Which features are important to me?
Sometimes too much choice is overwhelming, but on this point it is important to take some time and understand which features and functionality are available in the market and select those which are important to you and your company. Virtually all systems, premise-based or cloud-based, have a comparable core feature set that includes making and receiving phone calls, conferencing, transferring, voicemail, etc. Overall, the functionality of legacy systems is fairly limited compared to those which are cloud based. Many cloud based solutions have applications and soft phones for personal mobile devices, tablets, and desktop computers, turning any one of these devices into an available endpoint within the business communications ecosystem. Beyond the core telephony features and mobility, are features that fall under the umbrella of “unified communications” things like instant messaging, presence, video calling, conferencing, and web meetings. More and more companies are wanting to move away from point solutions for these newer types of collaboration (like WebEx or Google Hangouts) and get that functionality from within their core communications platform so they don’t need to deal with multiple disparate applications. Other advanced features include things like Contact Center functionality or application integrations with other common business systems like CRM and many cloud providers offer these things as well, but there is a lot of variability in terms of the quality of the integrations across service providers.
Will the system grow with my business?
Successful businesses invariably grow, change, and evolve through time. You want to select a communications solution that is flexible enough to scale with your company, whether up or down. Legacy PBX systems are notoriously inflexible in this respect, locking you into a platform with a certain number of port that dictates how many employees you can add without changing systems. Often you need to either purchase an upgrade to a larger platform or pay a technician to update your software capacity just to add more employees or tie in another location. By way of contrast, most cloud-based unified communications providers can easily add additional users, sites, or features. Some cloud based providers even let you reduce the number of users you are paying for on-demand, so you only pay for what you need and avoid excess capacity.
What about my mobile workers?
A company in today’s economy, operating with employees, sales teams, and remote workers spread out across all sorts of locations, should look for a system that ties all of these people together into a single business communications ecosystem. Workers, for their part, want to be able to conduct business on any device and across any type of network. A legacy PBX can sometimes call forward a particular employee’s calls to a mobile device or home number, but other than that the functionality is somewhat limited. For many workers, once they leave their office they lose connectivity to their business phone system. On the other hand, most cloud service providers offer thin clients and downloadable apps which extend the business communications ecosystem beyond the traditional desk phone in a corporate office to all kinds of devices and network connections. With the right solution your company can operate as a single, cohesive unit, and enjoy all the advantages of mobility and working from remote locations. Employers like that these mobile apps allow employees to maintain their business persona (and business caller ID), even when the employees are making and receiving communications on personal devices.
Is the phone system reliable?
In today’s market, you should demand that your phone system be working virtually all the time. It has been over 100 years since the advent of telephony, and companies around the world have rightfully come to expect high levels of availability from communications service providers. While legacy PBX systems have a track record of reliability, they are vulnerable to downed lines, weather-related interruptions, and hardware failures. Many cloud providers have dramatically improved the overall reliability of their platforms over the last decade as the technology has matured and bandwidth availability across the country has rapidly expanded. A reliable cloud-based system will be hosted in multiple carrier data centers with redundant components such as power and cooling, and remain in operation even if an end customer’s site experiences a network outage. Make sure that your cloud service provider is using enterprise-grade software and hardware in tier I data centers, and not cutting corners with open source software running on a single server in some private office. A weather event or carrier outage should not put your business communications on hold.
What does the install / deployment look like?
Call flows within a business can often be complicated, with multiple auto-attendants, hunt groups, and call trees frequently required within the same corporate environment. This is particularly true as you move upmarket toward the enterprise. Make sure that your business phone provider has expertise in these areas and will provide you with the support you require. For many years the traditional model has been that a business customer sources a premise-based PBX system from a communications vendor in their region, and then that vendor sends a technician onto the customer site to install and configure the system, and also to do whatever training is required. Some cloud providers take a similar approach, and will set all of these things up in person as part of a white glove implementation. Other cloud providers deliver their solution 100% remotely with no salesperson, voice engineer, or support technician ever setting foot on the customer site. These providers often rely exclusively on self-help videos or online quick reference guides, and to the extent there is any live human support it is often from off-shore call centers. Either approach can work, but again, make sure you know what you’re buying.