Choosing a Small Business Phone System

Choosing a Small Business Phone System

Your company's telephone system plays an obviously important role in its success by providing your direct line to customers, suppliers and key business contacts. In fact, a telephone system is often the first equipment a new business decides to buy.

As with other business systems and services, digital technology has evolved the basic office telephone far beyond its basic - yet still critical - role in conveying voice calls. Today's small business phone systems can perform a variety of call-handling functions, making the right choice somewhat challenging.

Fortunately, systems are flexible enough to allow business owners to start with a basic system and to expand as their company and its communications needs grow.

Getting Started

Today's business telephone systems are sophisticated, offering a variety of standard features such as hold, transfer, redial, intercom and conferencing. Many special features are also available: music-on-hold, voicemail, automated attendant, paging, hands-free operation and call restrictions.

These additional features help to improve business productivity by making it easier for you to do business with your customers. For instance, remote location features allow employees in separate locations to call each other using internal extensions.

Newer features offered by many business phone systems include find me/follow me (which routes calls among a list of numbers until it is answered or is sent to voice mail), interactive voice response, shared message boxes, unified messaging (see related article) and more.

Your telephone system can represent an important financial investment. Like many technology purchases, an importing first step is to take a few moments to think about your business' communication needs and how you'll use its phone system. For instance, try to consider factors such as:

  • How many lines will you need?
  • How easy is it to use?
  • How fast is your business growing?
  • What other equipment do you plan to use?
  • Can this system be expanded easily as your needs change?

It is also important to consider how likely you'll be to use many of the features being offered. Features on some telephone systems can seem impressive, but may be too complicated to use on a daily basis. It is important to shop for a system that's easy for you and your employees to understand and use.

During your planning, consider the number and locations of the phone handsets that you're likely to need. Along with obvious choices such as each office or cubicle, consider areas such as conference rooms or other shared spaces where employees might need to make or receive calls.

Similarly, it's important to consider your phone system's power requirements. If you're using equipment installed on your premises, you should also install backup power supplies to ensure you can still make and receive calls during any power outages.

Understanding Your Options

Several primary types of telephone systems are available, although digital technology is increasingly blurring the distinctions among them. Many features, such as PBX capabilities, that were once available only by installing equipment in your office can often be ordered as hosted services that are managed by your telecommunications provider.

Key System: The most widely used telephone system by small business today is the key system, which offers many features businesses typically need such as call hold, conference call and transfer. An electronic processor known as a key service unit controls from two to up to 100 telephone sets.

PBX (Private Business Exchange): Typically, businesses with more than 50 employees prefer a PBX system that can control thousands of lines. Mid-to-large size firms managing their own communications network usually choose a PBX rather than a key system because of its larger telephone set and line capacities.

Hosted PBX: A hosted system offers PBX capabilities using equipment that is hosted by your communications service provider, saving business owners the cost and complexity of leasing and installing equipment on their premises. Hosted PBX systems may offer flexibility in the types of features that are offered, and can be updated more easily by the service provider.

Centrex: Centrex is a business telephone service supplied by your communications provider that offers calling features tailored specifically for businesses. Typically, charges for Centrex features are added to the monthly bill for your basic phone service.

Special Applications and Options

Some telephone systems can link directly to a computer equipped with specialized business software to help you control and use your telephone more efficiently. Programs now available include:

  • Monitoring and cost accounting of your company's telephone usage
  • Dialing lists of names automatically
  • Tracking time spent on the phone with customers

If you use other types of equipment like fax machines, credit card verification terminals and modems, it's important to ask how easily the system links to other equipment. Flexibility is critical, particularly if you're just starting your business. If you expect your company to grow, consider a system that gives you the opportunity to add important features as you need them.

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