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VoIP for Business: The Top Ten Things to Consider Before Buying

by Mark Sher, Director of Marketing, AccessLine Communications
Kent Hellebust, Chief Marketing Officer, AccessLine Communications

You’ve heard all the talk about VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and are left wondering if it’s right for your business. You start looking at various ways to implement the technology and find there are hundreds of different service providers ranging from well-known phone companies to new start-ups and dozens of different equipment combinations. So how do you sift through all of the options and make a decision?

Despite all the buzzwords surrounding VoIP, it’s important to understand that there are basically two ways for a small- to medium-sized business to implement a VoIP solution. The first is called a “customer premise equipment (CPE)” approach. With this model, a business purchases, installs and manages its own VoIP equipment at its office. The second model is called a “hosted” service approach. With this model, a business doesn’t have to buy, install, manage or upgrade any equipment (except phones in some situations). The service provider has designed the service so that most of the equipment resides in their network and they manage and maintain it for you.

The CPE approach gives a business the security of having the equipment right in the office. However, the business is still on the hook for all maintenance, support and upgrades, which can become burdensome and defocusing to a business. The hosted approach gives the business a lower total cost, and avoids the headache and cost of dealing with equipment.

If a business decides to go with a hosted VoIP approach, keeping focused on a few key items will help reduce confusion. It will also increase the probability of success in selecting the right service provider for the business. Here are the top 10 items to focus on when making a purchasing decision.

– Replacing your phone system? Many VoIP providers require you to completely remove and replace the existing phone system. This works great if your phone system is at the end of its life or can no longer scale to meet your needs. This approach also helps a company that doesn’t have a phone system in place and is growing to a point where one is needed. However, if you are happy with your current phone system, look for a VoIP provider that offers a “Line Replacement” service. This service will allow you to keep your existing phone system and replace the high cost phone lines from the phone company with a much lower cost VoIP equivalent. Generally the only equipment needed with this solution is a small device called a gateway, which is used to connect the VoIP provider to your existing phone system.

– Know your costs. Most VoIP services provide cost savings in the areas of local, long distance and international calling ¬- and sometimes toll free. Take a look at your phone bills and understand what you are spending in each area. If you don’t know how much you are spending, you can’t know how much you are going to save or where the savings will come from. Also, if you are considering replacing your phone system, look at how much you are paying – or would be paying – for maintenance contracts. Pick the right VoIP provider or calling plan that allows you to maximize your savings with your current usage patterns. For example, a provider that offers unlimited long distance won’t do you much good if the majority of your outbound calling is between local offices.

– 911 service. Being able to dial 911 and connect to the local emergency dispatch is a given with traditional phone companies, but not all VoIP services provide this capability. Be sure to check if the VoIP provider offers 911 services. If the VoIP provider does not, either find one that does, or have a backup such as a dedicated phone line to a local phone company for 911. This backup will cost extra every month.

– Mobile employees and tele-workers.
Does your company have tele-workers or highly mobile workers? Traditional phone systems usually don’t offer the ability to connect with these workers, but many VoIP services do. If utilized, this can become an excellent way to connect all employees under one phone system regardless of where they work. If this is important to you, make sure the VoIP solution you choose can support your mobile and tele-workers.

– The right features. Many VoIP service providers offer a wide range of new and useful features bundled with their service offerings. If you are replacing a phone system, make sure your new provider doesn’t overlook the features you use most. If you are keeping your phone system, make sure the new features you intend to use work with your existing system.

– Ease of use. Many services offer long lists of impressive features. The question is, how easy is it to set up and use these features? If a service is too complicated to set up and use – and takes too long to deal with – what good is it? Make sure you are comfortable with the setup requirements of the service and that the tools provided are easy to understand and use.

– Experience counts. Does the VoIP provider have a strong track record in delivering voice services? Many new service providers joining the VoIP market come from a data background. Providing a data service is VERY different than providing business-class voice services. It takes time and experience to understand the intricacies of delivering high quality business-grade voice services, so make sure your chosen provider has at least a few years of delivering voice services.

– The up-front cost of phones. If you choose to go with a provider whose solution replaces your existing phone system, make sure you understand the cost of the phones it will be providing. In many cases you may choose between different phones with varying levels of features and sophistication. In some instances, phones are offered for free in exchange for term commitments and in others, it’s your responsibility to purchase the phones.

– Do the math. Some service providers charge per-seat (i.e., per-user or per-employee) while others charge per-line. Generally, services that replace your phone system charge per-seat, but it is not uncommon to see services that replace phone lines and charge per-seat as well. It’s important to understand the differences and to do the math. One line can generally support approximately four employees. Depending on prices, a lower per-seat price may actually be more expensive for you that a higher per-line price. For example one service may charge $40.00 per-line/per month while another may charge $15.00 per-seat/per month. Since each line supports four employees (or “seats”), the service offered at $40.00 per-line is $20.00 less expensive per month.

– Keep your phone number. If you are starting a new business, this doesn’t apply. But, for most businesses who have established phone numbers, a lot of money is spent getting your phone number in the hands of prospective customers. If this is the case, it will be important to choose a VoIP provider that allows you to keep your existing local and toll free numbers.

You may feel less than prepared when dealing with a technology purchase like VoIP. However, if you use your business sense and stay focused on the basic – but important – top 10 items listed above, you’ll make a great decision for your company! [24×7]

Kent Hellebust is responsible for corporate marketing, partner marketing, product management, branding, and communications outreach activities for AccessLine Communications Corporation. Prior to joining AccessLine, Kent built and led the marketing organization at Cometa Networks, a nationwide broadband wireless internet networking company. He was also a Vice President of Marketing at AT&T Wireless, where he managed 3 wireless data service lines. He holds an MBA in Marketing from The Wharton School and a BA in Economics and History from Wesleyan University.

Mark Sher, AccessLine’s Director of Marketing, is responsible for developing and executing enterprise and partner marketing strategies that capitalize on the company’s market opportunities. Mark has 11 years experience in taking new communications services and products to market. He has helped pioneer mobility, tele-working, messaging and business continuity services and jointly has patents pending in the fields of voice recognition and real-time call control.

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