Here are the questions you need to ask before you go shopping. Put the answers together and keep them for reference as you discuss your requirements with providers and collect their answers, particularly with regard to price and service, so that you have a consistent basis for real comparison.
How many employees do you have that you want to have phone service? Not all employees may need access to their own phone line and you can always provide a few private phone alcoves for any phone conversations they need to have.
How many locations does your organization have and do they need to all be supplied by a single service with extensions or should each office have a separate phone system? Note that the latter option may actually cost more.
Do you have remote or mobile users that will not have an office and do they either need to have access to the phone system from a home phone or any phone or from a mobile phone?
You will need to know your internet service information: bandwidth, type, lines and so on. Remember to ask your bandwidth supplier about VoIP service as well in case they can offer you a better value package deal.
You will need to test your network as it is currently set up to make sure that you have available bandwidth for the phone system. Providers should be willing to help you with this but remember to compare their assessments and ask questions about differences. If you want video conferencing service you will need to allow for a much higher load. It is possible you will need to upgrade or reconfigure your network. It is also possible that you already have ample overhead.
You will need to know the manufacturer, model number and operating system details of your servers.
Do you have an existing phone system? If so you should let the potential providers know about it. They may be able to add on or extend it or they may be able to use some parts (the phones themselves for example).
Do you need to keep existing numbers? This is a very important detail and can add to the cost.
You need to be prepared to discuss your budget – total project cost and monthly cost per user ongoing as well as installation cost limits – you should have at least rough figures for this before you start discussions with providers.
A key issue is to determine how many live lines you will need. This is different than the number of users. In a typical organization between one eighth and one quarter of lines are in use simultaneously at one time, so you really only need the external lines to match that usage. But to get the estimate right you need to know your company's usage patterns – how many calls are made at different times of day and what kind of calls they are – extension to extension, external local calls, long distance calls and international calls. How incoming versus outgoing calls balance out, etc. Typically sales and service organizations will need more external lines because of the heavy call load. You may also want to look at remote and mobile calling patterns. This information can help a provider scale your system properly.
You will need to have some estimate for yourself of how much growth you may need and remember to ask how potential future growth might affect pricing and capabilities.
You will need to understand how much service and support you may need and what factors there may be around system failure and downtime. Make sure to ask about Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and their details.
Toll-free (800/877/866 etc. numbers) – these can be surprisingly cheap with VoIP systems – you may want to even add one in if you don't have plans for one.
Features you need. There are a set of typical VoIP phone system features that you should decide if you need or not. Many of them will be included but if any are necessary then you must make sure they are offered and if they have additional costs. These include auto-attendant (an automated 'recepionist'); voice menus system (customer self help); conference calling bridges; call center features; self management system (web-based control module); email integration or other office system integration.
For more information about VoIP Phone system features and options, take a look at our Buyers Guide and for a comprehensive list of vendors and their capabilities, take a look at our Phone System Comparison Guide.
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