Unfortunately, a traditional phone line often falls short in the last two aspects, which is why we recommend VoIP as an alternative. Follow these steps to find a VoIP phone service provider that ticks these essential boxes.
Step 1: Go with VoIP for your small business
With modern infrastructure, we think that voice over internet protocol (VoIP) software is the best phone service option for most small businesses. VoIP companies route phone calls through the internet. To use their services, you simply have to pay an ongoing subscription to access their cloud-powered telephone infrastructure.
Time and money are precious, and VoIP saves you both. Relative to a traditional phone line, this service saves on upfront costs, since you do not need to buy any of the expensive equipment required to set up a landline phone system. Also, since the digital phone system is ready to go, setup takes hours or days instead of weeks or months.
With a traditional phone system, scaling up requires buying and setting up equipment, while scaling down means selling equipment or letting it sit unused, neither of which are ideal. To scale your business with VoIP, you can simply increase or decrease the size of your subscription.
That said, choosing a VoIP provider can be daunting—there are a lot of them out there, and it can be hard to figure out where to start. Use the following steps to help guide your research.
Step 2: Establish a budget
Establishing a realistic budget can help keep you grounded while shopping for providers.
VoIP companies typically bill on a subscription basis with a monthly or annual installment. The price also increases with every additional phone user. If a provider charges $50 per user per month for their service, a business with two users will pay $100/month. To add a third user, the monthly bill will go up to $150, and so on.
Most services will also have multiple plan levels that unlock extra features. The most basic plan will always offer phone services and basics like voicemail, call blocking, and—sometimes—SMS messaging. These plans usually range in price from $15 to $20 per user per month.
More expensive plans could come with additional benefits like automatic voicemail transcription, reports for management teams, and remote desktop connection for work-from-home employees. Expect such plans to start at around $35 per user or more.
Use these costs as a baseline for your budget, and you’ll be ready for the next step.
Step 3: Consider additional features
All VoIP providers offer basic internet-based telephony services. Many providers will also throw in call recording, internal messaging for your team, and file sharing. Any features beyond these are likely to be priced at a premium.
Look carefully at the different plan options your provider offers. If the most basic package is littered with extra features that you will not use, consider a different provider—it will probably be cheaper. On the other hand, if you need something beyond the basic offering, like corporate training, make sure that the plan you choose offers the features you require.
Step 4: Determine tech compatibility
Your VoIP provider should be compatible with your existing software and hardware. If your business uses Macs, it won’t do to buy software that only works on Windows.
Consider what devices you will need to connect. Will your employees only be using their in-office phone headsets? Or will they need to connect from home on their personal computer, tablet, or smartphone? Not every VoIP provider is compatible across all devices, so make sure that your provider is compatible with those you intend to use.
Many VoIP providers also integrate with other commonly used business software. If you already use a CRM program, limit your search to VoIP providers designed to integrate directly with the CRM you already use. This will make adopting the new software that much easier.
Step 5: Find the right payment plan for you
Many VoIP providers offer different payment options. Some offer both monthly and annual payments with a discount to annual subscribers. Others only allow annual payments.
Determining which option is best for you depends entirely on the nature of your business and your billing cycle. Would you prefer a lump sum annual payment, or smaller, ongoing monthly payments? Decide what works for you and keep it in mind, as not every VoIP provider will be able to accommodate your preferred payment frequency.
Finally, consult the provider’s terms and conditions about their account cancellation policy to see if there are any hidden fees or issues that may arise if you choose to take your business elsewhere. This is especially important for annual payments: find out what happens if you choose to exit your contract mid-year.
Step 6: Review their uptime guarantee
Uptime is the amount of time your phone network is guaranteed by your provider to remain up and running, and it shouldn’t be overlooked when choosing features.
Most VoIP providers guarantee that your network will stay up most of the time, but no system is perfect. There will be times when it will go down due to maintenance or unexpected errors.
For this reason, no reputable VoIP provider will advertise 100% uptime—that is simply not possible. But the numbers providers advertise can still look impressive, typically 99% uptime or more.
It is important to note that 99% is not actually good uptime. If your phones are up and running 99% of the time, they are down 1% of the time. That’s 3.65 days a year! Is your business comfortable with an 86-hour phone outage, even once a year?
The industry standard is 99.999% uptime, though in practice it is unlikely that your provider will promise you that. In any case, when you see an impressive-looking amount of uptime, run the numbers in terms of hours in a year and confirm that you are okay with the result before buying.
Step 7: Consider support features
Like uptime, customer support is one of those factors that people often don’t consider until they actually need it. Don’t assume that you can always call customer service if you have an issue. Many software providers only use an email ticketing system with a multi-day turnaround time; some expect customers to refer to a self-service knowledge base for customer support.
This can be totally okay—most VoIP software is designed with ease of use and simplicity in mind, so if your team is confident in their ability to tackle most issues on their own, a service with limited support may be fine. This might even save you money, since plans with less support can be significantly cheaper.
No matter what provider you go with, make sure that they offer a level of customer service that you and your team are comfortable with.
Step 8: Look for hidden fees
Knowing the subscription fee of your plan is all well and good, but you should carefully review the terms and conditions for additional fees that might increase the overall cost of your service. Some fees might even be avoidable. For example, many providers charge a one-time fee to initially set up their software on your system. If you or your IT team are savvy enough, perhaps you can avoid that fee by setting up the software yourself. Talk to the provider’s sales team about these options.
Other fees could apply on termination of a plan, monthly for administration, or even for exceeding a certain amount of call minutes. Long-distance calling often incurs fees as well, so look into that if you anticipate making many calls to places abroad.
Take the time to add up all the fees to come up with the total cost of your VoIP subscription before you buy. Compare that number against your budget from step #2 to determine if this service is actually affordable.
Step 9: Look into setup processes and training
Setup time can vary significantly depending on your provider and your specific plan, from a near-instantaneous process to weeks or months. Make sure to discuss setup with the provider’s sales team before making a purchase.
Depending on the experience level of your team and the complexity of the software, your company may also require consulting and training to use the software most efficiently. Ask your provider what training and consulting hours are included in your plan package. If there are none, consider whether you and your team are comfortable learning how to use software without assistance.
Step 10: Find out what happens to your phone number
Your VoIP provider will override any previous phone network you have. Sometimes, this can result in your phone number changing. For businesses with an established customer base that is used to reaching out by phone this could be devastating. It will disproportionally affect your most important, recurring customers.
For this reason, many VoIP providers now offer a service that allows you to keep your old number after switching over. If your current provider does not, consider what the consequences of losing your current number would be. If it could potentially cost you business, go with a different provider.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors to think about when choosing a phone service provider for your small business. First and foremost, a VoIP provider is your best bet in most cases, as it will save you money, time, and work over a traditional provider.
Every VoIP provider is different, so read their terms and conditions very carefully to make sure that their features fit your needs. Ensure their software is compatible with your tech and fits your budget. If you take these steps, you can breathe easy, as you should be well on your way to setting up a VoIP phone service for your small business.