Buying a new phone system

Buying a new phone system?

For small businesses it is difficult to know where to go for independent advice when looking to buy a new telephone system. If you call BT, you will be recommended a BT system and may be forced to sign into a long term lease and/or fixed line contract. If you approach a local dealer, you will more than likely be advised to buy a Samsung, Siemens, Panasonic system – the list of manufacturers is extensive.

What types of phone systems are there?

There are two main types of telephone systems on the market.

Site based PBX equipment (where you buy the phones and the PBX) and Hosted Phone Services (AKA Hosted IP Telephony or Hosted PBX) where you only buy handsets (no PBX is required) and run your telecoms over broadband connections (eg FTTC). Which type you chose can depend on how good your broadband is where you are located. If you have poor broadband connectivity you should probably avoid using a VoIP solution, however if your connectivity is good you may find Hosted VoIP Telephony systems offer much more flexibility and cost far less to setup and maintain.  If you have limited broadband connectivity but are keen to benefit from VoIP you could go for a mixture of traditional phone lines and VOIP lines. These types of systems are generally know as IP PBX systems. (eg: a mixture of ISDN lines & SIP trunking lines)

Note: PBX stands for Private Branch Exchange. This is the central processing unit usually found buzzing away in the corner of your office (or in your comms cabinet) onto which all the phones are attached.

What to look for in a telephone system

Computers and telephone technology has converged at a rapid rate, offering businesses highly flexible solutions that are changing the way we work. Different working practices such as the increase in homeworking and remote working is an important factor to consider when making the decision on the type of telephone system that best fits your business. For example, technology is available today which enables a member of staff to literally unplug their IP desk phone from their office network (maybe based in Brighton), go home and plug the IP desk phone into their home broadband (in Hove which is on a completely different telephone exchange) and make and receive calls as if in the office on the same Brighton office 01273 phone number or 01273 extension number. Users can also use soft phones on their laptops or apps on their smartphones (eg which enable their PC/MAC or smartphone to receive and make calls as a clone of their desk phone. This can also mean that if the calling number is presented and their details are on your contact database, these will automatically appear on your PC screen. In the same way, by the click of a mouse button you can make a call to a contact direct from your PC screen or smartphone contacts. In most cases your desk phone voicemail messages can be delivered to your e-mail account as audio attachments (wav/mp3) so that you can listen to your messages on your PC or smartphone whilst away from the office.

You also need to consider expansion possibilities and bolt-on features that you may wish to add on at a later stage. For example, how many extensions does the system you are looking at go up to, how many lines will it support, can you easily add voicemail? Do you need digital ISDN lines to get Direct Dialling In (DDI) functionality or will analogue lines give you the services you want now and in the future? Does the system handle VoIP calling over the internet?  With the growth of superfast broadband VoIP uptake is increasing at a rapid rate.

Features to consider:

  • Call transfer – is it easy to transfer a call between extensions and to users who are out of the office
  • Call reporting – records the numbers dialled & received by individual extensions
  • Missed calls –  web based portals that can show live missed call history enabling you to quickly respond to any missed calls.
  • Call barring – barring users from dialling out to certain numbers such as premium rate or special rate numbers (eg 0844)
  • Automated attendant – callers are offered a series of numbered options to press to be put through to the correct department/extension
  • Conference calling – most systems provide this however the handsets must have high quality microphones and speakers
  • Calling line identification (CLI) – requires a handset with an adequate display screen
  • Music on hold – is there a choice of music?
  • Directory phone book – an internal directory listing all company contacts available for users to dial
  • Do you have more than one office? If so it’s well worth investigating Hosted Telephony solutions as they can significantly reduce your capital and on-going costs.
  • Can users working from home use the same numbering plan as the office? For example when they dial out (from any phone) is their caller line id the same as the office number/ddi number?

Spend time to consider all the options and talk to others before selecting a system. Once you have identified the features that are important to you, identify a number of local suppliers. Don’t be afraid to ask the supplier lots of questions and ask them can they trial of the system. Those that allow trial periods are well worth considering.

Hints and tips

  1. Don’t get too much functionality: often people end up buying something that is overly complex and has features that they will never actually use. Look at the features, but always ask yourself: “What benefits would this bring to my business?”
  2. Don’t get pushed into “state of the art” features by pushy salesmen. Get them to explain the product’s abilities in simple terms and get them to show you the basic features that most businesses utilise. Do some research and check out product reviews in magazines. Talk to people you know about systems they have bought.
  3. Buy things that can easily be improved without major expenditure. Telecoms technology is developing so fast that new and better things will be available tomorrow. You can simply fulfill your immediate requirements, as long as you purchase a system that can be changed or upgraded when your business needs it and when you can afford it.
  4. What level of staff training would be required?
  5. Would staff be able to make changes to user extensions using a simple computer interface or will you need constant support from the supplier? How quickly can they respond to a request for support?
  6. When you have narrowed down the choice to a particular type of system get quotes from at least three separate companies. It is probably better to get the same company to supply, install and maintain the system.

Additional information

You can also consult impartial advisors or enlist the help of a independent telecom broker, who can carry out this time consuming task for you. Often brokers provide their services for free so you have nothing to lose by using them.