, such as seeing if someone is available when you search their name in the phone directory or being able to control your desk phone from your PC phone software.
Without touching upon every point about VoiceEdge, the one highlight is that they do mention “Great for single-location businesses with 1-8 employees...”. Though later, they mention they can support 5 – 5000 seats.
I would not recommend going with a solution like this unless your employees are all in the same building and can physically see each other. This system would not scale any more than 25 seats at best.
If your business relies on telephones to conduct business, then you are going to run into roadblocks down the road and the system will inevitably fail when choosing telephone products like the above.
Why? Because it is missing the basics! Phone issues can be costly, but also choosing the wrong vendor will ultimately result in additional expenses as you attempt to fix inherent issues or the time/costs lost due to the lack of productivity enhancements that your phone system is supposed to offer..
Instead, go with a reliable phone vendor that provides a vendor-specific phone system and handsets. This will give you the flexibility that you need to grow. Choose a provider that specializes in telephone services and products rather than one for whom telephones are a secondary service.
Otherwise, you are going to find yourself stuck in the middle of the internet provider and the phone system provider with support related issues.
That said, I have seen too many times where customers go with their cheapest option and their phones cannot reliably hold or handle phone conversations. If you want the best possible phone service for your business,you need to know what to look for when you begin seeking out a new phone system.
What should I be looking for?
Almost all telephone systems (proper PBX vendors) provide the same basic functionality. Some brands force you to pay for the bells and whistles upfront, while some allow you to purchase the advanced features when you need them. Here are some of the features that you may encounter.
- Auto Attendant – This is the message you hear when calling most businesses. “Thank you for calling XYZ Company, please press 1 for sales, 2 for service...”
- Hunt Groups (also called ring groups) – These are a feature that allow you to ring multiple phones at the same time, one-by-one, or to call the phone that has not received a call for the longest period of time.
- Directory – A directory can be used on the PC phone software or on the desk phone itself. It provides you with a list of who is in the phone system, regardless of how many locations you have.
- Presence – This feature tells others whether you are on the phone or if you’re out of the office. It is a time saver.
- Schedules – These are used to automatically change the way calls are handled at different times of the day or during different times of the year. Keep in mind that schedules should not require a technical degree or an IT ticket for you to change.
- Voicemail to Email – This will allow you to get all your voicemails as attachments in your email. Some vendors will transcribe the recording to text for you.
Bells & Whistles
- Queues – A queue plays music on hold while you wait for someone to answer the phone. Queues also allow you to play marketing or informational messages to your callers while they wait for a representative.
- Softphone – A softphone is a type of software that runs on your pc, allowing you to use your computer as the telephone. All you will need to operate a softphone is a headset.
- Mobility – This is much like the softphone but runs on your mobile instead. When you call out from a good mobile app, it shows your business telephone number as the caller ID to the other party. This way, you are keeping your mobile number hidden from outside parties, and all business-related activities stay with the telephone system. It is generally a good idea to separate business from personal, and it allows you to keep a singular professional image.
- Conference – This may seem straightforward for those who are aware of this feature, but most conference bridges these days will provide voice conferencing along with video conferencing, screen sharing, document sharing, and the ability to record meetings.
- Call Centre – This can be used in different contexts, but here, we are referring to the phone system add-on that allows customers to interact with calls. For example, when you call your bank, you can enter your pin to get your account balance. That is a call centre function. Another would be giving your customer the option to receive a call-back while they keep their place in the queue. Call centre software gives you metrics needed to better manage your customers who are calling while also giving you the ability to identify if you need more staff to answer calls. This is an advanced (and necessary) part of any phone system.
- SMS – The ability to receive your voicemail as a text message, or to send out reminders to customers
- Chat – This feature will allow your organization to receive chat requests from customers. Those chat requests can be delivered to your call centre staff and handled with a call and agents can manage multiple chats at the same time. This feature also provides you with analytics that can help you improve your customer support efforts over time.
- Reporting – Believe it or not, reporting is the last thing on the mind of phone system manufacturers. Even with expensive phone systems, the reports are typically in an Excel, CSV, or PDF format. When you add on 3rd party companies like Brightmetrics, or Tableau, then you can get much fancier graphing and visual output.
