Most businesses want the same thing when it comes to their phone system: quality phones, reliable service and helpful features, designed with flexibility in mind and fitting neatly within their budget.

To achieve those things, some companies are letting their service provider do the heavy lifting. A hosted IP private branch exchange (PBX) solution integrates multiple locations in a feature-rich package, while eliminating the upfront costs that often make businesses reluctant to upgrade.

“The premise behind hosted IP PBX is that your company will run its phones off the hosting company’s switch — a large, expensive piece of equipment that you are sharing with a bunch of other companies,” says John Putnam, national sales director for PowerNet Global. “The only equipment in your building is the phone handsets themselves.”

Smart Business spoke with Putnam about the advantages of switching to a hosted phone system and how to determine if doing so could help your company.

Why are companies moving to a hosted IP solution?

It comes down to a couple of different reasons. Obviously, financial reasons play a major part, but also, companies are looking for features that allow them to run their business better.

Many organizations upgraded their phone systems for the year 2000. Those systems don’t have the features and capabilities that companies want, but the capital expenditure of buying a new system in today’s economy makes them uncomfortable.

However, if they choose a hosted solution, the capital expenditure is much less because they are running their system off the hosting company’s phone switch. With some of the handset leasing programs available, companies can get by without a large capital expenditure up front.

What types of features are available?

Aside from financial concerns, many companies decide to switch to a hosted solution because they want features their current system is unable to provide, such as caller ID, individual voice mail for everyone in the company and the ability to forward calls to cell phones. If your phone system is missing these features, but you don’t want to write a check for $30,000 to $60,000 for a new phone system, a hosted solution is ideal. Even for smaller companies, a $5,000 capital expenditure for a new phone system is daunting given the uncertainties in today’s economy.

Now those features are available without a huge upfront capital expenditure. For a small business with 10 handsets, you may be looking at $60 a month versus a $5,000 to $10,000 capital expenditure.

What are the benefits of integrating multiple sites through hosted telephony?

Multisite companies with premise-based PBX systems have to maintain, upgrade and support those systems at each site. Sending someone out to make the necessary changes to each system is costly and is not the most effective use of resources. With a hosted solution, companies can make a change at one location to update the phone systems at each of their sites, reducing their continuing cost. Each phone handset is running off the hosting company’s equipment, so they are all integrated.

That allows you to treat the customer in a different manner. For example, if a customer calls one store and it doesn’t have the item he or she is looking for in stock, the hosted system can transfer the customer to another store without requiring that person to call another number. If someone at one store doesn’t answer, the system can automatically dial another store. If a store needs to transfer a customer back to the corporate headquarters for centralized billing functions, the customer is transferred, not called back from a different number.

What are the other advantages of using a VoIP system for telecommunications?

Typically, if you are using VoIP technology, there is a lower cost for the service itself. Companies can take advantage of VoIP services that are normally less expensive than traditional services. The cost per line is lower, the cost for long distance is lower and the continuing costs are lower. And because it is an IT-based solution, if you call from one store to another, there is no long distance involved at all. A Milwaukee store calls a Chicago store, and because all phones are on the same switch, that is now a zero-cost call.

For what type of companies does this strategy makes sense?

Smaller businesses, the three to 20 handset market, have been the early adopters. Now, larger corporations are adopting this strategy, as well, as this technology is particularly well suited for large companies with 200 small sites. These enterprise clients have recognized that they aren’t necessarily an enterprise; they are a bunch of small businesses.

For example, if a business has 1,000 sites and each of those sites has five to 10 phones, this strategy becomes very attractive. It looks like an enterprise play, but, in fact, it’s a small business play multiplied a thousand times.

What kind of results can companies expect from a switch to a hosted IP phone solution?

A number of clients have been able to take advantage of a new phone solution for either the same price or less than they were paying for service before. So, in essence, it is a free service, because if you paid $500 for service before and save enough on the service that, when taken in conjunction with the handset leasing program, your total spending is about the same as it was before. However, you’re getting all these new features and capabilities with the service.

John Putnam is national sales director for PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 764-7329 or pngsales@pngmail.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by PowerNet Global

Published in Cincinnati

By implementing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based call center, businesses can slash their operating costs and increase sales. VoIP allows for delivery of voice information over the Internet. Untethered from costly infrastructure investments, companies that have VoIP dial tones or hosted systems can concentrate not on managing the call center but on serving the needs of their customers.

As an added benefit, there’s no need to spend money to train IT administrators on the nuances of the system.

“The training for a VoIP system is very similar to the training you receive when you get a new traditional phone system,” says Alex Desberg. “VoIP is another tool, similar to features such call transfer or conferencing. The technology is not hard to grasp.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the benefits of call queuing and what types of businesses are likely to reap the biggest rewards.

How do VoIP call center services differ from traditional services?

