VoIP is no longer as simple as free phone calls over the internet and consequently the benefits for your business could be much bigger than that. But is your phone system up to the swap?
Everywhere you look there seems to be a continued explosion of technologies designed to connect us faster, to communicate more effectively or conveniently send increasingly huge files backward and forward in the blink of an eye. Yet if you sit back and think about some of the most frustrating service experiences you’ve had over the past year, they probably related to a voice.
Voice continues to be the most in demand application. The majority of services are still delivered this way. Not being able to connect to anyone, not reaching the right person, being bounced around to numerous people, important messages not being picked up, passed on or acted upon or not being able to hear properly due to poor line quality continue to be common complaints.
Having a quality system in place to manage voice interactions is important and managing the cost of telephony in all its forms is crucial. This is where technology like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has gained a lot of traction in the past few years.
Most people know VoIP is a way of using a broadband internet connection to make telephone calls. At its most basic is really just another piece of string connecting two proverbial tin cans. VoIP is cheap and saves money by eliminating toll calls but it doesn’t help you do better business.
In fact, a poor quality VoIP line can be very frustrating. It is common for small businesses that are experimenting with VoIP by using ‘consumer grade’ services such as Skype to experience echoing, dropouts and delays in the voice signal. In and of itself, VoIP doesn’t make it easier to offer a higher standard of customer service or eliminate clunky, time-wasting processes that bog your business down. To do that, you need to connect the sorts of things your business does over the phone (voice interactions) together with the processes that take place on your computer (data transactions). Chatting with VoIP gives you cheap calls, but it is IP telephony that will help you do better business.
It’s important to approach VoIP and IP telephony with your eyes wide open. There are many options, varying levels of investment and steps you can take to be sure that your business does not compromise the quality of your communications.
Spot the difference
Where VoIP is just a way of making individual phone calls digital and carrying them down an internet line, IP telephony digitises entire phone systems. This is an important distinction because IP telephony means things done over the phone can be integrated with all your data, such as business software applications like Outlook, customer relationship management (CRM), help desk and accounting packages.
At the big end of town, implementing IP telephony helps corporations to greatly reduce the delineation between communications and business process. Obviously there are real benefits involved but up until recently it has been tough to make a strong SME business case for IP telephony. The cost of hardware, software and the complexity of implementation along with the proprietary licensing and service models for business grade systems has put it out of reach. Further confusion has been created because of the increasing visibility of consumer grade VoIP products.
It is important to distinguish between business and home use. The quality and functionality of the consumer level options is still way below par for business purposes and they do not have suitable service and support models. You might be inconvenienced if you cannot make a personal call from home using Skype but if your business communications systems are not available, the damage can be considerable so it is prudent to seek out some middle ground.
Within the last few years, the open source community has emerged as a strong new contender in the IP telephony arena. Innovative solutions emerging from new entrants into the telephony markets have opened up the middle ground, making the technology, applications and benefits far more accessible.
‘Open source’ means developing systems, tools, applications and widgets with coding and programming resources that are freely available to anyone. Applied to commercial systems, this means there are lower overheads for the companies that develop in open source and no licensing fees for the businesses that use them. The result is IP telephony systems that have lots of great features and functions but are low cost compared to proprietary options.
No ongoing licensing fees means companies that specialise in open source must compete on service. So not only are the systems less expensive, open source vendors and their partners are very service-oriented, which lends itself well to working with SMEs.
Another specific benefit of open source is that it is ‘integration agnostic’. This just means that there are no inherent problems in trying to get open source systems to play nicely with other kinds of systems and software programmes.
When is it time?
Is an old PBX is holding the company back? Is the monthly bill for mobile calls getting out of hand? Relying on calls diverting to mobiles is a useful stop gap measure, but it can quickly result in unanticipated and unnecessary expense. When simple things such as adding new extensions, transferring calls interstate or even getting voicemail are a talked about source of frustration in your office, then it’s time to look at making the change to VoIP.
A full migration to VoIP is not a step to make lightly. Many businesses are reluctant to rely solely on broadband connections for telephony because outages are still common. It is helpful to know there are hybrid options available that deliver all the benefits of IP Telephony but allow your business to fall back to a standard PBX connection if your broadband connections fail.