- Add-ons – This is a tricky feature. A good add-on/integration is one that is seamless. There are so many companies out there trying to add on multiple new features such as EFax, or Microsoft Teams, but integration does not always go smoothly.
So, what should you choose? A great question to ask yourself is, what features do you need for your business? I get customers who ask all the time, “What can we do with our system?”. Well, I can, of course, give you some ideas, but to be honest, a good phone system is very flexible. We can program it to route calls all over the place and in a million different ways.
Some questions to ask yourself include:
- What are your business goals?
- What are your plans for growth? Do you have any upcoming department changes?
- Are your customers happy when they communicate with your business?
- What can we do to improve those customer survey numbers?
- Does your staff need to work remotely?
A good telephony solutions provider will have an in-depth discovery process. It’s important to learn about the customer and what they do. Some phone systems are better for some industries than they are for others.
For example, Mitel has hospitality features that work well with hotels. There are not a lot of vendors that do that. If I was buying a phone system, I would be thinking about:
- What do we need today?
- How fast are we growing?
- What options can I add to the solution later, and what are the general costs?
- How long has this vendor been around?
- Is there vendor support in my area of the world?
- Who do you feel the most comfortable with?
- Is this vendor focused on future integrations or enhancements?
- How difficult is it to use? Telephones should be easy!
- Does it improve the productivity of my staff?
- How difficult is it to manage or what is the cost if you wanted to have it fully managed for you?
If you already have a phone system, let’s learn more about phone systems and their capabilities.
Enhancing your current phone system (PBX)
If your current phone system is an IP-based phone system, then it may be wiser to improve your system rather than replace it. Why throw away all that money you spent on handsets and phone equipment when you can still get more use from it?
So many customers get caught up in these promises of it being cheaper moving their systems to the cloud. They’re told to get rid of their current phone system because cloud systems are new and improved. The truth? This is not always the case
“New and Improved”
Some pop-up cloud offerings that appear today consist of overly complicated setups. For example, a free PBX (box 1) with another box (box 2) in front of it for phone call routing, a third box to get pc software working, a fourth box to allow changes to connect box 1, and a fifth box to allow for certain phones to work, as well as a sixth box that gives you a webpage for the customer.
What I just mentioned is an actual, real-life example of a phone solution that I've seen before. It was so overly complicated, clunky, and buggy, I am not sure how the solution ever worked! Each box in that example was a different company’s hardware. It was all working together with tape and string. It broke down all the time and was incredibly difficult to support customers.
Putting life back into your phone system (PBX)
In many cases, you can upgrade your current phone system by upgrading the software to improve the usability of the system or fix bugs. For many customers, we find that there are often issues causing system instability or the people programming the phone system did not follow the the manufacturer’s rules and recommendations.
With other customers, we see that they have grown out of the current model and they just need to be moved to more robust equipment. It is usually a good idea to have a health check done on your phone system as well as your network to ensure that everything is on the up-and-up and optimized for voice traffic.
This could save you thousands of dollars, and in the above situations, you can recoup the costs you spent on the phone system while getting the improvements that your system needs.
PBX Vendor add-ons
As I mentioned previously, if you are using a PBX vendor that offers full features, then they too will have additional add-ons that will allow direct integration with other vendors like Microsoft.
If the PBX vendor does not (which is unheard of), then there will ultimately be a handful of other businesses trying to improve and support these vendors. When there is such support from the community, you will see other companies who can add real value to the existing solutions.
These integrations are typically approved add-ons and fully tested solutions that work. We know they are tested because these third parties usually go through a vendor process to obtain some form of sign-off showing what can and cannot be done. Then, both parties will create a document that will show you exactly what to change on both sides for it to work.
Lastly, there are some integrations like Microsoft Teams that integrate with your PBX, which is called direct routing. This type of integration is approved by Microsoft and the Session Border Controller (SBC). The SBC is approved with the phone system and Microsoft is approved with the SBC, so we have a middle man that offers a clean integration and one who can provide additional value such as protecting you from toll fraud. Here is a fun example of what toll fraud is.
