How to Choose a Phone System for your Business

Youíre looking for a new business phone system but youíre not sure how to go about it. This decision is too important to get wrong. Donít worry.

Years of selling and supporting business phone systems has convinced us of two things:

1. Smart buyers want to make informed decisions but arenít always sure how to go about it.
2. Buyers who make informed decisions end up being our most satisfied, long-term clients.

Since itís in our best interest for you to make an informed choice, weíre going to help you do just that.

Step 1 - Understand Your Needs

This is the obvious first step, but it's surprising how many businesses don't get it right.

  • Learn how your current phone system is being used.

  • Ask your boss, your employees and your co-workers what they like and dislike about the current system and get their ideas about new capabilities that would help them work more efficiently.

  • Determine your current capacity needs (how many phones, how many outside lines, etc.).

  • Estimate your future capacity needs (for the next 5 years or more).

  • Figure out how youíd like to use your phone system if you could have anything that you wanted. Some amazing technologies have become very affordable in recent years. Use your imagination, but if you need help getting started then check out our Food for Thought section at the end of this document.

Step 2 - Contact a Reseller

Few phone system manufacturers work directly with end users. They use authorized resellers to sell and support their products. Find one in your area. An Internet search for Ďphone system reseller YOUR TOWNí usually gets good results.

Why contact a reseller before you even know what system you want to buy? Itís simple. Dealers know about the latest innovations and they will be very happy to tell you all about them. Most reputable resellers carry several product lines and will work with you to learn about your business in an effort to find a good fit (and a new client). This is free consultation with no obligation to buy, and you should take advantage of it.

The reseller that you contact may or may not have the right product for you. If they donít, thatís okay because youíll be much better informed and will have new ideas about how you really want to use your system. Youíll also start to understand the difference between a reseller that wants to work with you for the long term and one that just wants to sell you a system (any system) and walk away.

Step 3 - Choose a System

This step seems difficult because there are so many choices. Buyers suffer from different forms of hysteria. Some get ĎAnalysis Paralysisí - they are so overwhelmed by feature lists and specifications that they canít make up their mind. Others throw up their hands in frustration and go with the cheapest quote. They assume theyíre doomed to make the wrong choice anyway so they want to waste as little money as possible. Still others ignore capability and cost and choose the system from the most recognizable manufacturer (ďThey make such great microwaves, their phone systems must be good too, right?Ē).

The simple fact is this: Each business has unique needs so there is no standard formula for choosing the right product. There are, however, a few factors that every business should consider:

  • Product Demonstration - Demo, Demo, Demo! We canít stress this enough. Have a reseller come out and show you their systems - live. Most manufacturers make portable demonstration kits that are designed for this purpose. See and feel the difference between the phone models. Learn if the system is intuitive to use. Hear the speaker quality. Youíre going to pay thousands of dollars for this system Ė take it for a test drive!

  • Price is Important but Value is King - The most common mistake we see is buyers purchasing on price alone. Cost has to be a key factor in your decision, but overall value is more important. A higher-priced system with more capability can quickly make up the cost difference through improved efficiency. Consider maintenance costs as well. Are you going to have to call the reseller every time you want to make a minor change? Can the system be programmed and updated remotely? Focus on long-term value rather than up-front cost.

  • Manufacturer - There are many phone system manufacturers. Some youíve heard of, others you havenít. Donít let name recognition alone be your determining factor. Some of the best, most innovative phone systems come from solid but lesser-known companies. On the other hand, particularly with VOIP systems in recent years, there have been new startups that have sprung up and now seem to be fading away. Consider the following:

    • Years in business

    • Annual sales

    • Extent and usefulness of their web site

    • Technical support process

    • Warranty claim process

    • History of innovation

    • Length of time thsi particular system has been on the market

  • Ease of Use Ė What good is that list of 237 different features if theyíre so hard to set up and so difficult to use that nobody wants to bother? When you view a live demo, make sure the reseller explains this aspect of system operation, and donít underestimate its importance.

  • Product Capabilities Ė Focus first on the capabilities that you must have, then on the ones that youíd like to have and finally on those that you may want to have sometime in the future. Donít worry about the ones that you know youíll never need.

