Designing Your Small Business Phone System

For most small businesses, their phone system is a critical platform for interacting with customers and prospects. While email, text and other ways of reaching you are important, and increasingly can be integrated into phone systems, reliable voice calls are still a critical part of your company’s daily operations.

When setting up a phone system, small business owners have plenty of choices. The best system for your company depends on several factors, staring with your needs, budget and growth plans.

While the choices may seem complex, the good news is today’s phone systems offer a wide range of flexible features to help your company interact with customers, get work done and present a professional appearance to the outside world.

Evaluate Your Needs

The first step in designing a professional phone system is thinking about how your company is most likely to use it. An auto repair shop or bakery that serves local customers, for instance, is going to have different needs than a regional insurance broker or consulting firm.

For example, how many simultaneous calls are you likely to have on an average day? What are your expected call patterns? Will most of your inbound or outbound calls be local? Regional? International?

Are all of your team members based in the workplace, or do you have people spending considerable time on the go? Do you have remote workers or contractors? Can you benefit from having a local number in a different city?

These are some of the important question you will want to ask yourself, team members and potentially customers or business partners as you consider your company’s communications needs.

Types of Phone Systems

Phone systems designed for business users fall into three categories:

  • Analog PBX: Until fairly recently, an analog PBX operating through phone lines provided by a local or regional carrier was the most common type of small business phone system. PBX systems use traditional phones, with a server that is installed in your office. Although PBX is a proven, stable technology, if you’re starting a business from scratch, it may not be available in your area. If it is, PBX can be a good choice for a company with a predictable call volume and a workforce that’s based in one location.
  • IP PBX Systems route calls through an Internet connection instead of analog phone lines. Your company’s communications server can be installed at your workplace, or hosted by your service provider. Team members use digital phones, and the system will offer a variety of communications features described below.
  • Virtual phone systems work without installed hardware, with calls taking place on digital handsets, smartphones, or so-called soft phones (a phone interface accessed through a web browser). These systems offer the most flexibility, such as the ability to integrate click-to-call capabilities with calendars and CRM systems, but also depend on a reliable Internet connection to function.

Essential Features

While specifics may vary among providers and systems, the most common features available through IP PBX and virtual phone systems include:

  • Auto attendant presents callers with a recorded list of options to direct their call, typically by department or extension. Those can be programmed to route calls to team members’ workstations, mobile devices or home phones.
  • Find me/follow me can automatically direct a call that’s not answered after three rings to the user’s mobile, or to another extension. You can create business-hour rules to prevent late-night calls to team members’ cellphones.
  • Conferencing allows people to create three-way calls on the fly, with some systems offering built-in bridge lines to accommodate additional users.
  • Remote location allows workers based outside your workplace have internal extensions as if they were, and to use smartphone apps to make calls using your business number.
  • Company directory features allow callers to find the right team member without knowing their extension.
  • A web-based configuration dashboard that lets you add or remove users, or change your features, with a few clicks.
  • IP PBX and virtual phone systems will also offer unified communications features such as having voice messages and transcriptions available in users’ email inboxes.

A hosted or virtual phone system can also provide valuable disaster recovery or business continuity benefits for your company. If you can’t reach your workplace after a natural disaster or during a power outage, for instance, inbound calls will still be routed to team members’ mobile numbers, and users with internet access can make calls or reconfigure the system to change your call-routing rules.

You may not have access to your workplace or all of your technology tools, but you can still stay in touch with customers.

Small Business Faxing

Although faxing documents is becoming less common, fax machines are still used frequently by companies in several sectors including real estate, legal services and others. Integrating the most effective fax solution into your small business phone system depends on several factors, starting with the volume of faxed documents you exchange with customers or prospects.

If you have a VoIP phone system you can use a dedicated fax machine and number, but you may have to tinker with the machine’s settings to exchange messages effectively. Faxing was designed to work over analog phone lines, so the digital compression used by VoIP systems can cause data loss and communication failures when faxing.

If you have a virtual phone system, or exchange faxed documents only a few times a month, your phone provider will likely offer virtual faxing as an additional service. These services convert incoming faxes to image files you can access through an email account or download from the fax service provider.

Similarly, outbound faxes are prepared using a printer driver that lets you create a digital document and fax it to your recipient. For printed documents, such as signed agreements, you’d have to scan the document to create a PDF that your fax service would send on your behalf.

For occasional fax use, a multi-function device that combines faxing with scanning or printing can be a good choice. You’ll probably need a more robust printer than a multi-function device, but the faxing and scanning features can make these devices good choices for secondary printers.

For frequent fax users, an analog phone line and a dedicated fax machine will likely be the most reliable solution. The relatively small cost of a single phone line will pay for itself easily in improve productivity and communications efficiency.