A traditional call center is equipped with a large, private branch exchange (PBX) phone system designed to manage the network. This requires a hefty financial investment in the system, as well as software to manage reporting. In the hosted realm with VoIP, there is just data service. For example, if a company has 100 people, but only 20 are in the call center, services can be added for just those 20 people, which keeps the economy of scale down.

Also, in the traditional telephone world, you need a phone line for each inbound call in order to stack up callers. This requires a significant volume of phone lines and is accompanied by cash outlays month in, month out, whether you use them or not.

In the VoIP world, the features aren’t line by line, they are phone by phone, so you never run out of calling lines. VoIP call center services are ideal for small to medium-sized organizations that want to provide call center-type services without making a huge investment.

How can a company benefit from call queuing?

Call queuing allows an unlimited number of callers to wait for an available customer service representative while they are on hold. The primary benefit of call queuing ties into the economy of scale aspect.

Businesses have a limited number of customer service representatives who can schedule appointments. Companies don’t want to staff 20 people to manage 20 call-ins; they want two or three customer service people taking calls in the order they were received so customers receive personal interaction and information while they are on hold. Call queuing helps minimize the number of personnel needed to service the same number of customers.

What kinds of companies can benefit from VoIP call center services?

Clients such as plumbers, electricians and glass replacement companies can benefit. They service a large area and operate out of one centralized location, and it’s important for them to have a local number in every market that they service. Businesses that utilize VoIP call center services are able to provide a local number even though the calls are handled remotely. This works particularly well with franchises that are supporting a large geographic area.

Car dealerships also benefit from VoIP call center services. Typically, they have different call volumes throughout the day. In the mornings, car dealerships receive a lot of calls into their service departments but might only have two service managers, and the influx of calls can be overwhelming.

With call queuing, the service managers can handle calls in the order they were received and customers don’t feel like they are getting the run-around or being routed to voicemail. The calls can be stacked and everyone can be tended to relatively quickly. By utilizing VoIP, dealerships don’t have to invest in a huge call center-type phone system.

Are there disadvantages to using VoIP call center services?

VoIP call center services aren’t designed for megacorporations. Companies with huge call center capacities can’t achieve all of the statistics and reporting they need. However, for small and medium-sized businesses that have never done call center services — but that would like to — VoIP is a great starting point. VoIP can make companies look bigger than they really are and can help them handle a larger customer base.

How can a call center make a smooth transition from traditional phone services to a VoIP model?

There are two ways to employ VoIP. It can be hosted, or it can provide dial tones to an existing phone system. You can take baby steps away from the traditional phone services by first transitioning to a VoIP dial tone. Then the next step would be to release yourself from your existing phone system and transition to a hosted system.

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Desberg is a 20-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) involves sending voice information in digital form rather than by using the circuit-based protocol of traditional telephone networks.

VoIP can mean different things to different people, says Alex Desberg. “We define VoIP as delivering voice services across a network. It could be Internet-based, it could be private-network based. Such services have been strategically designed to replace traditional telephone services.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the cost efficiencies such a platform provides and how it can lead to increased productivity.

What’s new with VoIP?

Ohio.net adapts VoIP to accommodate virtual businesses. People are getting rid of brick-and-mortar offices and setting up telecommuter or remote environments. In the past month we’ve had several of our VoIP customers realize that they really can have everyone work out of their homes and get rid of their offices. One company we work with has 26 employees working remotely, but all working together as if they were sitting in their office.

When you can front-end a business with what sounds and acts like a traditional phone system, but nobody is sitting in the same building anymore, it really makes sense. A VoIP system helps a company become more cost effective by eliminating the need for a facility, not to mention rent expenses, power expenses and commute costs for employees.

What are the benefits of VoIP?

One of the key benefits is the release from traditional telecom. There are inherent geography issues associated with traditional telephony. Plus, people get wedded to legacy phone systems that keep perpetuating the need to be upgraded or repaired. This becomes costly. By moving away from legacy equipment, you can take advantage of a hosted environment for your phone system. You won’t be responsible for upgrading your software anymore or making sure the rollout of a new feature is integrated into an existing system. A VoIP system is more of a service-based model: as long as you are subscribed to the service you can take advantage of all the upgrades, changes and benefits that the provider offers.

Are there any drawbacks?

VoIP is like any business technology, if we are poor managers of technology, we might be a poor manager of a phone system in a VoIP environment. You have to pay attention, just as you do with any other technology. If you use questionable or problematic Internet service, then you will have questionable or problematic phone service as well.

A lot of it depends on the provider that you choose. The VoIP environment has been a little volatile. Some entities want to become a phone company overnight without realizing the impact they can make on a customer by not providing a quality service or not understanding the market properly. It takes a history and understanding of the traditional telecom world to do well in the VoIP market.

