woman on phone at computer
Choosing the right business phone system can be complicated. — Getty Images/jacoblund

For some startups, running a business with a cell phone might make sense. When you’re running a growing business, however, a phone system will eventually become a necessity. Choosing the right one can be confusing. With lots of options, features and new technology, it’s important to assess your choices carefully.

This guide will help you choose a business phone system by:

  • Outlining your phone system options
  • Understanding different phone system technologies
  • Identifying which features are best for your business

Virtual vs. landline vs. VoIP

A virtual telephone system is a phone system that routes calls through a main number to remote workers off site through their mobile devices. This can be a great solution for both massive companies and sole proprietors alike, allowing a business to present itself professionally and giving remote workers access to features they may not have on their home phones. The problem is, it’s not a full-fledged phone system, and it is subject to the reliability of your local network connection.

Landlines are the old reliable network you grew up with, running over the wiring of your local or regional telephone company. To run your business phone system on a landline you need private branch exchange (PBX) hardware on-site. This creates multiple extensions inside the business and allows for different features like directories and call transfers. They’re reliable, but a lot of phone companies are phasing out these systems, making them harder to install and maintain.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is the dominant platform of the day. Instead of using wires, voice runs over the same network that carries your data. These systems come with all the features that once required a PBX system. You can add extensions, features, directories, automated attendants and more. As long as you live in a community with good internet service, VoIP should be a viable option. They are relatively affordable, and the features can usually be added a la carte.

There is another choice to make if going with VoIP — hosted or on premises. Like the landline system mentioned before, an on-premises VoIP system puts all the hardware — including a PBX — in your office. It’s a significant investment, though much less than a traditional landline. One benefit is the system is yours to set up the way you want. You will need your own IT people to set it up and maintain it, though. The on-premises systems are used most often by mid-sized and larger businesses or those that deal with secure information.

The hosted solution is typically best for a smaller business. The phone system essentially lives in the cloud. Customers pay a monthly fee and pay per user and feature. The host company maintains the system and features. In most cases, customers can add and subtract services from their laptops. Customers are at the mercy of a service provider, so it’s wise to check on reliability, read reviews and get references.

With lots of options, features and new technology, it’s important to assess your choices carefully.

Business phone system features

Usability: This is paramount when deciding which features to implement. Small businesses can choose a host of options that were once only reserved for big corporations. But if you go overboard with fancy virtual attendants and routing systems you could turn off customers who may be used to a more personal approach. Likewise, with employees, it’s usually best to keep it simple. If the system is too complex for them to operate, such as it taking more than a couple of minutes to set up a temporary greeting when someone goes on vacation, you can probably expect that greeting will end up being permanent.

Voicemail: Few, if any, businesses can operate without the ability to receive messages from customers. Because of the growth of VoIP, there are a lot more features when it comes to voicemail. Messages can be sent to email or text and you can even transcribe your messages. Consider the importance of these features before deciding to pay for them.

Other basics: Conference calling, call forwarding, missed call notifications, caller ID, extension dialing, and call transferring are all some of the basic features you should expect to get from any phone system you purchase. Anyone who has spent time in an office had features they liked or disliked from the telephone system. Consider some of those when looking to purchase a system for your business.

Toll-free: If the majority of your business is within market, there may not be a need to add a toll-free number. But expansion beyond your home area code could make a toll-free option attractive for your customers. It also provides opportunity for customization.

Call routing: This is an important feature for any sales or service business. Businesses risk losing a potential sale if someone goes to voicemail instead of a human being. Other calls that may not require immediate attention can get routed through an attendant for a call back. The sophistication of routing systems allows for a high level of adjustment that can even accommodate a particular time of day when call volumes might be higher, or staff is stretched thin making service or client calls.

The routing can be done by an automated attendant (i.e., “Press 1 for Sales”) or an interactive voice response (IVR) system that allows the caller to say where they want to go. A basic IVR is best for simple 'yes' or 'no' answers and number responses. But there are sophisticated systems that can handle more complex responses. You might hear those when calling a credit card company or refilling a prescription by phone.

Integration considerations

Businesses that thrive on outside sales should look at ways to integrate new “softphone” technology into their telephone systems. Like the virtual phone systems mentioned before, softphone apps allow sales staff to make calls through their computers across an internet connection. There are also apps for iPhone and Android that allow these wireless devices to be used as office lines. A call may start at a desk but it can be seamlessly switched to a smartphone in case that salesperson needs to get off to another appointment.

Phone systems also give businesses the ability to integrate programs like Salesforce, so businesses know the order history of an incoming caller and how the last interaction went with that customer. It adds a new level of customer relationship management, so the cold call isn’t so cold anymore. These systems are used by massive organizations with large call centers but can also work for smaller organizations that are growing their sales base.

Whether going with a virtual system, a landline, or an on premises or hosted VoIP, there are features and tools for whatever a business may be trying to accomplish. It can seem overwhelming. The important thing to remember is to stay focused on the customers who will be calling the business. Will the system be reliable, allowing them to reach you when they need to?

Also, keep employees in mind. They will have to work with the system. Is it going to be too complex for them to make the most of the available features? They need to be able to leverage the tools you provide in order to be successful at their jobs and help your business grow.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published February 25, 2019