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Grasshopper: A Business-Oriented Virtual Phone System

With all of the fancy technologies we use today, it’s easy for web workers to overlook the importance of the telephone. I communicate with my two colleagues at our home offices by email and IM, and through our project management system, but we still spend a lot of time on the phone. And, of course, current and prospective customers need to call us, to discuss projects and get support.

Many web workers are looking at services like Google Voice and 3jam, which allow you to have one business phone number that can be configured to forward to cell phones, to voice mail, or to colleagues if you’re out of the office. Google Voice, however, isn’t really designed for business use, and 3jam has only limited business-oriented features.

If you need more robust features, there are many business-oriented “virtual phone systems.” I’ve recently taken one such product, Grasshopper (formerly GotVMail), for a spin, and was impressed by it. But its cost is higher than Google Voice and 3jam, so you’ll need to see if the feature set is worth it for you.

Grasshopper has quite an extensive feature set; more than I can list here. But some of the most useful are:

  • A very slick web interface. Since the system has so many features, it takes a while to find everything, but it’s pretty self-explanatory, and Grasshopper makes good use of tooltips and contextual help to point out and explain features. I found the interface to be a bit slow on occasion, but it’s generally pretty responsive.
  • The ability for each company member to have their own extension, with individual greetings, voicemail, web access and notifications by email or text messaging.
  • The ability to create “department” extensions that can be forwarded to one or more members of that department. Alternatively, one can create a “call-routing” extension that distributes calls equally across multiple extensions (useful for multi-person sales or support teams).
  • The ability to purchase local numbers or toll-free numbers (including “vanity” numbers), as well as to transfer in existing numbers, with minimal setup fees.
  • The ability to accept faxes, which can be sent to individual extensions, or to a dedicated fax extension. Faxes can be viewed online, or emailed to you as PDFs.
  • The ability to specify your regular business hours, and to route incoming calls differently depending on time of day.
  • Control over on-hold music. Grasshopper offers several different types, or you can upload your own (which might include messages as well as music). The default selections aren’t too bad, as hold music goes. You can use different music for each extension, if desired. There doesn’t seem to be a way to turn off hold music entirely, although I imagine that you could upload a blank MP3 file and select that.
  • The ability to record your own messages by phone, or to upload MP3 files. Grasshopper will write and record messages for you for $75-$175.

Given Grasshopper’s extensive features, I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a way to import contacts into the address book. And it doesn’t have voicemail transcription, like Google Voice and SpinVox do.

I suspect that most web workers will want to look at Grasshopper’s plans and pricing closely. As with most cellphone plans, Grasshopper charges you for incoming minutes. So the $9.95/month “Start” plan, which bundles only 100 minutes per month (with each additional minute billed at 6 cents), will probably not be suitable for most web workers. The “Grow” plan, priced at $49/month, and which is bundled with 2,000 minutes, is probably the minimum that will be useful in a business environment; Grasshopper also offers a more comprehensive plan for $199 a month.

You’ll want to compare Grasshopper with similar services such as Accessline, Virtual PBX, Onebox, RingCentral and others. Plan prices and features vary widely, so you’ll probably be able to find a service that fits your needs and budget. For instance, Accessline (which I’ve used for several years) has a similar service priced at $59.95 per month, but Costco members can get it for $29.95-$34.95. Accessline don’t have all the features that Grasshopper does, and its web interface is pretty clunky by today’s standards. But it has worked well for my company’s needs.

Grasshopper is certainly worth checking out. Its feature set makes it a worthy competitor in a field with many good products.