What’s in a Call Center Phone System? How to Choose the Right One

Your call center phone system is the backbone of your customer support operation. It gives your team the tools they need to keep customers happy with your company. How do you chose the right system? Let’s review.

Customer Support Phone Systems

Small business can thrive by supporting their customers well – but they can also lose their business if they don’t. Phone support is an essential aspect of supporting your customers. Both PBX and VoIP based phone systems offer the basics you need, but as the needs of business grow, it may become time to utilize a call center optimized system that can offer you higher levels of customer care more affordable. Consider these factors.

Call Distribution and Queues

When calls come to your customer support members, you want the calls to go to the people best able to handle them, and to minimize wait time. A queuing system that allows the first caller to get to the first available agent, and allows for you to set up rules to facilitate call routing. For example, you may have some team members handle calls from a particular geographic region.

Call Status

You need a way for agents to report they’re not available to take calls when they’re away from their desk. This allows supervisors to instantly see how many agents are available at any given moment.

Metrics and Data

Hard data about your calls lets you know where you can improve. Your call center phone system should allow you to create reports based on specific metrics so you you’ll know:

  • Which agents are excelling
  • Call volumes
  • Length of calls
  • Number of calls sent to resolution
  • How many agents you need during key hours of the day

This information will help you identify your best agents, and provide you with documentation in the event you need to let someone go due to poor call statistics.

The Ability to Monitor Calls and Barge-In

If you have full-time supervisors, then you’ll need them to have the ability to silently monitor calls and barge-in when necessary. On some systems these features are not available at all, and on others they’ll cost you extra.

Connectivity is Everything

If you currently utilize any kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, then you’ll need to choose a call center phone system that can communicate with it. Whether you use a cloud-based CRM like Salesforce.com, Sugar, or Zoho, or an in-house CRM system like Act!, Microsoft Dynamics, or Microsoft Outlook, your phone system should work with your CRM.

However, not all integration is the same. You may want your agents to be able to click-to-dial calls right from your CRM, or for your CRM system to automatically pop-up a screen with your customer’s data every time they call. Choose a system that meets your expectations for CRM integration.

Don’t Turn Your Back on the Basics

As you focus on new technology, it’s easy to forget about the basics.

  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capability: Also known as auto-attendants or voice prompt systems, this feature allows your callers to be easily directed to the person they need to speak with.
  • Different greetings: The greeting a caller gets during business hours should be different than the greeting they get when your center is fully staffed.
  • Call recording: There are many reasons you may want to record your calls – for training purposes, or to have a record of a call in the event of a difficult caller.

The Best Cloud Based System

We’ve compared the options and identified Nextiva as the best cloud-based option for call center phone systems. Other top choices include RingCentral, VocalCom, and ShoreTel Sky, but we’ve chosen Nextiva for several reasons:

  • Their long list of tools like call routing and queuing
  • The way their software interfaces with both CRM systems and MS-Outlook
  • Their report running features

Comparing VoIP and Traditional Landlines – Which is Best for You?

There’s no question that Voice over IP, frequently referred to as VoIP, is growing quickly compared to other small business phone systems. This is due in large part to the many advantages it offers:

  • It’s affordable
  • There’s added functionality
  • Call quality is excellent
  • There’s little to no maintenance required

Though there are several decent VoIP service providers, our top choice is Nextiva.

A Simple Overview of the VoIP System

If you’ve ever used Vonage or Skype, then you’ve used VoIP. Though both of those companies are top choices for personal use, companies like RingCentral and Nextiva offer the same services to businesses. VoIP is on the rise both for individual and commercial users. In fact, studies show that by 2015 only about 16% of the market will be landlines.

The Cost of VoIP Service

When using VoIP, you’ll have two main costs: the ongoing monthly service and the one-time cost of purchasing the needed equipment. Subscription models vary in cost depending on how many lines you need, but typically a business will pay around $20 to $30 per line, per month, and that includes a number of services:

  • Unlimited calls
  • Call transferring
  • Call queuing
  • Multi-line ring
  • Automatic attendant phone directory

Typically the only variable cost is international calling, which is around 3-4 cents per minute. The handsets themselves cost anywhere from $50 to $200+ depending on the features you need. Generally you won’t pay for installation or maintenance.

