Buying new phone system – what I learned about VOIP

As you know, I am a huge fan of technology. I have previously written about various software programs I really like as well as cloud computing. Recently, I have had to upgrade my phone system and I wanted to discuss some of the things I learned. Hopefully this will provide some guidance if and when you need to investigate the purchase of this big ticket item.

Phone system

We have had our phone system since 1995. It is an Avaya ten line phone system. We have had the flexibility to add lines as we needed them and we were using eight of those lines. I knew we would need to add more lines and ten was probably not going to be the end of our need, so I began to look into new phone systems. Our Avaya system required us to buy and pay for a separate phone number form AT&T for each line. So, the more lines we added, the more we were paying. This is the way it has always been. In addition to the individual phone lines, I was paying for monthly internet access. All of this was running over $500/month. I do not recall the price of the original phone system and desktop phones, but I know that was a major investment.

Based on what we had and what I anticipated we would need, I began to investigate my options. I spoke with several small business phone consultants about my options. I’d be happy to discuss all the various options if you wish, but there was one option which was far and away the best, so I will stick to discussing the option we selected.

Our Decision

Our new phone system is Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). The phone system uses the internet to transmit phone calls in a digital format rather than an analog format over copper wires like traditional phone calls. I was extremely skeptical at first. I envisioned an internet phone call like a Skype call. Here are the benefits. First, the phone call quality is superior to analog phone calls. The voice quality is noticeably improved from calls on traditional copper lines. There are no “drop outs” and on conference calls, both people can speak at once, unlike on analog phones.

Second, and this is the confusing part. With VOIP, you don’t have “lines” but bandwidth. On our old phones, if someone was on a line, there would be a red light showing that line was in use. If there were eight people on the phone, all our lines were in use. With VOIP, when someone is on the phone, VOIP opens another band for another call. Based on the amount of bandwidth we have, we could (in theory) have 40 people talking on the phone from our office at once. Now, our desktop phones do not have 40 lights on them like you would expect on an old phone. Essentially, each time someone picks up a phone call, a new “line” opens up. Conceptually, it is a bit hard to grasp, but in practice, it solves our issue of running out of lines.

Third, because the phone calls go over the internet, the phone system is not limited to your physical office. Wherever I plug one of my phones into the internet, it is on my system. In practical terms, I have a phone in my house. That phone is on my system, it has its own extension. If I am at home, my assistant can buzz my extension and say, “Mike, call on three for you” and I can pick up the call immediately. There is no transferring or call forwarding. It is no different than if I was sitting in my office down the hall. Additionally, the caller ID from any phone plugged into the system comes up with the office name and phone number. No more having to call from your cell phone or home phone. If I get a new lead from the internet at 10 PM, I can call them from my office home phone. Many people save the phone number in their recent calls directory, and now they will have my correct office number.

Finally, the cost of VOIP is comparable to what I was paying for eight lines with AT&T. But, my costs for adding lines at AT&T would have continued to go up but there is no additional cost with VOIP since I do not pay per line. Additionally, as the name implies, VOIP goes over the internet, so my phone package includes internet access. In the end, my phone bill is the same as it was with AT&T but I love all the additional benefits. Also, I have the ability to grown with VOIP without an increase in cost.

All the benefits of a VOIP system comes with a cost.  It did require the purchase of a new phone system. This includes the interface as well as the number of phones we needed. But, I needed to buy a new phone system regardless, the only question was, which one?  I looked at this as a one time investment which should last us for the foreseeable future. The price of the system was about 10% higher than a traditional analog phone system. Perhaps the prices will go down as this technology becomes the standard. But, given all the other benefits I previously discussed, and the 10% spread out over the life time of the system, I did not consider this to be a major impediment.

I spent a lot of time investigating my options for a new phone system and I am very pleased with my decision to go with a VOIP system. I was also surprised that as many law firms had already gone to this system. I like to think of myself as being on the cutting edge of new technology, but VOIP has been around for awhile. It is just not widely integrated into business culture yet. If you have any questions about a phone system, please feel free to contact me and I would be happy to go over the results of my investigation.