Choose the Right VoIP Service Provider

Updated: April 30, 2009

Shopping for a VoIP provider? It pays to do your homework. A recent move by cable companies to offer triple-play services, including VoIP, have made times tough for some providers. As a result, some firms have suffered, and others have failed outright. Earlier this year, VoIP provider SunRocket went belly-up suddenly, leaving a couple hundred thousand prepaid customers in the dust with no warning.

By asking the right questions up front, you can avoid signing with a risky provider — or one that doesn't offer what you need. Most VoIP service providers offer basic capabilities such as voice mail or call hold but may not give you the advanced features, service options or scalability that your organization needs.

Use this checklist before you buy to find out how providers' services compare:

Does it work with your existing phone numbers? Having to change your business phone numbers is an expensive hassle — not just because you'll have to change any collateral and business cards you have, but also because you may need to pay for forwarding services or risk confusing your existing customers. If the VoIP provider cannot support your phone numbers and you're willing to switch, find out if it can at least give you a new number in your local area code.

Will it work with the existing routers, switches, gateways, dedicated servers and phones? It's important to find out whether your existing equipment can be used or if it will need to be replaced. It can save you money and hassle to find a vendor that can support your infrastructure.

What are the costs for licensing equipment, including network equipment and phones? You may want to license equipment if you are upgrading from legacy equipment that won't support a VoIP service or if your business is growing. If you don't already have VoIP phones or other devices you'll need, licensing it from the vendor is a good idea because it will save you from shopping around and it is already supported by the service.

Does it scale? Think about future equipment, ports and services you may need to accommodate growth of your staff or new service offers, as well as a time line and budget for your plan. Then ask the vendor whether you'll be able to add additional lines, ports, or phones at a later date; in what increments you can scale the solution; and how much each upgrade will cost. A provider that charges very little up front but has expensive upgrade solutions may be more expensive in the long run, so these figures should play into your final decision.

Can you integrate remote locations into one call system? Using one phone system for several locations is useful for geographically dispersed organizations, because users at different company sites will be able to call each other by their extensions rather than dialing out. Also, this seamless integration allows remote contractors or agents to be on the same system as the in-house staff, providing the appearance of a seamless infrastructure to outside callers. This can free up managers to allow more contractors to work remotely, thereby saving on overhead costs.

How does it integrate with computer and email systems? Many VoIP services allow Microsoft Outlook or another email client to retrieve voice mail from the phone system and provide a computer interface that displays caller information and allows users to place a call by typing a number or selecting another user. Advanced systems may also allow users to view whether other users are logged in to the system.

What advanced call-center features are included? Depending on your business, you may need features such as the ability to provide music on hold, intelligent voice response that can interact with callers, or automatic call distribution that helps a system route calls to an appropriate call agent on your staff.

Can you make 911 or 411 calls? Not all VoIP systems allow you to make specialty calls, and some may charge you fees to do so. Determine how important these are to your business and whether your employees need these features. For safety reasons, you should not be without 911 capability, though if you are planning on maintaining a legacy system, it may also offer 911 calls.

What are the international calling rates? Before talking to the vendor, consider how many long-distance minutes you rack up each month. If you have international clients or vendors or intend to expand into the global market in the future, these fees should be a consideration of your purchase. Many vendors offer a certain number of free or discounted minutes per month, then charge higher fees once those minutes are used up.

What techniques are built in to mitigate traffic in the system? Some VoIP providers avoid traffic problems by delivering service over private IP networks instead of using the public Internet, while others build high levels of redundancy in the network to prevent traffic issues. Traffic is a larger issue in VoIP networks than in a traditional phone system, since it has a greater effect to reduce call quality.

What technical support is available? Some service providers will offer round-the-clock service, while others might only offer limited email support. Find out whether you can call in with technical problems or configuration difficulties.

How many days in the last year has the provider has service problems or downtime? Consider how much downtime your organization can afford and how risky the service is. Don't just take the providers word for it either — search Google News just in case. Chances are, if the provider has experienced significant downtime, you'll want to find a more reliable vendor.

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