Virtual phone systems are here to stay and it’s not surprising why. While relatively unknown even just a decade or two ago, they have become a must-have business tool in 2020. Many businesses have already ditched their analog phone systems and made the jump to virtual switchboards or cloud phones.
If you are looking to make the switch as well, here are a few things you should know before diving in.
To better understand virtual switchboards, we need to go back in time to the earliest business phone systems. These systems relied on human operators to physically connect both ends of a call with wires. Later on, these consoles were replaced by the more familiar desk phone for receptionists with buttons for specific employees.
Gradually businesses moved on to phone servers to automate the call connection process, eliminating the human operator. Most companies used these phone servers or PBX (Private Branch eXchange) systems to manage incoming and outgoing calls.
This is where the virtual switchboard comes in. For the most part, the difference between a traditional phone system and a virtual switchboard is the location of the phone server. In most traditional systems, the server would be ‘on-site,’ in a phone closet or server room in the office. With a virtual switchboard, some part or all of the phone system components are ‘off-site’ i.e, located in the cloud so to speak.
To this end, terms like hosted, cloud-based, virtual, etc. when it comes to phone systems mean roughly the same thing. While there are technical differences, execution and implementation are equivalent. The result is that companies do not have any hardware on the premises, except the dek phones employees use to make and receive calls.
There are so many differences between the two that it’s simply not possible to list them all. The only thing they have in common is the user experience. Employees will pick up the phone and dial a number just like old times! However, the most significant difference – and often improvements – are listed below:
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you would be familiar with a business phone system. Every employee would have a phone on their desk connected with wires to a central PBX. In many cases, offices would have a closet or entire room dedicated to housing the hardware needed for their communication system.
With a virtual switchboard, you don’t have any equipment. None at all. The only hardware you would see are desk phones which are often connected to the internet. You may not even need the desk phones if everyone uses their mobile devices for business calls.
Traditional business phone systems were expensive enough that only medium and large companies could afford them. Small businesses often got by with a patchwork of solutions that barely did the job.
If you eliminate the physical hardware requirement, there is not much cost involved. That’s why virtual switchboards are so much cheaper! Your business does not have to buy, repair, or maintain anything.
Old school phone systems were analog and that was fine for a long time. Until businesses started using digital systems for pretty much everything else. So businesses were limited to the basics – call routing, voicemail, call groups, etc. Adding features, numbers, or seats needed time and money.
Virtual switchboards offer so many more features. From visual voicemail to multi-device ring, there’s practically no limit to what your company can achieve with some customization and tinkering.
The Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) was extremely reliable. Your phones would work even if you lost power in a storm. Landlines have been pretty robust for decades.
The situation was very different when virtual switchboards launched. They experienced audio issues, constant dropped calls, missing words, and interrupted conversations. Fortunately, vendors have improved reliability and quality since then. Today most virtual switchboards can compete or even outperform any landline.
Businesses needed to hire experts to maintain their phone system. They could – and often did – outsource the phone management to other companies or to the telecom carrier. Any small change needed plenty of time and effort to implement.
Organizations do not have to worry about any of that with virtual switchboards. Users and admins can make changes through an intuitive interface, often accessible online. You can make changes instantly in most cases, no need to wait. You can re-assign employees to more productive tasks.
Most modern businesses have to use mobile devices in some fashion, even if it’s only because your employees want them. Unfortunately, analog systems cannot support them at all for the most part. Virtual switchboards, on the other hand, excel at this. You can integrate mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and any other mobile device you can think of with the system. This is especially useful if you have a remote workforce or your staff is forced to work from home through a pandemic.
Virtual switchboards are very flexible across every area, from making changes to features. You can often select exactly how you want the phone system to work. You need only buy the resources you want at any given time and can upgrade/downgrade as necessary. Traditional PBX systems were much more rigid and your staff would have to adapt to the system instead of the other way round.
Service contracts are part of the package if you want an old-school switchboard. Any business would have to sign a contract for repairs, maintenance, and services. What if you want to switch carriers, or downgrade? Tough luck, you had to complete the current contract or pay penalties.
The business model for virtual switchboards is very different. The vendor will charge you a certain price each month and you’re free to switch, upgrade, or downgrade at any time. While you may get better rates if you sign up for one, there is no requirement to do so.
This is the easiest and hardest question to answer. The simple version? It depends on a lot of things from your budget to the vendor and the features you are looking for. There is no single vendor out there whose services fit perfectly for every business. Just as every company is unique, their communication needs are as well.
However, there are a few important things to consider when selecting a provider including:
Price is an important consideration when switching to new technology. Is the sticker price worth the value you are getting in return? How long does it take to recoup any initial expenses? Companies should be wary of paying too much or too little. Paying too much for features you don’t need is a waste of resources that could be used elsewhere. Paying too little when a little extra would get you valuable features is just as big of a mistake. So do your research before signing on the dotted line.
The key is to pay for features that you need and not fret over features that are simply nice-to-have or you may not even need. There is a middle ground between choosing the cheapest plan and going all out for the best features. Try to select a plan that offers what your business needs at the moment with room to upgrade when required.
As we said before, today’s vendors can match or even outperform landlines. But not all services are the same. Before deciding on a vendor, make sure to test drive the service for a few days or even weeks under real-world conditions. Also, check if they offer a service level agreement and what that entails for customers. SLAs usually specify the guaranteed uptime for your phones and the compensation if nay if the provider fails to meet them.
Just as with any digital system, virtual switchboards are vulnerable to security threats. Hackers may gain access to sensitive information via the phones or break-in and make fake calls worth thousands of dollars on your account. Since the vendor is in charge of the hardware and software, you should verify their security posture before signing on.
If mobility isn’t something you’ve considered before, it’s vital to do so now. 2020 has shown that working from home or remote working might become a necessity at any time. So make sure the service provider offers excellent integration with mobile devices.
Finally, there is not much point in selecting a good quality service if the provider does not offer excellent customer support. When you run into issues or the system is down for any reason, how responsive is the vendor? Do they offer extensive training materials so your staff has the resources to learn the system? Can you access their support through multiple channels such as live chat, phone, email, social media, etc?
As you might expect, switching over to virtual switchboards can be simple and frustrating at the same time. While the decision to use hosted services is an easy one to make, a lot rides on finding the right vendor for your needs.
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