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Today’s business phone systems have a tough job. They have to provide voice communications with employees at their desks; they have to support a call center for sales, customer service, and support; and they need to connect with and through a host of other communications channels, such as fax machines, video conferencing, conference calling, mobile communications, wireless handsets, and text messaging. On top of that, they’re often expected to provide more advanced functionality through software, like shared meeting collaboration, voicemail to email transcription, and call recording. And lest we forget, many businesses still need a service that will connect to public switched telephone network (PSTN).
Because they’re working across such a multitude of channels, many of today’s phone systems are adopting the moniker of Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS). These are generally cloud-based, virtual PBXes (private branch exchanges) that include at least one, usually multiple, software clients to enhance their functionality on the web, desktop, and a variety of mobile devices. UCaaS systems have a wide variety of feature sets based on the tried and true Voice-over-IP (VoIP).
A key attraction of VoIP is that it gives these systems the flexibility to work in a wide variety of environments ranging from analog desk phones to softphones piggy-backing on a cell phone. These systems can often also integrate all or part of their softphone clients into other back-office applications, like your customer relationship management (CRM) or help desk platforms. Simply picture the standard interface of such an app that suddenly sports a dial pad and some function buttons as a pop-up screen and you’ll have a very basic idea of how some of this works. In addition, these cloud based systems can have a variety of phone numbers in global locations, so that your customers can have free access to your phone at little or no charge.
Before you can start considering a phone system, you need to figure out what it’s going to be used for, and how much of your business will be involved. You also need to look at your existing phone system and decide whether you’re going to simply keep all of it and bolt some VoIP functionality on top, retain only part of it, or replace the whole thing. Frequently, a total replacement isn’t in the cards if only because some parts of your existing phone system can’t be easily changed over to softphones or even desktop VoIP phones. For example, if you have a heavy manufacturing environment with outdoor activities, such as a steel fabrication yard or even a landscaping company, your old outdoor phones may be exactly what you need. You also need to decide what features of the existing phone system are required, and what features of a future phone system you feel are necessary to carry into the future.
When you’re considering a new VoIP phone system for your business, it’s important to include stakeholders from all of the key parts of your business in the planning and decision making process. Yes, this especially includes the IT staff and the data security folks since your voice communications will now be data. But it also needs to include folks who will be using the system to get work done, especially the work that drives revenue and engages customers. These people have invaluable insights into what’s really needed versus what’s simply cool and new. Plus, you’ll need their input to select a phone system that will actually move your business forward as well as fit into your IT environment.
A critical part of the discussion with your IT staff will be whether your existing data network can handle the extra load that will be placed on it by the new phone system. You’ll need a network that can handle more advanced network management capabilities, including tools to fight jitter and latency as well as to provide Quality of Service (QoS) and different kinds of network segmentation, especially virtual LANs (VLANs). Only tools like these can help free up your network from too much congestion, which can cause your call quality to decrease or even crash the VoIP system entirely.
On the physical side, you’ll also need to plan for providing Ethernet drops to any new desktop phones you’ll be placing on user desks, or even adding capacity to your Wi-Fi network should you decide to use wireless calling. For many organizations a separate network is often winds up being the preferred solution. If that’s what happens in your case, you’ll need a separate VoIP gateway. You’ll also need security that understands voice protocols, and you’ll need to have switches and routers that understand VoIP, too. By the time you’ve covered all those bases, a separate network is often the more effective solution rather than attempting to not only install but also integrate that much new equipment into an existing LAN.
Your IT staff will understand the basics of what needs to be done before a VoIP system can be selected and installed. That will include capacity testing on your current pipes and a thorough audit of your organization’s network management capabilities to make sure they can support and secure the new flow of VoIP data. But for business-level users, selecting a phone system that will help them keep their various processes moving forward, especially the customer-facing ones, starts with understanding what VoIP really is.
VoIP is a method of digitizing voice signals, and then sending the digital voice information over an IP network. To accomplish this, the analog voice information is encoded using software called a codec. When it comes time to change the digital signal back to analog so that it’s understandable, another codec does the job.
For a VoIP system to work, it needs a means of routing calls between users or to the outside world. In a cloud based system, a virtual PBX does that job. What that means to you is that the provider is running a large PBX operation in a data center somewhere, and slicing off a little of it to dedicate to your organization in exchange for your money. You’re essentially sharing a large PBX with that provider’s other customers, but because these companies use multi-tenant segmentation, your PBX will appear dedicated to you. This engine will take care of routing calls on your VoIP network.
