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Phone Systems for Small Business – 8 Factors for Evaluating a VOIP Telephone System

Shoretel’s CEO, John Combs, presented a keynote address recently, providing some helpful advice to IT managers and others evaluating a voice over IP (VOIP) phone system.  He used the MAC iPhone as an analogy, to show how new technology can quickly dominate an industry.  In the case of a VOIP business phone system, IP technology can greatly increase user adaption rates of, which can also improve productivity in an organization.

An IP phone system enables the collaborative and reach aspects of unified messaging technology.  The VOIP telephone system usually provides features such as audio conferencing, unified messaging (voicemail in email), web collaboration, mobile integration (cell phones), presence (to locate employees quickly), instant messaging, video conferencing and business process integration (accounting, customer relationship management, sales, etc.).

What sets apart one vendor’s small business phone systems from another’s?  Mr. Combs suggests a very structured evaluation process when selecting office telephone systems using VOIP for business.  He suggests forming an evaluation team of key players and 8 evaluation criteria for selecting new small business phone systems:

  1. Usability.  There must be an onsite demonstration with the actual hardware to be deployed.  It is often advisable to have two or more vendors demonstrate side-by-side, or install a prototype at two separate locations and then swap systems and locations to see which one users preferred.
  2. Reliability.  What is the expected failure rate, based on actual deployed systems using bellcore/Telecordia standards?
  3. Availability.  Make sure you understand the impact of downtime on the business based on the planned configuration.
  4. Scalability.  What are the costs should you need to double the planned configuration?
  5. Architecture.  What design philosophy was used in the system.  Was it ground-up vs. piecemeal from various merged business entities?
  6. Total Cost of Ownership.  In many cases upfront costs (hardware, network and implementation) amount to only 20% of the total system cost in the long term.  Operating costs (training, move/add/change, system management, network and utilities) can amount to 80% over the system lifetime.
  7. Vendor Financial Strength.  Evaluate the vendor’s balance sheet to get comfortable with the fact that they’ll continue to be able to support your office telephone system.
  8. Vendor References.  Everyone on the team should contact their peers for information regarding the ip phone system vendors considered.  Would they repurchase?  Who else do they know using the system?  How do actual costs compare to vendor estimates?  Is it easy for IT staff to support?  Are there any “raving fans?”

When evaluating new small business phone systems, the usual choice is a VOIP business phone system.  A careful evaluation of each vendor’s offerings and especially the presence of “raving fans” of  any VOIP business phone system are important in getting all the benefits of VOIP for business.

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