Traditional Phone Systems

If you choose a traditional business phone system, you’ll either use individual lines or a Private Branch System, often referred to as a PBX system. It adds additional features such as group ringing, intercom, and call transferring, and lines are around $35-$45 per month. The handsets cost about the same as those for a VoIP system. However, upgrading to a PBX system can cost thousands of dollars, not including installation and maintenance.

Call Quality

It used to be true that the only way to get consistent high quality calls was through a conventional phone system. That’s no longer the case, thanks to blazing fast internet speeds and advancements by VoIP companies. Typically a DSL connection can handle 6 calls at once and maintain high quality audio. If you think you’ll need capabilities for more than six calls at a time, then you can increase your bandwidth.

Keep in mind that some internet service providers cap data use, or will slow down the speed once you hit certain data limits, which can negatively impact call quality. An average VoIP business phone system uses 64KB of data per second of call time, and you can test your bandwidth performance with a site like Speedtest.net.

You do need electricity to use your VoIP system, so those living in areas with frequent power outages may need backup plans like call re-routing to other phones, or backup numbers that can be used during an internet or power outage.

Features of the Phone Systems

You’ll have some similar basic features with PBX and VoIP:

  • Forwarding and transferring calls
  • Conference calling
  • Intercom
  • Voicemail

However, VoIP services offer many advantages over PBX systems:

  • Better mobility – Your business calls can be routed to your cell phone, and calls you make from your smartphone can show your business number to the person you’re calling
  • More portability – You can use any phone or computer as your personal extension
  • More flexibility – You’re able to adjust how calls are handled
  • More innovative – Voice mails can be sent directly to your email, you can integrate a number of third party apps, video calling is available, and eFaxing can be used

There’s no question that VoIP is here to stay. While it used to simply be a low cost alternative to landlines, with a lower quality to match that low cost, the prices have remained low while the quality and functionality have skyrocketed.

Who’s the Best for Small Business VoIP Service?

There are several options in the small business VoIP service industry, and though our top pick is Nextiva, it’s essential for you to review the options and decide which one works best for you.

Small Business VoIP Service Options

With over 350,000 users, the biggest fish in the pond is RingCentral. The main advantage to a company of this size is that it’s unlikely they’re going anywhere. Their main competitors are Jive, Vocalocity, and our top pick, Nextiva. RingCentral offers a 30 day money-back guarantee on service and a 21 day guarantee on hardware.

Nextiva – Our Top Pick for Small Business VoIP

Nextiva is our top pick because they offer the lowest cost, US based support, and a dedicated team to get you up and running. Let’s see how the biggest competitors compare:

 

RingCentral

2 1/2 Stars

Nextiva

4 Stars

Jive

3 1/2 Stars

Vocalocity

3 1/2 Stars

Pricing For 7 Employees Per Month Without Taxes $209.93 Total $174.65 Total $195.65 Total $189.87 Total
Customer Service US & Overseas

Dedicated Set-up

US Support, Dedicated Set-up US Support,

Dedicated Set-up

US Support, No Dedicated Set-up
Cool Features Business SMS Call Continuity
Learn More Learn More  Learn More Learn More

 

Factors We Didn’t Include

  • All VoIP providers we compared guarantee 99.999% uptime or your money back.
  • None require contracts and all allow you to change provider without penalties.
  • No matter which VoIP provider you choose, you’ll need to purchase a desktop SIP phone, which costs between $50-$250. This is a one-time cost and the phones are not tied into any particular provider.
  • All offer apps that allow your employees to receive incoming calls from their work number, and make calls that appear to be coming from their work number.

Our Pricing Evaluation Criteria

Though all VoIP providers offer supposed flat per-user pricing, the actual cost can vary depending on which features you add. To achieve a real pricing comparison, we asked each provider to give us a quote based on the following criteria:

  • 7 employees each with a direct dial extension and voicemail
  • One call group
  • Extension or menu option that could ring numerous users at once
  • Unlimited local and long distance for the US and Canada

Nextiva

The most affordable was Nextiva at $174.65/month. Nextiva was the only one with a base price that included everything we asked for.

RingCentral

Though RingCentral was the most expensive, there were two benefits to their service:

  1. Yearly contracts yield lower prices
  2. You can cancel within the first month and get a full refund

Vocalocity

The second lowest price was offered by Vocalocity at $189.87. Their pricing structure is different than others in that their base fee does not include the basics other companies include, like efax and call groups. However, they may be the most affordable choice for a company looking for the bare minimum.

Jive

Squarely in the middle of the pack, Jive came in at $195.65 with an almost-all-inclusive monthly fee that requires an additional $1.75 per month for every number that can be directly dialed.

Getting Your Quote

All providers have different pricing policies. To get an accurate quote you need to decide on your needs for the following points and communicate them to the providers:

  1. Your number of users
  2. The number of connected devices
  3. How many phone numbers you have
  4. How many call groups you have
  5. Whether you need an 800 number or not

Overall, Nextiva wins when all pricing considerations are compared.

Customer Service Comparison

One of the essential things we looked at for customer service was where it was based. The only firm with overseas support was RingCentral – the rest had US support. We also looked at whether or not a company had a dedicated set-up team. All providers offer one-on-one assistance to get your system up and running, except Vocalocity, who offers live interactive webinars several times a week.

Though their set-up services seem similar on the surface, we found Jive to provide the most intuitive and consumer-friendly customer service and set-up.

Cool Features

RingCentral is the only VoIP small business provider that allows you to send texts using your business phone numbers, and Velocity automatically checks your internet and power every 20 seconds – if either is down, they’ll forward your calls to the numbers you indicate.

Can Your Internet Provider Handle the Demands of VoIP Phones?

Before switching over to a VoIP phone system, you need to be confident that your current internet connection can handle it. If you don’t have the right resources, you’ll lose out on the advantages of VoIP and end up with dropped calls, poor call clarity, and other issues. Let’s review some of the VoIP speed test providers and look at an overall plan to evaluate your internet’s ability to handle the needs of a VoIP system. Our top recommendation for VoIP service is Nextiva.

VoIP Speed Teset Options

  • MegaPath Speed Test Plus
  • 8×7 VoIP Test
  • Visualware’s MySpeed
  • Download speed: How much your connection is capable of downloading. The higher this number is, the better. Normally a home broadband system will have speeds between 8 Mb – 100+Mb.
  • Upload speed: The actual bandwidth available to the computer on which you’re running the test. The higher the better, with typical numbers in the 2.5 Mb-10 Mb range.
  • Packet loss: How much data is lost as information is sent over the internet. The higher the packet loss, the more likely you’ll experience choppy delays – ideally it’s less than 2%.
  • Latency: The time required for a packet to go from one point and back. The higher the latency, the more of a delay in a conversation. VoIP’s typically experience at least 20 ms latency, with a max 150 ms.
  • Jitter: The variance in latency speeds that results in some packets taking longer to travel than others. Connections with high jitter values can result in a talk-over or echo effect. Acceptable jitter levels depend on the adapter in use and the method being used to measure the jitter.

What to Expect During Your Speed Test

Now let’s take a look at the various options in internet connections and how well they typically work with VoIP systems.

Basic Connection Types

You have access to several types of internet connections today, and almost all of them can support VoIP well – except of course for the almost extinct dial-up connection. Almost all broadband provides the needed resources, including cable and DSL, and more robust T1 and fiber networks are fit for the challenge.

Bandwidth

Put simply, bandwidth is the speed of internet transmissions measured in units of kilobytes (kbsp). Bandwidth has a larger impact on your connection’s ability to handle VoIP than any other factor, and the higher you score on a bandwidth test, the more VoIP lines you can handle.

Most small business use DSL or cable connections, and the main difference between them is that cable’s bandwidth can vary during peak times of the day, while DSL is more consistent.

How Much Bandwidth is Enough?

You’ll also need to consider the audio codecs used by your VoIP provider. There are two main types: full quality uses 87 kbps for each call, while compressed audio uses 33 kbps per call. You can calculate the number of VoIP lines your connection can handle by looking at the bandwidth download stream rather than the upload stream. Typically the upload bandwidth will be lower than the download speed.

A normal DSL connection will offer around 600 kpbs upload speeds with 5,000 kpbs downloads. Based on these stats, you’re likely to be able to support 6 lines with full quality audio or 18 lines with compressed audio. It’s best to estimate on the low side and have too much bandwidth available than to deal with dropped calls or poor call quality.

Wired vs. Wireless – Does it Make a Difference?

While wireless routers have many advantages, they can’t be counted on to reliably support VoIP service. The wireless transmission can easily be interrupted, and bandwidth will often not remain strong and consistent. For best results, use your VoIP service with a wired router.

VoIP Phone Rankings – Low End, High End, and Conference Room

Using VoIP phones for your small business allows you to utilize the newest technology combined with a lower cost, but choosing the right VoIP provider is only the first step – then you must choose the right hardware.

Most Popular Phones

Based on Amazon’s sales and ratings, these are the most popular VoIP phones, broken down into different price ranges and levels:

Low/Mid-Level – Polycom SoundPoint IP 335

  • Supports two phone lines
  • No need for AC power
  • Can connect your computer to your LAN through the phone
  • Requires PoE router or adapter
  • Costs between $180-$280
  • Can monitor up to 4 video cameras
  • Bluetooth compatible
  • 10/100 Ethernet connection
  • Costs between $390-$770
  • Options include PoE and AC power models
  • Incredible sound quality

High End – Cisco SPA525G2 5-Line IP Phone

Conference Room – Polycom SoundStation IP 6000 Conference Room IP Phone

The 3 Most Important Factors to Compare

There are three main factors to consider when deciding which options you need:

  • Number of lines – Most phones can handle 2-4 lines, but some can handle up to 16
  • Compatibility with your VoIP provider – Some phones work better with certain systems than others
  • Cost – Phones with comparable features are typically priced similarly

Other Factors to Consider

After you’ve considered the big three factors listed above, you’ll consider a number of other features that may or may not be important to your business, depending on how you plan to use your phones.

  • Availability of speed dialing
  • Display type
  • Headset compatibility
  • Conference calling
  • In-room conferencing
  • Power configuration

Additional Alternatives

You may find that you can reduce your expenditures by simply getting rid of your VoIP phones altogether. There are a number of options, including softphones, cell phones, and analog phones.

Softphones

Essentially, a softphone allows you to use your computer as a phone by using a headset and microphone, and then installing softphone software from your VoIP provider. Not every VoIP provider offers softphones, but if you find this service is available from your provider, then you’ll find it’s relatively easy to download and use.

There are number of reasons that softphones can be a great option, including the fact that they allow you to totally eliminate the phone from your desk. With a good Bluetooth headset, it’s easy to multitask and best utilize your time. Softphones are generally reliable and easy to use, though in some cases they can require additional work to get set up. Some companies find that they don’t work as well as other phone options, but that’s often a result of improper installation or use.

Smartphones

Some VoIP services allow you to download an app and make and receive calls from your cell phone. When you dial, your number will appear as though you’re calling from your office. There are some downsides though, and this technology has not yet been perfected. Cellular bandwidth and availability issues can make use spotty, which can prevent your customers from easily getting a hold of you. We typically recommend using VoIP smartphone apps only when you’re away from your office and not as a permanent replacement.

Analog Phones

There are number of adapters and that can connect your analog phone to your VoIP service. For example, the Grandstream HT702 connects to your LAN, and includes ports that allow you to plug your analog phone in. This is a great option if you’re looking to switch to VoIP but don’t want to invest in headsets today.

As you can see, there are a huge number of headsets available, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Carefully consider your day to day needs, your emergency needs, and your needs when away from the office, and come up with the best plan for your business.

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