VoIPowering Your Office: Do I Really Need this VoIP Stuff?

The best phone system for your business is the one you've thought about carefully.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Jun 2, 2008
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Here at good old Enterprise VoIPplanet you fine readers get the latest VoIP news, trends, and tutorials. But one question that hasn't really been asked yet is: Do you really need VoIP? And if the answer is yes, how do you plan wisely so that your VoIP infrastucture will grow gracefully with you? Emerging technologies have a funny way of stranding users in dead-ends.

Today we'll review my personal checklist for helping customers decide if it makes sense for them, and how to plan for the future so you don't get stuck with having to do a big do-over down the road.

Do you really need it?

The first question is why are you even thinking about implementing some form of VoIP?

This is trickier than it sounds because of all the hype from hordes of over-enthusiastic vendors. You also have to beware of your gearhead tech staff—it is good to have IT staff who are into technology and who like to explore new things, but you have to balance enthusiasm with real needs.

Suppose you are an accounting firm with a staff of fifteen people. You all work in a single location, and you have a receptionist who answers calls and receives visitors. You don't want to replace your human receptionist with some robo-attendant, because your customers expect personal service. The human receptionist screens calls and answers a lot of questions himself, without having to pester the accounting staff for every trivial thing, so he more than earns his keep. Your customers are all local, and you don't make a lot of toll calls. None of your staff needs to be on call when they're off duty; it's just a nice normal office where, when your people go home for the day or go on vacation, they're really done with work. In this scenario all you really need is a simple local PBX that handles multiple lines and voicemail.

There are several options for implementing this. If your office is in a business park, you probably have a shared PBX system. Your local telco might have an attractive service package.

If, however, you really really want to dip your toe into the VoIP waters, any of the systems we've covered here at VoIPplanet make good local servers. But running your own iPBX is different from administering a traditional PBX system, because it requires both computer networking and telephony skills, different hardware, and a squeaky-clean network.

On the other hand, it's lot less scary and less work than it used to be. The current batch of popular standalone VoIP servers and PBX-in-a-box offerings, such as Trixbox, sipXecs/SIPxchange ECS, AsteriskNOW, and PBX in a Flash (I know there are more, feel free to write to me and tell me about yourself) are considerably easier to administer than a traditional PBX system. Hybrid-hosted systems such as PBXtra are exceptionally easy to set up. Any system or network administrator of average skills can handle these.

Even if you think you'll never need more than a local iPBX, there are advantages to migrating away from a traditional PBX system. It's the first step in preparing for the future, and it opens up a whole new range of options. You can use any mix of analog, digital, and IP phones, and you can migrate at your own pace. This flexibility extends to mobile users, with highly configurable call forwarding to virtually any device, voicemail-to-email, faxing, and text-to-speech.

I want cheap long distance

Tread carefully here and do your math, because telephone calls over the Internet are a whole different ballgame, and the savings are often not what you're led to expect. You don't want to be like the people who go ballistic every time a first-class stamp goes up a penny, and they protest by driving all over town to hand-deliver letters. There are a lot of ways to get inexpensive long distance on the traditional phone networks. Call quality on Internet calls is still inconsistent—sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's horrible. Is it worth saving a few dollars to risk alienating your customers? As always, you get what you pay for. Ignore all those insanely optimistic TV commercials and start with your telco. You want to deal with whoever controls the wires, not some third-party service provider who resells bulk minutes, and who gets shunted to the end of the line.

What about Skype, you ask? Skype offers a number of advantages: excellent call quality and encryption, conferencing, free individual accounts, low-cost business services, and pretty decent video calls and mobile services. It's an easy and inexpensive way to get good VoIP services. The two big downsides are it's a closed network, so you can only talk to other Skype customers, and it does not integrate with Asterisk or other VoIP servers. One way to benefit from Skype is to use it to talk to a select group, such as remote partners, employees, and road warriors. You could have a public Skype number (DID) for your customers, in addition to your other contact numbers. I wouldn't rely on it exclusively unless you only want to do business with other Skype users.

So the moral of the story is start with thinking about what needs you want met and how can you create a more pleasant experience for your customers and staff, rather than trying to shoehorn this new whizbang technology into your business just because it is new and whizbang. If an inexpensive multi-line answering machine with conferencing meets your needs, stick with that and be happy.

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