If you’re going to choose this type of technology, you have to do the research. There are plenty of VoIP providers available online, but I’m a big believer in working with a local company that is close and can support you. You don’t want to have to buy service from a company in Denver that is down due to a power outage or snowstorm while you’re still working and trying to do business.

What advice would you give about implementing VoIP solutions?

We have three areas that we really stress to new customers. First, it’s crucial to select the right hardware. Some people believe they can go with inexpensive voice equipment. However, quality hardware on a quality network really makes a difference to the end user’s experience.

Training is also very important. We have a staff of trainers that help with the implementation of a new phone system to ensure that everyone knows how to use it when it’s launched and that they have the proper resources. Finally, there should be a go-to team available if any problems are encountered once the technology is implemented.

How can VoIP translate into increased productivity?

Let’s say you have an office in Cleveland, an office in Kansas City and an office in Florida. With VoIP we can tie these together like they are one. With traditional telephony you can’t easily do that. Also, you can work with one provider so you have one telephone company and one bill for as many locations as you have. Finally, the upgrades, additions and changes that are made for the phone system are service-driven so you don’t have to buy a phone system every 10 years, or live with outdated technology until you can afford it.

Why is investing in new technologies like VoIP so important?

If your organization is going to run on antiquated equipment, then you are going to be an antiquated business in about five years because technologies change so often. What is big with VoIP today is not going to be the same thing that drives people in five years. We see the growth of mobile phones being integrated into VoIP today. Five or six years ago, we didn’t even have that on the radar. Most people thought that VoIP would just replace landlines. Now companies have field teams that are armed with smart phones but still need a VoIP system so they look like legitimate enterprises, rather than giving everyone’s cell phone number to do business.

Alex Desberg is a twenty-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus

Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of businesses have been drawn to the virtues of VoIP. Now school districts are making the switch, as well. Not only does VoIP help cut down on expenses, it also brings security, giving teachers and staff members the ability to report emergencies anywhere in the school with a VoIP solution.

When looking for a VoIP provider, it’s important to exercise due diligence, says Bret Longberry, information technology center director for the Metropolitan Educational Council.

“Do your homework,” says Longberry. “It’s important to do research. Business managers and technology people need to make sure that the provider has the capability to deliver what it promises.”

Smart Business spoke with Longberry, Robert West, account executive at Ohio.net and Bill Swartzmiller, executive director of North Central Ohio Computer Cooperative about the advantages of using VoIP in an educational setting.

How does VoIP help schools?

It allows schools to take advantage of their data circuits and helps them avoid some of the recurring charges that are associated with traditional telephone systems. For most schools, VoIP can lead to tremendous cost savings over the long run.

It is an economically sound way to have telephones in the classroom. This is important for two reasons: security purposes and the ability to contact parents immediately. Oftentimes, teachers would like to contact a parent, but they have to put it off until they have access to a phone. Also, parents can reach teachers. VoIP is a very valuable tool in the classrooms for both security and student achievement.

What is the purpose of centralized call management?

Schools can be free from purchasing the servers and software required for self management of a phone system, whether it be a traditional or VOIP system. Management of a phone system is traditionally expensive and time consuming. With centralized call management, services can be provided to multiple schools, saving money. Also, by contracting with a firm with in-house expertise to maintain the phones, districts receive the necessary high-end technical support that they lack.

Centralized call management allows an organization to add versatility to individual schools. It also allows them to aggregate the SIP Trunks which can turn into a cost savings for the schools. For example, let’s say a school has four lines and a fifth call comes in. With centralized call management, the call could be aggregated across a different trunk, whereas if it didn’t have centralized call management and had the lines going directly to them, the fifth caller would receive a busy signal and wouldn’t be able to connect.

How is utilizing VoIP a good use of technical resources?

Most school districts in Ohio are struggling with how to fund everyday operations, let alone technology. As a result, they are finding it increasingly necessary to outsource technology functions. With hosted VoIP solutions, a district might not have to have a staff member onsite to take care of the voice systems.

There is very little hardware on the local level — you just need to add handsets and possibly a networking switch. The system is easy to manage, so you can free up a full-time equivalent position to retain a teacher. Schools have connectivity in their classrooms so they don’t need to install more lines. VoIP allows them to use the Internet data lines for voice.

Individual schools don’t necessarily have to have technical knowledge of how to run and operate a Cisco CallManager. An expert outside adviser that is flush with technical aptitude and knowledge can work hand-in-hand with a district and provide support.

What are some future uses of VoIP for brick-and-mortar schools or e-schools?

Many schools sill have not taken advantage of VoIP technologies. As hosted solutions become more dependable and accepted, we’ll see more schools going that direction. VoIP eliminates the need for traditional phone lines and equipment refresh so the cost savings for a district can be significant. As districts continue to tighten their belts, they will want to take a hard look at hosted VoIP solutions.

