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Choose the right phone system for your business

If you’re a sole proprietor or if you operate a small store that needs just a couple of phone lines, a standard POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) setup is often sufficient. Add several more employees, however, or move to a standard, cubicle-based small-office environment, and a more sophisticated solution makes sense.

Plenty of options are available today, including PBX systems, VoIP, and virtual PBX networks. On a basic level, you’ll want a separate extension and phone for each employee who uses a phone in that office. If clients visit the office regularly, a conference room phone will help, possibly with the capability for employees to dial in remotely. What kind of service and equipment should you get for your business? Here’s how to figure it out.

1. Consider your basic business needs.
Take stock of your current situation. Do you need individual extensions with voicemail for each employee? Do you want some kind of mobile solution (such as a BlackBerry or other smart phone) for employees to take on the road? How many employees do you envision having in the next three years? Do you want calls routed to people in remote locations? Decide these important factors before you begin shopping. The following features are available with most small-business packages: multiple extensions, remote voicemail pickup, route-to-fax capability, call forwarding. Some packages also include teleconferencing capabilities, though it’s very easy to buy that service separately as needed through services such as AllConferencing.com, UnlimitedConferencing.com, and other phone- and Web-based conferencing solutions.

2. Optional features can give you an extra edge.
Consider the following features while keeping your situation in mind: Auto-attendant: This frees you or your staff from answering the phone every time it rings. You can put in messages for business hours, any directions or instructions, and route incoming calls to the right employees. Equally important, when customers hear a computerized system with options, it can make them feel like they’ve reached a larger business. Conferencing: If you have a lot of phone conferences, you might find it more cost-effective to have your own teleconferencing capabilities instead of using one of the third-party services listed above. Call hunt: If one employee doesn’t answer the phone, the call will automatically forward to another person instead of going directly to voicemail.

3. Home offices and contractors can also benefit from phone systems.
Just because you’re running your business out of a spare bedroom doesn’t mean you can’t afford a professional telephony solution. A good basic business system can let you schedule auto-attendant features in case you’re away, forward your calls to your mobile phone, and route incoming fax transmissions (even through the auto-attendant system). This is especially valuable for independent contractors who need 24/7 availability (such as plumbers) or for those who frequently leave the home office on sales calls. Look for inexpensive, single-user small-business plans from Vonage or VoicePulse (see below) to get these features. You can also consider a device like the ASAP DR401 ($70 to $80) to automatically route calls coming in on a POTS line to up to four different devices, such as a phone, an answering machine, a fax machine, and a computer. You may need your phone company or an additional device to provide distinctive incoming rings in order for the DR401 to work.

4. No matter which system you go with, keep an eye out for expandability.
The last thing you’ll want to do is to have to rip out a perfectly good system just because you’ve reached its capacity. If you run up against TalkSwitch’s 32-line main limit, for example, you can expand it with up to an additional 64 VoIP lines. That’s usually more than enough for any small business.

5. Once you’ve determined your needs, you’ll also want to decide on the type of service. Here are some of the options:

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol)
For sole proprietors and small-office environments that need just a few phone lines and basic voicemailboxes, a VoIP (Internet-based phone service, or Voice over Internet Protocol) solution could be ideal. Such options include Vonage Small Business Unlimited Plan ($49.99 per month, plus $44.99 per month for each additional line), VoicePulse Business Unlimited ($45.99 per month per line), or Speakeasy Business VoIP ($590 per month for a five-employee small-office unlimited plan). You’ll need to make sure, though, that you also have enough computer network bandwidth and the right equipment to get the highest-quality phone calls possible. Each VoIP system makes specific recommendations for equipment. Some require new pieces, such as dedicated routers for each carrier, and some let you use regular phone equipment, with the proper adapters.

PBX (Private Branch eXchange)
PBX systems include onsite switching equipment to route calls between employees and to outside lines. Standard PBX systems are normally ideal for medium and large businesses. But newer PBX vendors, such as TalkSwitch, provide services geared to the small-business market using VoIP technology. These kinds of systems are a good choice if you need sophisticated auto-attendant features. A small-business-focused PBX system, such as the TalkSwitch 48-CA ($1,495 for a four-line/eight-extension PBX system with nine auto-attendants, plus additional line costs), can give your store or small office the professional system it needs. PBX systems cost more than VoIP, especially on the start-up side, since you’re buying switching equipment in addition to new phones. A PBX can be overkill for businesses with a small number of employees.

Virtual PBX
Virtual PBX services such as GotVMail, VirtualPBX.com, and OneBox layer an auto-attendant PBX system on top of your existing mobile, land, and VoIP phone lines. This could be the perfect solution if you want to test the waters before committing to a larger system, because it lets you take advantage of all the lines you currently have. GotVMail, for example, gives you a toll-free number, call forwarding, voicemail, and a basic auto-attendant system that can even include hold music. The system lets you recruit part-time or remote employees to answer your phones as part of a larger, virtual office, without having to give them new phone equipment. Virtual PBX (or hosted PBX) systems cost about $10 to $50 per month, depending on features and the number of lines, and can save you tons of money. Look into these if you want to use the equipment you already have and don’t want or need a permanent office installation. An inexpensive system like this could give you all the power you need.

Open-source VoIP
Keep an eye open for emerging technologies such as Fonality, which installs open-source systems similar to Linux, but for business phones. Normally you’d have to think very carefully before adopting something this bleeding edge for your business. But many of these open-source technologies can save you money and also perform better, especially when a company such as Fonality can provide all the business support you need.