As soon as there is more than one person in your business, you need to think about how you manage your phones.
If your business doesn’t get a lot of calls, or the majority of your staff don’t make and take calls, then you’ll be fine with one line and one phone.
But if the phone is an essential tool in your business, you will need a network that can grow as the business does. And it will save a lot of grief if you plan ahead while there are just a few people in the business.
Fortunately there are lots of options for business phone networks these days, and many ways to keep the costs down, as this latest Bytestart guide shows.
The easiest and standard way is what you do at home: have a single BT line put in and have one phone on the end of it. This gives you calls in and out without hassle, and you can normally subscribe to advanced features such as Caller Line Identity (so you know who’s calling), Call Waiting and Call Diverts. Remember you can switch to a different provider once you are out of contract (the line is still BT’s responsibility, but the new provider issues your bill).
The biggest problem with a single line is what happens when your business gets two calls at once – it’s pretty unprofessional for a business to have Call Waiting or an engaged tone. Many businesses get round this by setting up their line to automatically divert to another number (for example a call answering service) if the line is busy.
A single line can easily support two or three people in a business. If you all need to make calls, then consider a cordless phone. Make sure you get a DECT (Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telephony) as these are digital and offer better call quality. In general with cordless phones you get what you pay for.
Multiple lines and a PBX
This is the solution businesses relied on for years. You have a number of lines coming into your business and a Private Branch Exchange (PBX). This is a box which allows people to phone each other within the business and make external calls. There are hundreds of different systems available and they are generally highly reliable. The biggest downside is the cost. You have to pay for each phone line installed, plus PBXs tend to be pretty expensive. They are sometimes leased meaning you are tied into a long-term contract.
The alternative to a fixed line system is to use the internet. VOIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol, and is a not particularly catchy term used to describe calls made using the net rather than a phone line. Of course you still need a phone line to get broadband into your premises in the first place.
VOIP’s biggest advantage is its cost – calls tend to be competitively priced. But the downside is call quality; because you are sharing the bandwidth with other people in your office surfing the net, if someone is downloading a big file or video while you are making a call it can affect your conversation.
There are numerous non-professional VOIP systems available; the best known one is Skype, now part of eBay. The software allows you to make a call from a phone plugged into your computer, or directly connected to your router. You typically need the Skype software running to make the call, which can be a pain if you’ve turned off your computer for the night. Skype is packed with features and also allows you to call any Skype user anywhere else in the world for free. You phone people by Skype ID rather than phone number, but you can also make normal calls. And you can get a normal number which “diverts” to your Skype number. Skype is fine for a small business, but is not really a professional business tool and has limited growth options.
A much better solution is a VOIP phone system specifically designed for business. Typically you get a normal phone that sits on your desk and works as a traditional phone does. You pick up the phone and make a call; no need to connect it to your computer or run any software.
Business VOIP phones are connected to your broadband so the issues with call quality can arise. Some growing businesses get round this by having two broadband connections into their business; one for the internet and one for the phone system.
As well as reduced call costs, business VOIP phones tend to be packed with features. You can easily upload directories and manage your phones from your PC. Many providers offer a virtual PBX, so you can make internal calls and transfer calls around your business, at a fraction of the cost of a real PBX.
Increasingly big businesses are catching onto the benefits of VOIP and are ditching their traditional phone systems. That’s being helped by massive product placement in movies and TV programmes by a VOIP phone provider called Cisco – in the TV series 24, the desk phones there are all by Cisco, and once you know what they look like you’ll start to see them in all sorts of productions!
Just remember that if your building loses power or your broadband goes down, so will your phones (unlike traditional phones which don’t require an additional power supply).
There’s one other option to look at and that’s the use of mobile phones. If your business makes a lot of outgoing calls and you don’t want to invest much in infrastructure, this can be an extremely cost-effective option. Many networks will do deals with huge numbers of inclusive minutes or free calls to UK landlines during business hours. Just remember to get Bluetooth or hands free cables for your team so they don’t get hot ears!