We’re one step away from having video over the phones. Eventually we will have videoconferencing services, as well as voice. The primary reason videoconferencing hasn’t gained traction in schools is because different locations have to be on the same schedule, and it’s difficult for schools to coordinate schedules. However, with E-schools, teachers often work from home. VoIP allows students to contact multiple teachers in different locations.

How can a school make a smooth transition from traditional telephone services to VoIP?

Do a complete inventory of your existing lines. Sometimes there are more phone lines than people realize, such as in an elevator or a life-saving device that requires an outside line. It’s important do an audit of your phone lines.

Schools have connectivity. They just need an outside expert to put a gateway in and buy the phones. They can be up in a week. The exact time it takes to get up and running depends on whether your advisers are porting numbers or obtaining new phone numbers. The typical timeframe to port a number is roughly 30 days and if they are getting a new phone number, it can be done in a much shorter period of time.

What advice would you give to schools about selecting a VoIP provider?

Look at the VoIP provider’s presence in the market. Take a look at their current customer list, talk to some of its current customers and find out if they’re happy with their service.

Find somebody that you are comfortable with and who you trust will be able to provide you with the services you need when you request them. Also work with someone who has experience serving educational institutions, who understand the purpose of the phones and how they will be utilized.

Robert West is an account executive at Ohio.net. Reach him at (330) 658-7581 or rwest@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, involves delivering voice telecommunication services across a network. Companies that utilize VoIP can realize significant telecom savings. Let’s say your business has offices in multiple geographic locations. With VoIP, you don’t need to duplicate efforts by having different carriers that charge different rates.

“VoIP is a great leveler because it’s geographically independent — the price doesn’t change based on where you’re employing it,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director for Ohio.net.

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about the cost savings that can be realized by utilizing VoIP, how to make a seamless transition, and what to look for in a provider.

How can you stretch your telecom dollars by utilizing VoIP?

Normally, when you have a traditional phone system, there is a maintenance agreement. Every time you need to do an add/move/change with the system, you are paying someone to do it, or someone on your staff is investing their time. In the world of VoIP, because it is a service model, adds/moves/changes are usually included as part of the package. With VoIP, maintenance of the system is removed from the equation, which can lead to significant cost and time savings.

Often, when people are looking to change their technology from traditional to VoIP, it’s because the nature of their business has changed and they need to get a new phone system that isn’t antiquated. With VoIP, there is far less equipment needed than there would be in replacing a traditional phone system. In the past, if you needed to replace or upgrade a phone system, you were looking at software, someone to come out and do the installation, and possible hardware to update the system. With VoIP, all you’re buying is a VoIP phone so the costs are much less.

Also, VoIP services can be cyclical: there are plenty of businesses that have busy and slow seasons. For example, we work with car dealerships who sell more cars during spring, summer and fall than they do in the middle of winter. Car dealerships call us on a regular basis during the winter months and say, ‘Go ahead and scale back our services — we don’t need as many phones or as many lines.’ As a result, they’ll save money over the winter period when they know they won’t be nearly as busy.

This is very hard to do in the traditional telecom world because a contract will hold you to a certain dollar amount per month regardless of usage.

How can VoIP be used to service multi-location companies?

VoIP is geographically leveling the playing field. If I’m going to deploy 100 phones in the VoIP world, I don’t care if there are 100 phones all together in the same physical building or if they are being used by 100 different people in the company spread out across the country at multiple locations. The phone system itself is going to work the same in both cases because it’s essentially a virtualized phone system.

Also, VoIP offers local dialing between all the phones. For example, if I’m in New York and someone in my VoIP partition is in California, I can still do a four-digit dial.

How can a business make a seamless transition from traditional telephony to VoIP?

Training is essential; it is the difference between a clean start with VoIP and a bumpy one. Any time you implement a new phone system, people are going to be uncomfortable with the change. You have to get all of the individuals trained and get them comfortable with the phone before the system goes live.

With VoIP, the transition is seamless because we can have the new system running parallel to a traditional phone system. Once the users become comfortable we do a changeover where their old numbers become live on the new phone system.

After the transition happens, it’s important to have support available. Customer service is an important part of our model. One of the biggest complaints we hear about traditional telecom is that their support is terrible.

What advice would you give about selecting a VoIP provider?

Because it’s technology-related, a lot of young companies think they can enter into the VoIP business and be accepted. In truth, however, they need a stable backing in order to understand the technology they are deploying. In addition, they need to have a support system that can serve their clients. There are fly-by-night VoIP service companies that swoop in and make promises, but then quickly realize that they can’t support their customer base.

Look for a VoIP provider that has experience in your industry. If it hasn’t done what you need it to do before, I would be wary. Also, it should have a good future plan. A big part of our business is understanding what’s next and how to integrate that into a seamless service for our customers.

How are VoIP technologies being integrated into smartphones?

