If you’ve ever contemplated setting up your own business then this new series could be just what you need to get the cogs turning. In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring all aspects of going it alone – from determining a clear proposition and plan, sourcing premises, sorting equipment, making decisions on hardware and software, marketing and promotion, finances and staying on the right side of employment law. Our aim being to help you consider what’s important before you realise in your enthusiasm you haven’t properly considered something or that the decisions you’ve made have boxed you into a corner.
This time, telecommunications - what systems and technologies best suit your needs? A traditional landline or a device that channels data over the internet? Can you really run your business from a mobile? We help you decide.
Going to POTS?
When it comes to telecoms it wasn't all that long ago that your only choice would be a regular landline that channelled communications via the local telephone exchange using copper wires provisioned by the only company in the country able to provide the service. It wasn't until 1981 that BT allowed you to connect your own equipment to the network (previously a rented landline was hardwired to a box on the wall) and it was only in 1984 that the firm's monopoly was broken paving the way for third parties step up to provide lines and calls. That said, when it comes to provisioning lines third parties can request a service but it's Openreach (a division of BT) that carries out the actual work and not the folk at Challenger Teleco.
Once up and running, customers can now choose to split who they pay line rental to and who they pay for calls. Whether to use one company for both or different companies for calls and line rental is entirely up to you. At any time you can opt to use a pre-dialled override number to route your calls over a third party network - ideal if you want to make use of cheaper rates for particular calls on an ad-hoc basis.
To run a landline service for your business you'll likely need on-premises PBX hardware to allow you to create multiple extensions and enable a range of features such as call directories and transferring.
So far, so familiar, and when it comes to reliability and call quality it's hard to beat a landline on the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) network - but in a world fuelled by digital technology they are definately not the most flexible or even the most capable solution.
Mobile phones have long since ursurped the landline as our go-to method for getting in touch with people either by voice, text, or online messaging app - But can you really run your fledgling business from a mobile alone?
Other options include Voice Over Internet Protocol (or VOIP, for short) solutions (which you can choose to host yourself or sign up to a providers' package) and a range of virtual phone services. We explore these options below:
VOIP solutions rely on your internet connection rather than traditional copper phone lines. As calls are routed over the internet then your call costs can effectively be nil (assuming you've paid for broadband and/or mobile data already). When it comes to international calls, which can be expensive when routed over the traditional telephone network, the prospect of 'free' calls is obviously a compelling proposition. Heavy users may also be tempted by 'free'.
VOIP systems also provide access to the added features that were previously the preserve of large telecoms systems - automated attendants, call queuing and integration with computers allowing voicemails to be sent to emails or PCs to be turned into 'softphones'. Mobile workers can also easily access the business phone system from their own devices.
There are, however, considerable downsides to solutions relying on VOIP - If you're stuck with slow internet speeds then VOIP in a busy office already using bandwidth for general web activities is likely to be painful with call quality varying according to network traffic. Moreover, if your internet connection goes down then so does your ability to make and receive calls - that's why some VOIP solutions allow for integration with a regular phone network.
In recent years VOIP solutions have matured to the point that regular equipment can often be used and hybrid equipment has been developed to allow for easy switching between 'regular' and 'VOIP' networks if you're running systems in tandem with support for teleconferencing equipment. Check carefully to ensure the equipment you want to use will work.
You'll need to explore whether to use a hosted system or your own on-site VOIP solution. Hosting your own can be tricky in terms of intial set-up costs and configuration of your PBX hardware and then ongoing maintenance. Opting for a service provider's solution. may be a better option if you're looking for something that's more 'plug and go' and these typically are charged monthly on a per-user basis.
Virtual phone systems
Essentially a 'forwarding' solution, and a way of presenting a 'corporate' image, virtual phone systems connect a business line to remote workers' own landlines or mobiles. These kinds of solutions offen come bundled with a variety of features including voicemail, call screening and forwarding and automated receptionists which often aren't an option with regular home phones. For larger businesses the limitations of this kind of solution are likely to be limiting not least by virtue of the fact that workers will pay for calls made and received on their own phones.
Smartphones offer significant benefits for individuals - extreme portability, reasonable call costs, the ability to access data as well as telephone services, but beyond a one-person operation their limitations become more apparent. It's the business features that you're likely to find lacking if you opt for a mobile - the ability to offer a virtual receptionist and quickly and easily transfer call among your staff or find the correct contacts, or provide recorded greetings that communicate business information, for example.
If you really are set on using mobiles then it might be worth exploring a virtual phone system in conjunction with your mobile devices to enable business features and present a more professional outward appearance.
Which telecoms solution is right for me?
Which solution you choose really depends on your needs and just how fast and reliable your connection to the internet is. If you've invested heavily in existing equipment you'll also need to ensure it can connect and communicate with your chosen solution, whatever it happens to be.
It's worth doing something of a telecoms audit when considering your choices - how many calls do you take (and how is this expected to scale)?, what features do you need from your systems (everything from being able to transfer calls and place people on hold to call waiting and more) and whether you'll be working across multiple offices or external locations should all inform your decision-making.
These questions answered you'll be able to research relevant providers, hardware and factor in appropriate costs for calls packages and/or features.
Handsets and devices
With decisions made on network connectivity you can start to consider the handsets and devices you might want to attach to it. Different job roles may benefit from different hardware - for those who spend a lot of time answering calls some kind of headset might be a good option, while traditional 'desk phones' may work best for those making just occassional calls. As with many forms of technology, a range of features and technologies are converging in the latest hardware. Phones combining high-end features on traditional landlines with VOIP functionalities, apps, HD audio and even video calling are, today, more science fact than science fiction.
As with all aspects of setting up your fledgling business, time invested in auditing your needs and exploring your options before waving a credit card is likely to be time well spent.
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