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Business phones

Telephone systemsVirtually every company needs a good phone system - complemented by mobile phones - to communicate effectively wherever you are.

Modern business phone systems typically combine different kinds of equipment and services in order to meet your company's needs. These can include:

  • Dedicated phone lines. These are the same copper wires we've used to place telephone calls for years. Although they seem old-fashioned, they're reliable and easy to set up.
  • Mobile phones. Mobile phones can be tightly integrated into your business phone system. Some companies have even eliminated dedicated landline phone lines altogether in favour of mobile phones.
  • Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services. VoIP is a way of placing telephone calls across the internet instead of using dedicated phone lines. It's fast becoming an integral part of business phone systems because it's very flexible and often provides excellent value for money.

The lines between office phone systems and other elements of business communications - like email and your internet connection - are becoming more blurred. This has led to the emergence of powerful unified messaging systems, which tie together different communication tools.

A good unified messaging system is very flexible. For instance, it can automatically divert calls to your mobile when you're out of the office or display data from your CRM system when a customer calls. The best way to explore the options is to speak to an IT supplier.

Planning your business phones

It's important to plan your small business phone system carefully. Consider exactly what you need to do with it and how you expect to use it. For example, will you be based in one place or will you be working out and about? How many people are you connecting?

Build up a clear picture of the volume and type of calls you expect to make and receive. Think about how you expect your business to grow, and whether you have special requirements, like equipment which needs to be plugged into a phone line. You can then start to decide what type of office phone system you need.

Typical small business phone systems

There are two main types of office telephone system:

  • Key systems have one or more telephone lines coming into your business. All the telephones ring when someone calls. Key systems are suitable for businesses with up to five employees and cost from £10 - £25 per month per phone line depending on the features you require.
  • Switchboard systems. A switchboard (also called a PBX) routes calls to the right extensions, takes voicemail and allocates spare lines to outgoing calls.

Switchboard systems have changed a lot from the days when you had a big box in your business which moved switches to connect different lines. Modern business phone systems have software-based switchboards which route calls to desk phones through your company's computer network cables.

It can cost from £300 to set up an entry level switchboard system in your business. Alternatively, you may choose a service which handles switchboard functions externally. This gives you the benefits of a switchboard without having to install and manage equipment in your company, usually for a fixed monthly cost.

You can also consider outsourcing elements of your business phones completely. For instance, a virtual reception can answer calls for you. Or you can outsource your call centre – this can save money, particularly for seasonal businesses.

Other business phone system features

New technologies like conference calling and VoIP are changing the way business phone systems function. They are enabling new features and greater flexibility. For instance, you may be able to get:

  • Special phone numbers, like free, low-cost or premium rate numbers.
  • Call forwarding and voicemail, so people can forward calls onto another number and leave messages.
  • An interactive voice response (IVR) system, to answer calls and direct them appropriately.
  • Call queuing, so callers can wait for an answer at busy times.

As well as making sure your office phone system has the right features, there are some management issues to consider. Establish clear procedures for when staff leave and join your business, and make sure your IT policies explain what constitutes unacceptable use of your telephone system.

Office phone system suppliers

Because telephone system requirements vary, it’s important you find an appropriate supplier. A good way to start is to seek recommendations from similar businesses. It’s also worth speaking to your existing IT supplier, as many will offer telephone systems.

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