We are integrating to any phone out there, whether it is a smartphone, regular cell phone or landline. We can deploy services that allow calls to be routed to cell networks or home networks. For example, we work with a small government agency that has case workers who work from home. We just did our first installation for a remote case worker who is never going to step into the home office, but needed office connectivity.

It doesn’t matter what phone is on the other end. Let’s say you have an iPhone, one of your coworkers has a BlackBerry and another has a landline — you still want to be integrated. In order to allow integration, we built the service into the VoIP system rather than trying to build an app that changes every time someone gets a new type of phone or operating system.

Alex Desberg is Sales and Marketing Director for Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications. Reach him at (330) 658-1888 or adesberg@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus

Digital phone technology lets you take advantage of all the benefits of Voice over Internet Protocol without having actual VoIP equipment installed.

“A gateway appliance is available that converts  VoIP to an interface that your existing phone system recognizes without having to replace the equipment  you already have,” says John Putnam, vice president of direct sales, PowerNet Global. “This type of system is very flexible. You only purchase what you need, so you’re not paying for capacity that you’ll never use. In many cases, you’ll also pay less for long distance.”

Smart Business spoke with Putnam about how to reap the benefits of adding digital capabilities to your business’s existing phone systems.

What key benefits does a company stand to gain by going digital?

A gateway appliance  enables you to keep your existing phone system and take advantage of new technology at the same time. These are very cost-effective solutions and, in many cases, you’ll save money.

For example, a traditional T1 line gives you 23 or 24 lines, no matter how many lines you actually need. With the gateway, you can get the exact number of lines that you need. So if you only need six, you get six. The gateway is flexible and accommodates for growth, so you can add lines as needed. It also has multiple T1 interfaces and can accommodate up to four T1s, or 96 lines.

Is the technology cumbersome, and is there a learning curve?

No. The installation is simple and takes place  in the background.  Your phones will function just as they did yesterday. You’ll have the same phone, the same phone number, the same dial tone and the same features — only now, you’re potentially saving money.

How long does it take to get the digital technology in place?

It’s a quick and painless process. There are no lost calls. The service provider installs, verifies and tests that the gateway is working and then moves your numbers to the box. If you’re adding capacity to your existing system, the provider can work quickly. If it’s a case of porting numbers from a different carrier, however, the provider is at the mercy of the other carrier in terms of time required to move the numbers over but typically less than 30 days.

Can digital phone service be used in tandem with a traditional T1 phone system?

Yes. Say you have a maxed out T1 and you need six more lines; instead of installing another T1 with 24 lines, you can order those six lines as digital lines over the Internet. Then if you need additional lines down the road, you can easily add them. If you need fewer lines, you can easily scale down.

This approach not only gives you redundancy but also allows you to test the digital technology and get comfortable with it. Once you’re comfortable, you’ll feel confident adding more lines over time.

What are the advantages of being able to add or subtract phone lines?

This is particularly useful for companies that experience seasonal fluctuations in their sales cycle. For example, say you’re a trucking company that handles a lot of shipping in the summer. In the summer, you need to crank up your capacity to 50 lines, and in the fall and winter, you only need 20 lines. With digital, you can go up or down with just a single phone call and a few clicks of the mouse.

Are there drawbacks?

When voice is  delivered over the Internet, a good connection becomes paramount. You need to make sure you have enough bandwidth and it must be a high-quality, reliable connection. If you frequently lose your Internet service, you’re going to lose your calls, as well.

Fiber, Internet T1s and other higher-quality Internet connections are preferred. It’s one thing if it takes awhile to receive your emails, or if web pages load slowly, but it’s quite another thing to lose your voice connection.

Are there any quality of service issues?

In the early days, providers would put cheap solutions in place that ran both voice and data on the same Internet connection, and the data side would negatively impact voice. Downloads of music, videos, etc., would chew up bandwidth at the expense of voice quality.

Today, we attack that in two ways. First, the newer gateways  have  quality of service built in that prioritizes voice traffic or carves out specific bandwidth for voice. Second, because the Internet is more affordable now, we can set up two separate connections — one dedicated for voice and one dedicated for data — and they can be sized according to need.

What would you say to companies that are hesitant to try digital?

There’s nothing to be uneasy about. There are companies using millions of minutes of VoIP per month with no problems whatsoever.

If you have traditional phone service,  chances are your carrier is  backhauling its traffic over IP anyway.

John Putnam is vice president of direct sales at PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 813-9455.

Insights Technology is brought to you by PowerNet Global

Published in Cincinnati

Although the Internet has made everything move faster, voice communication is still a vital part of doing business.

Today’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology enables companies to make changes to their calling systems much faster and more economically than they were able to in the past. In addition, early problems with quality have been addressed, says Matt Ziebro, executive vice president of sales at PowerNet Global.

