Sunday, August 7, 2011

VOIP Phones

We are looking at making a radical change in our phone systems! Right now one of our locations has a Nortel phone system and the other location has a series of 4-line Panasonic phones. We really don't have any problems with the phones, we'd just like to have more flexibility.

We have two locations, but one published phone number. Clients call our main number and can book with either location. That's great for the client, but it puts the entire phone burden on one location. Meanwhile, the other receptionist is twiddling her thumbs and trying to stay busy. During times of high call volume, we require a second person on phones at the Location 1, while we are already paying someone with plenty of idle time at Location 2.

At Location 1 we have 3 voice lines and a fax line that cost us a total of $100 per month. At Location 2 we have 3 voice lines, one of which serves double-duty as a fax line ($80 per month). Keep in mind Location 2 does not have a published number. We only keep that many lines at Location 2 so they can handle the call volume if Location 1 needs to transfer all calls to them for some reason.

In my ideal world, a client would call our main number and it would ring at both front desks simultaneously. It would be like instantly doubling my phone coverage.

So I called a phone guy who recommended a Toshiba VOIP phone system. VOIP is Voice Over Internet Protocol. It's been around for a while, but it's now becoming much more common and is reliable enough for a business to use. In the scenario he recommended we would have a phone "system" at Location 1. Location 1 could have "normal" phones or IP phones. Location 2 would have IP phones, which means they connect via the internet not through regular phone lines. This obviously requires reliable internet. Location 1 would still have phones with no internet, but Location 2 would not have phones if either location lost internet connectivity.

The way around the internet risk is to bring in a second internet connection to provide redundancy. Right now we have cable ($75 per month per location). We would bring a DSL line into each location for about $45 per month each. A certain type of router would direct traffic across both connections. If one connection failed, everything would flow over the other one seamlessly.

The beauty of the system is that you can route incoming calls wherever you want. When a client calls the main number, we can make it ring on any of the phones at either location simultaneously. Sweet! Then he told me the price. It was upwards of $6,000! That is so far out of my price range it's not even funny!

A client told me about another option. It's called Hosted VOIP and it basically gives you all the benefits of a VOIP system but you are using a system on the cloud. I'm working with a company called Aptela ( on this scenario (ask for Jonathan). In this case, we don't have a "system" installed at either of our locations. We are connected via the internet to Aptela. We would port our main phone number to them, install IP phones at both locations, and we would configure the service so all incoming calls ring to both front desks. What does this cost, you ask? The cost ranges from $15 per phone per month to $25 per phone per month. The $25 gives you unlimited outgoing calls (all the plans give you unlimited incoming). If you have a phone that will have very low outgoing call volume (like the breakroom, since everyone uses their own cellphone), you can do a $15 plan where you pay 2.5 cents per outgoing minute.

So we need 4 front desk phones (2 per location), 2 break room phones, and 2 office phones. The front desk and one office phone will be $25 each and the other 3 will be $15. Total per month $170. For another $5 I can add a fax line that will send the faxes directly to my email account. This replaces my entire phone bill at each location. Instead of paying for 7 phone lines, I just port over my main line and my fax line. The call volume VOIP can handle is only limited by the type of phone (we will get 3-line phones so each phone can handle 3 calls at a time - all coming in on the same phone number) and your bandwidth.

Bandwidth is important with VOIP. They tell me you need 80kb of up-speed per call. You can test your connection at The broadband service we have now is 6 meg download speed and 1 meg upload speed. So if we want to handle 6 simultaneous calls we need 480kb of up-speed (80kb x 6 calls). 1 meg is 1,000 kb so we should be in good shape.

The risk of Hosted VOIP - reliability is my biggest concern. Reliability of our internet for one - if a location loses internet they lose phones. Of course, chances are the other location would still have internet so they could handle the phones, but for a single location this would be a problem. I'm also concerned about the reliability of the host. We've researched different hosted VOIP solutions on line and feel like Aptela is a good choice.

What if everything goes wrong anyway? My Aptela rep suggests that we set up Call Continuity before anything ever goes wrong. If Aptela has an outage and none of our calls are coming through, we basically implement Unconditional Call Forwarding and forward all incoming calls to another number like a cell phone that does not rely on internet. We could also do this if we lost internet at both locations.

Our plan is to have redundant internet at each location. So all in, I will be spending a little more than I am now. My phone bills will go down from $180 to $175 but I'll pay an additional $90 to get redundant internet in each location. Net difference is $85 a month. I think this is well-worth it considering what it means from a staffing perspective. I will automatically have double-coverage on phones so I won't need to staff up Location 1 to handle high call volume. My 2 front desks will just share all the calls. And I could get away without redundant internet - that's just me being extra cautious. (Our salon management system also runs on the cloud so no internet means no appointment book. Given the dual risk of phones and appointment book I'll spring for the $85).

This solution will require me to purchase new phones - we need IP phones. Aptela sells them for $89, so since I need 8 phones I've got some start-up costs, but it's a lot less than $6k and it's a good productivity solution.


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