Most small businesses never give a second thought to the telephone systems they have in their premises. However, the telephone is an essential business device that should be treated just as every other critical system of your enterprise.

Choosing the right phone equipment to use now and that your business can expand into should be approached with all the due care and attention you would use when purchasing any other equipment for your business.

With so many systems currently available, take your time when drawing up a shortlist of vendors and equipment to ensure you test the best before deciding where to spend your money.

Equipment profile

With all purchases you make for your business your current and future needs will be of paramount importance to consider. When looking at telecoms ask these questions:

  1. Will your business grow beyond 50 employees over a short period of time? If so, looking at a dedicated PBX system would be advisable.
  2. Does your telecoms systems need to have caller ID, conferencing facilities, speakerphone options or one-touch dialling?
  3. Is the volume of calls made overseas likely to be high? If so, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones could save your business substantial amounts on its call costs.
  4. Will your workforce work remotely for more than 50% of their time? If so, VOIP could be an option as well as telecom accounts that offer landline and mobile options and tariffs.

Also, when assessing your overall needs it's important to understand the differences between the different telecoms protocols. In most instances small businesses will use a Key System Unit (KSU) with larger enterprises using a PBX or Private Branch Exchange. These handle voice calls, but when data is also factored into the equation for VOIP calls for instance, your business will have to consider ISDN.

Taking advice is also a good idea before making what could be a substantial investment in telecoms equipment. A consultant will be able to assess your business' precise needs and offer a profile of the equipment that could ideally suit your company's requirements.

VOIP or landline?

For small businesses VOIP looks like a godsend, as it can offer free calls, but there are a number of considerations your business should look at very closely before using VOIP. Few businesses rely on VOIP for all of their calls, instead using this platform for long distance and international calls only. The pros and cons of using VOIP are outlined below:

Choosing the right phone system for your business means understanding not only your current needs but also how these might change in the future.

Pros

  • Calls can be free when routed over the Internet, once your broadband and mobile data plans are paid for.
  • If your business has remote workers, calls can be made to them over VOIP directly to their notebook PCs and increasingly tablet computers as well.
  • International calls are an area where VOIP offers real bonuses.
  • VOIP can also be used for conference calls and increasingly for teleconferencing.
  • There is now a range of equipment including hybrid phones that can be used as a standard landline phone and as a VOIP handset.

Cons

  • As you are routing your calls over the Internet, the quality may well differ from day-to-day.
  • If you use VOIP and your Internet connection goes down, so does your business' telecoms systems.
  • Initial set-up and training for VOIP can be expensive for very small companies.
  • Using VOIP could open every system it is used on to attack from computer viruses that could affect other systems in your business.
  • Calls are only free if everyone else you are calling is also using the same VOIP service provider.

Buying checklist

Choosing the right phone system for your business means understanding not only your current needs but also how these might change in the future. When assessing your telecoms ask these key questions:

  1. What is your current call volume and how is this likely to change?
  2. Do you have a fast and reliable connection to the Internet to allow VOIP systems to operate efficiently?
  3. Does your new telecoms hardware and software have to function with existing equipment?
  4. What new features are you looking to add to your telecoms systems?

In most small business cases a KSU-less phone system will be the cheaper option. If your business wants to build in a level of expansion, paying for full KSU or even a PBX system could be money well spent. These can cost around £1,000 with each extension costing around £200 each. And when looking for quotes from vendors always ensure that they are quoting like-for-like to ensure you can accurately compare costs and their service level agreements.