“Companies may need to scale up or down depending on client requirements, seasonal factors, campaigns, election cycles and economics,” says Ziebro. “Today’s VoIP solutions enable them to be nimble.”

A triple whammy of sorts has made the time ripe for companies to pursue VoIP solutions. The economic downturn, which began in 2007, hit the telecom industry hard, and carriers began raising rates. In addition, there were no new technologies being introduced to lower costs.

At the same time, companies became very margin conscious.

“Infrastructure costs to support networks became an issue,” says Ziebro. “General contraction and a need to stay profitable to shareholders started forcing change. If a carrier sent you a rate increase, you had to increase your costs, suffer lower margins, or go out of business. So costs have been a big driver in the move to VoIP.”

Smart Business spoke with Ziebro about how company call centers can integrate voice, data and network to reduce their costs and obtain a competitive advantage.

What trends are happening today with call center operations?

A call center may need to deploy rather quickly. There may be seasonal issues or an organization may need to rev up for a campaign. The operations need to be flexible, insulated against price increases and capable of weathering the ups and downs of a turbulent economy.

Why should a company integrate voice, data and network?

You have to be able to plan for things that you don’t know are going to happen. An event could occur that requires you to mobilize and talk to customers, prospects, or supporters, increasing your voice usage in a given month or months. Companies can use and leverage VoIP technologies very quickly, and if the business expands, you can simply increase bandwidth.

The flexibility of VoIP affords you the ability to make additions and cutbacks as needed. All you have to do is add a data circuit to your network that enables you to send and receive calls. You can also purchase integrated services over the cloud and the  technology enables you to establish a call center wherever you choose.

Does a company have to change over from its old system all at once?

Companies that have invested in traditional copper voice lines may be opposed to ripping it all out and bringing in something new, but you don’t have to invest in all new technology right off the bat. If you don’t want to do a full conversion, you can go halfway. There are inexpensive routers and gateways available that enable the conversion of voice lines to VoIP. This inexpensive solution lets you try the technology before going all in. It gives you the pseudo benefit of integrated voice, data and network, and serves as a nice entry into a full conversion over time.

How quickly can a company be up and running with VoIP?

If a company’s technology is already Internet Protocol-enabled, it can be up and running with an integrated VoIP system in less than 24 hours. If it is not yet IP-enabled, the vendor can supply a router, configure it and ship it to the company for plug-and-play installation. In that scenario, the company would be up and running in about one week, versus the 30 business days required in the past for traditional copper wire voice connections.

Are there any drawbacks to VoIP?

There were many early issues with quality, but these have been addressed. Early adopters had issues with the network itself. The technology that enabled turning voice into digital packets was fine; it was more of an issue with early equipment.

Equipment needs to be able to distinguish between voice and data packets. You can’t slow voice, so voice trumped data. Today, the voice packet processing is much improved, as is the data transmission. Carriers have invested heavily in fiber optic networks that are far better than the old copper wire systems. In addition, the Internet is more streamlined now.

What should a company look for in a solutions provider?

Reputation is critical. In this business, realistically, any company with three people can flip a switch and be in business tomorrow. Look for longevity, for a company that has found and fixed the bugs. Identifying a company that knows how to fix problems is important because challenges will arise.

Look at the platform you’ll be utilizing. Does the vendor have the capacity to handle the traffic? Does it have relationships with carriers? Does it have a billing platform that enables you to see your usage reports and metrics quickly?

In addition, look at its references, what the industry says about it and how much time and effort it has invested in the company.

MATT ZIEBRO is executive vice president of sales at PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 813-9455.

Published in Cincinnati
Wednesday, 29 February 2012 19:01

What’s new with Voice over Internet Protocol

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) involves sending voice information in digital form rather than by using the circuit-based protocol of traditional telephone networks.

VoIP can mean different things to different people, says Alex Desberg. “We define VoIP as delivering voice services across a network. It could be Internet-based, it could be private-network based. Such services have been strategically designed to replace traditional telephone services.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the cost efficiencies such a platform provides and how it can lead to increased productivity.

What’s new with VoIP?

Ohio.net adapts VoIP to accommodate virtual businesses. People are getting rid of brick-and-mortar offices and setting up telecommuter or remote environments. In the past month we’ve had several of our VoIP customers realize that they really can have everyone work out of their homes and get rid of their offices. One company we work with has 26 employees working remotely, but all working together as if they were sitting in their office.

When you can front-end a business with what sounds and acts like a traditional phone system, but nobody is sitting in the same building anymore, it really makes sense. A VoIP system helps a company become more cost effective by eliminating the need for a facility, not to mention rent expenses, power expenses and commute costs for employees.

What are the benefits of VoIP?

