Voice over IP (VoIP) phone services, especially those delivered via the cloud, have too many benefits for small to midsized businesses (SMBs) to ignore. They cost less than old-style, on-premises PBX systems, are easier to maintain, and integrate easily with many of the tools your employees use every day, like your help desk. VoIP just offers more capabilities than standard landline service. But that is because VoIP is a complex set of technologies technology. Couple that with the fact that it’s used ubiquitously and running over your current data network, and you can quickly see where things might get difficult and tricky.
Planning and Staffing
- Decide exactly why you’re moving to a VoIP phone system. There are many reasons it might be a good idea, but you’re not ready to make the actual purchase or migration unless you know what those reasons are and how they might affect your business. A vague idea that it might save money is not one of those reasons. Examples of good reasons include building out a call center, providing a means of collaboration between different office locations, retaining call data from your customer relationship management (CRM) platform for use in marketing or customer service, as well as preparing for a new location or expected growth. Other areas of consideration include mobility and softphone use. Hybrid work is pushing employees out of the office, but they will still need access to their central office extensions. The best way to do that is via a softphone on a laptop, a mobile device, or even a virtual machine from a desktop as a service (DaaS) vendor. Deployment here is easy, but performance can be a nightmare since many of these resources won’t be under your IT staff’s control. Only careful testing ensures that you get what you need and that’ll add time to your rollout estimates.
- Decide who is in charge of your move to VoIP. This includes the initial needs analysis and design, the procurement process, the implementation, and finally, the ongoing operation of the system. Note this may involve multiple people. An IT staffer may be the best choice for implementation and operation, but they’re usually not the ones who design the IVR system your customers will use or decide just what calling data is most beneficial to the marketing department. You need to designate who your stakeholders will be and some of them may well be a vendor or consultants.
- Decide who represents the company’s interests during the procurement and implementation processes. There will be plenty of vendors that will offer to do the whole thing, but they don’t necessarily have the same interests. Typically, they’re all about selling you as much as they can, getting it installed and signed off on quickly, and then charging extra for any subsequent “scope creep.” Only someone from your side of the tracks will worry about long-term operational reliability and ancillary things like maintaining call data securely so your company can remain compliant with any industry data safety regulations, for instance. For a really small company, this might be a collateral duty, but someone needs to be the point person. This person needs to have enough understanding of VoIP networking best practices to make decisions and to know how those decisions will affect the rest of the company. This is not the same person mentioned in the previous bullet point.
Network Prep and Cost
- Ensure that your network infrastructure infrastructure has the capacity to support the increased VoIP network trafficnetwork traffic. You also need to know whether your infrastructure can handle the specific requirements of voice and video traffic, including supporting any Quality of Service (QoS) or virtual LAN (VLAN) requirements. And if you’re looking at mobile VoIP, you’ll need to have either appropriate Wi-Fi router support or make sure your devices are compatible with 4G or 5G cell service, depending on how you need to implement this. This may mean some infrastructure upgrades if your current access points, routers, or switches don’t support these capabilities. You may also need to upgrade your Internet Service Provider (ISP) if your current provider can’t support the bandwidth requirements of more phone traffic. Estimating how much call volume will increase is something your VoIP vendor should be able to handle, but you can hire an outside specialist to do those calculations, too.
- Don’t underestimate the cost of VoIP. Those monthly rates may look good but dig deeper. If all you get are softphones that run on cell phones, then you’ll need to also buy everyone a cell phone, with lots of data minutes or an Unlimited plan. If those softphones run on Windows or Mac machines, then everyone will have to have a computer with the hardware to support VoIP, access to the internet, and something internally to handle sound and a headset. If the VoIP choice uses (or at least supports) desk phones, then remember that those costs are somewhere between $75 and $150 each plus the cost of a wired network connection to each phone. Few VoIP desk phones support Wi-Fi, but those that do will require you to upgrade your access points if you give everyone a Wi-Fi phone. Oh, and remember the personnel costs: Someone has to manage all of this, and somebody has to provide support. And then there’s ongoing maintenance and licensing; it all adds up, so make sure you walk through the whole implementation in detail.
Consider the Business
- Figure out a realistic timetable for the change over to VoIP. Despite what some vendors might say, it won’t be immediate. Even if you’re changing from one VoIP system to another, this isn’t a one-day operation. Calculate the time for planning, acquisition, implementation, training, and switching over, and then double it. Maybe even triple it. This is a major change to your company’s ability to communicate with itself and the outside world. Plan time for pilot rollout, testing, optimization, and then a final rollout that comes in stages so your whole operation isn’t in chaos if something goes wrong.
- Decide what you’re going to do with your old phone system. If you have a bunch of analog phones that are in good condition, then you may be able to use them with your VoIP phone system for employees who don’t need VoIP features. Or you may want them in areas where they’re available to the public or where they are in difficult environments, such as an outdoor assembly area or on the factory floor. And you may want some for backup (more on that next).
- Plan for the worst. Realize that your contingency of operations and business continuity plans will have to change. You have to plan for, and invest in, added reliability. Basically, how are you going to continue doing business if the network goes down or even just has trouble? Because your phone system will depend on the reliability and performance of both your local network and the internet, you need to think in terms of fail-safes and alternatives. That means you’ll need a backup to your primary internet service provider (ISP), and if voice is critical to your operation, a way to have phone service even if you experience a total internet outage. Yes, this could mean keeping some analog lines and compatible phones available. It will also mean planning for failover, network redundancy, and data backup.
Security is Still Crucial
- Don’t forget securitysecurity. All of the things that can attack your IT network can also attack your VoIP network. You also need to worry about call tampering, call hijacking, and bad guys using your in-house equipment as a host for malware attacks. This will be worse if your VoIP system doesn’t play well with your security, such as requiring that you turn off packet inspection (as we found in one phone system we tested). Additionally, data privacy regulations sometimes have their own requirements for protecting VoIP traffic in transit and at rest if you retain any call data for sales or service purposes. If your industry is regulated this way, make sure you understand precisely how VoIP fits into the rest of your data safety precautions.
- Finally, take the needs of your employees and your customers into account when choosing a VoIP phone system. Decide what features your employees actually need and what they don’t. Generally, this means assigning stakeholders who will map out any processes involving your phone system and sit down with the front-line employees operating those processes to see how they can improve. It also includes designing the system so that customers don’t get lost in menus, suffer odd key choices, or hear endless options from the auto-attendant. If you lack the expertise to do this in-house, it’s something most VoIP consultancies can handle; just remember to add them to your overall cost tally during planning.