VoIP systems, sometimes called cloud PBXes, can manage all your voice communications from a central web console no matter how many extensions you’ve got, where your employees are located, or even what devices they’re using. Most systems also offer features like video conferencing and team collaboration. Combine those features with subscription-based pricing that’s generally much less expensive than an old-fashioned PBX, and VoIP wins. That’s especially so during the pandemic when so many employees are now working from home. If you opt for VoIP over PBX, it’s simply a matter of downloading a softphone client to an employee’s PC. They can use that computer just as they would their office phone extension in one step.

Voice over IP (VoIP) systems have long dominated the small-to-midsize business (SMB) telephone market. Not just because they’re less expensive than on-premises PBX (private branch exchange) systems, but because they’re mostly software, which makes them far more flexible. There’s nothing an old-fashioned PBX can do that a VoIP system can’t, but there’s a very long list of things you can do with VoIP that aren’t possible using on-premises hardware, which makes them ideal for most offices, especially those with hybrid work plans. Even residential VoIP includes features that are impossible with conventional telephone systems.

Still, COVID-19 won’t last forever, and hybrid work may not be suitable for your business, so keeping in mind core VoIP criteria is also important. That means providing voice communications for employees at their desks once they return to the office. Businesses may also use VoIP to power a call center for sales or customer service and support. They also need to connect with other communication channels, such as conference calls, fax machines, mobile communications, text messaging, video conferencing, and wireless handsets.

On top of that, VoIP solutions must provide more advanced functionality through software, like shared meeting collaboration, voicemail to email transcription, and call recording. And lest we forget, many businesses still need a service that will connect to the public switched telephone network (PSTN).  

Because they’re working across such a broad array of features and channels, many of today’s phone systems are classified as Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS). These are generally cloud-based, virtual PBXes that include at least one (usually multiple) software clients to enhance their functionality on the web, desktop, and especially mobile devices. Now let’s dig into what you need to look for in a VoIP provider.

How to Choose the Right VoIP System

Before you start considering a brand, you need to figure out exactly how you want your business to use a phone system. Look at your existing phone system and decide whether you’re going to simply keep all of it and bolt some VoIP functionality on top, retain only part of it, or replace the whole thing. Frequently, a total replacement isn’t in the cards, if only because some parts of your existing phone system can’t be easily changed over to softphones or even desktop VoIP handsets.

For example, suppose you have a heavy manufacturing environment with outdoor activities, such as a steel fabrication yard or a landscaping company. In that case, your rugged old outdoor phones may be precisely what you need. It would help if you also decided which capabilities of the old system you’ll need to keep and what features the new phone system offers that you think will be necessary for the future.

When planning, it’s important to include stakeholders from all the critical parts of your business. Yes, this mainly includes the IT staff and the data security folks since your voice calls will now be data communications. But it also needs to have the workers who’ll be using the system to get work done, especially the work that drives revenue and engages customers.

These people have invaluable insights into what’s needed versus what’s simply cool and new. Remember, a VoIP system is much more than just a new set of phones; these platforms have very long feature lists, but many of those features can change your overall price so you need to know what you need and what you don’t. For business-level users, figuring all that out starts with understanding what VoIP is.

Wait, So What Is VoIP, Exactly?

VoIP is a method of digitizing voice signals and then sending digital voice information over an IP network. The analog voice information is encoded using software called a codec to accomplish this. When it comes time to change the digital signal back to analog, another codec does that job.  

For a VoIP system to work, it needs to route calls between users or the outside world. This gets handled by a virtual PBX that your VoIP provider manages in a cloud-based system. You’re essentially sharing a large PBX with that provider’s other customers, but because these companies use multi-tenant segmentation, your PBX will appear dedicated to you. This engine will take care of routing calls on your VoIP network and out to others as well.

However, there’s a need to route calls to the PSTN and other analog phones for many businesses. This may mean a PSTN gateway, or even a hybrid PBX, where there’s at least a small telephone switch located at your office. Your VoIP vendor will let you know if this is necessary at the planning stage.

However, many small businesses try hard to avoid any on-premises PBX components. That’s partially due to cost savings and partially because the capabilities offered by all-cloud systems are more than advanced enough for their needs.

How VoIP and UCaaS Benefit Your Business

If all this is starting to sound like more trouble than it’s worth, remember that turning your PBX into a software solution means a significant opportunity for flexibility and integration that you can’t get any other way. After all, programmers can now treat your phone as an app. That’s taken us to the fast-changing UCaaS paradigm mentioned above. Here, VoIP providers, like the ones we’ve reviewed, provide additional software capabilities that are all implemented and managed from a single, unified console.

The exact features offered in any particular UCaaS solution can change radically from vendor to vendor. Still, most include options for video conferencing, shared meeting and online collaboration tools, integrated faxing, mobile VoIP integration, and device-independent softphone clients. That last one is significant now because it means that your employees can download an app to their smartphone or company laptop, and that app will mirror all the functionality of their corporate phone, including responding to calls coming into your business phone number and their extension in particular. For folks trapped at home by the pandemic, that’s a perfect solution.

Softphones are at the heart of most UCaaS instances, and for many VoIP buyers, they’re becoming the primary use case, sometimes wholly obviating the need for physical handsets. Part of that is because they work as well on mobile phones and tablets as they do on desktop PCs or laptops. Softphones are often the only tool for workers in call centers because they’re the front-end window to any CRM or help desk integration, which is nowadays a must-have for that job.

A softphone can combine a telephone conversation with text chat and screen sharing. That means two employees can seamlessly add more participants, handle private text chats between those participants while the call is still going on. This creates a collaboration session where the group shares screens, documents, and data—no prep, no reserved lines, just button clicks. In the case of a CRM integration, the system could recognize the customer’s phone number or some other identifier and automatically pull up that record for the technician or salesperson answering the call. It can even alert a manager to monitor the call if it’s a critical client.

That’s the basics of UCaaS, but the concept is constantly evolving to include more communication and collaboration technologies. Those capabilities also get tweaked to provide new benefits, sometimes general, sometimes aimed at specific verticals, like healthcare, for example. The key is integration. Voice is becoming integrated with other back-end apps, and UCaaS makes that easier. That’s fueled significant growth in the UCaaS market over the last several years, as recent research from Statista bears out.  

Statista chart: UCaaS Projected Market Growth in US Through 2024

UCaaS Projected Market Growth in US Through 2024

That rich feature fabric can change radically between vendors, however. For example, RingCentral’s softphone offers a long list of app integrations and features, including not just collaboration platforms but bi-directional email and scheduling. Line2’s softphone client, on the other hand, is specifically designed to be simple so users can pick it up quickly, and it does this by mostly mirroring the buttons you’d find on a standard desktop handset. Two ends of the spectrum, but that means you need to be very careful when testing these apps to make sure you’re getting not only what you need but in the right way for how your company does work.

Getting the most out of basic VoIP communication and all these UCaaS features, too, means understanding some of the technologies running underneath or next to VoIP. For most every VoIP installation, that starts with SIP.

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