One of the key benefits is the release from traditional telecom. There are inherent geography issues associated with traditional telephony. Plus, people get wedded to legacy phone systems that keep perpetuating the need to be upgraded or repaired. This becomes costly. By moving away from legacy equipment, you can take advantage of a hosted environment for your phone system. You won’t be responsible for upgrading your software anymore or making sure the rollout of a new feature is integrated into an existing system. A VoIP system is more of a service-based model: as long as you are subscribed to the service you can take advantage of all the upgrades, changes and benefits that the provider offers.

Are there any drawbacks?

VoIP is like any business technology, if we are poor managers of technology, we might be a poor manager of a phone system in a VoIP environment. You have to pay attention, just as you do with any other technology. If you use questionable or problematic Internet service, then you will have questionable or problematic phone service as well.

A lot of it depends on the provider that you choose. The VoIP environment has been a little volatile. Some entities want to become a phone company overnight without realizing the impact they can make on a customer by not providing a quality service or not understanding the market properly. It takes a history and understanding of the traditional telecom world to do well in the VoIP market.

If you’re going to choose this type of technology, you have to do the research. There are plenty of VoIP providers available online, but I’m a big believer in working with a local company that is close and can support you. You don’t want to have to buy service from a company in Denver that is down due to a power outage or snowstorm while you’re still working and trying to do business.

What advice would you give about implementing VoIP solutions?

We have three areas that we really stress to new customers. First, it’s crucial to select the right hardware. Some people believe they can go with inexpensive voice equipment. However, quality hardware on a quality network really makes a difference to the end user’s experience.

Training is also very important. We have a staff of trainers that help with the implementation of a new phone system to ensure that everyone knows how to use it when it’s launched and that they have the proper resources. Finally, there should be a go-to team available if any problems are encountered once the technology is implemented.

How can VoIP translate into increased productivity?

Let’s say you have an office in Cleveland, an office in Kansas City and an office in Florida. With VoIP we can tie these together like they are one. With traditional telephony you can’t easily do that. Also, you can work with one provider so you have one telephone company and one bill for as many locations as you have. Finally, the upgrades, additions and changes that are made for the phone system are service-driven so you don’t have to buy a phone system every 10 years, or live with outdated technology until you can afford it.

Why is investing in new technologies like VoIP so important?

If your organization is going to run on antiquated equipment, then you are going to be an antiquated business in about five years because technologies change so often. What is big with VoIP today is not going to be the same thing that drives people in five years. We see the growth of mobile phones being integrated into VoIP today. Five or six years ago, we didn’t even have that on the radar. Most people thought that VoIP would just replace landlines. Now companies have field teams that are armed with smart phones but still need a VoIP system so they look like legitimate enterprises, rather than giving everyone’s cell phone number to do business.

Alex Desberg is a twenty-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Published in Columbus

Most businesses want the same thing when it comes to their phone system: quality phones, reliable service and helpful features, designed with flexibility in mind and fitting neatly within their budget.

To achieve those things, some companies are letting their service provider do the heavy lifting. A hosted IP private branch exchange (PBX) solution integrates multiple locations in a feature-rich package, while eliminating the up-front costs that often make businesses reluctant to upgrade.

“The premise behind hosted IP PBX is that your company will run its phones off the hosting company’s switch — a large, expensive piece of equipment that you are sharing with a bunch of other companies,” says John Putnam, national sales director for PowerNet Global. “The only equipment in your building is the phone handsets themselves.”

Smart Business spoke with Putnam about the advantages of switching to a hosted phone system and how to determine if doing so could help your company.

Why are companies moving to a hosted IP solution?

It comes down to a couple of different reasons. Obviously, financial reasons play a major part, but also, companies are looking for features that allow them to run their business better.

Many organizations upgraded their phone systems for the year 2000. Those systems don’t have the features and capabilities that companies want, but the capital expenditure of buying a new system in today’s economy makes them uncomfortable.

However, if they choose a hosted solution, the capital expenditure is much less because they are running their system off the hosting company’s phone switch. With some of the handset leasing programs available, companies can get by without a large capital expenditure up front.

What types of features are available?

Aside from financial concerns, many companies decide to switch to a hosted solution because they want features their current system is unable to provide, such as caller ID, individual voice mail for everyone in the company and the ability to forward calls to cell phones. If your phone system is missing these features, but you don’t want to write a check for $30,000 to $60,000 for a new phone system, a hosted solution is ideal. Even for smaller companies, a $5,000 capital expenditure for a new phone system is daunting given the uncertainties in today’s economy.

Now those features are available without a huge up-front capital expenditure. For a small business with 10 handsets, you may be looking at $60 a month versus a $5,000 to $10,000 capital expenditure.

What are the benefits of integrating multiple sites through hosted telephony?

Multisite companies with premise-based PBX systems have to maintain, upgrade and support those systems at each site. Sending someone out to make the necessary changes to each system is costly and is not the most effective use of resources. With a hosted solution, companies can make a change at one location to update the phone systems at each of their sites, reducing their continuing cost. Each phone handset is running off the hosting company’s equipment, so they are all integrated.