However, for many businesses there’s a need to route calls to the PSTN and other analog phones that might remain in use, too. This may mean a PSTN gateway, or even a hybrid PBX, where there’s at least a small telephone switch located on-site. Note that these days, a PBX looks exactly like the other servers in your data center, except with an attached means of handling local and analog phones. Many small businesses, however, are avoiding on-premises PBXes partially due to cost savings and partially because the capabilities offered by all-cloud systems are more than advanced enough for their needs. Some virtual cloud PBXes can handle PSTN connectivity without on-site hardware requirements.
If that all is starting to sound more complex than it’s worth, remember that turning your PBX into a software solution means significant opportunity for flexibility and integration that you simply can’t get any other way. After all, programmers can now treat your phone like an app. Where that’s taken us is to the fast-changing UCaaS paradigm. Here, traditional VoIP providers, like the ones we review as part of this review roundup, provide additional software capabilities that are all implemented and managed from a single, unified console.
While the exact features offered in any particular UCaaS solution can change radically from vendor to vendor, most include options for video conferencing, shared meeting and document collaboration tools, integrated faxing, mobile VoIP integration, and device-independent softphone clients. All of these options let customers look at communications in a whole new way, namely, in an a la carte menu-style manner where they can implement only those features their business needs and then access them any time they want and in any combination. This new approach to business communications has been growing steadily among customers over the past few years as recent research from Statista bears out.
The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a text-based protocol similar to HTML. It’s the most commonly used standard for setting up and controlling phone calls in most VoIP systems. You’ll run across references to SIP in most anything you do with these kinds of phone systems, especially when you’re selecting the handset hardware you want to use.
While there are still a few other legacy protocols around, and a few non-SIP standards, such as H.232, SIP is what’s used for the vast majority of modern VoIP phone systems. The most common use I’ve seen for H.232 has been in dedicated video conferencing systems. SIP, meanwhile, handles phone service, video conferencing, and several other tasks just fine, which is why its use is so widespread. Where it has trouble is with data security, but more on that in a bit.
What makes SIP so popular is not only that it’s deep and flexible, but also because it was purpose-built to engage in multimedia (meaning not just audio but also video and even text) communications over TCP/IP networks. For VoIP calls, SIP can set up calls using a number of IP-related protocols, including the Stream Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP), the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and the User Datagram Protocol (UDP), among others. But it can also handle other functions, including session setup (initiating a call at the target endpoint—the phone you’re calling), presence management (giving an indicator of whether a user is “available,” “away,” etc.), location management (target registration), call monitoring, and more. Despite all that capability, SIP is simple compared to other VoIP protocols primarily because it’s text-based and built on a simple request/response model that’s similar in many ways to both HTTP and SMTP. Yet, it’s still capable of handling the most complex operations of business-grade PBXes.
SIP is built to work on a peer-to-peer (meaning endpoint to endpoint) basis. Those two points are called the “user-agent client” and the “user-agent server.” Remember that those are swappable, so that in SIP, the endpoint making the call is the user-agent client initiating the traffic and endpoint receiving the call is the user-agent server receiving the call.
SIP networks usually have a proxy server and a SIP gateway. The proxy sever helps lighten the functional requirements of SIP endpoints. It also acts as both client and server, but it adds functionality around call routing and policy-based management. SIP gateways handle the routing and connectivity requirements for connecting SIP calls to other networks. Typically, the advanced features of the VoIP vendors we review here are largely based on the proprietary management technology they build into their proxy servers and gateways. By offering VoIP solutions where these elements of a SIP solution are hosted in the cloud, the providers reviewed here have more flexibility in building advanced features since they have more control over deployment and reliability.
While understanding the basics of VoIP and SIP is important, setting one of these systems up will require some general network knowledge, too. For the best quality, you will need to meet a minimum upstream and downstream data throughput requirement. In addition, you’ll also need to meet a minimum latency number (that is, the time between when a signal leaves a remote computer and when your system receives it), typically measured in milliseconds. It is possible to test your network connection to see if it will support a VoIP service. RingCentral offers this service from their website, other vendors like to have their service engineers do it for you.
While home VoIP systems are fairly straightforward to set up and use, a VoIP system for all but the smallest of businesses can be quite complex, In addition to have multiple users, business VoIP systems have complex feature sets that are necessary to conduct business in today’s world. In addition, a business VoIP implementation must take into account the existence of the data network, even though in most cases it won’t share the same infrastructure. This will mean switches and routers optimized for voice traffic, and security that’s suitable for both business and VoIP.
The products and services in this review roundup are focused on business use and because of this either provide some PBX features or serve as full-on virtual PBXes. This may mean, among other things, that they provide service to telephone sets on your employees’ desks. Most also support electronic faxing in some fashion, either directly (which can be a significant challenge for some VoIP services) or by simply integrating an incoming fax with your email system. Other popular features are video conferencing and shared meeting software (so meeting attendees not only hear each other but can present presentations or documents in a shared work space).
