Business VoIP Provider Evaluation – A Buyers Guide
The growing adoption of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service by businesses echoes the recent vast improvements in the technology. This migration is due in large part to not only cost reductions, but the ability to integrate voice data with other parts of the business data network, for improved productivity and efficiency.
The goal of this guide is to outline the top criteria you will want to review when making a vendor selection. You will most likely want to evaluate several vendors, in order to ensure that you are selecting the one that will best fit your company’s needs.
2. Preparation: Key to Successful Business VoIP Implementation
Prior to considering VoIP service providers, you will want to begin by defining your business requirements. This includes looking at the number of calls your business routinely receives, and the amount of network data traffic during peak hours. You will also want to evaluate the cost of creating a merged network in which voice and other business data belong to the same network. Often over time, this becomes the real value for a business, since one network system is utilized for both voice and information technology, reducing maintenance and support costs.
You will also need to define what services you will want implemented. Will you want voice mails automatically forwarded to employee emails? Do you need to have customer contact information integrated with your phone service, allowing sales and customer service representatives to view an automatic pop-up when customer calls come in? Carefully defining the features you require will assist with pricing the cost of implementation.
Once you have defined your business requirements, you will also want to take a careful look at your existing network, and see how “VoIP ready” your business is. VoIP requires having a rapid, reliable broadband connection (cable or DSL) in place, or voice quality may be affected. Many VoIP service providers will also provide a (free) initial consultation with your company engineers, in order to identify any hardware or network routing issues that should be resolved prior to implementing your business VoIP telephone system.
3. Evaluate Multiple VoIP Service Providers
Not all VoIP phone service providers are equal in the service quality they provide. They can range from small companies geared mainly to consumer solutions, to carriers that specialize in the implementation and hosting of business-grade VoIP services. There is a vast range in not only pricing, but in the quality of support, the backbone connection and software used, which affects the services that will be available.
For most small to mid-sized businesses, a hosted VoIP service (also called VoIP PBX or Virtual PBX) is the best option. The hosting service maintains switches and other hardware on their end, while the business is responsible for providing their own ISP service and for purchasing IP phones. These phones contain a special Ethernet jack that will plug directly into your network, and like a computer, have their own IP address assigned.
If you have an existing onsite PBX system that you want to continue using, a business VoIP service can alternatively provide you with business-grade analog telephone adaptors (ATAs) that will allow you to continue using your conventional phones.
Mid-sized to larger businesses may want to consider buying their own equipment from a firm that provides this equipment and assists with the initial implementation, as well as supplying the actual VoIP phone service.
3.1. Critical Criteria for VoIP Provider Evaluation
A. Technology Capabilities
You may be surprised to see this near the top of the criteria to look at, instead of cost. But integration of your company’s voice and other data can provide the most cost-effective and efficient use of your existing IT infrastructure, with significantly improved employee productivity. This productivity will be affected by the applications the hosting service is able to provide.
For instance, do you want the ability to rapidly access your customer database and contact information from an IP phone? Or the ability to provide “click and call now” capability from your website? Not all providers can offer these features, but many of the larger ones can. What features are offered with their “basic service” package? Do they provide caller ID, follow-me roaming, and the ability to support multiple four-digit extensions at no extra charge? Also check that they support E911, allowing emergency services to find an exact location when a call is made.
The ability to support increased employee productivity is key when evaluating VoIP phone service providers. For instance, with some providers, voice mail, faxes and emails can be integrated, allowing voice messages and faxes to be forwarded to company email inboxes. Others will allow a single receptionist to receive calls from multiple offices, or to have interactive voice response capabilities for incoming and outgoing calls. With most services, after-hours calls on your office phone can be automatically routed to your cell phone by programming the system to do this at set hours each day. Or you should be able to easily implement features such as call billing, allowing your employees to click on a button to begin tracking the time spent on a specific call, with charges automatically added for billing purposes.
With VoIP, you should have easier access to management reports than with a traditional phone service. Your system administrators should be able to click on a password protected link to gain access to reports on the IP calls made from your business. This allows you to identify trends, including when peak voice traffic occurs, and to review the types of calls made, among other features.
Can it Grow with Your Needs?
Another important factor when evaluating a VoIP phone hosting service is their scalability. Can they support a growing business, including adding lines as needed? Including the features and applications required not just now, but in five years or more?
Carefully checking out the provider’s capabilities and ability to integrate with your existing network will help ensure that you maximize the capabilities of VoIP for your business. You may want to consider a provider whose initial startup costs are a bit higher, but who can adequately support your anticipated growth for years to come.