We are thinking about going to the “cloud”
There is no such thing as the cloud. The concept just means that you are moving your equipment to a data centre that will ensure you have plenty of power, that your equipment is properly cooled, and that it always has a functional internet connection.
There are a lot of benefits in that sentence alone. That said, you probably do not want to pay to rent the space (expensive), buy an expensive internet connection, or mess around with telephone companies, right?
No problem! Staying with the concept above of keeping your return on investment (ROI) of your phone system, I would find a telephony solutions company that can help you move your phone system to your existing data centre or theirs. This way you only pay for what you use. Of course, you can rely on them to handle phone company problems. That is what they are best at!
The biggest item that is overlooked when moving to a cloud-based phone system is that many find surprise costs at the end of the month.
I will give you an example. Your electric company 'in theory' bases your monthly bill on the average amount of electricity that your household uses from the previous year. Well, during the winter, your bill should be the same if their averaging the overall cost, right? That is because they already considered the extra use that will occur during the cold months and came up with the average for all months of the year, to keep the surprises to a minimum. It also helps customers budget easier and, in return, you can pay your bills more reliably.
I am not sure about you, but my bill is still quite a bit higher during the winter. This is what it is like with a cloud provider. Yes, you will save money on your phone minutes, but that is only because you are getting a wholesale rate on the cost per minute for each call.
Those savings you’re quoted to move are not taking into account all of the money you are throwing away by just getting rid of your old system. This seemingly frugal investment now became a lot more expensive than originally planned because you did not take into account the entire lifetime of your phone system use.
The way Telstra works with Microsoft Teams or any other big cloud UC provider works is that your only option is to buy calling plans for every single user. Now with your current provider, you only pay for what your company uses total per month.
So, imagine this: your company is growing and 10 percent of the entire staff goes over on their calling plans. What are the penalties? I am betting you will not be billed the same rate as your current phone carrier.
Let’s imagine that you are paying $50 a month for a user to have 3000 minutes, and they are not using all of it. Sure, plans can be changed at the end of every month, and yes, you can add or remove users on the fly, but that user's extra minutes will not be absorbed by the user who used too many minutes.
But how meticulously are these cloud providers looking at your users on their platform and recommending a change to user calling plans?
For example, Zoom is not calling me and letting me know that a lower cost plan would be more suited for my company, which is true, instead they are happy to take my monthly payment. I’m not trying to put down the billing model of these companies. It does work for a select few customers out there who have no phone system or are very small.
I know that many customers could be saving a lot more money taking advantage of alternative options rather than getting excited about “the cloud”. Many mid to enterprise-level customers are realizing that, just like Amazon, the solution they were promised does not necessarily save them as much as they were hoping.
For those who do not want to manage their phone system
I get it. Management is cutting corners and they do not want their IT staff to be spending any more time on the phone system. It is easier to just have someone else do it. Great! That can absolutely work.
There are IT solutions companies out that that will help host and manage your phone system at a reasonable cost. They can take away all the stress and extra work from your IT staff.
They will make sure that your software is always up-to-date, that the system is working as intended, and even provide you with a pay-as-you-consume model on your phone plan.
Additionally, most IT Solutions companies sell phone lines as a primary product, so that means they are likely to get comparable or better calling rates to those cloud vendors depending on their size.
If you are tired of handling your telephone system, replacement may be the answer. However, it is vital that you consider all the points provided above to make sure that you are saving money and making the best choice for your company as you move forward.
To improve or to replace?
Overall, the above serves to illustrate what many customers experience and how you can choose the best option for you. Whether you choose to improve or replace your current telephone system depends entirely on your current business needs. Make sure that you consider each advantage and disadvantage of your available choices before coming to a final decision.
Additionally, finding the right company to handle your telecommunications needs is an important part of this process. Do your research, don’t fall for common advertising tactics, and carefully consider your business needs both now and in the future.
When you are ready to make the switch or improve your current phone system, you can then reach out to an experienced company like Trifecta Telephony to get started on your new communications system!