One of the most important aspects of building a successful business is customer engagement. Today’s businesses reach out and connect with customers across multiple channels (including social media and email). However even with seemingly constant advancements in online communications and collaborationtechnology, nothing has yet to fully supplant the telephone. Maintaining the capability to talk directly to customers in real time while gathering valuable marketing and business intelligence (BI) is still best done via voice. So, having a functional and feature-filled telephone system fully integrated into your sales and marketing strategies is hugely important for any size business.

But even with this realization, you have a multitude of choices. Larger businesses need to select between on-premises Private Branch Exchange (PBX) hardware and hosted solutions, weighing their potential benefits (i.e., advanced functionality and total customizability) against associated costs. Small to midsize businesses (SMBs) need to make that same choice, but also weigh their current needs and budget against what they expect those needs to become in the future as telephony technology continues to evolve and integrate with other types of software, especially cloud services. For many, the cost of a traditional PBX system may not only be beyond the reach of their current operating budget but may also not make much long-term sense.

Furthermore, when you’re starting or running a small business, you need to be devoting the majority of your time and efforts into your core business in order to succeed. Wasting time on purchasing, implementing, and managing infrastructure can be extremely costly, both in capital outlay and time removed from building the business.

Traditionally, small businesses would rely on a local telco for basic business phone needs, using something like a CENTREX system. But today, those systems have become antiquated and do not mesh well with the needs of a modern business—especially for emerging trends such as integrating mobile phones, enterprise social networking, texting, leveraging call center and call queuing software, or dozens of other features that can streamline processes, promote collaboration, and accelerate growth.

Fortunately, there are many more options available today in hosted PBX solutions that bring the features and reliability of an enterprise-level PBX to SMBs. In order to provide a guide to these solutions, we’ve pulled together four of the leading hosted PBX solutions representing a range of features and types: Citrix Grasshopper, Fonality Hosted PBX, Microsoft Skype for Business Online, and RingCentral Office.

We also attempted to include VoIP solution provider Nextiva in this roundup, but oddly, the company didn’t respond to any of several attempts at contact, which was more than a little puzzling for a company that ostensibly specializes in business communications.

Modern Features of Business Phone Systems
The four VoIP solutions we did test cover a wide range of features and options. Some, such as Fonality Hosted PBX and RingCentral Office, are geared towards larger businesses, and offer high-end enterprise features, but they offer rates that fit into SMB budgets. Others, such as Citrix Grasshopper, are very much geared towards the smaller end of the SMB market and provide the basics of a modern phone system—without the need for any on-premises equipment or even fixed phone lines and, though limited in features, are extremely cost-effective.

On the higher end of this space, hosted PBX providers such as RingCentral Office and Fonality Hosted PBX will generally require some on-premises hardware such as specific desk and cordless VoIP phones preconfigured to work with the hosted PBX service. These phones connect to the provider over the Internet and function exactly as you would imagine a business phone should, but the phone system running those phones is located in the cloud rather than the telco closet in the basement. Self-service management and configuration of these systems generally occurs through a Web-based portal, and features such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, call queuing, hold music or audio, extension assignments, and similar business capabilities are all managed there.

In some cases, providers will offer on-premises Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) connectivity through hardware that is connected to analog or digital phone lines from the local telco and connected to the business network. This allows a business to continue to use local phone lines with their hosted PBX solution and may be of significant benefit to businesses that have a requirement to maintain local wired lines.

Furthermore, most (if not all) providers also offer smartphone integration with custom apps that extend the phone system beyond the office. This integration 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.

The Right Internet Connection
Most of these VoIP solutions will require stable and consistent Internet connectivity at every location where the wired phones are to be used. In many cases, standard business-class Internet service with suitable bandwidth will suffice, though the use of Quality of Service (QoS) configuration on a business-class Internet router may be necessary to prioritize voice traffic over other Internet traffic in order to maintain good call quality. Some hosted PBX providers offer assistance with this type of configuration on existing customer hardware, assuming that hardware can support QoS configuration. Other providers will sell a specific piece of network hardware with the proper QoS configuration for the business to install that will ensure that call quality is prioritized.

Either way, the quality and functionality of a hosted PBX with VoIP service will only be as good as the Internet service at the business location. If this service is not sufficient, a VoIP solution may not be possible. Some hosted PBX providers do offer dedicated circuits that can be installed to directly connect the business to the provider but those are generally quite costly. Fortunately, there are other ways to use hosted PBX solutions without requiring Internet-connected phones.

Some providers, such as Citrix Grasshopper, offer a solution that doesn’t use VoIP at all. They are essentially just simple PBXes that consider existing phone lines to be extensions and route calls that way. For instance, you might have a main number that delivers callers to an IVR system and, when the caller dials an extension or selects a destination such as “Sales” or “Support,” the hosted PBX calls an existing landline or mobile number and connects the two calls. The caller is unaware that they have connected to a completely different phone number, as the system looks and functions like an in-house PBX with call forwarding, transfer, hold music, IVR, and so forth.

The extensions in this case could be Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) lines, mobile phones, or even VoIP phones through a different provider; all the hosted PBX cares about is that, when a certain extension is selected, a call is placed to the phone number assigned to that extension. This sounds basic but it’s a tried-and-true technology that can make businesses of any size and budget look as if they are using enterprise-grade phone software—without the need to invest in heavy-duty PBX solutions or dedicated desktop phone hardware.

Placing outbound calls with a system like this is typically done by first registering a specific phone with the provider for outbound calling, and then dialing a specific number to then place an outbound call to the desired number. This method is made far simpler by using a smartphone with the provider app to place outbound calls.

Look for Extended Functionality
Some hosted PBX providers, such as Fonality, also offer extended services such as call center features that can be used to design intricate and complex call routing and call management scenarios for important queues such as sales and support with extensive queue and time-to-answer service level agreement (SLA) monitoring and reporting capabilities. Some also offer voicemail transcription, fax services, and other communication integrations such as the ability to integrate a customer relationship management (CRM) application with the PBX to enable one-click outbound calling and retrieval of customer records or other information when a call comes into the system.

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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