Hybrid: not just cars
Hybrids operate in three modes using the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), VoIP, and what’s called PSTN-fallback; a mode which ensures that you’ll always have phone service, even during internet outages. With a hybrid IP-PBX, you can also connect and use analog phones (including cordless sets), IP phones, or a combination. So you can convert select employees to IP telephony according to their needs and the capacity of your internet connections.
A hybrid IP-PBX enables you to start saving money right away, even if you choose to use the PSTN connections to the outside world. With a hybrid IP-PBX at your business, you get free VoIP calls between offices and with all your telecommuters, but you can selectively choose to pay more for calls across the PSTN where the quality matters most.
Think of it this way: your employees get free VoIP calling between themselves, interstate and overseas, but you can choose to guarantee your customers the perfect quality of a fixed landline when they call you, or you call them.
At a bare minimum, moving to VoIP and IP telephony will ensure your business has a great deal of flexibility when it comes to managing communications. The right kind of solution will make it easy for managers to see at a glance how many calls are coming into the business and whether anyone is available to answer. It will provide very simple, intuitive tools to help manage calls, such as ‘drag and drop’ functions on your computer to move waiting calls to the next available person. These are simple functions but for most SMEs, they represent a big step in the right direction when it comes to improving customer service.
Used to its full potential and IP Telephony can revolutionise the way you do business because this kind of technology can be customised to integrate with almost anything, including accounting software.
Let’s use a hypothetical scenario to explain. A mobile call to a field rep working for a fashion wholesaler results in a $250,000 order from a retail chain. Using IP telephony, that field agent is linked to the backend web ordering system and remotely logs details for that order. That entry triggers a communications event through to the warehouse with an order for the stock items to be readied for delivery. That event automatically queries the database to check available stock and sends an order to the supplier for any items not in the warehouse.
At the same time, the sales rep has been able to access everyone’s Outlook calendars remotely to set up a conference call to discuss the order, how to address the value of the relationship given the scale of the order, timeframes needed to fill it, any commercial, logistics, warehousing and freight issues that may need to be addressed.
While this call is taking place, other staggered or simultaneous events have also been triggered such as:
- Automatic email confirmation of the order, including approximate fulfillment time frame based on company policy for turnaround on orders
- Alert in to all relevant management and accounting personnel
- Warehouse alert for packaging and freight
- Alert to freight company
- Post to the billing system and alert to accounts
- Post of sales commission details to wages clerk.
Whether placed in real time or staggered to allow a buffer of time within which the scenario may change, there is no requirement for manual human intervention to manage the flow of information regarding the order. With this aspect of the transaction automated, the human resource is left free to act and follow up in order to ensure the order is filled quickly.
Is your network ready for VoIP?
Probably not. Here’s a fact: the LANs and internet connections (WANs) used by most SMEs are simply not ready to handle VoIP. The basic firewalls commonly used for security and virus protection often cause VoIP calls to break up. The low cost routers from the local computer store often don’t have the horsepower to drive quality VoIP calls.
Of course, your VoIP network includes not only your LAN but also your WAN. Your WAN begins with your broadband modem and ends with your broadband internet provider. Most people don’t understand that just having a broadband connection is not enough. You actually need a high quality connection to deliver the call quality you need to run a real business. Many SMEs connect to the internet via DSL or cable, most often with inexpensive modems. While such connections work fine for web browsing and email, they are not designed to handle VoIP transmissions, much less the combination of voice and data.
As if ensuring you have a great LAN and WAN was not enough, you also have to choose a high quality VoIP service provider (VSP or ITSP). Much like fixed line providers, VSPs provide you with VoIP calling over the internet. Like ISPs, not all VSPs are created equal in terms of network strength, proximity to the PSTN backbone and, of course, good old fashion customer service.
VoIP and IP telephony are not for everyone. When researching the market it is easy to get swamped with information but try this approach as a basic checklist:
- Who says you are locked in to buying certain types of phones?
- Which vendors say you are limited on how many extensions you can have?
- Who agrees to let your business trial the product at no cost and no obligation?
- Which vendors demonstrate good insight into your business domain, and market segment (retail, health, IT etc)?
And as a final note, it always pays to ask around for anecdotal information from other businesses that have moved to VoIP and IP telephony. There is no experience better than avoiding the bad experience of others.
–Marc Englaro is the vice president of international sales for Fonality Inc., a provider of commercial open source IP Telephony systems designed for SMEs, and managing director of Fonality Australia (www.fonality.com.au).
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