  • Warranty Ė Youíre investing a lot of money in this system and you will be using it for a long time. Your system should come with an extended warranty. Most manufacturers now offer 5 year warranties, so make sure that is included in your proposal.

  • Room for Growth Ė You do not want to grow out of your system in a few years. Systems can be expanded, but they all have an upper limit. If youíve had 9 employees for the last 33 years and have no plans to change, then this may not be a big issue. If youíre a startup that is looking to grow aggressively, then you need to figure that heavily into the equation.

  • References Ė Ask your reseller to provide several product references. These should be companies using the same system that you are considering. Call the references and ask them specific questions about the system and also about their overall impression of the product.

Step 4 - Choose a Reseller

Youíve chosen the system that you want to buy and in the process youíve worked with one or more resellers. Even if youíre very comfortable with one of them, talk to at least one more to get a competitive quote for the system that youíve settled on. This will kep them all honest with respect to pricing.

Beyond that, here are some things to look for:

  • In business for 5 years or more - There are no guarantees Ė especially these days - but you want someone whoís been around and is likely to be around for a while longer.

  • Extended service warranty - Manufacturer warranties cover the replacement cost of parts, but they donít cover labor for troubleshooting or repair work by the reseller. Your reseller should have at least a 2 year service warranty included with their proposal. Longer is even better.

  • Organized - Phone system installations, even for small offices, involve a lot of planning and coordination. Your reseller should have a clear, detailed process for the things that will happen before, during and after your system installation.

  • Useful web site - A web site that is kept up and contains useful information for both prospective buyers and existing clients shows a commitment to the product and to the people who use it.

  • Willing to provide references - These should include at least one from a customer where things didnít go well. Stuff happens, and how a reseller handles client problems usually says more about them than when things go smoothly.

  • Computer/Network experience - Phone systems are becoming more and more integrated with computer and network applications. Find a reseller who has expertise in those areas or you may miss out on some of the latest innovations.

On the other hand, here are some things to be wary of:

  • New business (less than 1 year) - Let somebody else be one of their first clients.

  • One-trick pony - The Ďone size fits allí concept just doesnít work. Every system has capabilities that others donít have, and each one does certain things better than others. A dealer with only one product is, by definition, going to try to force you to fit into that system because itís the only option they have.

  • Wonít provide references - This is a big red flag. Run away.

  • Fear tactics - Talking down the competitorsí systems or the competitors themselves usually means that they arenít confident in selling their product or their company on their own merits. The negative information that they provide is usually misinformed at best or at worst an outright lie.

  • Mandatory service contract - This isnít as prevalent as it used to be, but some resellers still try to force customers into mandatory service contracts that incur monthly charges. Optional service contracts are okay. Mandatory contracts are cause for concern.

Step 5 - Go For It!

We hope that this brief guide has helped. Now go ahead and make your final decision in the comforting knowledge that youíve done your homework and considered all the angles. Good luck with your new system!

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Food for Thought

The problem with figuring out what you want to do with a new phone system is that you donít know what you donít know. This list is intended to get your creative juices flowing. All of these technologies are currently available and are affordable for small businesses. Think of the possibilities!

Computer Telephone Integration (CTI)

  • Point-and-Click/Drag-and-Drop Call Handling

  • Computer-based User and Administrator Programming

  • One-click Dialing of Customer Database Contacts

  • Voice Mail to Email Message Notification

  • Voice Mail Conversion to WAV Files

  • Text Messaging

  • Real Time Call Queue Monitoring

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)

  • Seamless Integration of Home Office or Remote Office Phones

  • Site to Site Intercom and Call Transfers

  • Software Based Phones (Softphones)

  • SIP Trunking (IP-Based Phone Lines)

Cordless Phones

  • Fully Integrated Digital or IP Cordless Phones

  • 900 MHz, DECT, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

  • Repeater Systems

Bluetooth Integration

  • Pairing of Bluetooth Headset to Desk Phone

  • Cellular Service Access via Telephone System

Presence Management

  • Door Access Control

  • Time and Attendance Tracking

  • Video Camera Integration

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