Some form of call center capability is often available, though many times either as a different product version or simply a higher pricing tier, so be careful before you assume you’ll be getting those features. These capabilities are meant to support large sales or service desk staff and their need to route and process a relatively large number of incoming customer or user calls. That means complex menu trees, an auto-attendant for routing, and service queues. You’ll probably find you need interactive voice response (IVR) capabilities, and that should be backed up by support for a live operator or some other type of human intervention.
On the higher end of this space, hosted PBX providers, such as RingCentral Office, will generally offer (sometimes even require) on-premises handset hardware, like desk or cordless VoIP phones that get sent to you preconfigured to work with their service. Plug the phones in, make sure they see an internet connection, and after some self-configuration time, your VoIP service goes live auto-magically.
That situation is for fairly pristine network and business conditions, however. Companies with legacy equipment or unique business needs may need a hybrid PBX, in which a portion of the voice network remains in the analog world, while the rest is converted to cloud-based VoIP. This could happen if you occuply an older building without the necessary Ethernet infrastructure to support VoIP or if you had custom software built a long time ago that simply isn’t compatible with newer phone technologies.
Interactive capabilities, either with voice or button presses, or both. You need to make use of menu trees so that customers can at least get most of the way to the department they need.
Call queuing, generally used in call centers, where systems like this distribute incoming calls to specific recipients based on what the caller wants, extensions dialed, or other criteria.
Hold music or more common these days, advertising. You can try to sell products and services to your current and would-be customers while they wait on hold. Just make sure your hold music is sufficiently annoying that you don’t lose status among your peers.
Extension assignments, including some sort of easy-to-use dialing directory.
Call recording so you can use phone experiences for training, sales, and marketing intelligence purposes.
Voicemail to email transcription so your employees can read or play their voicemail from wherever they receive email.
One of the most exciting and clear differentiators between a cloud PBX provider and a standard telephone system is software. Your IT staff will find a host of new software tools to help monitor and manage the system. But what catches most business operators’ eyes are two key capabilities that software provides: back-end integration and softphones. The latter is exactly what the name implies, a phone that’s rendered entirely in software allowing any compatible device to become a phone as long as it has an internet connection, a speaker, and a microphone. More on that below.
Back-end integration with custom and third-party apps, like CRM systems, also open a whole new world for your calling data because now it can extend the phone system beyond just basic voice communication. Such integrations allows users to transfer calls to and from their mobile phone, place and receive calls from their personal phone (that appear to be coming from the business), and interact with colleagues and customers via voice and text — all from a variety of devices. But it also allows recording and analysis of call data to measure things like customer satisfaction, understand your sales audience at a new level, and even handle customer requests and problems automatically without the customer ever being aware they never spoke to a human.
Most of these VoIP solutions will require stable and consistent internet connectivity at every location where wired phones are to be used. At the very least, your business phone system must have access to a business class internet link to the cloud. This should be a dedicated link through a dedicated router if you expect your phone calls to sound as if they were coming from a business and not someone’s home Skype connection. But it’s important to know that you will also need a router that can create a VLAN, and one that has the ability to encrypt voice traffic, and only your voice traffic. VoIP security from end to end for all calls is now a business necessity.
For larger systems, and for systems where security is critical, the old internet connection is no longer adequate. The internet doesn’t do QoS, and bandwidth can be unpredictable. Network congestion can ruin a business phone call, and activities such as DNS hijacking can put your business at risk. While we all love the internet, it’s not necessarily the safe place for your business voice communications. If you fall into this category, remember that while the internet runs using the IP protocol and VoIP runs over the IP protocol, that doesn’t mean that VoIP must run over the internet. You can get the same software benefits of VoIP by running your voice network over dedicated lines. Sure, it will cost more, but it will also ensure crystal clear voice quality as well as the ability to implement much-improved data security.
In addition to making sure your internet service can handle your VoIP traffic, you also need to make sure your local area network (LAN) can handle it. What makes it tricky is that if you simply drop VoIP onto your network, that traffic will get processed the same as any other traffic running across your LAN, like your shared accounting application or those 20 gigabytes worth of files your assistant just stored in the cloud. The problem there is that VoIP traffic is much more sensitive to network bumps and potholes than most general office traffic. That translates to the sound breaking up or cutting out entirely, difficulty connecting over Wi-Fi, or (worst case) dropped and lost calls. Fortunately, most of the providers reviewed here have engineering staff that will contact you as part of your setup process to help your IT staffers test and optimize your network prior to deploying their solutions. That’s definitely something we recommend, but there are steps you can take now to prep your LAN for VoIP and make the deployment process that much easier.