That allows you to treat the customer in a different manner. For example, if a customer calls one store and it doesn’t have the item he or she is looking for in stock, the hosted system can transfer the customer to another store without requiring that person to call another number. If someone at one store doesn’t answer, the system can automatically dial another store. If a store needs to transfer a customer back to the corporate headquarters for centralized billing functions, the customer is transferred, not called back from a different number.

What are the other advantages of using a VoIP system for telecommunications?

Typically, if you are using VoIP technology, there is a lower cost for the service itself. Companies can take advantage of VoIP services that are traditionally less expensive than traditional services. The cost per line is lower, the cost for long distance is lower and the continuing costs are lower. And because it is an IT-based solution, if you call from one store to another, there is no long distance involved at all. A Milwaukee store calls a Chicago store, and because all phones are on the same switch, that is now a zero-cost call.

For what type of companies does this strategy makes sense?

Smaller businesses, the three to 20 handset market, have been the early adopters. Now, larger corporations are adopting this strategy, as well, as this technology is particularly well suited for large companies with 200 small sites. These enterprise clients have recognized that they aren’t necessarily an enterprise; they are a bunch of small businesses.

For example, if a business has 1,000 sites and each of those sites has five to 10 phones, this strategy becomes very attractive. It looks like an enterprise play, but, in fact, it’s a small business play multiplied a thousand times.

What kind of results can companies expect from a switch to a hosted IP phone solution?

A number of clients have been able to take advantage of a new phone solution for either the same price or less than they were paying for service before. So, in essence, it is a free service, because if you paid $500 for service before and save enough on the service that, when taken in conjunction with the handset leasing program, your total spending is about the same as it was before. However, you’re getting all these new features and capabilities and the service.

John Putnam is national sales director for PowerNet Global. Reach him at (513) 645-4848 or jputnam@pngmail.com.

Published in Cincinnati
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 11:47

Staying afloat

In these tough economic times, the ability for companies to become more profitable is being challenged not only by a more competitive business climate but tremendous business uncertainty, which is caused by the government. Moreover, many organizations must deal with inflation, which is increasing commodity costs in an environment where these additional expenses are difficult to pass along to customers.

In such a situation where everything is in flux and everyone, it seems, is demonizing business while simultaneously asking it to hire more and increase its costs, you must do everything you can to become and stay profitable.

These are the steps I would prescribe to help your company become and stay profitable.

1. Eliminate waste at every level, scrutinize every cost, and do it publicly. The worst thing you can do is allow an environment to flourish where workers believe management does not care about costs.

2. Have no sacred cows. Look at everything from a fresh perspective.

3. Be transparent. Some managers may be concerned about sharing too many facts with workers, but the reality is rumors can be much worse than the reality you share. If your company is in a cash crunch, discuss how you plan on getting out of it and how the team can come together to help you get through it.

4. Talk to the star performers separately — let them know how valuable they are. Be sure to do everything you can to keep them with you as you navigate tough times. Offer them incentives to stay on and continue doing positive work.

5. Use technology and cloud-based applications from companies like Google and Salesforce.com that are often a fraction of the cost of in-house solutions that require servers and a tech support team.

6. Explore unified communications and VoIP to save money and allow you to take advantage of lower-cost workers who are not physically located in your office.

7. Find freelancers to help lower costs and pay them based on performance. Use sites like Craigslist and Elance and others specific sites in your industry.

8. Consider a shorter workweek — four days instead of five or a week off over the holidays or summer. Unemployment payments from the government will offset some of the financial pain this could bring on.

9. Solicit ideas from your team on how you can lower costs, and give a reward to the best suggestion.

10. Do not cut the little things like bagels, doughnuts or other cultural cornerstones of your company.

11. Remind everyone that most companies and industries go through cycles: GE was thought to be going bankrupt; GM needed government assistance to survive and so did AIG and myriad banks.

12. Look at recognizing top performers in other ways besides using money: Give awards for best performer, best team player and best customer support, etc.

13. Hold regular meetings to ensure people see you are confident about the company’s future. Remember, your fear and concern about the future can be amplified by your workers and can do worse harm to your business than the original problem.

14. Do not be aloof or act in any way that will make your workers think they aren’t appreciated.

15. Have a vision for the company’s future and share it frequently — nothing is worse than working in the dark in an uncertain economy.

Rich Tehrani is CEO of TMC, a global media company serving the communications and technology markets and reaching more than 2 million global decision-makers each month. Many of the ideas above have been gained from navigating a publishing company through the tech and telecom bubble bursts of 2001 and transforming an organization relying on revenue from printed magazines into one which generates most of its revenue online. His company can be reached at www.tmcnet.com and his blog is located at www.tehrani.com.

Published in Los Angeles
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