B. Call Quality
Call quality can vary greatly among providers, with the lowest quality offered by consumer services that simply provide a phone adaptor. The vendors you consider should offer business-grade equipment, whether in adaptors or IP phones. The call quality offered should at a minimum equal that of a traditional service, with a low rate of dropped calls, and you will want to check this out first-hand by calling references.
What is the business VoIP provider’s “uptime” (this should be at a minimum 99.6% or greater). Ask the firm how they handle network and power outages, and whether they provide automatic data backup.
You should be aware that call quality can be affected by not only the VoIP hosting service, but by the quality of your own ISP service. VoIP will only work well with a reliable, rapid broadband connection such as cable or DSL; satellite will not work due to the long distances that data much travel and back. Other factors include how well the existing network is set up to support VoIP. The better providers will visit onsite to identify whether routers or the current business firewall will prevent transmission of voice data, as well as other issue, prior to implementing service.
C. Customer Service
Customer service level is critical to an excellent experience when making the transition to VoIP phone service. The level of support may vary greatly between providers. Do they offer a consultative approach, helping you to identify issues that would reduce the quality of voice transmission? Do they suggest options for overcoming them? How experienced is the firm in setting up a business-grade VoIP telephone system?
An experienced business VoIP hosting service may deliver their service over a dedicated IP network to increase the bandwidth available. They should be able to suggest a good quality of service (QOS) software for giving voice data priority over your other network data. This can prevent dropped calls or poor quality voice transmission during times of peak traffic over your business network.
In addition to the above, you will want to evaluate the level of support that is provided not only during the actual implementation, but on an ongoing basis. How available are the customer service and technical support staff? How quickly can you expect a response to any issues that arise? Check on whether they have network performance monitoring in place that can help proactively identify potential problem areas. You will want to carefully evaluate the guarantees and warrantees that the vendor provides in their service level agreement.
D. Company Reputation and Reliability
Just as you would look into the references for other vendors, you will want to check into the reputation of the business VoIP phone service vendors you are evaluating. How experienced are they with implementing business PBX systems? A well-managed, financially sound company with an excellent reputation and experience will be the best choice when comparing providers.
Word-of-mouth from friends and business acquaintances can provide a good starting place for learning what their experience – and rating – of a VoIP provider is like. You can also go online, and view ratings for different providers at sites such as myvoipprovider.com.
Comparing cost goes beyond lower lost distance rates, although this can be a significant reduction in overhead if you have branch offices in other locations, or your employees travel frequently. Monthly service plans will vary among providers, and should be compared to see which offers the best cost for the services your company requires.
When factoring the costs for service, you will want to evaluate the following:
-Initial startup costs: this will vary with the size of the system, and how “VoIP ready’ your current business network is. For instance, IP phones will need access to a power source, and your business will likely need to implement a QOS (quality of service) software system for your network that gives priority to voice data. You will also need to evaluate if you currently have enough bandwidth to handle both network and voice data traffic. Implementing a VoIP PBX system may require upgrading routers or adding extra bandwidth to your current business network.
-Operational costs: this includes the costs of software and equipment upgrades as well as routine maintenance and trouble-shooting.
Ask the different business VoIP service providers what the total monthly operating costs will be for your business if they are selected for VoIP hosting, and get this in writing. Research to discover if there are any “hidden costs” that have not been defined upfront, and define whether you are leasing or purchasing any equipment provided. Find out what it costs to employ more advanced features, such as remote messaging capability, or call center services.
The real cost savings for many businesses comes over time, due to the fact that they no longer have to maintain separate networks for their phone and IT services. An IT person can take over managing the VoIP phone service. Another long-term cost benefit comes from increased employee productivity (see point A above). If an employee can work after hours or weekends from home and answer calls that ring at his desk; and simultaneously broadcast an important managerial alert to each branch manager with one call that also forwards via email, then the time savings can become significant – resulting in reduced company overhead. This is where evaluating the vendor’s ability to provide the productivity features you want is an important factor when comparing costs.
This is being increasingly addressed by service providers, through encryption of voice transmissions and others. You will want to evaluate the security features provided by each one, and how well they answer your questions regarding firewall security. A good VoIP provider can suggest solutions that range from software that provides security, to advising you on how to minimize security risks when your VoIP phone system is implemented.
When you are considering a vendor for any important service, it’s important to take the time for due diligence – and VoIP vendor selection is no exception. You will want to talk to business references for firms that are similar in size to yours.
The number of business VoIP service providers is growing, which has created competition that is to your benefit. By defining your firm’s requirements, and evaluating providers carefully, you can ensure that you will see a return on the investment you put into implementing VoIP phone service for both cost and improved employee productivity.
To find and compare business VoIP providers in your areas of business click on the link below: