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Finding Phone Answers For The Very Small Business

By Chris Brennan
Posted Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Start-ups, small growing firms and even home-based businesses are underserved by the telecommunications industry. But there are telephone systems that fit if you know where to look.

Telephone systems have grown in sophistication by leaps and bounds in recent years, but for the most part, very small businesses have been on the outside looking in. And with the recent evolution in Voice over IP telephony (VoIP), the gap between what small business needs and what the market is offering is only getting wider.

While galloping technological advancements have ushered in amazing new features and inversely lower prices for most office equipment, full-featured phone systems have remained largely out of reach for small companies. You can afford a photo-realistic slimline desktop color printer now for a fraction of what it cost just a few years ago, and you can beam your appointment book back and forth from your wristwatch to your laptop for under a hundred bucks, but the prices of telephone systems have not decreased at the same rate. Most small companies are forced to cobble together telephone solutions with a combination of multi-line telephones, answering machines and costly monthly telephone company services.

True phone systems are far more powerful, offering flexible automated call answering features, call messaging and call routing that can improve a company’s professional image, control communication costs and increase connectivity and responsiveness.

It is widely acknowledged that small business is the engine of job creation and economic health today. With a sophisticated, mobile workforce and limited resources for dedicated phone answering staff, small business needs advanced phone systems as much as its larger counterparts do. Yet according to a recent Yankee Group study, 58 per cent of small firms in the United States don’t have a phone system at all. More than 5 million businesses have fewer than 20 employees, so there’s a big market for phone systems, but the leaders in the phone industry have never been able to produce products to fit the bill.

Why? The answer lies in the size; small business is too small for the big traditional telephone systems, and the scaled-down solutions that the industry has produced so far still have price tags that are too big for small business budgets. Big phone systems just don’t work for very small companies, and the fewer the phone users, the more difficult the fit.

Private Branch Exchanges

Large corporations use Private Branch Exchanges, or PBXs, which allow many phone users to share a system with fewer telephone company lines, based on the idea that not everybody uses their local phone extension at the same time.

PBXs inherently offer the best telephone system functionality available. As anyone who has ever worked in a corporation knows, PBXs handle calls impressively with features such as ring groups, call cascades, auto attendants, voicemail and more. But PBXs have traditionally been massive systems for thousands of users. When PBX manufacturers started to turn their attention to small companies, they found it difficult to scale the concept down. The big companies that make PBXs are not focused on very small business, so they don’t fully understand the space.

The result has been a little like a major auto manufacturer stripping a car of two of its wheels and most of its body and then trying to enter the bicycle market; the results are ungainly and overly expensive. Small business phone systems from the major PBX manufacturers tend to be intimidating and difficult to use, difficult to install and usually require technical staff or consultants and expensive, proprietary phones.

Limited Small Business Solutions

So where are small companies without phone systems getting their voicemail? How are they handling incoming calls? How do they integrate teleworkers and mobile workers? They may use Centrex services; telephone company voicemail and separate lines for each phone user, which add a big boost to the monthly phone bills. While telephone companies all over the country are all too happy to offer increasingly complex business services, the additional billing can add up over time to prohibitive levels.

And there’s no real integration with offsite workers other than simple call forwarding. The proliferation of cell phones in the majority of small businesses has, paradoxically, made staying in touch with customers and collaborators even more difficult. Businesses have to give customers and co-workers different phone numbers for the office and mobile phones, each with separate voicemail systems, both of which are costing the company extra money every month.

Finding Phone Systems that Fit Small Business

Not all of the news is bad, though. A select few companies have realized that the very small business is underserved, and they’ve been producing small business systems that make sense. There are excellent systems to be had in the market, if you know what to look for. The smart new generation of small business phone systems have all of the features of their larger counterparts without the big business prices.

When shopping for a system, look for the ability to easily install and configure it on your own. Installation can cost a significant percentage of the total cost of traditional phone systems. User-configurable systems allow you to control the way your phone system works without having to pay the manufacturer or a third-party technician to do it for you. The best of the new small business phone systems enable you to do it yourself and save.

Another important feature to look for is cell phone and remote phone integration. If you have teleworkers and mobile workers, you need to be able to collaborate smoothly without giving out dozens of different numbers to your clients. There are small business systems on the market that can connect all of your phones through one central system with one number.

Expandability is crucial too. Make sure that the system you buy today can grow to accommodate the changes in your company tomorrow. And the changes in the industry — with the emergence of Voice over IP technology and new advanced Internet telephony services, your phone system needs to be ready to connect to the IP network while maintaining your connections to the traditional telephone network. Look for hybrid systems that are built with SIP standards to ensure compatibility and avoid obsolescence.

One promising entry in the field is the TalkSwitch system by Centrepoint Technologies. TalkSwitch is a hybrid phone system that offers IP and traditional telephony, and it’s designed specifically for businesses with as few as one and as many as 32 phone users per location. Available online and through resellers, system integrators and interconnects, the compact, user-friendly TalkSwitch is a prime example of the next wave of systems that provide the power of PBX at prices that small business can afford.

Copyright 2004 Chris Brennan

About the Author
Chris Brennan is a communication specialist focusing on small business issues.


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