Understand QoS: QoS is the primary mechanism for keeping VoIP traffic flowing smoothly. It prioritizes specific traffic on your LAN ensuring that certain streams (in this case, the VoIP traffic) get priority and always have a certain percentage of the overall pipe available to them. Unfortunately, QoS only matters on your LAN. The internet doesn’t understand QoS so, if your communications volume winds up overpowering your internet connection, then you may still need to have a dedicated line to your VoIP cloud provider. Capacity testing is the only way to determing this.
Codecs: Have your IT staff familiarize themselves with the codecs being used by the VoIP system you’re considering purchasing. Usually you’ll have options, meaning multiple codecs to choose from. Testing these out during your evaluation period will let you pick the best codec for your environment.
Network Monitoring Tools: If you’re lucky enough to have an IT staffer, which is no longer a given these days, then you need to make sure that they’re equipped with network monitoring tools appropriate for your VoIP hardware and software. This includes the ability to manage the infrastructure being used to transmit VoIP traffic, which must include the ability to handle prioritization and routing.
Once you’ve engaged with a VoIP provider, their engineers will help you determine the overall service grade of your network (look at that as your network’s basic “VoIP readiness factor”) and how to tweak their service to run effectively over your infrastructure.
Another area of business VoIP support covers the growing number of mobile employees using softphones for sending and receiving calls from a laptop or mobile device. With a cloud-based PBX solution, you can have employees at different physical locations, including multiple time zones. This makes it easier to support longer business hours to cover your entire customer base. Most of the business offerings offer call routing based on the time of day and time zone.
It’s also possible to switch a call from a mobile device to a desktop line or vice versa. Business products generally offer several pricing levels based on the number of lines needed, ranging from approximately $20 per line for large organizations to $35 per line for smaller groups. Even from an administrative perspective, you should be careful, however, when migrating to a new phone system. Whether you’re an individual just buying a new land line or a business moving from an old-style PBX system, or even just switching to a different VoIP provider, the process should be approached carefully and only after thorough planning.
Softphones are increasing in importance in VoIP offerings to the point that for some they’re the only choice. They are a critical part of UCaaS and are as common on mobile phones and tablets as they are on desktop PCs. For workers in call centers, softphones are de rigeuer because of they’re the front-end window of any CRM or help desk integration. So, for example, a softphone can combine a telephone conversation with text chat and screen sharing, which means a conversation between two employees can seamlessly add more participants, handle private text chats between those participants while the call is still going on, and extend to a collaboration session in which the group shares screens, documents, and data—no prep, no reserved lines, just button clicks.
That’s the basics of UCaaS, but the concept is constantly evolving to include more communication and collaboration technologies. Those capabilities also get tweaked to provide new benefits, sometimes general, sometimes aimed at specific business use cases, like call centers or help desk operations, for example. The key is integration. Voice is becoming integrated with other back-end apps.
Mobile clients are softphones optimized for a particular mobile OS and for being used in mobile situations. This means they’re designed to switch easily between different cell and wireless connections on the fly. This means you can let your employees use whatever the cheapest wireless connection around them happens to be—and often that can be free. They also let your employees use your company’s phone system on their own devices. Be aware, however, that there are significant security implications regarding the use of mobile softphones on employee-owned devices. While it’s possible for your employees to simply download the appropriate software from their respective app store, your IT department should be involved with allowing access while also confirming that necessary security steps are taken. Also be aware that there are important reasons not to allow soft phone installations on private devices of any type because you may not be able to remove that phone client if the employee leaves the company, and because local laws may impact how much control you have over the use of the device.
With integration being at the heart of VoIP and UCaaS, you can’t make a purchasing decision here without thinking about the future. On one side, think about what you’ll need in 1-5 years. On the other side, consider each vendor carefully to see what they’ve done over the last half decade in terms of product development and keeping up with VoIP and UCaaS trends.
It’s also critical that you consider the impact of mergers and acquisitions on your phone system, both from your own organization’s perspective as well as your VoIP provider. Because VoIP systems turn calls into data, the whole process isn’t as plug-and-play standards-based as the old-fashioned analog phone system might have been. Should your company merge with or purchase another, VoIP compatibility will become another significant IT issue.
On the phone providers’ side, since this review oundup was first published, some of the products listed here now belong to other companies and some have merged into new products. If you’re planning to depend on your phone system over the course of the next decade, then you should consider a vendor that’s stable enough to still be around when it’s time to up upgrade.
Just about anything you can picture a business needing from a phone system can be delivered by a hosted PBX solution—and generally at a cheaper price than purchasing and maintaining your own on-premises PBX. It’s just a matter of selecting the right solution for your business.
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